By-elections say nothing of Labor

26 March 2017


The shock resignation in January of Mike Baird as Premier of New South Wales, and from State Parliament altogether, triggered a by-election for his old seat.  In the wake of his exit, one of his long-serving ministers, Jillian Skinner, also resigned from Parliament, amid speculation that she’d be dumped from the ministry, thus bringing about another by-election.  Now both by-elections will held in the coming month, in the northern Sydney seats of Manly and North Shore.

A third by-election will be held at the same time, in the seat of Gosford, to the north of Sydney.  It follows the resignation of Kathy Smith, who only entered Parliament at the last election, in March 2015, but is now battling ill health.

People argue that these by-elections will give voters a chance to state what they think of the Liberal-National Coalition, which won office in a big way in March 2011 but has since lost much of its gloss.  The Coalition then lost many seats when voters went to the polls in 2015, but it still had a comfortable majority.  However, some controversial decisions have upset voters in many parts of NSW, and late last year the Coalition lost one of its safe seats in a by-election in regional NSW as a result.  And it’s been suggested that the Coalition could face trouble as far as both Manly and North Shore are concerned.

It’s worth noting that the Labor Party, which lost office in 2011 after years of scandal but then won back a lot of lost seats in 2015, isn’t running candidates in either Manly or North Shore.  On the other hand, Labor will defend Gosford, which Smith won from the Coalition in 2015 after it’d been lost in 2011.  There’ll be a Liberal candidate in Gosford, but nobody expects that candidate to win.

When you consider the absence of Labor candidates in Manly and North Shore, and the fact that Gosford is a Labor-held seat, you can’t really see these by-elections as indicating where Labor stands with the public in NSW.  Although they’ll give a section of the public to express any anger with the Coalition in general and the Liberals in particular, they’ll say virtually nothing of the public view of Labor.

Although Manly and North Shore are considered safe for the Liberals, at least as far as running against Labor is concerned, both seats have fallen to Independents at one time or another over previous decades.  There are Independents and minor parties running in both seats, as well as in Gosford, but there doesn’t appear to be any outstanding candidate for whom people in those seats would vote if they’re unhappy with the Liberals.  Had there been any such obvious candidates, I’d rate the Liberals vulnerable.  That said, given the by-election loss last year, which was something of a surprise, I’m not totally writing off the idea of a non-Liberal win in either Manly or North Shore as such.

Mind you, it’s hard to see what a non-Liberal win in either of those seats would mean for Labor.  The presence of minor players in Parliament actually makes it harder for Labor to win the next election, which comes in 2019, although the paradox is that their presence will make it easier for the Coalition to lose.

A loss of less than ten seats would cost the Coalition its parliamentary majority at the next election, and force it to rely on crossbenchers to govern.  But Labor needs to gain almost twice as many seats in order to win a majority.

At the last election, the Coalition scored a 54-34 win over Labor in the 93-seat Lower House.  The remaining seats went to a trio of Greens and a pair of Independents.

The result meant that the Coalition would lose its majority if it lost eight seats.  But it left Labor needing to gain thirteen seats to win a majority.

So far, Labor hasn’t shown much to indicate that voters are really warming to it generally, or to Labor leader Luke Foley in particular.  The Coalition might be unpopular, but Labor isn’t really winning over unhappy voters.

This story has played out quite frequently in politics across Australia.  Voters have been unhappy with governments, but they haven’t really found inspiring alternatives who can be trusted to govern.  Two years remain before NSW voters can inspire stick with or dump the Coalition.  But there seems to be little inspiration for Labor, so any change at the next election might result from voters simply wanting any alternative to what they have at the present time.



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