Sunday, November 6, 2011

By the by

Some things mean so little and yet so much at the same time.

The Nationals will win the by election in Clarence, and they will do so at a canter.  Anthony Green, Australia's greatest election savant has declared it to be so, calling the seat a "Certain National Party retain".

Not that he needed to be a savant to make that call - the Nationals dominated this seat in March. Steve Cansdell's TPP vote v Labor of 81.8% made was the 5th highest in the state, trailing only Davidson, Ku-Ring Gai (both lodged deep in Sydney's North Shore), Pittwater (Sydney's Northern Beaches) and Hawkesbury (a seat the Libs have held since 1950).

In fact, the ALP didn't even manage to grab 2nd place.  An Independent by the name of Richie Williamson nabbed second spot with 17% of the first preference votes.
Table from NSW Electoral Commission
From Anthony Green's blog
In this article on SMH, Williamson indicated that was willing to discuss running for preselection as the Nationals candidate. I've done some searching and I've been unable to ascertain if Williamson was at any time a Nationals member  In any case, this Northern Star article explained that Williamson ran for preselection for the Nationals this October as a part of a crowded field, as is common when a by-election is contested.

The first candidate discussed in that article was business owner Stuart George.
From Anthony Green's blog
In the event, pre-selection was won by Chris Gulaptis.
From Anthony Green's blog
Whilst a number of stories suggested that Williamson was planning on running as an independent, he is not listed on the NSW Electoral Commission's site:
The absence of Williamson is not the only difference.  Labor also have a new candidate by the name of Peter Ellem. He is a newspaper editor and advisor to a federal member Janelle Saffin.

So - Labor is not going to win the seat, but will there be a swing to Labor? And, if so, how much?

It's important first to consider just how different by-elections are to general elections. Sometimes, as in this case, the sitting member has been forced to resign in disgrace.  In others, the member has received a better (usually Canberra based) offer. Obviously that can create more than a little resentment from the electors.

Further, in a by-election the opportunity to "send the government a message" is often difficult to resist. The by elections between the 2007 and 2011 general elections are good examples - the voters vented their bile towards the Labor party, with catastrophic results for that government.

Finally, by-elections tend to bring out a larger than usual number of unelectable independents, which often muddy the water.

The biggest problem for the Nationals, however, will ironically enough be the simply massive margin Cansdell won with earlier this year.

Put simply, that kind of margin is out of the question in this by-election, given the massive anti-Labor vote in March that will have dissipated somewhat.  The Labor vote will be further assisted by the absence of a Williamson, who may well have been a convenient home for Labor voters who couldn't in good conscience vote for Labor again, but could not bring themselves to mark the Nationals box with a "1".

It is also worth noting that Cansdell's TPP margin in 2007 was a far more modest 26%.
Taken from Anthony Green's blog
The Labor vote will increase.  Whilst the Nationals will most likely also benefit from Williamson's absence, the margin will cut - possibly dramatically.

Which brings me back to how I kicked off this posting.  The Nationals will, as I have said, win at a canter.   There is absolutely no "story" in the result.

That said, there is no doubt that "Big swing against Coalition" is a tempting story, especially when run in the context of the number of groups that O'Farrell has been pissing off since he got into office.

The real problem for O'Farrell will not so much be the result but the possibility that another piece of bad news could start to build a narrative of NSW being very unhappy with the new Coalition government. It doesn't matter right now, but we have seen federally just how quickly a pattern where a government are seen as undesirable can become gospel truth, almost before anyone notices.

Neither O'Farrell nor the Nationals candidate for Clarence will be able to stop the stories about the reduced margin being written.  But O'Farrell will need to start looking for ways to change the story, or else he could find himself in charge of a government that has lost the trust of the electorate.  And that trust is not won back easily.

The by-election will mean nothing, but it has the real potential to mean a lot. Should be interesting viewing.

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