By-elections are to be held today in the New South Wales state seats of Gosford, Manly and North Shore, detailed overviews of which can be found here. The by-elections are the first electoral test for the new Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, since she succeeded Mike Baird in January.
Berejiklian will be hoping for a better result than the government could muster at the last round of byelections in November, which led directly to the resignation of Nationals leader Troy Grant. The sticking point on that occasion was the rural electorate of Orange, which had been vacated by Nationals member Andrew Gee’s move to federal politics at the July 2 election (the other two were in the safe Labor seats of Canterbury and Wollongong, where the Liberals did not field candidates). Voters seeking to vent displeasure at council amalgamations and the abortive ban on greyhound racing bypassed Labor to hand the seat to Phil Donato of Shooters, Fishers and Farmers, a party that had previously been confined to the upper house.
As was the case in November, tomorrow’s round of byelections includes one of serious interest to both sides of politics, and two in safe seats which have been forfeited by the weaker of the two major parties. The contested seat is Gosford, located in the Central Coast region around 75 kilometres north of Sydney. Gosford falls within the federal electorate of Robertson, which has changed hands with each change of government since John Howard came to power in 1996. The seat proved particularly important in 2010, when Labor managed to defend a tiny margin despite the travails of outgoing member Belinda Neal — but for which Julia Gillard would not have been able to stitch together her minority government.
The history of the Gosford electorate has been complicated by a redistribution in 2007 that turned the seat from Liberal-leaning to Labor-leaning, by moving it into territory formerly accommodated by the abolished Labor-held seat of Peats. Labor held the redrawn Gosford in 2007, lost it amid the rout of 2011, then recovered it in 2015 by a margin of 203 votes. It is now being vacated by Kathy Smith, who announced her resignation in February after the recurrence of a cancer with which she was first diagnosed in the middle of last year.
Labor’s new candidate is Liesl Tesch, a local school teacher and gold medal-winning Paralympian who has been an incomplete paraplegic since suffering a mountain bike accident at the age of 19. The persistent Belinda Neal once again loomed as a preselection aspirant, but the leadership knocked this on the head by overriding the party’s democratic processes and installing Tesch by the fiat of the national executive. The Liberal candidate is Jilly Pilon, who has built a profile locally as an advocate for road safety and organ donation following the death of her son in a skateboarding accident two years ago.
The other two by-elections are to be held in the neighbouring harbourside seats of Manly, which has been vacated by Mike Baird’s resignation, and North Shore, where Jillian Skinner has called it quits after being dumped as Health Minister. As is the way of “safe” seats, both have the potential to embarrass the dominant party by electing independents, as Manly did on five successive occasions from 1991 until Mike Baird arrived on the scene in 2007, and North Shore did throughout the 1980s by returning Ted Mack, who later served two terms as federal member for North Sydney.
So there will be some alarm in the Liberal camp that their candidate in North Shore, Felicity Wilson, has hit heavy weather in the last few days over suggestions her connections to the electorate are not all that she has claimed. Her seven rivals for the seat include Ian Mutton, a law firm director who won the endorsement of North Sydney mayor Jilly Gibson when she withdrew her own candidacy shortly before the closure of nominations.
Things seem to be running more smoothly for the Liberal candidate in Manly, James Griffin, a director at KPMG Australia. Opposition to Griffin stands to be dissipated among a large field of 12 candidates – an important consideration under the state’s system of optional preferential voting. The one fly in the ointment has been grumbling over Tony Abbott’s disinclination to involve himself in campaigns on the turf of his federal seat of Warringah, after his preferred candidates were defeated for preselection.