It’s raining by-elections: NSW edition

This site came into existence at the start of a long fallow period for by-elections at both state and federal level, the only interruptions being last year’s Dubbo by-election in New South Wales and the federal Werriwa by-election in February. Recent upheavals in New South Wales and Queensland have brought the drought to a sudden end, with four vacancies needing to be filled in the immediate future and the promise of more to come in New South Wales.

Labor’s Andrew Refshauge today added to the merriment resulting from the retirement of Bob Carr by announcing that he too would pull the plug on New South Wales state politics, after factional argybargy cost him the deputy premiership. This raises the prospect of an interesting contest for his seat of Marrickville, which is one of those traditionally safe inner city Labor electorates in which the party finds itself nervously eyeing the rise of the Greens. The Greens’ vote surged from 11.8 per cent to 28.0 per cent at the 2003 election, with the Liberals finishing a distant third on 12.4 per cent. Refshauge’s 49.1 per cent was close enough to an absolute majority to keep him out of trouble, and his eventual two-party margin over the Greens was 10.7 per cent. This would have much narrower if New South Wales did not have optional preferential voting, which allows Liberal voters who have no time for either Labor or the Greens to let their votes exhaust. The overwhelming majority did just that – upon the exclusion of the Liberal candidate, 12.8 per cent of the votes went to the Greens as preferences, 11.4 per cent went to Labor and 75.8 per cent exhausted. Given the overwhelming tendency of major party voters to follow the party’s how-to-vote card, most of those exhausted votes would have gone to anyone-but-Labor under full preferential voting, making life very interesting if Labor fell more than a point or two below 50 per cent.

The ABC reports that Carmel Tebbutt hopes to use Marrickville as her vehicle to switch from the upper to the lower house, which she will need to do if she is to realise her ambition of becoming Deputy Premier (also in her path is a rival aspirant, Transport Minister John Watkins). The Liberals face an interesting tactical decision in deciding whether to field a candidate, given that they are painting the Government as a sinking ship being deserted by its captain and his deputy. If that’s as true as they say it is, they should feel confident enough to enter the fray. But tactically speaking, they would be better off leaving the field to the Greens in the hope that they might cause Labor an embarrassment to match that suffered by the federal party in Cunningham in 2002. The most likely outcome is that optional preferential will save Labor’s day (the Greens would not have won Cunningham under such a system), but that might change if the doubts being expressed over new Premier Morris Iemma gain traction in the coming weeks.

Bob Carr’s seat of Maroubra is a different matter, as it is a more traditionally working class Labor seat in which the Greens have only modest support (8.0 per cent at the 2003 election, compared with 64.3 per cent for Labor and 24.1 per cent for Liberal). No doubt Labor’s 23.5 per cent two-party majority will take a hit, the relative force of which will be loaded with portent for the future of the Iemma Government. But from the perspective of who actually assumes the seat, the real action lies in the Labor preselection vote to be held on August 27. The Sunday Telegraph reported that the ALP head office would allow such a vote rather than installing a nominee through the party’s contentious N40 rule, as they are eager to "soothe tensions still simmering after Peter Garrett was parachuted into the federal seat of Kingsford-Smith". Front-runners include Chris Bastic, former Randwick mayor and campaign director to Bob Carr; Dominic Sullivan, another former Randwick mayor; Anthony Andrews and Michael Daley, both lawyers and Randwick councillors; and Penny Wright, former government relations officer with the ANZ and current "full-time mother of four". On Friday, Jonathan Pearlman of the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Wright had the edge in part due to the 20 per cent loading for female candidates under the party’s affirmative action rules; a day earlier, AAP cited Labor sources saying Bastic and Daley had emerged as favourites.

The date for these by-elections is yet to be nominated, although they will surely be held concurrently (which brings us to the following fun historical factoid: Bob Carr and Andrew Refshauge entered parliament as the members for Maroubra and Marrickville following by-elections on the very same day, 22 October 1983). The fun may not end there, because the upheavals currently under way in the New South Wales Labor camp have produced a crop of thwarted and demoted party figures who might find better things to do in life between now and the next election, due in March 2007. These include Grant McBride (member for The Entrance, margin 9.5 per cent), Bob Debus (Blue Mountains, 14.7 per cent), Diane Beamer (Mulgoa, 17.9 per cent), David Campbell (Keira, 22.5 per cent versus the Greens) and Craig Knowles (Macquarie Fields, 22.5 per cent).

For a bigger picture view of New South Wales post-Carr, Antony Green has plenty to say at ABC Online. As for Queensland, the by-elections for Chatsworth and Redcliffe have been set for August 20, three Saturdays from now, and will be dealt with in a post to follow shortly.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.