Major parties on notice after Orange by-election in NSW
How many punters missed the bravura performance of former NSW State National Party parliamentary deputy leader Adrian Piccoli on Thursday November 16? Television news services and the front page of ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’ displayed Piccoli on the floor of the House lambasting the state’s Labor opposition regarding their preferencing the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party at the recent by-election for the seat of Orange.
As a result of a record 34 per cent swing against it, the National Party have lost this hitherto blue-ribbon seat to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party who for the first time will be represented in the lower house in NSW.
In his fiery speech, Piccoli asserted that the election result has opened the way for more dangerous firearms to be imported into Australia. Holding aloft a picture of an assault rifle, Piccoli stated that, because they travel, he and his family had had a lucky escape not to be in Port Arthur when many innocents were slaughtered by Martin Bryant. Then, in a memorable gesture, Piccoli held his hand in the manner of a child pretending to have a gun and proceeded to mime the shooting of Opposition members.
While this display did little for the dignity of the current Education Minister of NSW, the desperation it reflected demonstrates an important truth of Australian politics this year , one of the country’s major parties has lost a traditional stronghold to a fledgling, philosophically conservative party.
There were three by-elections held on the day that saw the right wing revolt in Orange. All created outcomes worthy of noting by traditionally major parties.
Although the results in Wollongong and Canterbury saw the Labor Party trumpet the holding of seats with increased majorities, Labor’s claims are worth examining.
In neither seat did the Liberal and National Parties run a candidate. The Wollongong by-election was occasioned by the resignation of former incumbent Noreen Hay, a person whose hard-knuckled approach to pre-selections and other matters had seen many traditional supporters withdraw their commitment to the ALP. In Canterbury, the swing to Labor represented a degree of a return to normalcy. There the strongest opponent to Labor’s Sophie Cotsis was a Christian party which lacked heavy membership numbers and a strong organisational base.
But the most fascinating figure for Labor came from Orange, where the Labor Party vote actually fell by about 20 per cent.
An even more interesting picture appears when the informal votes and voter abstentions for these three seats are examined.
In Orange, of the 49,687 votes cast, 2.7 per cent were informal. Almost 7000 of those enrolled, about 12 per cent of the electorate did not bother to vote at all.
In Canterbury, 4.63 per cent of the votes cast were informal and some 13,000 people, about 22 per cent of the electorate did not vote.
In Wollongong, the numbers were 3 per cent informal, while about 16 per cent of voters were no-shows.
Indeed if these non-voters are pursued by legal process there are some thirty thousand people to be investigated, a sufficient number to clog the courts of New South Wales for months.
These figures confirm results at the most recent federal election. This saw heavy voting for minor parties and very high informal votes (with reports of comments written on papers like “None of them!” being common) clearly playing a role in outcomes.
In the federal NSW south coast seat of Gilmore, which was won by a whisker by the Liberals Ann Sudmailis, the impact of those citizens‚¬ many of them previous ALP supporters deciding not to cast formal votes probably decided the election.
While the causes of voter rejection for the Nationals in Orange were clearly due to the reduction of the number of councils and especially to the since-reversed ban on greyhound racing in NSW, the rejection of the Labor Party at the same time is also worthy of examination.
Some close to the ALP see its endorsement last year of measures sharply reducing the standard of living of members of a core constituency, former public servants, as the cause a rejection of Labor by tens of thousands of citizens who had previously supported Labor through long and responsible working lives.
Although the results of a single round of state by-elections in NSW cannot be taken to demonstrate irreversible trends, recent events have raised important causes of concern for Australia’s major parties.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history at politics at Griffith University
‘The Canberra Times’, November 24 2016 & ‘The Age’ online.