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21 March 2023  •  Tess Salmon and Elliot Giakalis

NSW Election 2023: The Ides of March

NSW Election 2023: The Ides of March

There's an old political adage that oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them – and with less than a week to go until New South Wales voters head to the polls – the quiet, measured and seemingly polite campaign being run by the main protagonists is at odds with either side's strong desire to govern, and has left a few pundits scratching their heads.

While some have tipped a change in government could be on the cards, recent history suggests that changes of government generally require a significant groundswell of support for change, or perhaps a factor that turns voters off the incumbent.  

At the recent Victorian State election, despite the hurt that successive COVID-19 lockdowns caused the state and its inhabitants, the general feeling was that the Dan Andrews Labor-led government wasn’t only doing enough right – but, the Liberal Opposition hadn’t managed to provide a viable alternative. 

By contrast, in the May 2022 Federal Election, while the Albanese-led Labor Opposition ran a softly softly campaign, and in some quarters was criticised for it – the Scott Morrison factor, which saw voters waiting with baseball bats to punt him out of office – was real and created the necessary mood for change. 

In New South Wales, we have a Coalition Government seeking a fourth term, having won the previous three elections (2011, 2015 and 2019) relatively easily. However, it’s worth noting that when you consult the history books it isn’t uncommon to see both sides of politics claiming third and fourth term victories. 

The race is shaping up to be an intriguing battle on election day with the key issues of cost of living, energy and transport having dominated the campaign. But, days out from polling day, is the mood for change there? Has the Opposition done enough to convince voters of a change? Does it even need to? 

The landscape 

The world has changed significantly since New South Wales went to the polls last in 2019. Firstly, there’s been a pandemic – and the government’s response to it will still be a consideration in voters’ decision making. 

While the Coalition was praised for its quick and decisive response to COVID-19 under the leadership of former Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, the ongoing impacts to the economy have hit hard and have left a bitter taste in the mouths of many constituents across the state. Indeed, many still haven’t forgiven the government for locking down large parts of Western Sydney, while eastern suburbs faced significantly less restrictions. 

This is but one reason why there has been a spotlight on the Western Sydney corridor this election. One third of the anticipated votes on March 25 will be from Western Sydney where the cost of living is disproportionately impacting the region, particularly when you consider the oversaturation of gaming machines in parts of Western Sydney comparative to Greater Sydney – an issue that has dominated the campaign in recent months. 

Both parties are promising measures to alleviate cost-of-living pressures and have rolled out similar toll relief measures which help the hip pockets of constituents in a region dependent on car travel. However, with a more educated and expecting electorate, are “safe” policies enough to get either party over the line, or are punters looking for something more? 

On the face of it, Labor’s $60 toll cap could be one policy that gifts them government. It’s a smart strategy that speaks to the everyday commuters whose car trip from home in the western suburbs to the city and back again can cost upwards of $35 dollars a day.  

But still the campaign has lacked the grit and theatrics of many previous elections, which has left a distinct sentiment that this isn’t what’s concerning the population.  

The recent Bastion Insights report ‘Australia Now and Next’ found only 27 per cent of folks in NSW felt very optimistic about the future. While this might seem low, it was still higher than all other states.  

The report also found that a massive 86 per cent of NSW residents were worried about their current financial situation, compared with 80 per cent across the other states. Similarly, it found that more than one quarter (26 per cent) felt the increased cost of living has had a very major, or major, impact on their household budget. 

This suggests that cost of living pressures are impacting people and that their concern is about putting food on the table, paying their bills and educating their kids – yet which party they think can fix that, remains to be seen. 

In 2015, the Coalition hedged its election bets on the sale of poles and wires, generating $23 billion in proceeds to the state to create an infrastructure boom benefiting roads, public transport, schools, and hospitals. 

The trade-off, which many including Labor will argue, is that rising electricity prices under the privatisation model have hit hip-pockets; yet the Coalition would argue that the connectivity and transport options presented by WestConnex, NorthConnex, M8 and M12 would almost certainly only be pipedreams without the sale. 

This is key, because as is often the case with a city the size of Sydney, transport and connectivity remain high on the agenda with billions being committed by both sides for priority projects, namely in Sydney’s west around Western Sydney International Airport and the Aerotropolis. 

The Coalition is promising to slash energy bills by $250 from 1 July through to 31 December as part of a $500 million scheme, while also committing an additional $1.5 billion to set up a clean energy superpower fund to support renewable energy.  

As Finance Minister, and then Treasurer during the closing deals, Perrottet is widely considered to be one of the key architects of the Coalition’s multibillion-dollar privatisation pipeline. Whether he is rewarded or punished for this by voters will be one of the interesting pieces of the election puzzle, because should he be returned, there may be further asset sales to come.  

The ALP, borrowing a tune from Victorian Premier Dan Andrews’ songbook, is campaigning on bringing energy supply back into public hands, and will allocate funds to establish a new state-run energy body to fast-track investment in renewables such as batteries and energy storage. 

The protagonists  

While opinion polls have the ALP in front on a two-party preferred vote, when it comes to the preferred Premier stakes, the incumbent continues to hold a slight edge. While Premier Perrottet is sometimes dismissed as being unrelatable, he has pursued a conservative and pro-business agenda which has served the state well in its recovery from the pandemic. 

