State By-Elections With Federal Implications

A THUMPING win by the National Party at yesterday’s state by-election in the NSW seat of Northern Tablelands offers clues to the looming federal election; it gives context to a recent by-election in the Victorian seat of Lyndhurst, and taken together give the clearest pointer yet to the Gillard government’s fate.

It isn’t so much the result, but its magnitude; National Party candidate Adam Marshall won yesterday’s poll with a primary vote above 62%, which — after preferences — will deliver the Nationals the seat with close to 70% of the two-party vote.

The gain takes National Party representation to 19 of the 93 NSW lower house seats — its highest representation since Bertram Stevens was Premier of a UAP/Country Party coalition in the 1930s.

Many will argue there are no federal implications in such a by-election and — in this specific instance — that the National Party’s win represents no more than the reclamation of a prime seat in its own heartland, after the resignation of Independent-cum-National Richard Torbay amid the stench of a corruption scandal.

But I beg to differ, and — taken in conjunction with the Lyndhurst by-election in Victoria late last month in a vacant, safe state Labor seat uncontested by the Liberal Party — I think there are some clear clues as to what might happen to Labor at the polls federally.

NSW is arguably the state in which, historically, Independents have had the greatest success at both state and federal level than anywhere else in the country.

The 2011 state election there returned three of the six seats held by Independents in NSW to the major parties; yesterday’s by-election moved a fourth back to the Coalition.

The by-election took place against a backdrop of a Coalition government that was elected in 2011 by a record margin and which — based on reputable published opinion polling — would be re-elected today with its huge majority virtually intact.

In counter to the two year old O’Farrell government is the ICAC investigation into the allegedly corrupt misconduct of key figures in its Labor predecessor, which for months now has generated an endless stream of negative headlines for the ALP in NSW.

Yet like Victoria, Labor federally has attempted to portray the “record” of O’Farrell’s government as a reason for voters across the country not to “risk” electing the Liberals and Nationals federally under Tony Abbott.

The Northern Tablelands result suggest such considerations do not bother electors in NSW, and I would suggest people outside NSW couldn’t care less about O’Farrell and his government: be it good, bad, or abominable by the ALP’s jaundiced standards.

Labor, for its part, polled just 9.7% in yesterday’s by-election; damningly, even this was a 6% increase on its 2011 result (and I’m just waiting for some idiot in the ALP to try to claim that a 6% “swing” to Labor, in Northern Tablelands, is somehow indicative of the party’s prospects nationally).

And, significantly, the area in which Northern Tablelands sits overlaps Tony Windsor’s federal electorate of New England — and in this context, the portents for Windsor’s chances of holding on against Barnaby Joyce later this year aren’t good.

To sum up this part of the point, the smashing win by a state Coalition government candidate — when its opponents are desperately trying to smear that government as an extremist failure — points to a fairly benign view of O’Farrell’s regime at this stage in the electoral cycle.

We’ll return to NSW a little later, but having digested the by-election results in Northern Tablelands I’ve reconsidered the by-election last month in Melbourne in a vacant Labor seat, and I would argue there are pointers from this contest as well that reflect on Labor’s prospects at the federal election scheduled for September.

As Northern Tablelands in NSW is heartland to the National Party, so too is Lyndhurst in Melbourne to Labor; the seat was held by former Brumby government minister (and leadership prospect) Tim Holding, who decided his heart was no longer in politics, and quit.

Even without the Liberal Party contesting the by-election, the ALP primary vote dropped by 15 percentage points, and by 7% after the distribution of preferences.

Even without a Liberal Party candidate for the non-Labor vote to coalesce around, the ALP could manage just 41% of the primary vote in Lyndhurst, in a working class area that overlaps four Labor-held federal seats that are comfortably — but not overwhelmingly — safe for the party.

And it brings up the core of my argument that these by-elections actually do matter in terms of the federal election drawing nearer, and there are a couple of unmistakable pointers as to what they may portend.

NSW and Victoria are the states with the largest number of sitting Labor MPs left in Parliament; it holds 26 of 48 seats in NSW and 22 of 37 in Victoria, and the two states comprise exactly two-thirds* of the federal Parliamentary ALP’s lower house numbers.

The established wisdom, until very recently, was that Labor is seriously on the nose in NSW, but that the O’Farrell government dealt Julia Gillard the chance to save more seats in that state than she otherwise would.

Similarly, Victoria has been Labor’s strongest state for years, and until recently has been perceived as remaining that way, with the state government of Ted Baillieu offering Gillard the means by which to retain most of its seats there.

In the meantime, ICAC has made a daily spectacle out of the ALP in NSW by association with its former ministers Eddie Obeid and Ian MacDonald; indeed, Richard Torbay’s resignation from Northern Tablelands (and as the Nationals’ candidate to stand against Windsor in New England) is the direct result of allegations of improper dealings with Obeid.

And in Victoria, Baillieu is now gone; new Liberal Premier Denis Napthine has revitalised the Coalition’s fortunes to the point it is now favourite to win next year’s state election, and with that change any prospect Gillard may have had of leveraging votes off the state government has vanished.

Viewed thus, I see these by-elections as providing a litmus test: not failsafe and certainly not confined to federal issues, but at the minimum, influenced by them.

And so the smashing Nationals’ win in Northern Tablelands — combined with the lacklustre, tepid Labor win in Lyndhurst — tend to underline what the most recent internal polling on both sides show, and that is cataclysmic losses for Labor in NSW, and losses in Victoria that far transcend the three seats it holds there on margins below 5.5%.

Add in the likely Coalition gain of at least three of the five seats in Tasmania, which are rarely ever polled for federal voting intent, as well as another half-dozen or so seats elsewhere around the country, and the indicator is a likely Coalition gain of between 20 and 30 seats.

Of course, that’s the sort of win everyone is expecting Tony Abbott to record anyway; it is also the story that can reasonably be extrapolated from these two state by-elections.

But with yesterday’s poll confirming all of this is still well and truly on track, it’s a clear indication three and a half months from an election that Gillard and Wayne Swan and Labor remain in line to suffer a colossal electoral belting.

*Counting Craig Thomson’s seat of Dobell.