19 November 2016
The result of last weekend’s by-election in Orange in central New South Wales mightn’t have been finalised as yet. But it already has one major victim.
One of three seats holding by-elections to fill vacant seats in State Parliament, Orange was seen as a test for the Liberal-National Coalition, which has been governing in NSW since 2011. Lately, rural voters have been angry about various issues, such as enforced mergers of local councils and a ban on greyhound racing. Both the council and greyhound issues were seen as the work of the Liberals, who dominate the Nationals in the Coalition.
Because of the need for Coalition unity, the largely rural Nationals must often give ground to the largely urban Liberals. This can be tested when issues have a city-country divide, meaning a difference of opinion between city slickers and rural folk. Although there’s been anger in both rural and urban areas over local councils, the ban on greyhound racing hasn’t angered urban voters as much as rural voters, and of course many of the latter live in the Orange area, which the Nationals have represented for decades without much trouble – at least until last weekend.
At the by-election last weekend, voters in Orange really let the Nationals have it, to the point where the seat might change hands.
For the record, besides Orange, the two other areas having by-elections last weekend were Canterbury and Wollongong, and the Labor Party won both of those, with the Coalition opting against running in either.
Although not yet final, the result in Orange has triggered the downfall of Troy Grant, who resigned as leader of the Nationals, and therefore as Deputy Premier as well, earlier this week. It was thought that, had there been a big swing against the Nationals in Orange, Grant might’ve faced a leadership challenge. And indeed there was a big swing in Orange. But Grant resigned almost at once, although he might’ve been dumped if he didn’t go first.
Being Deputy Premier comes automatically for the leader of the Nationals, whoever that is, when the Coalition governs in NSW. This is because the Liberals outnumber, and sometimes dominate, the Nationals in the Coalition. The same idea applies when the Coalition governs at Federal level – this is why Barnaby Joyce, currently the leader of the Nationals in Federal Parliament, is also Deputy Prime Minister in the Turnbull Coalition Government, and why people from Tim Fischer to Warren Truss have both led the Nationals and been Deputy Prime Minister in Coalition governments at the same time in recent decades.
Mind you, this doesn’t happen after the Coalition loses elections. When out of office, the Liberals and Nationals go their separate ways, to some extent. This is why, between the aftermath of the Federal Coalition’s loss of office in 2007 and its return to office in 2013, while the Opposition Leader was always a Liberal, the Deputy Opposition Leader was a Liberal rather than a National. In this case, holding this role from 2007 to 2013 was Julie Bishop, who’s been deputy leader of the Liberals since that 2007 loss. This also applies when the NSW Coalition is out of office, as it was from 1995 to 2011.
In the meantime, with Grant resigning as leader of the Nationals, the newly-elected leader is John Barilaro, who holds the seat of Monaro, in the state’s south. The Nationals also have a new deputy leader, in the form of Niall Blair.
I think that Barilaro has a struggle ahead of him. Guiding the Nationals through their current troubles is hard enough, but he’ll have another problem in holding Monaro, which hasn’t been easy to hold. He really has his work cut out because of both the Nationals’ troubles and having to hold Monaro.
Because Monaro has frequently changed hands when governments have changed hands over many decades, it’s very much a swinging seat. The Coalition held it for years while governing until an election in 1976, when it lost office to Labor. And among Labor’s 1976 gains was Monaro. Labor lost both this seat and an election to the Coalition in 1988. The Coalition held it despite losing office at an election in 1995, and again despite losing an election in 1999. Labor won it in 2003, two elections after winning office in 1995, and lost it to the Coalition, along with an election, in 2011.
Candidate quality can be a factor in a seat like this. Peter Cochran won it for the Nationals in 1988, when the Coalition won office, and he held it until 1999, even though the Coalition lost office in 1995. Although the Nationals held it with Peter Webb in 1999, Steve Whan managed to win it for Labor in 2003. It was always a marginal seat during these years, but Whan held it despite a swing against Labor in 2007. It fell to the Coalition in 2011, with Barilaro beating Whan, as the Coalition won office. But Whan’s effort here might’ve prevented a bigger swing to the Coalition, as Monaro was less marginal than other Coalition gains which had been safer for Labor before. Unsurprisingly, Whan ran again in 2015, but Barilaro was able to hold him off.
This shows how Barilaro will struggle leading the Nationals at this time. The job of holding a seat like Monaro becomes harder when the sitting member also serves as Deputy Premier.