Opinion article

NSW election: Berejiklian wins but governing won’t be easy

In his analysis of the NSW election result, Greg Melleuish writes re-elected Premier Gladys Berejiklian will need to exercise all her political skill to govern with a wafer-thin majority and a potentially difficult Legislative Council. 

The Coalition government in New South Wales led by Gladys Berejiklian has been returned to office for another four-year period. The government has lost some seats but looks likely to win 47 or 48 seats in the Legislative Assembly, giving it either a one or two seat majority.

Only three seats to date have changed hands. The Liberals have lost one seat, Coogee, to Labor, while the Nationals have lost two seats, Barwon and Murray, both in western New South Wales to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers (SFF).  

On the surface this gives the impression that the election has changed very little, but this is not necessarily the case. 

In terms of the Legislative Assembly, the primary vote of the major parties, including the Greens, has declined, with the Liberals losing 2.5 per cent, Labor and the Greens each one per cent and the Nationals 0.8 per cent. 

The gaggle of minor parties have all increased their Legislative Assembly vote with the exception of the Christian Democrats whose vote declined as they ran fewer candidates than in 2015. The SFF vote increased to 3.4 per cent.

What does this mean? The Liberals have done well in Sydney. The Greens have retained their three seats but seem to have lost some momentum. They have consolidated their position as a minor party that, as with the Nationals, appeals to a particular constituency.
Labor has not performed as it thought it should. The swing to it in Sydney only won it one seat. In the rural and regional seats there was a swing in a number of seats towards either independents or SFF, but this took votes away from both the Nationals and Labor. 

In many seats the Labor primary vote was around 15 per cent, confirming that those living west of the Great Dividing Range have very little regard for the Labor Party. When there is discontent in the bush, as appears to be currently the case, it manifests itself electorally in support for either independents or a party perceived to be independent.

The Legislative Assembly should be manageable for the Berejiklian government, even if it falls short of the 47 seats required for a majority. The same cannot be said for the Legislative Council. Here, the vote for both major parties has been extremely bad.  

The figures I have seen give only 32.6 per cent of the vote to the Coalition and 26.91 per cent to Labor. This is a drop of 10 percentage points for the Coalition and 4.2 percentage points for Labor.

This means that four in 10 Legislative Council votes were cast for the minor parties. The Green vote has declined slightly. The big winner here has been One Nation which has claimed 5.68 per cent of the vote. However, the extraordinary aspect of the Legislative Council vote is that it has been spread across a whole range of minor parties.

It is difficult to predict the makeup of the Legislative Council at this stage although a number of things can be said.  Mark Latham will be a Legislative Councillor. On these figures, there will be one fewer Green in the Legislative Council, Labor will probably move from 12 to 13 members and the Coalition from 20 to either 16 or 17. 

As there are 42 members of the Legislative Council this means that the Coalition will need the support of probably five members of the crossbench to pass its legislation in this chamber.

Given that the government’s majority in the Legislative Assembly will be, at best, wafer thin, and that they will not have a majority in the Council, this means that it will require considerable political skill to ensure that its political program comes to fruition. It will be a test of Ms Berejiklian’s management capabilities.

There may be other complicating factors. The first is that the election had indicated that all is not well in rural and regional New South Wales. The government will need to address rural issues if it is to keep the FSS and the independents onside. 

The second is that voters in the bush tend to be more independently minded than their city cousins, which is why they elect more independent members. Dealing with these members is different than dealing with regular parties. Rural members want benefits for their electorates and tend to be locally minded. 

Then, of course, it will be interesting to see how Latham performs in his new role.

A lot will depend on the continuing performance of the New South Wales economy. It will be much easier for the Coalition to manage the parliament if the economy remains strong.  In such circumstances, the desires of the crossbench can be satisfied. If problems arise, and revenue drops, things will be much more difficult for Ms Berejiklian. The potential for dissatisfaction by the crossbench will increase. 

It certainly has been an historic election with the re-election of the Berejiklian government. Nevertheless, the victory is a limited one and the government will need all its skill should things take a turn for the worse.
About the authors

Greg Melleuish

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Greg Melleuish is Professor of History and Politics in the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry at the University of Wollongong where he teaches Australian politics and political theory. He has written widely on political ideas in Australia with a particular emphasis on liberalism and conservatism, including A Short History of Liberalism in Australia (CIS, 2001) and Despotic State or Free Individual? (ASP, 2014).  He also comments on Australian and NSW politics, these days primarily for The Conversation.