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NSW Politics

Nov 27, 2005

The Pittwater by-election stands as a disaster of historic magnitude both for the New South Wales Liberal Party, which has lost its third-safest seat, and for the Poll Bludger, who has lost $25. Apologies are due to Alex McTaggart and to various journalists whose prescient remarks about the Liberals’ troubles received short shrift on this site.

In my defence, I was in good company – my assessment was echoed by Antony Green, whose recent Parliamentary Library background paper on New South Wales by-elections from 1965 to (early) 2005 provides historical perspective on the scale of the disaster. The paper notes that major parties have often declined to nominate candidates because they felt that leaving the field vacant for independents was the best chance of depriving their opponents of the seat. Until yesterday, the tactic had not been particularly successful. Antony lists 24 "one-sided" by-elections held in New South Wales between 1975 and 2004, to which two more were added at the triple M by-elections of September 17. Of these, the only defeat for a major party candidate was at last year’s Dubbo by-election, and this did not represent a loss for the relevant major party (the Nationals) because the previous member had also been an independent.

This should not come as a surprise, because newcomer independents traditionally win their seats on the back of major party preferences. Once they are privy to the advantages of incumbency it is not uncommon for independents to turn in results as good as that achieved yesterday by Alex McTaggart, but getting their foot in the door normally involves finishing second and then surging ahead on preferences from a third-placed major candidate. That McTaggart was able to skip this phase and outperform Paul Nicolaou on the primary vote underscores the magnitude of the catastrophe for the New South Wales Liberals.

As the Sun-Herald puts it, "the result has left poll specialists reaching for history books to find when a safe seat had swung so demonstrably against one of the major parties". In the Federal arena, the examples that spring to mind are Bass in 1975 (when Labor’s primary vote fell 17.5 per cent), Canberra in 1995 (when it fell 21.8 per cent) and Cunningham in 2002 (down 6.1 per cent, but with the result being a historic loss to the Greens). At State level, the Sunday Telegraph quotes Antony Green citing the Coffs Harbour by-election of 1990, when the National Party vote fell from 67.3 per cent to 37.4 per cent. But this was partly influenced by an increase in the number of candidates from two to seven, and the Nationals still won the seat by a two-party margin of 5.4 per cent.

Since my command of the subject is sketchy, I would be grateful if readers can help me put together a list of noteworthy State by-election massacres. Major disasters only please – as a rough guide, it will take a primary vote swing of at least 15 per cent to make the cut. To get the ball rolling, here are three examples that do spring to mind – note the home state bias.

Benalla, Victoria (13/5/2000). Locals were not pleased when Nationals leader Pat McNamara quit parliament not long after the unexpected defeat of the Kennett Government, and reacted by sending the party’s vote down from 57.4 per cent to 41.0 per cent and delivering the seat to Labor for the first time in its history. Unsuccessful Nationals candidate Bill Sykes would go on to narrowly recover the seat from Labor’s Denise Allen at the otherwise disastrous 2002 election.

Floreat, WA (16/5/1991). Now the member for the successor electorate of Churchlands, Liz Constable came to parliament in this safe Liberal seat at a by-election brought on by the death of Andrew Mensaros. Constable was the popular local choice for a Liberal preselection that instead went to the favoured candidate of controversial powerbroker Noel Crichton-Browne. She contested as an independent and scored an easy win with 49.0 per cent of the primary vote, with the Liberal vote falling from 63.3 per cent to 37.0 per cent in a field vacated by Labor.

Geraldton, WA (13/4/1991). Carmen Lawrence’s Labor Government was already reeling from the WA Inc fiasco when a botched reshuffle caused three dumped ministers to quit the Labor Party, depriving it of its parliamentary majority. Geraldton MP Jeff Carr quit parliament altogether, prompting a by-election at which the Labor vote fell from 47.6 per cent to 16.6 per cent, leaving the Liberal and National candidates to fight it out for first and second place. The narrow winner was Liberal candidate Bob Bloffwitch, who would go on to suffer an electoral meltdown of his own at the 2001 State election.

Surfers Paradise, Queensland (5/5/2001). Upon conceding defeat after the disastrous 2001 election, at which he had taken his party from 23 seats to 12, Nationals leader Rob Borbidge told supporters that his own seat of Surfers Paradise was among the casualties. This puzzled election watchers who correctly believed him to be about 5 per cent in front. It may have amounted to wishful thinking, as his resigned his leadership and parliamentary seat immediately upon his re-election. The resulting by-election reduced the National Party from a near primary vote majority (49.7 per cent) to the status of a minor party (8.0 per cent). Votes were lost to the first Liberal Party candidate in the seat since 1992, John-Paul Langbroek (21.2 per cent), and to Gold Coast mayor and independent candidate Lex Bell, who won the seat with 35.9 per cent of the vote. The result meant the end of the National Party as a force on the Gold Coast, although they still won’t admit it. The seat returned to the Coalition fold at the 2004 election partly because Bell had became mired in local scandals, but also because the Nationals left the field free to the Liberals, who again ran with Langbroek. Tip: Darryl Rosin.

