29 October 2017
By-elections often bring incumbent governments relief or grief, or occasionally neither. They can be seen as opportunities for some voters to show governments what they think of their policies well in advance of general elections. Sometimes governments lose seats at by-elections, occasionally to minor parties, but then they win them back when the next general election comes. By-election losses frequently see governments initially promising to “learn” their “lessons”, but in the end they look like they didn’t learn anything.
As far as the Liberal-National Coalition currently governing in New South Wales is concerned, three by-elections earlier this month brought no grief, with two of them bringing relief and the third of them looking meaningless.
The two by-elections to bring relief were in Cootamundra and Murray, in the south-west of the state. The meaningless by-election was in Blacktown, in western Sydney.
In both Cootamundra and Murray, held by the Nationals, there was speculation that the Nationals could lose, after they’d lost one of their safe seats, Orange, in another by-election late last year. Rural voters have been really unhappy with the Nationals of late, because they perceive them as capitulating to the Liberals over issues that concern them, such as local council mergers and greyhound racing, and the Liberals are seen as caring more about city voters with views different those of rural voters, even though the Liberals themselves hold many rural seats.
However, on the morning after the by-elections, it was clear that the Nationals had managed to hold both seats, although there were swings of around 15-20 per cent against them. On those grounds, the by-elections could be described as having just come and gone.
As for the by-election in Blacktown, already a safe seat for the Labor Party, nothing changed. One of only a handful of seats to remain in Labor’s hands after a huge defeat at a general election in 2011, during which nearby seats fell to the Liberals, Blacktown wasn’t thought likely to change hands, so there was no Liberal candidate at this by-election. This was why the result was meaningless for the Coalition.
Mind you, I’ve seen the major parties lose seats to minor parties at by-elections when their traditional rivals haven’t run. But there didn’t appear to be an outstanding alternative candidate running around in Blacktown, meaning that people normally voting for the Liberals there really had nowhere to go. As such, the by-election was arguably a foregone conclusion, with Labor holding, and that was what happened.
The Coalition would’ve been relieved at the results of both rural by-elections, having won when losses were considered possible. But I suspect that, as far as Labor goes, it’s likely to have read those results wrong.
Labor would’ve tried to paint the by-elections as showing the Coalition on the nose with voters. There’s some truth in that. But I don’t see them as showing voters really warming to Labor, which doesn’t look like a credible alternative at the moment. If anything, Labor only seems to be adding to the noises from voters unhappy with the Coalition, without giving them a reason to vote for Labor.
It must be remembered that when the Coalition lost Orange last year, it didn’t fall to Labor. Instead, it fell to a candidate from a minor party presenting itself as a voice for shooters and fishers and farmers, largely in rural areas.
That minor party was tipped to possibly win in both Cootamundra and Murray, but despite polling well, it didn’t succeed. Somehow, I suspect that its win in Orange last year was a one-off, and that it’ll lose at the next general election, due in 2019.
It’ll continue to win seats in the Upper House, where it only needs to win a relatively small proportion of the vote across the state to win seats there. But in Lower House seats, such as Orange, it could only win if it obtained a majority of votes – meaning more votes than every other candidate put together. Minor parties don’t achieve this often. They sometimes succeed at by-elections, but lose them at general elections.
The results of this month’s by-elections in NSW probably show the Coalition losing its popularity in many parts of the state. But voters aren’t really warming to Labor as such. This might save the Coalition from defeat in 2019. Labor really needs to give voters an inspiring reason to support it, but nothing inspirational looks like coming from Labor at this time.