Tough times for the Liberal Party, but NSW heartland defence offers hope

In the end, the only remarkable thing about the NSW election was how unremarkable it was.

A government long in office, carrying the accumulated baggage that long incumbency inevitably brings, lost to an opposition with an appealing new leader and an apparently competent front bench, at a time when the electorate was in a mood for change. As usual, the ever-sensible John Howard summed things up perfectly when he observed on election night that this was an “orthodox” outcome. The only real surprise would have been if, given the circumstances, Labor had not won.

Ousted NSW premier Dominic Perrottet and former treasurer Matt Kean. “We fended off the teals, we fended off One Nation, what we couldn’t fend off was a resurgent Labor after 12 years in government,” Kean said.


So this was not a devastating defeat for the Coalition; it was an expected one. Nor was the size of Labor’s win massive: notwithstanding the predictions on election night (including by the usually cautious Antony Green), the new government does not even have a majority. No landslide there.

The perception that the Coalition had suffered a catastrophic loss was reinforced by the dramatic imagery of the map of Australia, red from coast to coast, with only little Tasmania bobbing like a Liberal lifeboat offshore. Yet just a decade ago, Tasmania was the Labor lifeboat, with all mainland jurisdictions bar South Australia and the ACT in Liberal hands. The only certainty is that the next turn of the political cycle will see the red turn blue again. Dejected Liberals can take comfort from the words of the Percy Bysshe Shelley: “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

That said, there is no disputing that the current period is one of great success for Labor – as underlined by its stunning result in the Aston byelection. That really was a devastating loss for the Liberal Party. In NSW Labor secured, if not a landslide, then a solid win, building upon Anthony Albanese’s victory 10 months ago. The plaudits, like the spoils, belong to the victors, and Chris Minns deserved every gracious word the outgoing premier said about him on election night.

Beside Labor, there was another victor 10 days ago: the two-party system. Notwithstanding the high-profile campaigns and hype of the Greens, One Nation and the teal independents, all three produced results well short of expectations.

Leader of the Opposition Peter Dutton commiserates with Liberal volunteers after the Aston byelection loss. NSW Liberal former premier Dominic Perrottet and his deputy Matt Kean during the unsuccessful state election campaign. 

Kate Geraghty, Penny Stephens.

For the Liberal Party, the failure of the teals to replicate their federal success last year is particularly important. They only managed to take one seat from the Liberal Party, and none in the Liberals’ traditional “blue wall” north of the harbour.

One of the iron laws of politics is: always protect your base. While elections are won and lost in the marginal seats, losing marginal seats does not pose an existential threat to a major party. Losing large swaths of core political territory does.

That is why last year’s federal election was truly devastating for the Liberal Party: six formerly safe seats in its political heartland (three in Sydney, two in Melbourne, one in Perth) were lost to teals, as well as the Queensland seat of Ryan, to the Greens. This was in addition to the loss to independents over the last few years of other formerly safe Liberal seats: Mayo, Indi and Warringah. Higgins was won by Labor on a large Green preference flow. Those eleven seats had historically been the Liberal Party’s political bedrock; not the marginal seats which swing with the electoral pendulum between Labor and Liberal.

The state election, by contrast, was lost by the Liberal Party in western Sydney; in the classic marginals which tend to swing with the government of the day. It was not lost by the defeat of Liberals in their political heartland: the north shore, the northern beaches. In that sense as well, Howard’s description of the election outcome as “orthodox”, was accurate.

Nevertheless, it was an extremely close call, with formerly very safe seats going down to the wire.

The main reason the Liberal Party held on to its heartland last weekend, while it lost so much of it last year, was because Perrottet’s government had remained centred and sensible. In particular, it had inoculated itself against the issue which has been toxic for Liberals (in particular federal Liberals) for years: climate change. The teals failed to make it an issue; Labor barely tried.

Much of this was due to the skill of Matt Kean. Kean has been much mocked by the right-wing media for his liberal views and progressive position on climate policy. In fact, he – along with Perrottet himself – emerges as the Liberals’ saviour. If you doubt that, just ask yourself this question: if the NSW Liberals had not detoxified themselves on the issue of climate change, would seats like Pittwater and Willoughby have been won? Given the margins, and comparing the result to the teals’ success at the same booths in the federal election, obviously not. Yet would adopting a belligerently anti-climate science position – as demanded by some of the right-wing commentariat – have saved a single marginal seat in western Sydney? It hardly seems likely.

The NSW Liberal Party lost the election, in the orthodox way in which long-serving governments go out of office. It lost to a credible alternative in the swing seats. Unlike the Morrison government, it did not lose large chunks of its political heartland. Perrottet’s manifest likeability and decency, Kean’s political smarts, and the moderation of the outgoing government saved it from a far worse result.

As for Aston, that is another story. As Peter Dutton and his colleagues examine the entrails of the Aston byelection, they may care to ask themselves: would the Liberal Party have done better if it was more distant from the political mainstream? The experience in NSW the previous weekend – and, in particular, the Liberal Party’s successful defence of its heartland seats – tells us the answer.

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