Good news for Scott Morrison – sort of

It’s fair to say that Scott Morrison hasn’t had a lot of good news in the seven months since he became Liberal Party leader and prime minister. So while his party’s win in yesterday’s New South Wales election is the best thing to happen to him in that time, that’s clearing quite a low bar.

Nonetheless, a win is a win. If the Liberals had lost government yesterday, it would have been a (further) serious blow to morale at federal level. And if, as I suggested in Thursday’s preview, they had suffered a large swing but managed to hang on, that might have been even worse.

In fact, Gladys Berejiklian’s government has held the adverse swing to somewhere between two and three per cent. It looks like finishing with 48 seats (35 Liberal and 13 National), down four, against 36 Labor (up two) and three each for Greens (unchanged), Shooters (up two) and independents (unchanged).

(A small number of seats are still in some doubt. The best place to follow late counting is Kevin Bonham’s site.)

That’s no landslide, but for a two-term government it’s pretty good – it’s the first Coalition government to win a third term in New South Wales since 1971. It’s also noticeably better than the opinion polls had predicted. And it makes Berejiklian only the third woman (and the first Liberal woman) to win a state election anywhere in Australia.

So why do I say it’s not that great an omen for the Morrison government?

Well, compare last November’s election in Victoria. There, the federal leadership change was admitted on all sides to be an important issue. More to the point, the Victorian Liberals were following Canberra’s script: running on racial issues, scaremongering about crime and denying the need for action on climate change.

Like Victoria, the federal election will be, at least to some extent, a referendum on right-wing populism. It played very badly in Victoria, and on current indications it’s not going to do too well federally either.

But New South Wales wasn’t like that. The Berejiklian government tried to distance itself from its federal counterparts on race and climate. It ostentatiously refused to deal with the Shooters. And its opposition, in the time-honored fashion of the New South Wales ALP, led from the right, with its leader captured on tape complaining about Chinese immigration.

Optics matter. New South Wales pitted a woman from an immigrant background against a very conventional white male. The federal election, however, will be a contest between two conventional white males.

So I don’t think Morrison can take much comfort from yesterday. He also doesn’t have Berejiklian’s margin for error. A two per cent swing would cost him three seats in New South Wales, and repeated nationwide it would be more than enough to put Labor in government.

To counter the apparently inevitable losses in Victoria and Western Australia, what Morrison really needs is a swing in his favor in New South Wales, where there are three or four possibly vulnerable Labor seats. Yesterday’s result makes that slightly more imaginable, but it’s still a long shot.

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