Doctor and activist

NSW Election Epilogue

I April 2023

The NSW election is over, with the result we largely expected, Labor victory, but not enough for an absolute majority.  I had hoped that they would get fewer seats so as to have more discipline from the cross bench, but they took a small target strategy and promised no privatisation and some key wage rises, so Minns did quite well.  It remains to be seen if Labor has shed the fundamental dishonesty of the Obeid era and the long history of being captured by property developers and the gambling industry.  Minns weak policy on the latter is cause for concern- the public are ready for serious action on the harms of gambling, but the chance may be squandered by Minns. The Australian  gambling lobby are our equivalent of the US gun lobby.  If Minns simply increases their taxes, it will merely increase the State’s dependence on gambling revenue and lessen the possibility of future reform.

The key structural problem of Australia’s finances remains that the States are responsible for providing the majority of services, but the Commonwealth collects the taxes and solves its own budget problems by not giving the States the money that they need, so States budgets are cobbled together with stamp duties, gambling taxes, and ‘dividends’ from State-owned enterprises like Sydney Water that have to get a profit and pay it to the government, (which boils down to water rates having a tax component).

Allegra Spender, the Federal Independent for Wentworth in Sydney’s affluent Eastern Suburbs, held a Tax Summit on 31 March as she correctly recognises that we need to address tax revenue as the Federal government seems paralysed even to get minor reforms to superannuation on people with over $3million, or cancel the silly Stage 3 tax cuts which were merely a Morrison promise to stave off election defeat, and then matched by Labor in a silly ‘race to the bottom’ for taxes, government revenue (and  services).   Meanwhile there is a housing crisis, caused by negative gearing pushing property prices up, then landlords trying to get a return as interest rates rise.  The fact that reforms on issue like this have stalled shows the extent to which the Liberals are rule from the grave by making silly promises, wedging Labor to promise to match them, then criticising ‘broken election promises’ when Labor tries to act.  Federal Labor, who lost the unlosable 2019 election to Morrison’s scare tactics are as spooked as rabbits in the headlight.  Hence the importance of Spender’s Summit.

Perrottet spruiked his government’s credentials as builders of infrastructure, though his concept of ‘recycled assets’ seemed to be borrowing using the government’s credit rating to build underground freeways to give to the private sector, so we can all drive cars and pay tolls to monopoly suppliers for years.  The whole scheme was conceptually flawed.  The money should have been used for a good underground Metro system. Now Minns want to cap tolls for citizens, which really mean just the government endless paying the monopoly companies they have given the freeways to.

Perrottet seems to have lessened what could have been a rout by drawing attention to infrastructure as if it is a long-term good no matter what it costs and no matter what sort it is. He also tapped into the gambling issue, which Minns was weak on, but did not seem to press this advantage fully. One Liberal I spoke to was very critical of Perrottet for this policy and said that it did not have widespread support among the Liberal Right. Perhaps this was why Minns was not pursued more energetically.  The general atmosphere of decadence, corruption, tiredness and the inability even to preselect candidates until the last minute seems to have less attention than might have been expected. The swing against the Liberals was 5%, but the Nationals only 0.9%.

Minns small target policy with wage increases for essential service workers, ceasing privatisations, particularly Sydney Water  and subsidies to residents for tolls seem to have helped him.  But the swing to Labor was only 3.8% while the swing away from parties to Independents was almost as large, 3.5%.

In terms of the overall percentages, using ABC News figures available today with 79% counted,  the Liberals got 27% and Nationals 8.7% for a total Coalition of 35.7%, Labor got 37.1% and the Greens 9.4% (down 0.2%).  The Shooters Farmers and Fishers got 1.5% (down 1.9), but it must be noted that two of their lower house MPs Philip Donato in Orange and Helen Dalton in Murray, left the party and were re-elected as Independents.  One Nation at 1.8% increased slightly, 0.7%.  

The major parties, the Coalition and Labor together polled 72.8% of the vote yet got 81/95 seats – 85%.  The current preferential voting system always favours the major parties and optional preferential worsens this effective gerrymander.

There are a number of seats where the optional preferential system has resulted in a major party winning when it would not have done so if preferences were compulsory.  It is because the smaller parties exhaust and the candidate with the larger primary vote wins.  In the Willoughby by-election when Gladys Berejeklian resigned a little-known Independent, Larissa Penn, would have won on preferences if the exhausted votes followed the pattern of the ones that did not exhaust.  That would have made a big difference to the minority government.  It will be interesting to analyse this whole election.  It might be noted that NSW is the only State with this inequitable system, which was introduced by Neville Wran in 1980 in reforms which otherwise allowed redistributions for equity in the size of electorates  (The Constitution (Amendment) Bill, Parliamentary Electorates and Elections (Amendment) Bill- Act 39 of 1979).

Anthony Green’s blog notes that historically the Liberals have done better than Labor under optional preferential voting, but that Independents have surprisingly done even better.  But when the Independents have won, it has often been in safe Liberal seats.  Currently with the Greens and the majority of smaller parties favouring Labor they may be willing to contemplate returning compulsory preferential voting to NSW.

