THE Premier-elect of NSW chose low tide at the Parramatta ferry wharf to show himself to the cameras. A scrum of strange faces in dark suits, the victorious Liberals of the west, stood behind him. In front was an old river at low ebb, all sandbags and muddy banks. It was spitting.
Victory has not touched Barry O'Farrell. He was cheerful, of course, but he usually is. He droned on as he always does about railways and hospitals. Whether the refusal to grandstand on the morning after such a staggering win shows iron discipline or strange indifference is impossible to tell. He did smile briefly when claiming ''double the largest swing ever recorded in this country''.
A reporter called: who will you be staring at across the chamber? ''The same old Labor Party,'' he replied. But those of us on the wharf who had gathered at the victory celebrations the night before at the Parramatta Leagues Club (''The Home of the Eels'') saw something just as frightening: the old Liberal Party.
The bellies are bigger. Some carry sticks. Their name tags spark memories of bitter campaigns in the past. And they were back for more: hard-faced men hoping to do well out of the change. Max Moore-Wilton denied he was touting for work. He told the Herald: ''I am happily employed as a car park attendant at Sydney Airport.''
The vibe was odd, very odd. On screens all round the walls, history was being made. But there was little sense of celebration on the floor. Impatient entitlement was the mood as the swing cut across the state. A roar of delight greeted early news that Kristina Keneally might lose her seat. After that, the screens were ignored for hours.
Things had been curiously detached all polling day. As dawn broke over Roseville, O'Farrell and his older son, Tom, joined the campaign bus for a last swing through the central coast. The candidate confessed: ''My mood is confident. I'm a bit tired.'' To keep himself going over the next few hours he had Diet Coke, a lemon slice and a sausage sandwich.
Not everyone in Kariong and Bluehaven knew who this big man was, handing them how to vote cards in the rain. Tattooed voters tended to walk by. A grandmother with Elvis earrings let O'Farrell know what was on her mind. ''Is that right?'' he asked from time to time. ''Is that right?'' Everywhere he was gently reassuring.
Despite applause and whoops in the playground as he turned up at Lindfield Public to vote, he announced firmly as he approached the desk: ''O'Farrell, Barry Robert.'' Rosemary O'Farrell passed him with ballot papers in her hand. ''The one vote I can't count on,'' he remarked affectionately. He wasn't long in the booth: he voted one above the line.
A huge crane hovers over the valley near the O'Farrells' place. Otherwise the north shore was looking spick and span. As the bus wound through those tight streets, the leader of the opposition called to the driver: ''At the next corner you can turn left or right''. Rather wearily his press secretary, Brad Burden, snapped: ''Just tell him where to go''.
O'Farrell wasn't pumped. He planned to wing the victory speech: a few gracious lines about Keneally, not too many thanks. "Not like the Academy Awards."
Unbidden he began to reflect on how few politicians know when to retire. Peter Beattie got it right. So how long is he planning to stay in the job that wasn't quite his? "As long as they'll have me."
Between Keneally's concession speech - drowned in the end by roars of mockery - and the arrival of the O'Farrells came a long hiatus where nothing much happened at the home of the Eels except eating and drinking and lobbying. Rent seekers were still pouring in from the eastern suburbs. On a loop, the campaign theme thundered: "We can't wait any longer." We did.
The biggest winner in the history of the state was greeted on the dot of 10 with relief as much as jubilation. "Ba-rry! Ba-rry!" cried the Young Libs. In that crush of cameras, officials and bodyguards, it was reassuring to see Barry O'Farrell remained resolutely himself. On his face was the slightly bashful look of a prefect called to the stage to accept the year 12 proficiency prize.
Winging the speech had its pitfalls. Ku-ring-gai was nearly forgotten. Ditto the Nationals' leader, Andrew Stoner. But compared to the lacklustre performance at the campaign launch a few suburbs and many weeks away, this was Demosthenes. The crowd roared as he tolled through the Labor heartland seats that had fallen to the Liberals.
Unfortunately, the leader was out of synch on all the screens. His exit was slow, graceful in its way, interrupted every few yards by the gushing good wishes of young men with short hair and hyphenated names, old warhorses eager for another salary, and lobbyists come to ask their first favours. Politics in NSW never sleeps.