Inside Story

The Liberals’ best government loses office

And that shows the scale of the challenge facing the Liberals

Tim Colebatch 27 March 2023 2111 words

Wave catcher: incoming NSW premier Chris Minns and his family in his electorate of Kogarah yesterday. Dean Lewins/AAP Image

A “bloodbath” it wasn’t, even if that was the word the Sunday Telegraph chose for its front page. At the end of Saturday night’s counting in the NSW election, the Coalition government had definitely lost eight seats in the Legislative Assembly, and possibly two or three more from among those still in doubt.

While the votes recorded a hefty swing away from the government to Labor and independents alike, the actual damage was relatively restrained, as if mimicking an election campaign and a polling night finale conducted with a friendly cordiality that you wish all politicians could adopt.

This was a change of government, but no wipeout. After ruling New South Wales for fifty-one of the seventy years between 1941 and 2011, Labor will resume control in 2023 with an agenda that has generated little excitement or alarm. Its leader Chris Minns, like Anthony Albanese, made himself a small target and let the anti-Coalition wave sweeping Australia do the rest.

At the end of the night, Antony Green estimated Labor had won 54.3 per cent of the two-party preferred vote — a swing of 6.3 per cent — declaring it has secured a majority in the new Assembly. While that is the most likely result, it was a bit premature, and yesterday the ABC withdrew it, and Green revised his numbers to list fourteen of the ninety-three Assembly seats as still in doubt.

My own list is a bit shorter. On my count, Labor has won forty-five seats — just two short of a majority — and leads in another four seats too close to call. The Coalition has won twenty-eight seats, and leads in another four that it will probably retain.

The Greens have held on to their three (Balmain, only just), the three ex-Shooters MPs easily held their seats as independents — despite a nasty campaign by Clubs NSW against Murray MP Helen Dalton, who has spearheaded the push for gambling reform — as did three others elected as independents in 2019. And teal independents hold narrow leads over Coalition MPs in two seats.

But we are only at half-time in the counting. In a reform we should probably welcome, the NSW Electoral Commission ordered that counting end at 10.30 pm on polling night, recognising that its staff had been working all day beforehand. And yesterday was free of counting. On the ABC’s estimate, the votes counted for so far amount to just 50.2 per cent of enrolled voters.

About 90 per cent usually vote, which means 40 per cent of the votes are still to be counted. And the votes to come include the vast bulk of some 888,000 pre-poll votes, and up to 540,000 postal votes. As a rule, they usually lift the votes of the Coalition and Greens at the expense of Labor and independents — and sometimes that changes results.

Antony Green’s pendulum showed the Coalition going into the election with forty-six seats, Labor thirty-eight, with six independents and three Greens. So far the Coalition has lost eight seats, and ten others remain in doubt. Labor has relieved it of seven seats — Camden, East Hills, Monaro, Parramatta, Penrith, Riverstone and South Coast — while the mayor of Northern Beaches, Michael Regan, won the blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Wakehurst as an independent with a phenomenal swing of 27 per cent.

My list of seats in doubt includes three in which Labor leads the Liberals — Terrigal (with 51.27 per cent of the two-party vote), Ryde (50.67) and Miranda (50.35) — and three where the Liberals lead Labor: Holsworthy (50.80), Oatley (50.40) and Goulburn (50.33).

There is also the strange case of Kiama, where MP Gareth Ward, who is legally blind and albino, has been suspended from parliament and thrown out of the Liberal party after being charged with separate counts of sexual assault and indecent assault, both against other men. He stood as an independent, and Kiama Liberals ignored their official candidate and rallied behind him. The official two-party figures show him trailing Labor (51.90), but later first-preference figures suggest he’s gone ahead.

Independents lead the Liberals in Wollondilly (51.73) and Pittwater (50.06), while the Liberals lead in Willoughby (50.69). My best guess is that postal votes will help the Liberals hang on to most of these ten seats, but Labor will win enough to end up with a majority of about three seats, similar to Anthony Albanese’s majority in the House of Representatives.

The actual votes in the first half of counting were: Labor 37.1 per cent, Coalition 34.8, Greens 10.1, independents 8.8 and others 9.2. The high vote for others is worth noting, because unlike the federal and Victorian elections, there weren’t that many “other” candidates. Yet instead of the 2 or 3 per cent they polled in those elections, this time the minor candidates kept polling 5 to 10 per cent, sometimes more.

Preferences are optional in New South Wales, so they matter less — and both the Coalition and One Nation made a point of urging their voters to “just vote 1.” Suit yourselves, guys, but preferences do help to win seats. If Labor wins a majority, it will certainly be due to preferences from Greens voters and others.

It’s far too early to call the final outcome in the Legislative Council, but on the votes counted on Saturday night, the swing was big enough to give Labor a chance of being able to cobble together a majority of left-wing parties, including the Greens, Legalise Cannabis and Animal Justice, on key issues. But it’s more likely that the new Council will be evenly split between left and right.

In my view, this is not a result that calls for a lot of analysis. Democratic governments the world over tend to have a limited life span. As former Victorian premier Dick Hamer put it, “Every decision you make, you make an enemy. And some will remain enemies until the day you die.” Eventually, more than 50 per cent of voters will be persuaded that it is worth giving the other side a turn, and the government is out.