In fact, it’s many of his ministerial colleagues who have let him down. Plagued by scandal, allegations of bullying and jobs for the boys and several key ministers deciding not to recontest the election, there’s a sense that even they have lost faith in their ability to win. Indeed, the retirement of key MPs has left the Coalition vulnerable in previously safe seats such as Parramatta (6.5% margin) and Ryde (8.9% margin), as well as Penrith which holds a mere 0.6% margin. 

The newly created, through redistribution, electorate of Leppington in the heart of Sydney’s west could be the new bellwether seat that decides the election, with the ALP notionally holding it with a 1.5% margin. 

Perrottet is also smart enough to know he will need Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese if he retains government, so not swinging the sledgehammer at his Labor opponents is a superior communications and stakeholder management strategy than he will get credit for. 

On the other side of the fence, Opposition Leader Chris Minns casts an impressive shadow and viable alternative. He has won over the party faithful to become leader and take their hopes and dreams of government to Macquarie Street. 

While Labor’s credentials in government in NSW are almost irrelevant, having been 12 long years since they sat on the government benches, it hasn’t stopped the Coalition running hard on Labor’s economic qualifications, saying they’re loose on projects and can’t add up – the fiscal attack- dog strategy one might expect. 

As an alternative Premier, Minns has been criticised in some circles for being too polite in this election campaign and not hitting the Coalition harder – yet perhaps it’s the gentler polity that people want. 

The 42-year-old became Labor leader halfway through 2021, just as New South Wales began to really feel the impact of extended COVID-19 lockdowns. Unlike Opposition counterparts in other parts of the country (we’re looking at you, Victorian Liberals) he wasn’t one to pounce and make everything political.  

In fact, Labor received credit across many communities, particularly in culturally diverse ones, with local MPs reaching into communities and communicating with them directly – making sure they had the latest information and in a form they could consume. 

With barely two years as Labor Leader, Minns is confident in his ability to lead the state. By prioritising education, health and toll relief, and with a promise to abolish the three per cent public sector wage cap to be replaced by a sector-by-sector negotiation, the ALP is speaking to a voter base of the working-class that wants governments to work for it.  

NSW Labor’s communications strategy has remained disciplined for months, and even when otherwise easy opportunities to criticise the Premier have presented themselves (read: Perrottet’s 21st birthday costume), Minns’ restraint has been notable, and suggestive of an approach that presents him as sophisticated, mature, and grown up. This echoes the gentler warmer polity that now Prime Minister Albanese campaigned on and continues to demonstrate.  

With the modern-day political campaign no longer relying on just traditional media – it is little surprise that both leaders have been seeking to show punters their wares on an array of social media platforms. 

Across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and even TikTok, both leaders have been trying to engage directly with as many voters as possible, with arguably varying degrees of success. Interestingly though, when it comes to the number of followers each leader has, they’d be wishing they had more. 

On Facebook – Minns and Perrottet have about 40,000 and 42,000 followers respectively, perhaps decent numbers for those playing at home – yet these numbers are dwarfed compared to former Premier Berejiklian who still has a healthy 153,000, and Victorian Premier Dan Andrews who leads the show with more than one million followers on the platform.  

Despite the lowish numbers, paid sponsored posts will mean plenty of voters will nevertheless still get their fair share of political selfies, that increasingly come attached with dogs and or babies. Usually, the dogs and babies aren't even theirs, but this is modern politics on the hustings. 

The Bastion Insights report also found that 60 per cent of people in NSW are more likely to rate the current performance of the Albanese-led federal government favourably, compared to 47 per cent in Queensland, for example, which could assist the Labor cause this weekend. 

The numbers, the crossbench 

With 93 seats in the Legislative Assembly, 47 are needed for a party to form a majority government.  

The Coalition managed 48 seats in 2019 but have lost a few along the way – and now hold 45, surviving as a minority government with the support of two former Liberals turned independents – one of whom is retiring.   

Labor nabbed 36 seats in 2019, an increase of two from 2015. They need 11 more to form a majority government. While not impossible, even Labor pundits admit they have their work cut out for them, and with polls seemingly tightening in recent weeks, a minority government is a real possibility. 

As they traditionally do, both leaders have ruled out doing deals with independents in order to form government, but should it come down to precisely that, they will be bringing their best negotiation skills to the table.  

From Palm Beach, through the North Shore, and the eastern suburbs and extending out to the southern highlands, Teal candidates are lining up and hoping that Liberal voters who have had enough of their party but can’t bring themselves to vote Labor, will come their way, a flashback to the 2022 federal election.  

Election funding caps in NSW make their job significantly more difficult however, and at the end of the day their ability to effect change from the crossbench is in the strength of their willingness to cut deals with whichever party governs. 

With what looks like being the closest NSW election in more than a decade, come Saturday, it could be well into the night before we know who gets the gift of government. Voters will decide if it’s time for Labor’s fresh start or the Coalition’s plan to keep NSW moving forward. 

Tess Salmon

A note about the authors 

Your writers, two political junkies and erstwhile staffers for NSW Liberal-National and Victorian Labor state governments respectively, Tess Salmon and Elliot Giakalis, remain glued to the coverage of this election. It is the political nerds’ Christmas if you will. As Principal Consultants at Bastion Reputation, they help clients navigate the often complex and ever evolving world of politics and news media through effective and considered strategic communication, reputation management, corporate positioning and stakeholder engagement. 

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