Bass Hill and Rockdale, New South Wales (2/8/1986). The writing was on the wall for Barrie Unsworth’s Labor Government after the two by-elections marking the departure of his predecessor, Neville Wran (Bass Hill), and another MP in a safe seat, Brian Bannon (Rockdale). Unsworth used Rockdale to make the necessary switch from the upper to lower house a la John Gorton in 1968, but received the shock of his life when a 17.1 per cent dive in the primary vote combined with hostile independent preferences to bring him to within 54 votes of defeat. The result in Wran’s old stronghold was even worse, with a 22.2 per cent drop on the primary vote delivering a 103 vote victory to the Liberal candidate. Although Unsworth was swept from office at the subsequent State election in 1988, both Bass Hill and Rockdale reverted to type and were easily won by Labor. Tip: Geoff Lambert.

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27 comments

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Don Lapre Fan
Guest

You mean to say that people can’t help vote for the same guy whether he has done good or bad to the whole nation?

Don Lapre Fan
webmaster@j-ams.org
http://www.j-ams.org

edward o
Guest

I don’t doubt that people attended rallies. But some people I know who went out and protested IR reform still voted for John Howard, and will do so again.

But anyway, my main point still stands; Labor are not mad if they don’t support the hospital, because on a regular Labor vs Lib measure, Pittwater ain’t on their radar. That’s why they sat out – like an inverse Cunningham, if they’d entered, the Liberals would have been returned with a smaller margin.

Parry
Guest
The reason I am so sure it was all about Mona Vale hospital is it is an issue that has been number one on the community agenda for 5 – 6 years There have been many rallies (over 6000 attended one Rally), 40000 signatures on petitions etc. The Area Health want to close Manly and Mona Vale Hospitals and have one acute hospital on the Northern Beaches. It is for sure and for certain that if Mona vale hospital is not upgraded to the Level 5 Acute hospital it will eventually close and the land sold off for development. The… Read more »
edward o
Guest
I don’t quite agree Parry. Pittwater is safe Lib vs Labor, and when Labor contests it, it will likely become safe Liberal again. It being in independent hands, where under any normal circumstances would have had it in blue hands is a positive for Labor. North of Sydney has a weakness for independents, and McTaggart might hang around for a while, it’s extra resources the Libs have to spend to get a seat back at the expense of funding elsewhere, all the while, Iemma will dole out the money in the marginals and be at significant advantage – much smarter… Read more »
Crikey
Guest

Parry, you may well be right for all I know – I can’t say I know the area very well – but why would voters take Mona Vale Hospital out on the Libs, who haven’t been in power for over 10 years?

If any of my more devoted readers are out there, this site will shake off its festive season lethargy fairly shortly, I promise …

Parry
Guest
The Pittwater By-election was nothing but a referendum on Mona Vale Hospital, an issue that has 99% of the electorate engaged I had never been phone polled before the election, but during the run up to this poll I was phone polled 3 times!! On one occasion when I said that the main issue to me was Mona Vale Hospital the person calling me immediately said, without thinking, “everyone is saying that”. If the Liberals had supported the Level 5 hospital at Mona Vale they would have retained the seat. If the Labour do not now support the Level 5… Read more »
Deewun
Guest
Well, for one those two aren’t policies, which could be why no one looks at them. For another, how many voters look at more then one or two policies anyway? But, yes, the Greens are getting most ly protest votes, but this is because the major parties are so bad that the Greens would be voted for if their policy was to prove the moon was made of cheese.The greens gain the voters with a protest vote and keep them with the policies. This is relevent to Pittwater because since Cunningham, the Greens hoave shown they can win, which means… Read more »
Brett J
Guest

Ok Deewun, well tell me this, how many Greens voters actually vote for the Greens on account of their ‘full range of policies’? I suspect it’s an extremely small amount of their total voter base. Biggest chunks come from disaffected ALP voters and Liberal voters who still think the Greens are warm-and-fuzzy-environment types (and who obviously haven’t delved into the ‘complete range of policies’ on things like open border immigration and over the counter illegal drugs). Therefore they get the lions share of their vote as a ‘protest party’.
But… I suspect this moves off the topic of Pittwater. 🙂

Deewun
Guest

Brett J. The fact that you see the Greens as a protest party shows how little you know about these things. Yes, it is a protest party in that it gains a lot of dissaffected voters. However, the fact that it is one of only 4 parties that has a comlete and up to date range of policies. The other three are Lib, ALP and NATS. This shows they are a serious party and are here to stay, unlike the Dems, One Nation, DLP, and so on.