New South Wales has been generally a Labor state in our lifetimes. The turning point came two days after Australia entered the second world war: Labor MPs ganged up to overthrow the dictatorial demagogue Jack Lang and install the cautious, efficient and likeable Bill (later Sir William) McKell as their leader. McKell led them to a landslide win in 1941, and they stayed in power until 1965. Labor governments in Sydney tended to follow his example: play safe, sometimes play favourites and, above all, keep the voters on side. They are rarely radical.

Since 1941 the Coalition has had just three spells in power, of which this was the longest. The outgoing government stood out for its massive public works program, especially in Sydney, encompassing both roads and public transport, but also for the borrowings that funded it and for the relatively high turnover of leaders and ministers as a result of minor but damaging problems with the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

But it was a government of reformers. While its Coalition partners in Canberra failed to tackle climate change seriously, it was out front in leading the transition to a renewables economy. In recent months, its advocacy of a cashless gaming card — enabling problem gamblers to set a limit on their losses — had the potential to be the most important gambling reform Australia has seen. Unfortunately, Labor is under the thumb of the clubs lobby and plans to run only a token trial applying the card to 500 of the 90,000 poker machines in the state.

This was a government open to ideas and reform — very different from the federal Coalition under John Howard and since, which, with its media partner Murdoch, has specialised in manufacturing issues it could use to try to wedge Labor (of which the phenomenally expensive nuclear submarines will be perhaps the most damaging long-term consequence).

All that said, the fall of the Perrottet government is a huge blow to the Coalition nationally. It’s clear that the Liberal brand name has suffered from the miserable record of its nine years in federal office. Tasmania is now the only government left on its side, with Labor controlling every other government bigger than a local council. I covered this in some detail in an earlier article and won’t repeat the argument here.

But its conclusion must be underlined. Since Daniel Andrews was elected as premier of Victoria in 2014, we have been in a pro-Labor cycle that has changed almost every government in the country, and shows no signs of slowing. The Victorian election, which should at least have given a start to the next pro-Coalition cycle, instead revealed a Liberal Party lost in the doldrums. Now a government that was arguably the best the Coalition has produced in this century has been thrown out of office.

This could just be cyclical, but I don’t think so. The Liberals’ federal leadership requires a bold reformer, a young Menzies or Whitlam, to bring it back into the mainstream of Australia’s changing values. Instead it has Peter Dutton, a business-as-usual leader who has done nothing to reposition the party, and sees no need to.

Apart from households becoming poorer as prices grow so much faster than wages, no one issue dominated this election. The swing was erratic from seat to seat, but more or less statewide, although stronger in Sydney than in the bush. Even in the classic two-party contests, massive swings from the Coalition were recorded in some seats: 15 per cent in Parramatta and South Coast (two of Labor’s gains) and in Miranda (one of those it hopes to win) and 18 per cent in Kogarah, the southern Sydney seat of incoming premier Chris Minns. In the seven seats Labor has clearly gained, the average swing was 10.8 per cent.

Yet some seats, mostly in the bush, swung the other way. And the Coalition looks like retaining six of its eight most marginal seats. Upper Hunter (where Labor needed a swing of only 0.5 per cent) swung to the Nationals. Goulburn (3.1), Willoughby (3.3), Tweed (5.0), Winston Hills (5.7) and Holsworthy (6.0) all look likely to end up staying with their present owners, if only just.

There were some interesting outcomes in the count:

• The teal independents just missed out. The federal election saw them win four seats in New South Wales and come close in several others. But while Judy Hannan (a former Liberal candidate who insists she’s not a teal) looks well-placed in Wollondilly, the other four Climate 200 candidates in Sydney look likely to fall just short.

This reflects the real differences between state and federal Liberals on climate action and integrity watchdogs, as well as state laws that restrict funding for electoral newcomers. But it follows a similar outcome in Victoria, suggesting that some voters feel the teals are needed less in state parliaments than federally.

• The Greens also missed out. They seem to have held their three existing seats — although Antony Green still classes Balmain as in doubt — but didn’t come remotely close to winning any others. Their upper house vote was just 9.1 per cent, enough for two seats of the twenty-one, but crushing their hopes of winning a third. In only two state seats in Sydney are the Greens genuine contenders, compared with nine in Melbourne.

• The southeast of the state, which voted en bloc for the Coalition in 2019, went almost entirely against it this time. The Liberals lost Bega last year at a by-election after Andrew Constance stepped down to run for the federal seat of Gilmore (and lose narrowly). Now they have lost South Coast and Kiama along the coast, while inland, the Nationals lost Monaro and the Liberals are trailing in Wollondilly.

Monaro could be a microcosm of the Coalition’s years in office. Most of its voters live in and around Queanbeyan, across the border from Canberra. At the 2011 election, energetic young National John Barilaro wrested it from popular Labor minister Steve Whan. In 2015 Whan tried to come back, but lost narrowly. In 2019, without Whan to compete with, deputy premier Barilaro had a massive victory. But then he tried to move to Canberra, met strong resistance, declared war on koalas, publicly admitted he was struggling with mental health issues, and ultimately quit politics. On Saturday Whan returned to win the seat in a 15 per cent swing.

• Speaking of the war on koalas, one of the most unusual contests was in Port Macquarie, a hot spot in the battle for lebensraum between developers and koalas. In 2020 the town’s MP Leslie Williams quit the Nationals over Barilaro’s “reckless and unreasonable behaviour” and defected to the Liberals.

On Saturday the two Coalition partners faced off, and the Port Macquarie voters unambiguously chose their pro-koala MP over her National Party challenger. Let’s hope that war is now over. •