25 September 2017
The New South Wales Parliament recently lost two members, who’d actually been elected to it at the same time. And for their side of politics, the time of their election was dark.
I refer to two Nationals, Katrina Hodgkinson and Adrian Piccoli, both former ministers in the Liberal-National Coalition Government in power in NSW since 2011. They entered Parliament together, at an election in 1999, when the Coalition suffered one of its worst defeats in memory. Recently they both resigned from Parliament, and by-elections will soon be held in their old seats, Cootamundra and Murray respectively.
The 1999 election was really bad for the Coalition. Having narrowly lost to the Labor Party at the previous election, in 1995, the Coalition had a big loss in 1999. It came away with only 33 seats out of 93, whereas Labor won 55. At later elections, in 2003 and 2007, the Coalition only picked up a handful of seats. Labor began to implode, amid scandals and incompetence, not much more than twelve months after its 2007 win. By the time of the 2011 election, Labor had become so decrepit that the Coalition only had to stand up straight and it’d win easily – the Coalition’s margin was a huge 69-20 over Labor. Both Hodgkinson and Piccoli became ministers after that win. Now they’ve both left.
But it’s hard to judge what the resulting by-elections might show, in relation to what the Coalition’s prospects might be at the next general election, which comes in 2019. Labor isn’t that popular across rural NSW, including in the south-west of the state, where both Cootamundra and Murray lie. However, given that the Coalition lost one of its safest rural seats in a by-election late last year, there’s been talk of potential losses in either or both of these coming by-elections. Admittedly, the Coalition’s by-election loss last year was to a non-Labor candidate, and both Cootamundra and Murray look like seats where non-Labor candidates might pose more of a threat to the Coalition than Labor, but any loss might look like a boost for Labor – even though it shouldn’t do so.
Although by-elections normally see swings against incumbents, and sometimes result in seats changing hands, they don’t always serve as guides as to what might happen when general elections come around. The lack of enthusiasm for Labor across rural NSW means that these coming by-elections don’t show obvious threats for the Coalition.
The Coalition’s by-election loss last year was in Orange, in central NSW. The winner of that by-election was a candidate from a party representing shooters and fishers and farmers – the sort of people who’d normally vote for the Nationals. However, over time they’ve come to regard the Nationals as less than representative of them.
Perhaps this is no surprise. The Liberal Party has long dominated within the Coalition, being predominantly city-based but also tending to win many rural and regional seats over the years. Indeed in the south-west of NSW, the Liberals hold the seats of Albury and Wagga Wagga, which actually extend beyond the reach of the cities after which they’re named, while the Nationals hold Cootamundra and Murray. Rightly or wrongly, many rural voters see the Nationals as frequently opting against pushing the Liberals on issues where they don’t see eye to eye – hence a drop in support for the Nationals.
As such, when I heard about the coming by-elections, I heard some speculation that the Nationals could possibly lose either Cootamundra or Murray, if not both. But for the reasons above, I’m not convinced that the Nationals will lose either seat, although I also wouldn’t be surprised if they lost, especially given what happened in Orange last year.
For the record, there’ll also be a by-election in Blacktown, in western Sydney, following the resignation of Labor MP John Robertson. I expect Labor to hold that seat, simply because the Coalition isn’t that popular out there, despite winning numerous seats in western Sydney amid a huge plunge in Labor’s popularity in 2011.
The coming by-elections mightn’t say too much about the next general election. The Coalition’s popularity has dropped off, but there’s not much enthusiasm for Labor, especially in rural NSW. The by-elections might just come and go, with few people wiser about what the future holds for either political side.