Federal Politics

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The voters are restless, 150 election results are telling us

ALL politics is local, so it is said, so those looking for wider trends will have to use a great deal of caution in studying the results of the elections on Saturday for 150 councils across the state. Much more than in federal or state elections, many of the 4.7 million eligible voters will have gone to the ballot box knowing little or nothing about the candidates or their contesting policies, but simply turned out to avoid a $55 fine.

That said, the results give party strategists in Macquarie Street or Canberra plenty to chew over. The most remarkable change is the jump in Liberal Party support in a wide swath of the western and south-western suburbs of Sydney, an instant, strong presence in places such as Camden where the party never previously bothered trying - even a councillor from the inner-city grunge of Newtown. This is perhaps more evidence of the rise of an ''aspirational'' middle class in areas that had been the preserve of Labor-welded battlers. The influxes of new migrant communities could also be diluting traditional support lines.

Or we could be seeing a growth of what the British would call the ''working-class Tory''. It could be a combination of all three trends but to give voters credit for a conscious choice, it could equally have been an impatience with the status quo and a willingness to give sensible candidates a try.

Whether, as the Premier, Barry O'Farrell, proclaims, the Liberal swing bodes well for Tony Abbott at the federal election next year remains to be seen. Our politics operates as an array of counter-posed pendulums. The 18 months of Liberal incumbency in NSW, like similar incumbencies in other states, may not be the demonstrator of competence that Abbott and his federal colleagues want. Adding a collection of Liberal-controlled councils in the perennially scandal-beset tier of local government may not be so helpful a year from now.

Still, it is a triumphant moment for a party spreading its reach. Labor is also claiming a rebound but chiefly at the cost of its competitor on the left. The Greens have suffered sharp setbacks in their inner-Sydney domains. This is partly explained by the loss of some of the protest vote by usually Labor supporters in the 2008 election, which came just after Morris Iemma was replaced as premier by Nathan Rees in a party backroom manoeuvre and the Labor-held Wollongong Council was mired in the ''table of knowledge'' scandal.

But as the NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge admits, the public mood is conservative and it is a hard time to be suggesting there can be sometimes too much development. Though he will not admit it, the retirement of Bob Brown as federal leader has taken away the Greens' most respected figure. In some municipalities such as Leichhardt or Marrickville, where the Greens controlled the council, it might have been the anti-incumbency effect. It is tough keeping everyone happy with childcare centres, garbage collection and parking rules, especially if you are seen to be distracted by things such as the Palestinian cause or uranium exports.

The Greens have increased their regional vote, however, and not only in established counter-cultural retreats, which may be a sign of some country people feeling betrayed by the conservative parties over coalmining and coal seam gas fracking. With the re-elected lord mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, now obliged to give up her seat in state Parliament under O'Farrell's new law against double-elected employment, they will try to buck the Liberal trend in the imminent Sydney byelection.

Meanwhile, in the face of the shift to the right, the City of Sydney remains defiantly in the hands of Moore's independents, and the bicyclist - if not exactly ruling the roads - is free to peddle the network of cycling lanes already established. With the resurgent Liberal ticket featuring Abbott's sister Christine Forster after she revealed her same-sex relationship, the public does not seem to agree with the radio shock jock Alan Jones that women in positions of power are ''destroying the joint''.