07 Mar 2022
It was a super Saturday but the NSW by-election results will count for little
It was a super Saturday but the NSW by-election results will count for little

The distribution of preferences last week draws a line under the rare spectacle of four New South Wales by-elections in one day, but has produced a result that is largely inconsequential at both state and federal levels.


A summary of the results from the February 12 by-elections following distribution of preferences:

Bega: The ALP’s Dr Michael Holland has won the seat vacated by Andrew Constance from Liberal Fiona Kotvjos following a 12% swing
Monaro: The Nationals’ Nicole Overall has retained the seat vacated by John Barilaro but Labor candidate Bryce Wilson picked up a 6.4% swing
Strathfield: Labor’s Jason Yat-Sen Li has held Jodi McKay’s seat, fighting off Liberal challenger Bridget Sakr but suffering a slight 0.6% swing
Willoughby: Liberal Tim James has retained Glady Berejiklian’s former seat for his party against Labor’s Larissa Penn, resisting a 17.7% swing away.

While the loss of Bega to Labor has pushed Dominic Perrottet’s Coalition further into minority government, the result wasn’t entirely unexpected.

Since coming to office, the NSW Coalition has suffered massive swings in by-elections and these can be interpreted as corrections to big margins achieved at the 2011 and 2015 elections. Its one positive result was in the Upper Hunter by-election in May 2021.

The so-called Super Saturday of polls were held against a background of a new Premier having made the mistake of rolling back COVID restrictions too hard and too fast pre-Christmas before the impact of the Omicron variant had subsided and having to walk back his decision.

There was also a sense that despite new faces at the top, this is a government that is tiring in contrast to an Opposition that is becoming competitive.

The net result of the Government losing one seat is that It will be a little keener to negotiate with the cross bench to manage the passage of legislation.

Most mid-term by-elections are a lot like pre-season football trial matches The win by Liberal Tim James in Willoughby comes after postal votes brought him back from the brink, but it will be a vague memory by the time the Coalition faces its grand final at the March 2023 poll.

And on the Opposition benches, Labor’s inability to get good traction in Strathfield was a letdown.

These by-elections were all prompted by resignations. Departing local members usually take away a degree of support for the incumbent party due to their personal following.

That was certainly the case with the departure of Premier Gladys Berejiklian following her difficulties at ICAC. Willoughby was held on a 21.0% margin.

The by-election in Bega (LIB 6.9%) was brought about by the departure of former Transport Minister Andrew Constance to contest Eden Monaro in the forthcoming Federal election.

Former Deputy Premier and Nationals leader John Barilaro triggered the vote in Monaro (National Party 11.6%) by retiring, and former Labor leader Jodi McKay’s decision to quit after being deposed from Labor’s top job put Strathfield (ALP 5.0%) into play.

The notable aspect in all four seats was the strong reliance on local candidates and local issues. Perrottet was nowhere to be seen on Coalition election material.

In Willoughby, Tim James was seen as a blow-in by some electors – despite growing up in the area. Whether James being a white male following a woman with an Armenian surname had a big impact on his result is highly debatable. In the end, Willoughby voters gave the Government a clip around the ears without hitting it too hard.

In Bega, voters chose a high-profile Labor candidate over a less-known Liberal who was seeking to replace a high-profile local member.

Health was a hot local issue. Labor’s successful candidate, Dr Michael Holland, was an obstetrician with the Southern NSW Local Health District. He created his own headlines in November last year when he resigned his position after telling a Parliamentary inquiry that the Moruya maternity unit was “unsafe”.

In Monaro, Nichole Overall is the first woman to be elected to represent the seat and has a good local profile, partly because she is married to a former mayor of Queanbeyan.

In Strathfield, previously unsuccessful Labor candidate Jason Yat-sen Li won the seat despite claims he had been the subject of a racist undercurrent stemming from the Federal Government’s anti-Chinese Communist Party stance.

A former candidate for the nearby Federal seat of Bennelong, he faced a strong opponent in Liberal Bridget Sakr and his primary vote was eroded by The Greens and independent Elisabeth Farrelly, a former newspaper columnist.

It is hard to read much from any of the results into the looming Federal election. Strathfield, for example, overlaps the Federal seat of Reid but includes many of its strongest ALP polling booths.

The overall results are consistent with the most recent Federal Essential poll that gave Labor a slender one-point lead after preferences, which is much closer than the last Newspoll at the end of February giving Labor a 55-45 2PP lead.

What is notable is that 42% of voters across the four seats choose to lodge a pre-poll or postal vote which was in line with the 2019 Federal election. Every elector was sent a pre-poll form as an anti- COVID measure, and the highest rate of early voting was in Bega (50.7%).