5 December 2016
The next state election in New South Wales might be more than two years away. It’s fixed for March 2019. But I’m already prepared to tip that the election will see a new person as Deputy Premier, regardless of who wins.
I make this tip after recent events, including a by-election for the seat of Orange, in the central region of the state. The by-election triggered a leadership change. Although there’s a lot of prestige in leadership for politicians, it doesn’t always ensure local success at election time. And there are people who’ll tell you as much.
John Howard was one such person for whom leadership wasn’t necessarily a guarantee of success at a local level. You don’t need to remind the Liberal Party of that. Despite many years as Liberal leader, including eleven as Prime Minister, Howard lost his own seat as well as a general election in 2007 – it was only the second time in Australian history that the Prime Minister of the day was among MPs to lose their seats in a general election, the first time being in 1929. Nearly a decade after departing politics in such an unceremonious manner, Howard remains widely respected among both MPs in the Liberal-National Coalition and their supporters. And to this day, many Liberals in particular are still bitter over Howard’s loss of both the 2007 election and his own seat.
Similarly, the prestige of leadership didn’t save Charles Blunt in his own seat at a Federal election in 1990. Blunt had become leader of the Nationals the previous year, while the Coalition was battling to return to office for the first time since 1983. The Coalition ended up falling just short, but Blunt was among several Coalition MPs who lost their seats. If he’d held his seat and the Coalition had won the 1990 election, he’d almost certainly have become Deputy Prime Minister.
You might wonder how the fate of both Howard and Blunt matters in relation to the state by-election in Orange, which the Nationals narrowly lost. The answer is the difficulty confronting John Barilaro, who became leader of the Nationals after the resignation of Troy Grant in the wake of the by-election.
The Nationals held Orange very comfortably for decades until the by-election, which took place last month. With voters across rural NSW angry about issues such as the merging of local councils and a ban on greyhound racing, a revolt was predicted in Orange, and it came in a big way. Support for the Nationals halved from what it was at the last general election, in 2015, to less than a third of the vote, although they were still ahead of their rivals. In the end, preferences ended up narrowly electing a candidate fighting for shooters and fishers and farmers – this candidate finished ahead of the Nationals by less than a hundred votes.
You could argue that the Nationals were juiced in Orange, if you’ll pardon the pun – even though it mightn’t be that funny because the Orange region isn’t renowned for growing citrus fruits like oranges! But I think that the backlash against the Nationals in Orange might’ve been just a start, as worse arguably looms in the years ahead.
The problem is that Barilaro now leads the Nationals while defending a marginal seat, namely Monaro, in the state’s south. Becoming leader of the Nationals automatically makes Barilaro Deputy Premier, as happens when the Coalition governs in NSW. But Monaro has been a swinging seat for several decades, going with governments at all except two elections during that time. And with the Nationals holding it by a margin of about 2.5 per cent over the Labor Party, Barilaro already has a tricky job in holding his own seat.
Despite having prestige, leadership can bring pressures if politicians have to defend marginal seats. In the case of Monaro, its history makes it very much a “litmus test” seat at election time, meaning that whichever way voters here go, voters in other marginal seats are also likely to go.
How Barilaro juggles leadership with his marginal seat remains to be seen. The problems shown in the Orange by-election imply tough times for the Nationals, unless there’s a swing back to the Coalition in the years ahead. While a year might be a long time in politics, I can’t see too much changing in terms of what’s troubling the Nationals at the moment. The road seems to continually get harder for Barilaro as time passes.