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30 March 2015

NSW election 2015: Little comfort for Prime Minister Tony Abbott in strong Mike Baird win

Opposing propositions: Tony Abbott the polariser and Mike Baird the likeable.

The embattled Abbott government is breathing a sigh of relief after voters in NSW bucked the trend of ditching first-term governments, opting to stay with popular Liberal Premier Mike Baird.

In a strong performance, welcomed by federal Liberals as "stopping the electoral rot" that had begun in Victoria in November and continued in Queensland in January, the Baird Coalition was easily returned albeit with a smaller majority.

While a correction towards Labor was always on the cards after the Coalition won 64 per cent of the two-party-preferred vote in 2011, Mr Baird's "likeability" and "trustworthiness" saw off a strong, if negative Labor scare campaign warning of foreign ownership of the state's electricity "poles and wires".

Labor campaigned hard and made serious gains after the 2011 wipe-out. But a swing to Labor of about 10 per cent was underwhelming despite Opposition Leader Luke Foley's declaration that "normal service had to be returned" in NSW politics.

His task was too much, with opinion polls charting a drift back to the Liberals as the campaign went on. This was helped by Labor's exaggeration and its attempts to tar Baird and Abbott with the same brush.

For Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the result in his home state gives the space he needs to rebuild authority in the partyroom and the electorate, where he is unpopular. That will be done via a voter-friendly budget in six weeks in which fiscal repair will take a back seat to handing money to families through childcare assistance and to small business in a jobs and tax-cuts package.

But the NSW success points up a big difference between the leadership styles of the likeable Baird and the polarising Abbott; between an accidental premier who inherited the top job mid-term to become his party's greatest asset, and a career politician who bludgeoned his way into office but has not grown on voters.

The abiding fear among NSW Liberals had been that the election would spin out of their control, degenerating into a state-wide protest against Canberra.

A Sky exit poll of voters on Saturday showed 44 per cent of voters agreed that Abbott's performance had hurt the Baird campaign. Another 39 per cent said it had not.

Going into this campaign, Labor hard-heads had thought Abbott's low standing would account for as much as half of a-20 seat haircut to the Coalition. That was based on the estimation of 10 seats lost to poles and wires and 10 to Abbott-hate.

But Baird's comfortable win could yet be awkward for Abbott due to the differences it points up. Namely, the electoral insulation a government gains from having a popular leader, and the overwhelming value of keeping faith with voters.

Also of concern for Abbott's team is that health and education showed up as the most important issues in the Sky exit poll, registering 84 and 75 per cent respectively, with jobs and employment coming third at 67.

So strong was the Baird integrity factor that Foley used his concession speech to praise his opponent's success in steering his party to safety, and for being both a formidable and honourable opponent.

Had Baird hit the fence, Abbott would have faced irresistible pressure to step down. But the solid win has underscored to Liberals that governments can survive tough times by staying close to the centre-ground and by having a popular leader to whom voters are prepared to listen.

For Abbott that lesson could be just as dangerous.