The four NSW by-elections to be held this Saturday will be a mini-poll on the state of the ALP, the Liberals and the Nationals. Voters will have their first opportunity to deliver a verdict on the lamentable ex-Iemma Government and to make it clear whether they are buying Premier Nathan Rees’s colourful promise to have "a red hot go" at fixing the State’s services and economy.
The by-election results will also indicate whether swinging voters have given up on Labor after 13 and a half years of loyal support and are now moving to support Barry O’Farrell’s Coalition as the alternative government.
And finally, the acid will be on the NSW Nationals to recapture the seat of Port Macquarie which they held until March 2002 when sitting MP Robert Oakeshott deserted the Nationals to become an Independent, first in State Parliament and now as the federal MP for Lyne in Canberra.
The three Sydney seats up for grabs are Lakemba, previously held by Iemma, Ryde, the old seat of former Deputy Premier John Watkins, and former Health Minister Reba Meagher’s seat of Cabramatta.
Labor’s daunting margins are 34.5 per cent in Lakemba, 29 per cent in Cabramatta and 10.2 per cent in Ryde. These are hefty margins which, under normal circumstances, should mean that Labor hangs onto all three. But these aren’t normal times and the electorate is volatile, vengeful and armed with baseball bats.
The results will capture national media attention because they will have significant electoral implications for Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and the new Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull who will face the electors together in 2010. Both know that NSW will be a crucial battlefield at the next federal election so they will be studying the entrails of the 18 October by-elections with unusual interest.
In Lakemba, the ALP has predictably and unimaginatively chosen Canterbury Mayor Robert Furolo. From the machine’s point of view he’s a dream candidate — a right-winger, a typical town hall operative and a former member of Iemma’s staff.
In Cabramatta, Labor’s standard bearer is another machine choice — Fairfield City Mayor Nick Lalich, a 60-something party loyalist who made headlines a few years ago when he visited former Fairfield deputy mayor Phuong Ngo who is serving a life sentence for the 1994 murder of the former Labor MP for Cabramatta John Newman. Last week Lalich caused embarrassing publicity over a fundraising dinner attended by wealthy business friends — including Pat Sergi who rated special mention in the Woodward Royal Commission into drug trafficking in 1979. Despite his brush with the Royal Commission, Sergi, also a friend of Fairfield MP and Ports Minister Joe Tripodi, has no criminal convictions to his name.
In Ryde, the left-wing candidate is Nicole Campbell, a Ryde City Councillor who works as an adviser to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Paul Lynch. She stood against ex-Prime Minister John Howard in his seat of Bennelong on two occasions (2001 and 2004) but valiantly stood aside in November last year so that high-profile broadcaster Maxine McKew could take the "lying rodent" to the cleaners.
In a total reversal of past form and a radical change of direction, the Liberals have chosen three candidates from non-Anglo backgrounds to run in the Sydney seats: third generation Italian solicitor Victor Dominello in Ryde; Muslim, first generation Australian and Canterbury councillor Michael Hawatt in Lakemba; and Dai Le, a Vietnamese woman who came to Australia as a boat person and is now a highly regarded ABC journalist-producer, in Cabramatta.
In Port Macquarie, neither Labor nor the Liberals are standing. Instead, it’s a Melbourne Cup field. A total of 11 candidates have nominated and the ALP is working hard to broker a complex preferences deal which will deliver the seat to Independent Peter Besseling, a former Waratahs player and Oakeshott’s anointed successor.
Labor is desperate to stop "Port" from returning to the Nationals whose candidate is Leslie Williams, a local nurse and popular community activist. Labor’s strategy here is not without precedent: where it can’t win a seat it blocks the Coalition from winning and happily supports Independents with whom it can work comfortably, like Oakeshott and Northern Tablelands MP Richard Torbay — who is now the Speaker.
The last time that four by-elections fell on a single day was 22 October, 1983, when the contested seats — Maroubra, Marrickville, Kogarah and Riverstone — were all won by Labor. The new MPs called themselves "The Four Amigos". They were a Bulletin magazine journalist named Bob Carr (Maroubra), a GP with the Aboriginal Health Service, Dr Andrew Refshauge (Marrickville), travel company manager Brian Langton (Kogarah) and police officer Richard Amery (Riverstone). History records Carr went on to become the State’s longest serving Premier, Refshauge became Deputy Premier, Health, Education and Planning Minister, Langton served as Transport Minister and Amery, who is the only "amigo" still in parliament, held the Agriculture, Land and Water Conservation and Corrective Services portfolios.
This was a time when Labor attracted candidates from varied professional backgrounds who were talented and committed. Today they are more likely to be party hacks who become backbench time-servers with little hope of promotion to the Cabinet. As former Gough Whitlam remarked recently: "I would be hard-pressed to get Labor pre-selection these days. I am not a trade unionist, I am not the sibling of an MP and I am not a ministerial or departmental staffer."
If Labor loses Ryde and Cabramatta, its parliamentary majority will sink to five seats. And if the Nationals win Port Macquarie, the Coalition will have whittled the Government’s majority to within much easier striking distance for the next state election in March 2011.
Since 1941, there have been 131 by-elections, each of them offering a random snapshot of the political climate of the day. The danger is often to read too much into them and end up with an exaggerated view of the Government’s misfortunes or a misguided optimism about the Opposition’s comeback.
That said, Saturday’s four mini-polls will be dramatic — and full of surprises.
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