Labor’s small target strategy fails to dent NSW Coalition

NSW Labor is in crisis, with leader Jodi McKay resigning after last week’s Upper Hunter by-election loss.

Labor’s failure in the by-election has focused attention on its lacklustre performance since Gladys Berejiklian became Liberal Premier in 2019. McKay took the small target strategy to the extreme, essentially disappearing from public view.

Even a trail of Liberal and National party corruption and sexual abuse scandals, including Berejiklian’s dubious association with the disgraced former Liberal MP Daryl Maguire, didn’t shift the polling Labor’s way.

But we can expect more of the same from the two likely candidates for NSW Opposition leader, Michael Daley and Chris Minns.

Just days before the by-election, a poll showed 57 per cent of voters preferred Berejiklian as Premier, with just 17 per cent choosing McKay.

The poll found that even ALP voters preferred Berejiklian, with NSW Labor’s primary vote slumping to 28 per cent, five points down since the 2019 state election.

The Coalition lead is partly a product of incumbency during the pandemic. But it also reflects the fact that many voters remember Labor’s own track record of corruption and privatisation.

Between 1995 and 2011, Labor sold off everything from electricity and gas infrastructure to NSW Lotteries, irrigation concerns and the Sydney Market Authority. Port Botany and Port Kembla were effectively privatised on 99-year leases.

The by-election has also shone a spotlight on Labor’s continued pandering to the right on the question of fossil fuels.

Since the by-election loss, federal MPs Joel Fitzgibbon and Meryl Swanson, whose seats are in the Hunter Valley, have been campaigning for Labor to be even more explicitly pro-coal.

This is despite Federal Labor’s Resources spokesperson Madeleine King saying she is “absolutely not supportive one bit” of calls for a moratorium on new coal mines, adding: “For so long as international markets want to buy Australian coal … then they will be able to.”

Pressure on Albanese

The result is that a state by-election defeat is heaping more pressure on federal Labor and leader Anthony Albanese.

The fossil fuel defenders point to the 8 per cent fall in Labor’s vote in the Upper Hunter, down to 20 per cent (although in the 2011 election Labor won just 17.9 per cent).

But Labor has not held the seat since 1910. While coal miners live in the electorate, it’s an overwhelmingly rural seat and has been held by the Nationals or their predecessors since 1917.

The election was not decided primarily on coal. The Labor vote in coal mining booths that sit within Fitzgibbon’s seat of Hunter was down 5.5 per cent—while the Nationals vote fell further, by 6.5 per cent.

Labor’s candidate was a miner but the party bled votes to independent Kirsty O’Connell, who campaigned for no new coal mines in the Hunter Valley, while Nationals lost votes to One Nation and the Shooters, Fishers, Farmers Party.

The result showed that Labor’s strategy to win votes by avoiding the question of climate change and the need for a positive future for the jobs of workers in fossil fuel-affected electorates is counter-productive.

As Felicity Wade from the Labor Environment Action Network argued: “State Labor … ran a pro-coal agenda that attacked those who care about climate action and our vote dropped by a third. What’s more the vote for those supporting transition increased from around 5 per cent in the last two elections to 15 per cent, with few preferences coming back to Labor.

“We lost primary votes and preferences to our ‘left’. While trying to match the populist dog whistling of the conservatives and One Nation delivered no dividend either.”

With a federal election due no later than a year from now, the danger is that Labor’s climate ambiguity will continue—on the one hand posturing for action on climate change while on the other supporting fossil fuels.

So long as Albanese follows the Coalition on coal and gas without making any serious pledges to fight for funding for alternative jobs and a just transition, he is likely to face the same fate as McKay.

By David Glanz and Ian Rintoul

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