Down to the wire: Minns and Perrottet to face judgment

As polling booths were closing at 6pm on election day four years ago, and before counting had even begun, then-premier Gladys Berejiklian phoned independent Sydney MP Alex Greenwich. He was at his Kings Cross apartment with his husband Victor and mentor Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore regrouping after a day on the hustings. Berejiklian wanted Greenwich onside early.

Berejiklian knew independents would be crucial if she had to navigate minority government, and needed their support from the very beginning. Later that night, she singled out three (Greenwich, Greg Piper and Joe McGirr) in her victory speech, a strategic move to win them over.

Gladys Berejiklian was quick to reach out to independents on election night four years ago.Credit:James Brickwood

As it turned out, Berejiklian did not need the independents. At least not immediately. But midway through the Coalition’s third term, the numbers shifted. One Liberal MP was forced to the crossbench over serious corruption claims, another was charged with historical sexual assault (that MP, Gareth Ward, denies any wrongdoing and is recontesting his seat at this election). The Coalition spent the final half of the term exactly where Berejiklian feared. In minority government.

Based on published polling ahead of Saturday’s election, it looks likely that Labor will end its 12 years on the sidelines and limp into government. How it gets there remains uncertain. The election will go down to the wire, with Labor and the Coalition in a desperate fight, mainly in western Sydney, to reach the magical number of 47 seats to govern. Labor needs to win at least nine for majority government, but could seize power with as few as six.

While Labor is the favourite to lead Australia’s most populous state, a last-minute revival from the Coalition is also possible. The most likely outcome, however, is that Labor cobbles together a minority government with the support of at least the Greens. Balmain Greens MP Jamie Parker, who is retiring from state politics at this election, says that alliance would not be new.

“People expect politicians to work together and collaborate and what turns people off politics is constant bickering and fighting over minute detail,” Parker says. “What the last four years has shown is that Labor and the Greens have worked constructively together to get really positive outcomes.”

The polls predict Labor is on track to win the election but nine seats is a tough ask.Credit:Oscar Coleman

If there is one thing Labor does well, it is just scraping over the line in elections. NSW Labor has only won from opposition twice since World War Two – in 1976 and 1995 – and both times it was by the skin of its teeth. In 1976, Neville Wran won with a one-seat majority, and Bob Carr achieved the same one-seat win in 1995. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese seized majority government in the federal election last year with a one-seat buffer.

After its wipeout in the 2011 state election, when Labor was reduced to 20 of the 93 seats in Macquarie Street, the path back to government has been a hard one. Labor has had five leaders in the past 12 years (the Liberals four) and after two false starts in his bid to become leader, Chris Minns replaced Jodi McKay in June 2021, following Labor’s poor showing in the Upper Hunter byelection.

The Upper Hunter is not in Labor’s sights this election, despite it being on a wafer-thin margin, but the party is bullish about a swathe of other seats including Riverstone, Parramatta, East Hills and Penrith, held by former trade minister Stuart Ayres. Others could also go Labor’s way, including South Coast and Ryde. If it wins six, Labor can form government with The Greens.

The Coalition, however, is hoping the Nationals can snatch back seats lost to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers, including Murray and Barwon. The sitting MPs in those seats are now independents, after quitting the Shooters last year and retreating to the crossbench. However, any gains by the Nationals could be negated if the Liberals lose seats to any teal candidates on Sydney’s north shore.

NSW One Nation leader Mark Latham is making a bid for more upper house seats but might also make headway in the Lower House.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

An added complication for the Coalition is One Nation, which is contesting 17 lower house seats. While the goal is to boost its representation in the upper house, NSW leader Mark Latham is causing trouble for the Liberals, especially in western Sydney. The party polled 14 per cent in the Liberal-held seat of Camden in 2019 and the former federal Labor leader expects another strong showing for his party.

If One Nation does well, and damages the Liberals, the conservative party may well be a boon for Labor. One long-term Labor strategist this week quipped: “Mark Latham may finally help Labor win an election.”

As Berejiklian predicted four years ago, independents and crossbenchers will be major players in the next term of government regardless of the result. The Greens have ruled out supporting the Coalition to guarantee supply and confidence, but the party has also flexed its muscles and released a list of demands to Labor.

