The rehabilitation of New South Wales Labor took a halting step forward on Saturday with wins in the Newcastle and Charlestown byelections, increasing the party’s numbers in the state lower house to 23 seats out of 91.

But the result in Newcastle especially was far short of what Labor would have hoped for, leaving serious doubts as to the inroads it can expect to make against Mike Baird’s government at the state election in late March next year.

On the day before voters went to the polls Labor amped up the feel-good factor by announcing that Jodi McKay, its member for Newcastle from 2007 to 2011, would seek a return to Parliament in the inner west Sydney seat of Strathfield.

This served to remind voters that their weekend was being interrupted after the malfeasance of outgoing Liberal members Tim Owen and Andrew Cornwell was uncovered by the Independent Commission Against Corruption — involving, in the case of Owen, the channelling of banned political donations from Nathan Tinkler’s property development company Buildev.

It was a very different story at ICAC for McKay, who was found to have paid a dear price for her determination to resist Tinkler in his efforts to have a coal loading facility built at the Newcastle port.

McKay’s political martyrdom was accomplished when Tinkler’s allies in her own party, most notably factional warlord Joe Tripodi, ran a covert smear campaign against her to the advantage of Tim Owen, who unseated her at the March 2011 election.

So it was a handy bit of timing for Labor that it was able to announce to Newcastle voters that their esteemed former member was now satisfied that the party had put the dark days of Tripodi and Tinkler behind it.

Ironically, the method of McKay’s endorsement in Strathfield came straight out of the old Labor playbook. Strathfield was one of five electorates the party had earlier earmarked for its much-heralded “community preselection” process, which gives equal weight to a local party membership ballot and a “community” vote open to anyone enrolled in the electorate who is willing to sign on as a party supporter. In foreshadowing her move on Strathfield last month, McKay insisted she wanted no preferential treatment, and intended to use the community preselection to stake her claim fair and square.

“For all their disenchantment with the Coalition, it would seem that New South Wales voters are still very reluctant to grant Labor their primary vote.”

But McKay, it would seem, has had preferential treatment thrust upon her. Having deemed it “critical that Labor has a strong candidate in the field as soon as possible”, Opposition Leader John Robertson has asked the party’s national executive to fast-track McKay’s endorsement without reference to the local party — much less the local community.

This was the exact procedure through which McKay won preselection in 2007, when the then Premier, Morris Iemma, rode roughshod over Newcastle’s Left-controlled branches in his determination to secure the services of McKay, who was well known locally as a former television news reader. It was precisely because of the lingering animosity over this process that McKay said she “did not wish to run in Newcastle again“, and that she was “not going to be parachuted” into Strathfield.

Given her recent good press, there seems no reason to doubt that McKay — whose endorsement has cross-factional support — would have easily prevailed through a more democratic process if one had been on offer.

If the true purpose of the intervention was to have McKay’s endorsement coincide with a byelection for her old seat, it doesn’t seem to have paid off.

In Newcastle, Labor candidate Tim Crakanthorp managed only 37.0% of the primary vote — barely 6% more than McKay recorded when she lost to Tim Owen in 2011, despite the fact that the Liberal forfeit left Owen’s 36.7% share of the vote up for grabs.

It was a happier story for Labor in Charlestown, where candidate Jodie Harrison scored almost exactly half the primary vote, with the remainder scattering among eight rival candidates.

The disparity between the two results might be interpreted as a reflection on the quality of the respective Labor candidates, but given both have fairly similar pedigrees in the region’s local governments, that’s probably a bit harsh on Crakanthorp.

More telling is the strong performance in Newcastle of independent Karen Howard.

Howard’s 26.3% share of the vote followed almost the exact pattern of the Liberal vote in 2011, winning booths in the wealthier beachside areas while making little impression in the working-class suburbs of Mayfield and Stockton. Charlestown voters who turned reluctantly to Labor out of a general hostility to minor party and independent politics might likewise have favoured a de facto Liberal, had one been available.

It was another ominous sign for Labor that the Greens, who have tended to perform disappointingly at byelections as often as not, polled strongly in both seats — up from 14.9% to 19.9% in Newcastle, and 8.4% to 14.1% in Charlestown.

For all their disenchantment with the Coalition, it would seem that New South Wales voters are still very reluctant to grant Labor their primary vote. In a system of optional preferential voting, where only about two in five minor party preferences end up flowing through to the major parties, that’s a very serious problem for them.

Peter Fray

Help us keep up the fight

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey