Now in its second decade in office, the Coalition government in New South Wales is one of only two conservative administrations remaining in Australia at federal, state or territory level, along with Tasmania. It now faces a stern test in its bid for a fourth four-year term under a fourth leader, Dominic Perrotet, against a Labor opposition that looks to have emerged from the long shadow of its last period in office. The Coalition has reigned for 12 years in a state where governments have typically lasted around a decade since the end of Labor's 24 years in power in 1965, with the previous Labor government perhaps paying the price for extending its life span to 16 years when it met its reckoning in 2011.
The 2011 election brought the Coalition to power under Barry O'Farrell with 69 seats out of 93 and an unprecedented 64.2% share of the two-party preferred, reduced Labor to 20 seats. This set an historic high-water mark that exceeded the two “Wranslides” of 1978 and 1981, when Labor won 63 and 69 seats in a house that had 99 members rather than 93. Labor recovered 14 seats from a 9.9% two-party swing when Mike Baird led the Coalition to a second win in 2015, while still recording its third worst performance since the Second World War. The Coalition went to the 2019 election under a third Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, who survived a 2.3% swing to secure a narrow majority with 48 seats, losing two seats to Labor and four to the cross-bench. Party resignations cost the government its majority in early 2021, compounded by the loss of Bega to Labor at a by-election in February 2022.
Redistribution and electoral arithmetic
After two terms on the same boundaries, a redistribution will take effect at the coming election. This involves the abolition of the safe Labor seat of Lakemba in Sydney's south-west and the creation of the new marginal Labor seat of Leppington further afield, and makes Liberal-held Heathcote notionally Labor. There are also changes useful to Labor in the target seats of Oatley, Parramatta and Upper Hunter, though not for party leader Chris Minns, whose already narrow margin of 1.8% in Kogarah is reduced to effectively nothing. The overall effect is a one seat gain for Labor at Liberal expense compared with the 2019 result.
The numbers from the 2019 election have been frequently disturbed since through party resignations and one by-election result. The government lost its majority when Drummoyne MP John Sidoti and Kiama MP Gareth Ward successively resigned from the party under clouds in March and May of 2021, and went a further seat down when Labor won the Bega by-election in February 2022, the result of Andrew Constance's unsuccessful run in Gilmore at the federal election the following May. Further by-elections the same day to replace outgoing Liberal, Labor and Nationals leaders in Willoughby, Strathfield and Orange were retained by the respective parties, as was the Nationals-held seat of Upper Hunter at an earlier by-election in May 2021. Labor dropped a seat in October 2022 with the resignation of Bankstown MP Tania Mihailuk, who now joins Mark Latham on One Nation's Legislative Council ticket.
None of the three lower house seats won by Shooters Fishers and Farmers at the 2019 election remain with the party, Murray MP Helen Dalton having resigned in February 2022 and Orange MP Phil Donato and Barton MP Roy Butler following suit in December. All three will re-contest their seats as an independents, as will the three independents who were elected as such in 2019: Joe McGirr in Wagga Wagga, Greg Piper in Lake Macquarie and Alex Greenwich in Sydney, respectively serving seats that in two-party terms are safe Liberal, safe Labor and marginal.
The teal independent threat has also gained traction in many of the coastal and harbourside seats corresponding with those lost by the Liberals at the federal election, where Liberal branch members have exasperated the party hierarchy by repeatedly overlooking women for preselection. For Labor's part, Dai Le's win over Kristina Keneally in Fowler has raised the prospect of an independent challenge in the corresponding state seat of Cabramatta from Frank Carbone, local mayor and key backer of Le's campaign.
Assuming Labor recovers Bankstown and wins its new notional seat of Heathcote, and a status quo result with respect to the cross bench, Labor would start with 37 seats with seven more needed for a majority. This could be achieved directly at the Coalition's expense with a uniform swing of 6%, though Labor would hold elevated hopes for its by-election gain of Bega, where the margin at the 2019 election was 6.9%. That would require a substantial 54-46 two-party split in favour of Labor statewide, though Labor would presumably be confident of support from the three Greens and independents in Sydney and Lake Macquarie if it fell short. Eleven seats would fall to Labor if the swing were as high as 7%, inclusive of Bega.
The Coalition would win a bare majority with 47 seats if it recovered Drummoyne and Kiama and held its ground from 2019 in two-party terms, which assumes the loss of Heathcote and the recovery of Bega. As noted, winning the most marginal Labor seat would involve the tall order of knocking out Chris Minns in Kogarah, but the Liberals might hope that Lee Evans' incumbency could save him from the redistribution in Heathcote. The lack of a Labor incumbent could also present an opportunity in the new seat of Leppington, where the margin is 2.3%. Failing that, a minority government could potentially be negotiated with the four cross-benchers from regional conservative seats, although there is also the risk that the ranks of independents could be further increased with gains at the expense of the Coalition.
The Coalition's third term
The Coalition's third term was once again marked by a leadership change, extending a run of instability in the state going back to 2003, which was the last time a parliamentary term began and ended with the same Premier. The change on this occasion resulted from the October 2021 resignation of Gladys Berejiklian after ICAC announced a public inquiry into allegations arising from her secret relationship with former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire, who resigned from parliament in August 2018 over attempts to solicit payments from a Chinese developer. Two candidates emerged in the subsequent leadership contest: Dominic Perrottet, the Treasurer and deputy leader, and Rob Stokes, the Minister for Infrastructure. However, Stokes was rendered uncompetitive by a deal that secured support for Perrottet from leading figures in his own moderate faction, and managed only five party room votes to Perrottet's 39.
Perrottet came to parliament in 2011 as the member for Castle Hill, having previously worked as a corporate lawyer and political staffer. A devout Catholic, he was also noted as a factional operative of the hard right. He nonetheless struggled with preselection difficulties that caused him to move to the Sydney fringe seat of Hawkesbury in 2015, and then to Epping in 2019 after factional colleague Damien Tudehope made the seat available to him by moving to the upper house. This defused a looming brawl over his bid to recover Castle Hill from Ray Williams, for whom he had reluctantly made way in 2015. Despite these issues, Perrottet advanced rapidly through the party ranks, succeeding Gladys Berejiklian as Treasurer and deputy leader when she became Premier in January 2017.
As in others jurisdictions, the major political event of the past term has been the COVID-19 pandemic, which emerged in early 2020 and dominated state politics at least through to the end of 2021. The issue appeared to be politically advantageous to state incumbents generally, with New South Wales being no exception, particularly given the contrast offered by the experience south of the border. However, the government's record suffered an early blemish when 2700 passengers from the Ruby Princess cruise liner were allowed to disembark in March 2020 without being adequately checked, 914 of whom were subsequently found to have the virus. As in most other states, the virus was soon brought under control, prompting Scott Morrison to hail the government's “gold standard” contact tracing management as Victoria moved into extended lockdown. However, the gap between the states' experiences narrowed after an outbreak of the delta variant in June 2021 resulted in lockdowns being imposed that extended for over three months, with particularly harsh restrictions imposed in Sydney's west and south-west.
In the meantime, the government grappled with more than its share of scandals, of which Berejiklian's association with Daryl Maguire was but one among many. Berejiklian's departure from politics coincided with that of Nationals leader John Barilaro, was given a $500,000 government position as trade commissioner in New York eight months later despite not being the favoured candidate of the selection panel. Subsequent inquiries found that public servant Jenny West had earlier been given a verbal offer for the position, but was then not only cast aside in favour of Barilaro, but made redundant from her existing position. Deputy Liberal leader Stuart Ayres, who succeeded Barilaro as Trade Minister, resigned in August after a review raised questions about the extent of his involvement in the appointment, although a further review the following month found he had not breached the ministerial code of conduct.
