27 January 2017
The political scene never really has been, or will be, short of surprises. And nearly four decades ago, a state election in New South Wales produced results which surprised many.
Only those who have long memories and follow politics closely would know of the Labor Party winning some unlikely seats in a big election win in 1978. After narrowly winning office in NSW at an election in 1976, Labor was able to increase its majority two years later. Among the seats going to Labor in 1978 were Manly and Willoughby – the very seats held at the start of this month by, respectively, the man who resigned as NSW Premier and the woman now replacing him.
This isn’t to suggest that Labor could win either seat nowadays. You’d have to be a one-eyed Labor supporter to think that. But both seats have been vulnerable to changing hands at one time or another over the years.
Back in 1978, Neville Wran was proving very popular as Premier. He’d been elected Labor leader after an election loss in 1973, and led Labor to victory in a close election result in 1976. The final result wasn’t known for a little while, with almost two weeks passing before the Premier at the time, Sir Eric Willis, conceded defeat to Wran. From there, it seemed like Wran could do no wrong. Although he didn’t have to call the next election until 1979, he went to the polls a year early, and he won handsomely.
The election was dreadful for the Liberal Party, which didn’t seem to cope well with losing office in 1976, despite the closeness of the result and the possibility that one defection or resignation or death could potentially tip Wran out of office. In that 1978 election, the Liberals lost many seats which wouldn’t have thought of as possible Labor gains. Worse still, among the defeated Liberals was Opposition Leader Peter Coleman, who’d become Liberal leader less than a year earlier.
In fact the election came just months after the resignation from Parliament of Willis, who’d been Liberal leader for less than two years, thereby triggering a by-election in his old seat of Earlwood, in Sydney’s south. Labor candidate Ken Gabb ended up winning the by-election, and would hold the seat for about a decade. Wran might well have decided to call a general election early as a result of this by-election.
It’s worth noting that the Liberal candidate for this by-election, and indeed for the general election later in the year, was none other than Alan Jones, nowadays a controversial radio broadcaster in Sydney.
Under Wran’s leadership, Labor gained not only the seats of two Liberal leaders in Coleman and Willis, but seats including Manly and Willoughby, both in Sydney’s wealthy northern suburbs. Nowadays you’d probably do a double-take if you were told that Labor had previously won those seats.
They didn’t stay in Labor hands for very long. Willoughby returned to the Liberal fold at an election in 1981, but it wasn’t until 1984 that Manly returned to the Liberal fold. Since then, only once has Willoughby come close to changing hands – this was in 2003, upon the retirement of Peter Collins, who’d regained the seat for the Liberals in 1981. When he retired, an Independent candidate split the local vote, and the Liberals came close to losing the seat. In the end, however, the Liberal candidate, Gladys Berejiklian, only just won, but she’s since held the seat comfortably.
But Manly has changed hands a few times since 1978. Labor lost it to the Liberals in 1984, who in turn lost it to an Independent in 1991. It stayed in Independent hands until 2007, when the Liberals regained the seat through Mike Baird.
History shows that Baird and Berejiklian would go on to be ministers after an election in 2011. After a scandal brought down Barry O’Farrell as Liberal leader and Premier, it was Baird who succeeded him. He won an election in 2015, and was immensely popular for many months. But after some tough decisions, his popularity waned, and amid some concerns for family health, he resigned this month, with Berejiklian succeeding him.
These past events show how the unexpected happens in politics. Years ago, the Liberals lost seats to Labor which arguably shouldn’t have fallen. Of course, nowadays it seems that the Liberals are unlikely to face these dark times again. But the surprising element of politics can make almost anything possible.