TWO by-elections in NSW on November 12 present a critical test for both Premier Mike Baird’s Coalition and the Opposition Labor Party.
The Nationals face an uphill battle to retain the regional seat of Orange in western NSW and Labor must hold the “heartland” seat of Wollongong to stake its claim to be the next government.
The results in Orange and Wollongong will have a direct bearing on Deputy Premier Troy Grant’s position as Nationals leader while Labor leader Luke Foley faces a caucus backlash if his party loses “Steel City”.
A third by-election will be held on the same day in Canterbury, the Sydney seat previously held by deputy Labor leader Linda Burney. She transferred to Canberra at the July federal election via the seat of Barton to become the first Aboriginal woman elected to federal parliament.
The by-election in Orange was forced by the transfer of local MP Andrew Gee from state to federal politics after he won Calare at the federal election.
The Nationals have chosen a well-known local candidate to fill the vacancy: Scott Barrett who has shorn sheep, picked fruit, mustered goats, built fences and worked for NSW Primary Industries Minister Niall Blair.
At any other time, Mr Barrett would be a “shoo-in” but the greyhound racing industry is threatening to field a candidate as a protest against the Baird government’s ban on “dish licker” racing from July next year.
Money and supporters are pouring into Orange to promote a greyhound racing candidate who is still to be named.
Until a month ago the Nationals believed they would receive a “bloody nose” at the ballot box but their margin was so strong their candidate would be able to hold on. Today they are not so sure because the grass roots opposition to the greyhound racing ban has not abated, it has grown.
In a desperate attempt to save Orange, some “nervous Nellies” in the Nationals are begging Premier Baird to delay the greyhound racing ban from July 2017 until 2020 when the next state election – scheduled for March 2019 – is well out of the way.
The NSW Electoral Commission is expected to close nominations for the three seats in early October when the Nationals will learn whether a challenge from the greyhound lobby is real or not.
Meanwhile, Labor candidate in Wollongong, university academic Paul Scully, faces a menacing challenge from the popular Independent Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery.
At the 2011 state election, Bradbery came within 680 votes of toppling Labor’s Noreen Hay who suddenly ended her parliamentary career last month.
Bradbery, a former minister of the Uniting Church with a much-praised history of involvement with Lifeline, the Rural Fire Service and multi-cultural organisations, swept to local prominence in the wake of the corruption scandal which led to the dismissal of Wollongong City Council in 2008 and the appointment of administrators.
Although no by-election polls have been taken in Wollongong, Bradbery is reckoned to be the front runner. Voters associate the departing Noreen Hay with Labor’s scandal ridden history and many are not willing to give the benefit of the doubt to candidate Scully even though he is well regarded.
The Liberal Party is not expected to field a candidate. Its strategy will be to urge voters to support mayor Bradbery in order to deprive Labor’s Mr Scully of any chance of success.
In local government elections in NSW on September 10, the Liberals lost a swag of councillors across the State and even failed in the City of Sydney despite giving two votes to all businesses in a blatantly undemocratic rort.
Re-elected Independent Lord Mayor Clover Moore won five of the nine councillor positions, Liberals two and Labor trailed the field with one.
It was another indication that furious anti-Baird voters are still not automatically returning to Labor. And the Greens, newly remoulded as “pragmatists” by moderate party leader Richard Di Natale, aren’t picking up the backlash against the Coalition either.
The Coalition’s electoral implosion has been almost exclusively self-inflicted and the ALP has not yet benefitted from Premier Baird’s policy debacles in hospitals, TAFE, transport and the arts.
The by-elections in November are causing nail-biting anxiety in the major parties, even though politicians and staffers tell us with a straight face that the results don’t really matter.