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Judgment day arrives for NSW Labor after 12 years in the political wilderness

On Friday, as Labor’s election bus took a final, weary lap through a clutch of key seats in Sydney’s west, the upper house MP and unofficial campaign DJ Rose Jackson began blasting One Day More, from the musical Les Misérables.

“Tomorrow is the judgment day.”

Heavy-handed? Possibly. But after three months of campaigning you can forgive them the obvious metaphor. After 12 long years, Saturday can’t come quick enough for New South Wales Labor.

Though polls have tightened in recent weeks, this is an election Labor expects to win. Facing a 12-year-old government beset by scandals, high-profile retirements and on to its fourth premier, anything less would be a disaster.

The path to victory is not easy, however.

Labor will need to win nine seats to govern in majority, a feat that will require picking up a uniform swing of about 6.5%.

Senior figures on both sides of the aisle all seem to think the same; that while premier Dominic Perrottet ran a better than expected campaign, Labor will be – at the least – in a position to form minority government.

Indeed, as it has gone on, fears of a wipeout have only increased.

You don’t need to be an expert to know that. Just look at how the final week of the campaign unfolded.

Perrottet embarked on a statewide sandbagging tour, visiting Coalition-held seats: South Coast (held on 10.6% margin), Goulburn (3.1%), Riverstone (6.2%), North Shore (11.1%), Penrith (0.6%), Holsworthy (6%), Willoughby (3.3%), Camden (7.3%), Oatley (6.8%), Ryde (8.9%), East Hills (0.1%) and Drummoyne (13.6%).

His only visit to a Labor-held seat came on the final day, when he stopped in Kogarah, held by Minns on an ultra-thin 0.1% margin.

Minns, meanwhile, was able to be aggressive. As well as East Hills, Oatley, Goulburn, Camden and Ryde, he was in Wollondilly (6%), the Nationals seat in Monaro (11.6%), and the Liberal-held, notionally Labor seat of Heathcote (1.7%).

Still, there are reasons to think Labor could fall short.

Much has been made of the fact the opposition has run a cautious campaign, emulating Anthony Albanese’s success at the federal election by sticking to a disciplined – and narrow – message around wages, privatisation and health and education infrastructure.

The difference between this election and the federal poll, however, is that Minns is up against a popular premier. Despite his party’s flagging fortunes, Perrottet continues to poll as preferred leader, and has won plaudits for his gambling reform policies.

But Perrottet has often appeared to be campaigning with a handicap. Weighed down by the baggage of 12 years in government, he has struggled at times to articulate why the Coalition deserves another four years in power beyond the ad nauseam repeat of its “long-term financial plan”.

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Much of that is down to Labor’s canny campaigning.

By sensing a shifting mood on privatisation – the vehicle for much of the Coalition’s impressive record on infrastructure over the past decade – Labor was able to force the premier into an uncomfortable bind.

Either he was lying about his promise not to sell off further public assets like Sydney Water, or he intended to run up an irresponsible amount of debt at a time when the cost of borrowing is rising rapidly.

At a press conference in Sydney on Monday, the Guardian asked Perrottet whether he no longer believed in privatisation.

His answer was indicative of the problem: “no”, he said initially, before catching himself. “As treasurer I always looked at the situation that was in front of us in every budget,” he said.

But the Coalition has also been its own worst enemy. The loss of capable ministers such as Rob Stokes, Victor Dominello and Brad Hazzard gave the government a tired air, while the Liberal party itself has been unable to shake off its lingering problems with female voters by failing to pre-select women in a series of high-profile seats.

If Labor does win on Saturday, the challenges will mount quickly. Minns has ruled out doing deals with the crossbench, particularly on gambling reform, where he has been loathe to follow Perrottet in committing to a mandatory cashless gaming card. That is a promise that may quickly become hard to keep if he is unable to win a majority.

The party’s promise to boost the number of teachers and nurses in the state will also be an early challenge, given all states are facing workforce shortages. As will another key commitment to scrap the public sector wages bill, given the Parliamentary Budget Office’s warning that even a 1% rise above the target of 3.5% could cost the state about $2.6bn.

For now though, a party which was almost wiped off the electoral map following the disastrous 2011 election can see light at the end of what has been a very long tunnel.

It’s judgment day.

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