With the New South Wales election finally put to bed after the conclusion of the count for the Legislative Council on Friday, it’s worth reflecting on how remarkably well everything has panned out for Premier Mike Baird.
Baird came to the premiership a year ago this week, prior to which he had established himself as heir apparent to Barry O’Farrell in his capacity as treasurer, but without having any reason to anticipate the succession would be upon him any time soon. A thank-you note for a $3000 bottle of wine shortly took care of that, thrusting Baird into the maelstrom of the leadership during a period in which the Independent Commission Against Corruption continued to deliver the government blow after blow.
With an element of bipartisanship thus added to the state’s taint of corruption, the Baird government then suffered the mortal shock of Campbell Newman’s defeat north of the border, a result all too obviously influenced by the toxic unpopularity of the Abbott government.
But it’s a very different story now, with Baird’s handsome re-election providing a badly needed boost to Liberal morale across the country, and furnishing him with a personal authority unequalled by any politician in Australia.
Even the garnishing of the Coalition’s share of seats, from 69 at the 2011 election to 54 in 2015, offers Baird the upside of a leaner and less troublesome backbench — and one fully purged of members from the Central Coast and Hunter region, the site of the infection from which the troubles exposed at ICAC were largely sourced.
More substantively, two successive emphatic election wins have gifted the Coalition with an upper house that Tony Abbott would be looking upon with considerable envy.
The Coalition will hold 20 seats in an upper house of 42, after adding nine to the 11 that will carry over from the 2011 election. The Shooters and Fishers Party and Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party have retained their usual two seats apiece, since each has a bedrock of support that all but assures them one seat per election. This puts the government in the position of being able to pick off one of two right-of-centre parties as it seeks to pass contentious legislation.
This is of particular significance with respect to the showpiece election policy of electricity privatisation — or, to be as precise about it, as the government would prefer, the leasing of a minority share of the network’s “poles and wires” — to which only the Christian Democrats have declared themselves amenable, provided the government offers the requisite pound of flesh.
The finalisation of the upper house result also emphasised the bittersweet nature of the result for the Greens, whose unprecedented haul of three lower house seats gave them much to celebrate on election night.
However, in late counting a presumed fourth seat, Lismore, slipped beyond their grasp, and as the dust settled it became evident that their statewide vote was exactly as it had been in 2011. Worse still, the party was unable to match its feat from 2011 in winning a third seat in the upper house, where the dominance of the right has left it marginalised in any case.
But the biggest loser from the election, needless to say, is Labor — a point emphasised by its pitiful retinue of 12 members in the Legislative Council, the fruit of consecutive dismal results.
The federal implications of state elections are at all times a fraught question, but given the euphoria that followed the Queensland boilover and the spill motion against Abbott that shortly followed, the NSW result has undoubtedly provided federal Labor with a reality check.
Labor’s strongest recoveries tended to occur in the most ethnically diverse areas of western Sydney, which correspond with the unloseable federal seats of Blaxland, McMahon and Fowler. Of the 54 seats encompassing the Sydney metropolitan area, two out of the three biggest swings to Labor were in Cabramatta and Fairfield, which collectively constitute the hub of Sydney’s Vietnamese community.
But in some of the less cosmopolitan areas, the Liberals actually managed to outperform the 2011 landslide — and these tend to be the areas where Labor most needs to recover ground federally.
The seats of Reid in Sydney’s inner west and Banks further to the south were lost by Labor at the 2013 federal election for the first time in respective histories going back to 1922 and 1949.
Much of the Banks territory is accounted for by the state seats of East Hills and Oatley, where Labor suffered what were perhaps its two worst results of the election, with the Liberals successfully defending a 0.2% margin in the former case and picking up a swing of nearly 3% in the latter.
Another two of the five seats that swung to the Liberals were Drummoyne and Auburn (the latter being an inauspicious result for Luke Foley, who was using the seat for his move from the upper to the lower house), which all but perfectly align with Reid.
Labor’s nightmare scenario for the next federal election would be a repeat of 1998, when it won the national two-party vote but proved unable to dislodge key marginal seat holders from John Howard’s class of 1996. The finer details of the NSW result will do nothing to assuage such fears.