Parker & Partners’ guide to the NSW state election 2015

Mike Baird has led the Coalition to a resounding victory in NSW, securing a second term to deliver its agenda.

In the end, the result didn’t match the excitement, speculation and backroom anxiety that arose as a result of the Queensland and Victoria election outcomes, an unpopular Federal Government, and nerves about the NSW Coalition’s privatisation plans. The swing away from the Government was limited to 5.5%* – a result that was on the lower end of NSW Labor’s expectations and will disappoint the party as it fights to rebuild into a credible alternative. However, as Labor leader Luke Foley stated, the party has successfully moved from a “rump in the parliament to a real opposition”.

Where the ALP lost, the Greens won. The party was able to convert votes from consecutive elections into a likely four seats in the Assembly. In a number of seats in the metropolitan areas, including Pittwater, Ku-ring-gai, Willoughby and Manly, the Greens ran second to the Liberals – leaving Labor to run third. More interesting is the Greens’ march into the regions, where they took the seats of Ballina and Lismore off the Nationals amidst a heated debate on Coal Seam Gas.

Legislative Assembly: results in numbers*

Coalition – 53 seats (a swing of 5.5% against)

ALP – 34 seats (a swing of 8.6% in favour)

Greens – 4 seats (no swing)

Independents – 2 seats (a swing of 7.7% against)

The movement of ‘tree-changers’ to the regions was simply one of the demographic changes that was realised in yesterday’s results across the state. More high-rise apartments in the inner city, electoral boundary changes, and demographic movements has consolidated a number of seats that will have long term ramifications for electoral strategies in coming elections. This was often combined with solid local members with good public profiles in seats such as Sydney and Coogee to deliver strong results.

By the end of the night, the word ‘mandate’ was one mostly commonly used by parties across the political spectrum. The Baird Government has claimed an electoral mandate to push ahead with its plan to partly privatise its electricity assets, which it ran front and centre, while minor parties vying for the upper house will claim a mandate to defeat the legislation as a result of voters ‘splitting their votes’. It is true that support for privatisation strengthened during throughout the campaign from 1 in 4 to 1 in 3, however there are still large parts of the community who remain opposed.

It will all come down to the upper house. With a primary vote of approximately 45%, the Baird Government is likely to have a smoother negotiation path through the upper house than its previous parliamentary term. Reverend Fred Nile (Christian Democratic Party) is likely to hold the balance of power and has a track record of negotiation. He is opposed to partial privatisation but has indicated that he is willing to open discussions.

Despite a low profile during the campaign, Prime Minister Tony Abbott would have woken up this morning with a smile on this face. NSW remains in Coalition hands, the tranche of state elections are over and there is no Parliament for six weeks meaning that those pesky backbenchers will focus on electorate matters rather than knocking on his door. Ahhh bliss…now where’s my bike.

Counting, counting and more counting. While the Baird Government will get to work today on translating its election platform into a legislative agenda, the NSW Election Commission will continue its count for the upper house with a result not anticipated until after the Easter break.

*Results based at 12.00pm, Sunday, 29 March

What’s to come?
Counting, counting and more counting. While the Baird Government will get to work today on translating its election platform into a legislative agenda, the NSW Election Commission will continue its count for the upper house with a result not anticipated until after the Easter break.

It is expected that Premier-elect Baird will name his Ministry in the coming days with a swearing in ceremony to be held towards the end of the week. With no senior members of the front bench losing their seat, a reshuffle of the ministry seems unlikely, however there are young and upcoming backbenchers who believe it’s time to realise their ministerial ambitions. As with any large majority, half of Baird’s battle will be maintaining this support and keeping it on target.

Priorities for the Baird Government
Partial power privatisation was the centrepiece of the Baird Coalition’s campaign and will be the Government’s highest priority upon the NSW Parliament’s return. The Government will argue that it has a mandate to proceed with the long-term lease of 49 per cent of the state owned electricity ‘poles and wires’. This includes the full lease of the electricity network company, Transgrid, and part lease of power distributors’ Endeavour Energy and Ausgrid, to raise $20 billion for major infrastructure projects. Negotiations with those holding the balance of power in the upper house are likely to begin before the election results are finalised, because, as the Premier memorably said at the start of the campaign, there is “no Plan B”. We will no doubt see sparks fly in the upper house as his ultimatum is put to the test.

Proceeds from leasing ‘poles and wires’ will be spent on the construction and upgrade of major roads and highways including Australia’s biggest urban road project, Sydney’s WestConnex, and the delivery of better public transport including a second Sydney Harbour rail crossing. These projects will take the majority of the upcoming term to deliver.

