The Labor government in New South Wales is bracing itself for a fearsome backlash at three of tomorrow’s four state by-elections, in the Labor held seats of Ryde, Cabramatta and Lakemba. It will be spared such embarrassment in Port Macquarie only by virtue of the fact that it is not running a candidate. Here it is the Nationals who face a potentially awkward result, with independent Peter Besseling threatening their chances of recovering a traditionally safe seat following Rob Oakeshott’s move to Canberra at the September 6 Lyne by-election. Labor seems gone for all money in Ryde, but its margins in Cabramatta and Lakemba are surely impregnable. It thus looks likely to have its majority reduced from 52 to 51 seats out of 93. The Liberals will be up from 22 to 23, while the Nationals can hope to increase from 13 to 14. If they fail, the number of independents will remain at five.
Lots and lots of splendid analysis from Antony Green at ABC Elections. Tune in here for live coverage tomorrow evening.
Ryde (Labor 9.9%): Deputy Premier John Watkins’ resignation announcement on September 3 marked the commencement of Labor’s present period of turmoil, prompting the attempted reshuffle that cost Morris Iemma the leadership and led Reba Meagher to quit politics. Watkins has held Ryde since it was re-created in 1999 out of abolished Gladesville, which Watkins won from the Liberals in 1995, and Ermington, which had been held for the Liberals by Michael Photios. Iemma might not have been exaggerating when he proclaimed Watkins one of the greatest marginal seat campaigners in Labor history: his win over Photios in 1999 was achieved in the face of a 4.1 per cent Liberal margin with a 10.7 per cent swing, and he picked up a further 8.9 per cent swing in 2003. The current margin of 9.9 per cent would thus be exaggerating Labor’s strength here even under happier circumstances. This point was forcefully driven home by the recent Taverner poll pointing to a gigantic 24 per cent swing and a landslide victory for the Liberals. Their candidate is solicitor and former Ryde councillor Victor Dominello, who won Liberal preselection over Hunters Hill councillor Richard Quinn by 22 votes to 17 in the final round. Labor’s candidate is Nicole Campbell, a Ryde councillor who works at the Department of Premier and Cabinet. Campbell stood against John Howard in the corresponding federal seat of Bennelong in 2001 and 2004, and was prevailed upon to stand aside in favour Maxine McKew last year. She also ran unsuccessfully in Epping at the March 2007 state election. Campbell won the poisoned chalice of the Ryde preselection ahead of council colleague Michael Butterworth, a former staffer to John Faulkner and McKew’s campaign manager.
Cabramatta (Labor 29.2%): Health Minister Reba Meagher was one of five cabinet ministers designated for the chop under the proposed reshuffle that prompted Morris Iemma’s Right faction to pull the plug on his leadership. However, Iemma’s demise didn’t save her, and she declined to nominate for a position in Nathan Rees’s new cabinet when it became clear she would not succeed. A week later she announced she was joining the exodus from parliament, initiating a by-election in the seat she had held since the by-election that followed the murder of her precesessor John Newman in 1995. Labor’s candidate is Nick Lalich, who has been mayor of Fairfield since the position became popularly elected in 2006 and was re-elected on September 13 with 61 per cent of the vote. Lalich is of Serbian heritage but was born in Egypt, his parents having escaped the German occuption during World War II. Liberal candidate Dai Le fits the profile of the electorate in that she is of Vietnamese descent, but unlike Lalich she lives outside the electorate, in Dulwich Hill. Le works as a producer for ABC Radio National, and once produced a television documentary on Phuong Ngo, the man convicted of the murder of John Newman. According to Linda Silmalis of the Sunday Telegraph, Labor polling conducted by UMR Research a week after Morris Iemma’s resignation showed Labor on 44 per cent of the primary vote (down 25 per cent on the 2007 election) and the Liberals on 33 per cent (up 17 per cent). However, more recent polling showed Labor’s position had improved slightly.
Lakemba (Labor 34.0%): Morris Iemma’s old seat has always been safe for Labor since its creation in 1927, particulary so since it acquired its current identity as a Lebanese enclave from the 1970s. Labor’s candidate is Rob Furolo, who has been the popularly elected mayor of Canterbury since 2004, having recently been re-elected with 55 per cent of the vote. He appears not to have faced serious opposition in his bid for preselection. The Liberal candidate is Michael Hawatt, who is also on Canterbury council. According to Linda Silmalis of the Sunday Telegraph, UMR Research polling conducted for Labor a week after Iemma’s resignation showed Labor’s primary vote on 44 per cent (down 30 per cent from 2007) and the Liberals on 30 per cent (up 17 per cent).
Port Macquarie (Independent 28.2% versus Nationals): Rob Oakeshott was elected in Port Macquarie as the Nationals candidate in 1996, and the seat was previously in Nationals hands since its creation in 1988. Oakeshott quit the Nationals to sit as an independent in March 2002, complaining of the influence of property developers in local branches and questioning whether the party was still relevant to an electorate transformed by tourism and demographic change. Such questions have frequently been asked by local Liberals, many of whom were angered when their party chose not to contest the by-election. This has added impetus to the independent candidacy of Peter Besseling, president of the Port Macquarie Pirates rugby union club and a press secretary to Oakeshott of 12 years’ standing. Among those backing Besseling are Ken Dodds, president of the Port Macquarie branch of the Liberal Party. The Nationals candidate have again nominated their candidate from last year’s state election, Leslie Williams, described at the time as a teacher, student nurse and small business owner. Complicating matters for Besseling are the entry of four members from the sacked Port Macquarie Hastings Council (Lisa Intemann, Bob Sharpham, Jamie Harrison and Cameron Price) and the likely high rate of preference exhausting under the state’s optional preferential voting system.
UPDATE (18/10/08): Daily Telegraph reports: “Labor is on the knife edge in Cabramatta following the resignation of former education minister Reba Meagher, with internal party polling having its candidate, former Fairfield mayor Nick Lalich, just one percentage point ahead of the Liberal’s Dai Le.”