The other important feature of this election was the Teals, the name the media gave to relatively conservative independents who wanted to do more for the environment and integrity in Parliament.    I have to confess to an interest here as I helped my local Teal, Victoria Davidson.  The Teals won 6 seats in the Federal Election in 2022, all with women in relatively safe Liberal seats.  It was taken to mean that the Liberals had moved too far to the Right, had moved away from a reasonable climate policy, and had not preselected enough women. 

A number of Teals ran in the November Victorian election without success.  This may have been because the Liberals in Victoria ran a very negative campaign that made the main issue the harm done to Victoria by the COVID lockdown mandated by Premier Daniel Andrews.  The election turned into a referendum of Dan Andrews’ leadership, in which he triumphed and the Teals did not take seats from the fading Liberals. It was generally assumed in the major media that the Teals would similarly fall short in NSW, particularly due to optional preferential voting.

In my Teal seat of Lane Cove, the candidate had been selected by a group that derived from the Voices of North Sydney, group pf experts who had tried to influence town planning and been heard politely and ignored by Councils. So a sub-group decided to find, select and help people who had not previously been active in politics to stand as their Independents.  This was similar to the genesis of other Teal candidates.   There was considerable energy remaining after the success of Kylea Tink in the seat of North Sydney and this spawned the candidatures of Victoria Davidson in Lane Cove and Helen Conway in North Shore. Larissa Penn, buoyed by her near-success in the by-election stood, but was not considered a Teal.

The key feature of these campaigns that did not get much a run in the major media was the degree of enthusiasm and organisation that they generated.  Victoria Davidson had 250 volunteers and door-knocked over 6000 households. A large number of homes displaying corflutes and a new publicity technique of  waving corflutes at suburban intersections helped name recognition to be built quickly and with the low budget imposed by the NSW legislation. The Liberals could not hope to match the number and energy of the Independent campaigns. What they did was claim that Simon Holmes a Court was funding it all and the Independents were either crook or dupes. They used the incumbents electoral and postage allowance at the last moment they were allowed to, just before the polls were declared, and they put up many signs saying the ‘You only have to Vote 1’, which looked like electoral messages, though they had a small Liberal logo in the bottom corner. 

The major media merely noted that no Teals were elected and went on about the progressive count to see if Labor could get an absolute majority.  Ross Gittins in the SMH of 29 March however commented that it was ‘Voting out our political duopoly’. He recognised what many commentators have not, that a large chunk of the population have lost faith in the major political parties, which is why so many volunteers can be found for Teals and other Independents in upper middle class electorates.  The figures in the 3 State seats which are part of the North Sydney Federal electorate are illustrative.  The Liberals won all three.

Sarah GriffinLabor19.7
Edmund McGrathGreens7.51
Larissa PennIndependent27.15
Michael WantSustainable Aust.1.73
Tim JamesLiberal43.91
Lane Cove
Victoria DavidsonIndependent20.88
Anthony RobertsLiberal45.43
Penny PedersenLabor23.68
Heather ArmstrongGreens7.85
Ben WiseSustainable Aust.2.16
North  Shore
Michael AntaresIMOP1.61
Helen ConwayIndependent22.48
Geoff SanterLabor16.8
Lachlan ComminsSustainable Aust.1.78
James MullanGreens10.53
Felicity WilsonLiberal44.66
Victoria WalkerIndependent2.14

 As can be seen, the combined primary vote of the Independent, Labor and the Greens can be compared with the Liberal primary votes as follows:

Willoughby (27.51 + 19.7 + 7.51) = 54.71 v. Liberals 43.91

Lane Cove (20.88 + 23.68 + 7.85) = 52.41 v Liberals 45.43

North Shore (22.48 + 16.8 + 10.53) = 49.81 v Liberals 44.66

It might be noted that in Willoughby and Lane Cove there were quite enough preferences to have changed the results, and in North Shore it may have needed the small parties and the other Independent, but preferences that did not exhaust could easily have changed that result also. 

It is important that the Independents and Greens try to influence the Minns government to improve the voting system by introducing compulsory preferential voting in NSW.

The idea that a political duopoly is needed for stability in government is complete nonsense. The NZ electoral system was changed to ‘top up’ Parliamentary seats so that any party that gets over 4% of the vote gets extra seats so that the percentage of seats reflects as accurately as possible the percentage of votes that they got.  The German parliament has a system where no party can get an absolute majority, so there is a period of negotiation after each election as coalitions are put together.  The German constitution was deliberately written by Winston Churchill so that a single party could never get an absolute majority and Hitler could never rise again.

The Swiss government has 3 levels, similar to ours, and tries to make decisions at the lowest level possible (unlike Australia).  They also have their politicians part-time and limited to 2 terms so that they retain good connections with the ordinary people and their superannuation is to return to their pre-Parliament job. They have a number of parties and the Parliament’s decisions can be overturned by a plebiscite with vote held every 3 months. 

There are plenty of alternatives to the duopoly system that is not working very well in Australia, the US or the UK, and the success of the Teals and Independents suggest that there is a nascent move for change in Australia.  The alternatives need to be publicised so a serious discussion can begin. 

Arthur Chesterfield-Evans

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