There are intriguing parallels in the resignation of Premier Neville Wran in 1986 and Premier Morris Iemma in 2008.

Wran’s departure was followed by two by-elections which marked the beginning of the end the Labor Government.

On Saturday, Iemma’s exit will be marked by four by-elections with the results threatening to confirm that the Labor Government, after 13-and-a-half years in office, is in its death throes.

When Wran quit the premiership in June 1986, a by-election was held in his north-west Sydney seat of Bass Hill. On the same day, August 2, a by-election was also held in the southern Sydney seat of Rockdale to facilitate the transfer of premier-designate Barrie Unsworth from the upper house to the Legislative Assembly.

The results were a body blow to the Labor Party. The Liberals took Wran’s Bass Hill seat with a fierce anti-Labor swing of 17.5 per cent while Unsworth squeaked home in Rockdale by a mere 54 votes after surviving a 14.5 per cent swing.

When the Unsworth Government called the state election in March 1988, it was a bloodbath. There was a 10.3 per cent swing against Labor whose primary vote dropped to 38.5 per cent and seven ministers lost their seats.

Will Saturday’s by-elections be a scene-setter for what will happens at the state election in March 2011?

Lakemba, Premier Iemma’s former seat in south-western Sydney, is Labor’s safest seat with an impregnable margin of 34.5 per cent. Labor candidate Canterbury Mayor Robert Furolo, a former Iemma staffer and political fixer, is expected to hold the seat.

Cabramatta, ex-Health Minister Reba Meagher’s electorate, is protected by a thumping 29 per cent Labor margin. Labor candidate Fairfield City Mayor Nick Lalich, an old-style 60-something town hall boss, is locked in a tight finish with Liberal candidate Dai Le, an ABC journalist from the Asian community.

Ryde, ex-Deputy Premier John Watkins’s seat on the North Shore with a 10.2 per cent margin, was “conceded” by ALP head office even before the four-week campaign began.

Having claimed under-dog status, the ALP has been pitching money and resources into the seat on behalf of Ryde City Councillor Nicole Campbell while the NSW Left secretary Rose Jackson yesterday sent an email SOS asking supporters to blitz the polling stations on Saturday.

Any substantial anti-Labor swing will return Ryde to the Liberals and send their candidate, solicitor Victor Dominello, to Macquarie Street.

In Port Macquarie, the Nationals’ candidate Leslie Williams is facing a Melbourne Cup field of 10 other candidates. Labor isn’t standing but is engineering a complex preferences deal to benefit the Independent Peter Besseling, the anointed successor to Robert Oakeshott who last month captured the federal seat of Lyne.

Labor currently holds 52 seats in the 93-member chamber, giving the Nathan Rees Government an overall majority of five.

Saturday’s by-election results are likely to tighten the noose.

Peter Fray

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