Among its must-haves are no new coal or gas projects, a control on spiralling rents, an end to the logging of public native forests and a mandatory cashless gaming card. The card, which is key to an overhaul of gambling in NSW, has widespread support except from Labor which, despite releasing a modest gambling policy, has refused to be dragged into the debate.

Minns and Premier Dominic Perrottet have ruled out doing deals with the crossbench, although both leaders would know that is a meaningless statement unless either side wins with a majority.

Nonetheless, Minns doubled down this week. “I don’t want the idea of minor parties and a lot of independents demanding major political parties start horse-trading before the voters have had their say,” he said. “That’s the definition of putting the cart before the horse. No one has been elected to the next parliament. We’re going to leave it up to the voters, and we’ll accept their judgment.”

Parker says the Greens are prepared to agree and disagree with Labor, but compromise is crucial.

“That’s why the Greens have put forward our list of seven key areas and there’s always room for flexibility, (for) Labor to be flexible, us to be flexible because, in the end, we want good constructive government,” Parker says.

Premier Dominic Perrottet has backed a cashless gaming card.Credit:James Brickwood

While he does not expect to see it ever replicated in NSW, Parker points to the Labor Greens government in the Australian Capital Territory as an example of how the parties can cohabitate.

Greenwich and Piper have made it clear that while they would offer supply and confidence to the party which wins the most seats, the powerful independents who have teamed to drive through major social reform such as abortion decriminalisation and voluntary assisted dying will not back Labor until it shifts on gambling reform.

Greenwich has maintained that Labor is isolated in its opposition to the mandatory card, and would be defeated on the floor of parliament if it tried to vote down any moves to introduce the measure.

“A cashless gambling card is coming to NSW whether Labor likes it or not,” Greenwich says.

While some inside Labor are still nervous about the election outcome, Carr, the last NSW Labor leader to win government from opposition, is upbeat. Minns, he says, has run an “impeccable campaign”.

“Minns has been admirably unflappable, using words that are well-chosen. His comments have flown very naturally, and it is hard to think of anyone who has been so comfortable leading their party in opposition,” Carr says. The state’s longest-serving premier is not critical of Perrottet, but is convinced the Coalition has reached its used-by-date.

“Were the Liberals to lose, I don’t think there can be finger pointing at Perrottet because there is a lot of lead in his saddlebag, I can’t imagine how hard it is to cop all those ministerial retirements,” Carr says. Perrottet is losing several of his most senior frontbenchers including Brad Hazzard, Rob Stokes, Victor Dominello and David Elliott.

“It looks like his colleagues don’t want a fourth term, and it makes the government itself look like it is only fit for retirement.”

Former premier Mike Baird on the campaign trail on Thursday with his successor as Manly MP, James Griffin.Credit:Oscar Colman

Former premier Mike Baird was back on the campaign trail on Thursday, supporting his successor as Manly MP, Environment Minister James Griffin.

Manly is one of five seats being targeted by Climate 200-backed teal candidates. He is hoping Perrottet’s underdog status drags him over the line.

“I think what we’ve seen is Dom run a very good campaign,” Baird says. “And then I think, what has surprised people is his humility. He’s a very humble leader, he has conviction. Certainly, I think on pokie reforms, it might not in the research groups be necessarily moving votes but what it has shown is that he has conviction.”

“Dom’s willing to stand up for what he believes in, not necessarily what’s electorally popular or what might help get him elected. And I think that’s what the electorate’s calling out for. Authentic leadership, looking after the interests of the state or the electorate you’re representing rather than trying to secure an election win.”

Parker, who has been working hard to ensure his successor Kobi Shetty holds Balmain for the Greens, agrees. “Politicians should not be trying to kick goals against the other side.” But he goes a step further and says a minority government has been good for NSW because it has allowed several non-government bills to pass the parliament that have been initiated from the crossbench.

“We’ve seen genuine collaboration delivers better results and government ministers have admitted that having to work with Labor, the Greens and independents has actually delivered better outcomes,” Parker says.

“No one exercised the power that they had as the crossbench to try and crush the government or do anything unreasonable. People are pretty respectful of that power,” he says. “Labor, the Greens and independents together could have really hammered the government because we had the majority of the people do that. But there’s a level of respect for the process and the public. We’re actually trying to get a good result.”

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