In a tight election, with many predicting a hung parliament, all eyes are on Sydney seats to see if any Teals can wrest seats from Liberals – and can Labor regain an inner Sydney seat from the Greens?
The missing, crucial piece in the NSW election narrative is that the regions have actually set the stage already for this tight contest.
It’s a trend that started here in the Northern Rivers.
In the 2015 election, the Nationals lost their safe seat of Ballina to the Greens candidate, Tamara Smith.
The following year, their safe seat of Orange was lost in a by-election to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party.
The 2019 election saw the Nats lose Barwon and Murray to the Shooters. The Liberals then lost Wagga Wagga to Independent, Joe McGirr, following Daryl Maguire’s resignation. This is on top of losing Port Stephens, Lismore and Bega to Labor. Those eight regional seats lost by the LNP have made Labor competitive.
The ABC’s chief election analyst, Antony Green, puts the size of the current crossbench at nine MPs in a chamber of 93 members. Six of them hold regional electorates. The crossbench is already enormous – and it has been built in the regions.
Even if two Teals manage to win in Sydney, any hung parliament is going to be based on the decline of the Nationals and Liberals in the regions, and more progressive representation in the coastal areas, including Ballina, Lismore, Port Stephens and Bega.
It will be a parliament like no other, and put regional NSW back into focus after being neglected, really, for decades, by all major parties.
So, if Sydney voters make the shift on election night – all they are doing is finally catching up with us.
They are voting for quality local representation, ahead of old party habits.
What does the election hold for the Northern Rivers and what will a hung parliament mean for us?
Our recontesting MPs (Janelle Saffin, Lismore; Tamara Smith, Ballina; and Geoff Provest, Tweed) are on tight margins, but likely to be returned.
In my former life as an upper house MP, I worked with all three during the tumultuous pandemic challenges – border closures and the staged plan to reopen Sydney.
I saw partisan considerations cast aside, as each made the decision to band together in the best interests of our region in a working party, convened by the Mayor of Tweed, Chris Cherry.
This unprecedented bipartisanship was replicated during last year’s flood disaster – and all three have earned considerable community respect for putting community first.
In a sense, they personify the precise style of representation that is craved all over NSW, including Sydney.
Clarence will have a new MP. It has been considered safe for the Nats, ever since Casino was moved into that electorate from Lismore.
Sitting MP, Chris Gulaptis is retiring, and Ritchie Williamson, a popular Radio 2GF announcer, is set to retain it for the Nationals – adding to the curious trend for the Nationals Party to recruit from the media: Kevin Anderson (Tamworth) was a TV newsreader; Dugald Saunders (Dubbo) an ABC regional radio presenter; and Mel Pavey (Oxley) a radio journalist.
If incumbents here retain their seats, and if Labor wins in Sydney, allowing it to form minority government, then Lismore’s Janelle Saffin becomes the new government’s go-to person for the Northern Rivers.
Janelle is incredibly experienced and popular in the Labor Party – the way her clout and collegiate approach swept away petty partisan divisions in times of need is leadership for us all.
Tamara Smith, as a Green, will give us a seat at the crossbench table, putting us squarely on the map in Macquarie Street.
In other words, we stand to gain a great deal from the election, especially if it is a hung parliament.
The upper house is worth watching too.
Current Northern Rivers MLCs Sue Higginson (Greens) and Ben Franklin (Nationals) are guaranteed to be returning to the new parliament.
When I resigned last year, the Liberals selected a replacement who lives in the Northern Tablelands.
However, our share of upper house seats will return to three when Animal Justice candidate, Alison Waters, a social worker from Lismore, wins a seat in the upper house.
This is my hot tip for the election. The Animal Justice Party have earned a lot of credibility under Emma Hurst’s leadership, but its narrow focus has been on pets and animal welfare in agriculture.
The focus on domesticated animals will be balanced, when Alison goes into parliament, because she has a passionate focus on wildlife.
I have made no secret of my frustration the Northern Rivers has not had the attention it deserves, and leadership has been repeatedly imposed on us from out of area – for example, the caravan of bureaucrats from Sydney and Newcastle trying to lead our flood recovery, but failing because they don’t really ‘get’ our community.
A change of government is an opportunity to change that dynamic and for all our MPs, whatever party they represent, to have a bigger role in championing our priorities. Especially the environment (but that’s a whole other opinion piece!).
I am personally excited this election will be a big refresh button for the Northern Rivers, without even having to refresh our own representation – because the election will see the rest of NSW is catching up with our diversity and values.
And if that happens, it’s truly a game changer for us and the state.
♦ Catherine Cusack is a former NSW Liberal MLC (upper house).