Infrastructure is also core to the Baird government’s focus on health with more than $5 billion earmarked to building and upgrading more than 60 hospitals including Westmead Hospital and the Children’s Hospital in Sydney’s west. The Government has also pledged to scrap co-payments for patients receiving treatments through the Highly Specialised Drugs category for conditions such as Alzheimer’s, arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and hepatitis. Health groups across the country are holding their breath as the details of this surprising policy announcement are fleshed out. This is policy NSW has never attempted and questions remain about whether it can, and how it will.

In social policy, the Baird Government will be the first to sign up to the National Disability Insurance Scheme in its new term, which it says will assist more than 140,000 people across the state.

The divisive issue of CSG will continue to cause headaches for the Government after it cancelled a number of CSG licence applications last year, froze some existing licences and is currently buying others back. It’s in the process of developing a new framework to provide a strategic approach to where CSG activity can occur. This has become an increasingly urgent task, given the high profile of the issue in a number of regional electorates.

Electorates we watched
In our pre-election report, we listed five seats that we’d be watching as the litmus test for the general mood across NSW. So let’s see how the seats fared…

Monaro: Labor candidate, Steve Whan took a great risk in moving from the safety of a position in the Legislative Council to try and win this bellwether seat from the Nationals’ rising-star John Barilaro. He fought a great fight and went down with all guns blazing. This was the one electorate where Federal issues dominated state issues. Privatisation was low on the priority list of the community compared to the Abbott Government’s cuts to the Federal public service, which impacted a large swathe of the constituency who travel across the border into Canberra to work each day. Monaro maintains its title as the bellwether seat, and the rising political career of Barilaro continues.

Ballina: A safe National seat since 1988, Ballina was ripe for the picking for the ALP with the retirement of stalwart Don Page. Barrels of pork was directed towards this seat, but in the end, Ballina was decided on the issue of CSG. As the votes began to be counted, it looked like the ALP had succeeded in taking this jewel in the crown, but no one suspected the late charge from the Greens. To the surprise of many, Ballina, along with the nearby and also previously safe National seat of Lismore, has fallen to Greens who campaigned for a permanent ban on CSG coal seam gas.

Goulburn: Strong female candidates at a thousand paces. Minister Pru Goward defended her safe Liberal seat against the challenge of former Federal Senator, Ursula Stephens. Stephens led a 19.5% swing, one of the bigger swings of the night, however the challenge was too large and Goulburn remains safe in the hands of Goward and the Liberal Party.

Northern Tablelands: We never suggested that this would be a close contest, and it certainly wasn’t. Incumbent Nationals’ MP, Adam Marshall, is young, popular, and makes a great effort to ensure that he is approachable and visible in the electorate. His hard work has been reflected as he retains the Northern Tablelands with an enormous majority. With a 2.5% swing, the seat did reflect the general mood of the state and will keep it within the Nationals’ grasp.

Charlestown: In the face of an ICAC investigation that found sitting member, Andrew Cornwall, had illegally accepted donations from developers, Labor was able to easily hold the seat that it won back from the Liberal Party at last year’s bi-election. The Liberals didn’t contest in what was essentially a one-horse race. Today, Charlestown is once again a very, very safe seat for Labor and Jodie Harrison remains at the helm with a strong swing in her favour. Clearly for the voters of Charlestown, it’s a case of ‘once bitten, twice shy.’

The future for the ALP
To the winner come the spoils and to the loser, recriminations. While very few in the party genuinely believed Labor could succeed in wrestling back power in NSW, there was an expectation the party would do better than it did.

Labor leader Luke Foley has safely made the journey to the NSW lower house but he and his party have a long haul ahead of them. Yes, Labor did improve its representation in the lower house but it was coming from a very low base, after hanging on to just 20 seats in the 2012 election. That count is expected to increase to 34 seats but most of the gains were low hanging fruit, such as Rockdale in Sydney’s south, which had been a safe Labor seat for 70 years, fell in the Coalition landslide of 2012 and has now changed hands again. It was a similar story in Sydney’s west and south west where Labor picked up Strathfield, Campbelltown, Londonderry, Granville, Prospect and Macquarie Fields but overall, the gains fell well short of expectations.

In the wash up, much recrimination will focus on the increasing ‘Green’ challenge in inner metropolitan areas with more than one politician last night questioning ‘what does Labor stand for’. In both seats of Balmain and Newton, Labor fielded strong candidates but their policies didn’t get them over the line.

The Opposition has four years to build itself into a credible opposition. Luke Foley is expected to continue as Opposition Leader and will have a wider and talented groups of parliamentarians around him to support. He has shown through the campaign his strengths and will be an Opposition Leader who will tightly scrutinise the Baird Government.

The issue of privatisation will remain the issue which will haunt the party. For more than 15 years, privatisation of the State’s electricity assets has caused division and bitterness. Ironically, Labor who campaigned so strongly against the proposed leasing of the poles and wires is likely to be a much stronger and united force if the Baird Government finally does the deed and ends this debate.