With the New South Wales election only two days away, yesterday’s papers were fixed on the idea of the opposition going backwards. Specifically, on the notion, apparently arising from a chance remark by Nationals leader Andrew Stoner, that the Nationals might come to outnumber the Liberals.

Today’s Sydney Morning Herald calls this a “penetrating fairytale”, but this morning’s Daily Telegraph repeats it: “Mr Stoner, who could be the next Coalition leader if Liberals lose seats.”

Anyone flirting with this idea needs to go and take a cold shower. It’s not going to happen.

The Nationals have been close before: in 1981, Neville Wran’s landslide victory left Liberals and Nationals (then still called the National Country Party) equal on 14 seats each (in a house of 99). The Liberals kept the title and perks of opposition leader, in part no doubt because they had more than twice as many votes.

Since then, however, the balance has shifted clearly in the Liberals’ favour. In 2003, a bad year for both, the Liberals won 20 seats to the Nationals’ 12. Their respective shares of the vote were 24.7% and 9.6% – although since no voters were able to choose between the two, those figures are not very informative.

Since the last election, the Liberals have lost Pittwater to an independent at a by-election, reducing them to 19, with the Nationals still on 12. (One Nationals seat, Lachlan, was abolished by the redistribution, but that is offset by Murray-Darling becoming a notional Nationals seat.)

So to overtake them, the Nationals would need to gain eight seats on the Liberals – by some combination of winning seats from Labor, or from the independents, or the Liberals losing seats.

There are only two Labor seats at risk to the Nationals, Tweed (4.0%) and Monaro (4.4%). Tweed seems to be a serious possibility – Morris Iemma was there just the other day to help shore up sitting MP Neville Newell – but there’s a consensus that Monaro is a bridge too far (Centrebet puts them at 11-4 against).
As to the independents, the Liberals seem at least as well placed to win back Pittwater and Manly as the Nationals are Dubbo or Tamworth, so at best that’s no net gain for the Nationals.

That leaves Liberal losses, and there’s certainly a range of possibilities: Terrigal (0.6%), South Coast (1.6%), Lane Cove (2.8%), Goulburn (4.5%), even Epping (7.6%). But it’s hard to imagine more than a couple of those falling.

And if the opposition is doing that badly, then you can forget about the Nationals’ chances in Tweed and Murray-Darling. In fact there’s no guarantee that other National-held seats like Clarence (5.3%) and Orange (5.9%) wouldn’t come into play.

Peter Fray

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