Antony Green
Guest

The Greens never do as well in seats where there is a significant Independent. They don’t poll nearly as well against Clover Moore in Bligh despite record votes in neighbouring Marrickville and Port Jackson. The Pittwater result is meaningless for how the Greens will poll in 2007.

Brett J
Guest
Ben Raue from the Greens is conveniently overlooking the Greens dismal performance in the Pittwater by-election (almost halving their vote from 14% to 8%) and their average performance in the Marrickville by-election, where although they increased their vote (in the absence of a Liberal candidate) so did the Labor party. It is important to note these points because the Greens, as a party of protest, should be able to harness additional votes in by-elections, and in seats like Marrickville they really should have won given the current state of NSW Labor. Failing to do this in a by-election (and also… Read more »
Antony Green
Guest
Well, that would be fun. But it would deny the Liberals a vote, as the Speaker only gets to vote on a tie. Just a bit of history. In 1913, the sudden resignation of two Labor MPs cost the McGowan Labor government its majority. With the opposition about to move a vote of no-confidence, Acting Premier Holman asked the Governor to prorogue parliament until the by-elections were held. The Governor refused and Holman promptly resigned the government’s commission, which created a pickle for the Governor as Holman had not lost a vote and the Opposition could not form government. He… Read more »
Peter Mitchell
Guest

Antony, what happens if the indepe’s get together and support the ALP for Government and make a Liberal the speaker? in your scenario.

If I remember correctly, before Federation nearly all Victorian MLA’s were independants, with around 15 governments in the last 10 years of the colonies existance, could we be heading down a path of the rump of the majors combined controlling say 705 of seats and the rest becoming Inde’s

Peter K
Guest
The Liberals made two disasterous mistakes in Pittwater and both factions have to take responsibility 1/ Leaking polling in the last 10 days which identified Mcaggart as their main threat – and therefore establishing him as a lightning rod. They should have leaked polling identifing both McTaggert (for credibility) AND another independent as equal threats – therefore splitting up non-Liberal vote. Even better, they could have run a well funded dummy independent with a “just vote one” card. Failing that they should have just kept quiet. The blame for this must go to the right wing run state executive which… Read more »
darryl rosin
Guest

Noteworthy Qld by-election: Sufer’s Paradise 2001.

Opposition leader and former Premier Rob Borbidge resigns after the 2001 disaster. National Party primary drops from 49.7% to 8%. (the by-election was a four-cornered contest – the Libs got 21.2% and Labor declined from 38.3% to 20% – but that’s still a combined swing of over 20% away from the Coalition).

http://www.ecq.qld.gov.au/asp/index.asp?pgid=198&show=election.district.detail&id=90

http://www.ecq.qld.gov.au/asp/index.asp?pgid=198&show=election.district.detail&id=79

Extreme Dem
Guest

Surely the broader point of Pittwater is that the Coalition is hollowing out. What was traditionally a state-based organisation is eroding at the state level in its core constituencies across the country. Labor is also having a problem but at least has some constituency especially with public sector workers. I think this phenomenon is being concealed because Howard is still in at a Federal level. But it would suggest to me that 1) he will hang around too long 2) when he goes the Liberal disarray will become fully evident.

Antony Green
Guest

Just discovered today what a crap newspaper the Manly Daily is.

After initially refusing to make a prediction for Pittwater, I was assured they were just after a comment for inside the article.

So what do they do. Turn a cautious prediction into a frontpage headling screaming ‘Guru picks Libs’.

Chalk it down to experience, but I know what to say if the Manly Daily ever rings again. No point putting your reputation on the line just to give some trashy local paper an unjustified headline.

Ben Raue
Guest
Some of those independents who have been elected, while sitting in areas where the Coalition are broadly considered to be the ‘natural’ major party (country NSW and northern Sydney). In New England and Central West NSW, people are represented by independents both on a state and federal level, and have seen a successful transition from one independent to another. So independents seem to be becoming systemic, rather than just being about a single personality. The point of this is that it isn’t easy to say that independents are in “conservative” electorates so will support the coalition. Firstly, the fact that… Read more »
Neil Lockhart
Guest
Antony, what ten seats do you believe will swing to to Liberals in 2007 and why? Also if you look at the work done by the independant member for Manly David Barr for the local electorate in return for his consistant voting with Labour, he has managed to get the local Seaforth TAFE closed, Manly hospital just had its maternity section closed and also the local Beacon Hill High School also closed, not to mention his great plan to widen the Spit Bridge(has not happened and likely will not happen), and would not have prevented the horrible bus crash we… Read more »
Antony Green
Guest
Di. There is always a conflict between what an MP can achieve for their constituency and what government can pay for. I’m not going to try and defend every spending initiative of the current or previous state governments. But in the end, Independents must fight for local services up against all the other MPs in the parliament, both party and non-party. Government is about trying to find some way to allocate resources between these competing demands. As an example, Mona Vale Hospital. It covers one small and relatively isolated part of Sydney, and a part that does not have a… Read more »
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