Further front bench casualties of the past term have included conservative factional leader Damien Tudehope, who resigned as Finance Minister and government leader in the upper house in February over his ownership of shares in Transurban, which controls most of Sydney's motorways; Eleni Petinos, who was sacked as Small Business Minister in July 2022 after being accused of abusive behaviour by a former staffer; Gareth Ward, who held the family, communities and disability services portfolio until May 2021, when a police investigation into sexual assault allegations led to his resignation from the ministry and the Liberal Party; and John Sidoti, who likewise resigned from the ministry and the party when ICAC announced a public inquiry into his property dealings. Ward will seek re-election in his seat of Kiama as an independent, while Sidoti will retire.
The state branch of the Liberal Party has been encumbered by preselection disputes at both federal and state level over recent years, with the centre right faction of Scott Morrison and Alex Hawke accused of spoiler tactics to delay crucial federal preselections for the benefit of factional allies who faced challenges. The preselection process for the state election saw the party rank-and-file repeatedly rebuff calls by the party leadership to nominate women, particularly in areas corresponding with federal seats that had been lost to female teal independents. This resulted in a factional deal over New Year resulting in three men being dumped in favour of women on a Legislative Council ticket that would otherwise have been entirely male.
The Coalition initially remained competitive or better in polling conducted after Perrottet's rise to the leadership, but the government's position weakened throughout 2022, by the end of which Labor was consistently recording solid leads. In January Perrottet was compelled to admit to wearing a Nazi costume at his twenty-first birthday party two decades previously, but suggestions he might be forced to resign (if only from Bob Carr) gained little traction, and subsequent polling revealed no impact on his personal standing.
Labor in opposition
Labor has had one leadership change during each of its three terms in opposition, the latest of which resulted in Jodi McKay making way for Chris Minns in June 2021. The two had competed for the leadership after the March 2019 election, with defeated leader Michael Daley persuaded to stand aside amid concerns his controversial comments about Asian immigration could hurt the party at the looming federal election. The contest was determined through the party's process that gives equal weight to the party room and a rank-and-file ballot, in which McKay prevailed with 60.5% of the membership vote and 29 votes to 21 for Minns from the party room.
While McKay was something of a sentimental favourite after emerging from ICAC investigations as a clean skin victim of chicanery involving party colleague Joe Tripodi, she was perceived to have struggled to make headway against a government that dominated the media space amid the COVID pandemic. A tipping point arrived when the party failed to make headway in the Upper Hunter by-election in May 2021, followed by the tracing of a dirt file target Minns to a staffer of deputy leader and McKay ally in Yasmin Catley. This prompted both Minns and the then Shadow Treasurer, Walt Secord, to resign from the front bench and demand McKay's resignation, which was duly forthcoming. Minns then emerged as the only candidate to succeed her, with Michael Daley acknowledging he lacked support for a comeback.
Chris Minns came to parliament as the member for Kogarah in 2015, having previously been assistant state secretary of the ALP, chief-of-staff to ministers Carl Scully and John Robertson, and deputy mayor of Hurstville. He is a member of the party's Right faction, and like Perrottet a practising Catholic. Minns was being discussed as a potential leader even before entering parliament, and won promotion to the shadow ministry a year into his debut term. He made his first run for the leadership when Luke Foley resigned in November 2018, managing 12 votes in the party room vote against 33 for the victorious Michael Daley. One difficulty faced by Minns is his precarious hold on his seat of Kogarah, particularly after a 5.1% swing to the Liberals in 2019 that typified Labor's poor performance in seats with large Chinese communities, attributed to Michael Daley's controversial comments during the campaign about Asian immigration.
There have been two departures from the Labor front bench since Minns became leader, with Walt Secord resigning from the shadow ministry over bullying accusations in August 2022 and Tania Mihailuk dumped the following month after using parliamentary privilege to attack Khal Asfour, who had been preselected to the party's Legislative Council ticket (he withdrew in January amid negative publicity over his expenses claims as mayor of Canterbury-Bankstown). Secord will bow out at the election, while Mihailuk has since quit the party and thrown her lot in with One Nation, for which she will run as second candidate on the Legislative Council ticket behind Mark Latham. The party also lost a state secretary, Kaila Murnain, in October 2019 following ICAC investigations from Chinese property developers, and upper house member Shaoquett Moselmane will bow out at the election after being linked to figures connected with the Chinese Communist Party.