Lessons unclear in NSW by-elections

12 November 2016


From time to time voters use by-elections to “send a message” to governments, and to their rivals for that matter.  They sometimes punish one side of politics if they’re unhappy with it, by voting it out at a by-election, although often at the next general election the seat lost in the by-election goes back.

Over the years I’ve seen the major parties lose seats in by-elections, sometimes to their main rivals, and occasionally to minor parties and Independents.  For instance, I can remember the Labor Party losing a safe seat to the Greens in a by-election in the Wollongong region south of Sydney in late 2002, and I can remember the Coalition losing a safe seat to an Independent in northern Sydney’s Pittwater region in a by-election in late 2005.  Mind you, in both by-elections the major parties’ main rivals didn’t actually run, and this ended up getting alternatives elected.  I also remember by-elections costing Labor a safe seat to the Coalition in Canberra in 1995, and two seats to the Coalition in different parts of Brisbane in 2005.  In every one of these cases, however, the by-election result was reversed at the next general election.

These by-elections have come into my mind because of three by-elections happening in New South Wales today.  They’re for seats in State Parliament, and two of them are to replace sitting members who’ve gone to Federal Parliament.  However, I reckon that any lessons in these NSW by-elections will be unclear, for various reasons.

One of these by-elections is for the safe Labor seat of Wollongong, the same area where that Federal by-election of late 2002 took place.  The Coalition isn’t running in this seat, but in previous state elections Independent candidates have fared better than the Coalition, so one suspects that the Coalition wouldn’t have done that well had it chosen to run here.  Having said that, the absence of the Coalition could make Labor more vulnerable in this by-election.

The lesson from that 2002 Federal by-election, when Labor lost in the absence of the Coalition candidate, is that voters here probably either support or oppose Labor.  I suspect that a good deal of the Coalition’s support stems purely from disliking Labor, and they’d support anybody other than the Labor candidate.  In that 2002 by-election, Labor was falling out of favour with voters, and they probably just went for whatever non-Labor candidate seemed the best option available.  In this case, the by-election winner was a candidate from the Greens, and I suspect that Coalition voters here threw in their lot with the Greens, as did unhappy Labor voters.  Although Labor still finished first on primary votes, the Greens took the seat on preferences, as every other candidate seemingly directed preferences away from Labor.

Coming back to today’s state by-election in Wollongong, with the Coalition missing, its traditional supporters would probably back whatever non-Labor candidate seems best in their minds.  If Labor voters are unhappy with Labor for whatever reason, they might do the same.  As a result, Labor might be more vulnerable in this safe seat than it should be.

A similar story might loom in another of today’s by-elections, in Canterbury, in Sydney’s inner south-west.  This is also a safe Labor seat.  And again, the Coalition isn’t running in the by-election.  But with only the Greens and the Christian Democrats running against Labor, I don’t expect anything other than a Labor win.

The last of today’s by-elections is in Orange, in central NSW.  This is a safe Coalition seat, so naturally the Coalition is running.  But while the Coalition is skipping the Wollongong and Canterbury by-elections, therefore preventing a conventional Coalition-Labor contest in either of them, Labor is running in Orange, so this is the only conventional contest out of today’s three by-elections.

Although Orange is a safe Coalition seat, the Coalition is on the nose with voters to some degree.  It’s been reported that rural voters are very unhappy with the Baird Coalition Government because of forced mergers of local councils and ban on greyhound racing, one of the only forms of “entertainment” available to rural people but also an industry with many rural jobs.  This by-election is seen as a test of the Coalition’s popularity on that score.  There are many candidates running in Orange, with Labor and the Greens and others among them, so any unhappy Coalition voters have plenty of options in terms of candidates to vote for.

However, I suspect that the Coalition will still win the by-election.  I haven’t heard about any non-Coalition candidates really proving to be really popular in that neck of the woods, to the point of really troubling the Coalition.  There definitely will be a swing against the Coalition, but I suspect that it won’t be enough for a loss.

The lack of Coalition candidates in today’s three by-elections will make lessons unclear to judge.  My tip, however, is for the seats to stay as they are, with the Coalition holding Orange, and Labor holding both Wollongong and Canterbury.  Nothing seems like to change after voters have a chance to send a message of some sort.



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