There are two big elections this weekend; world attention will mostly be focused on Thailand, which votes on Sunday. I’ll preview that tomorrow. But it’s also well worth having a look at Saturday’s state election in New South Wales.
Since 2002, Australia’s two largest states have voted on a four-year cycle just four months apart – Victoria in November and New South Wales the following March. And for a long time their politics moved in tandem, with New South Wales the pace-setter.
Both had a long-serving Labor government that was heavily defeated (1988 in NSW, 1992 in Victoria), with a Coalition government then serving two terms before losing very narrowly (1995 in NSW, 1999 in Victoria), with Labor then winning a landslide after its first term and holding most of that majority intact four years later (2003 in NSW, 2006 in Victoria).
Then the stories diverged. The New South Wales Labor government held on for a fourth victory in 2007, despite an adverse swing, but in Victoria Labor was unexpectedly defeated after three terms in 2010.
Winning elections isn’t always the best thing for a party. New South Wales Labor fell apart during its fourth term, and lost in an almighty landslide in 2011. Victorian Labor, however, found that a term in opposition did it good, and came back to win again in 2014 and then be re-elected four months ago.
In New South Wales, however, even the 9.9% swing that the ALP got in 2015 was nowhere near enough to win. It finished with 34 seats against the Coalition’s 54 (37 Liberals and 17 Nationals), with three Greens and two independents.
Since then, Liberals and Nationals have each lost a seat in by-elections (to an independent and a Shooter, respectively), so the government starts with 52 of the 93 seats. It can afford only five losses before losing its majority, although it would have some prospects of doing a deal with the independents to retain office.
On a uniform basis, a loss of six seats would require a 3.2% swing, while the ten seats Labor needs for a majority (with the Greens) equate to a 6.7% swing. But optional preferential voting, plus the strength of minor parties and independents, mean those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt.
For what it’s worth, though, the opinion polls are showing a result very close to 50-50 (two-party-preferred), a swing of between four and five per cent. So minority government, of whichever side, is very much a possibility.
For the fourth time running, New South Wales goes into the election with a new premier. The 2015 winner, Mike Baird, retired in 2017 after the government started going downhill and was replaced by Gladys Berejiklian, the first female non-Labor premier anywhere in Australia. But the practice of women only getting the gig when things are going badly was already well established by Labor.
The government has made some bad decisions, notably the large expenditure on rebuilding sporting stadiums in Sydney, which has been a particularly sore point in rural areas. But it has also been hurt, as were the Liberals last year in Victoria, by the unpopularity of the federal government since the knifing of Malcolm Turnbull.
Berejiklian has done her best to dissociate herself from her federal counterparts – particularly over climate change – but the links are difficult to hide; prime minister Scott Morrison is a former state director of the New South Wales Liberal Party. And Sydney’s suburban voters are traditionally not as progressive as Melbourne’s, so it may not hurt her to quite the same extent.
Nonetheless, if the swing on Saturday is big enough to tip out the government and make Labor’s Michael Daley premier, it will be one more ominous sign for Morrison’s future.
And even if the swing is relatively small, Morrison may take little consolation from it: it could simply mean that the voters are keeping their powder dry, waiting for a couple of months to unleash on their real target.
Worst of all, probably, from the Federal Coalition’s point of view would be if there is a large swing but the Berejiklian government nonetheless manages to hang on. That would show that the voters are angry, but it would tell the voters that they needed to get angrier still in order to make their message felt.
As usual, Antony Green at the ABC has the most comprehensive coverage: here’s his preview, and here’s his pendulum. William Bowe’s guide is also very good. Both sites will have live results on Saturday night; if there’s anything especially interesting I might do some liveblogging myself.