It is always tricky to draw national implications from state elections, but that doesn’t stop anybody. On Saturday night, after his impressive win in the Queanbeyan seat of Monaro, the Nationals leader and Deputy Premier, John Barilaro had this advice for his federal colleagues: “start focussing on the stuff that matters”.
That will be much easier said than done. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian led a far more united coalition party room than does Scott Morrison. Take, for example, the issue of climate change and coal. The Nationals refrained from making any issue of her having no appetite to support new coal-fired power in the state. The federal Nationals – or rather the coal champions within the party – a week before polling day demanded Morrison come up with federal underwriting for such projects. Barilaro told Barnaby Joyce to butt out and, in very pointed comments, said the federal coalition should save their fights till after “they are annihilated” at the federal election.
Barilaro’s Nationals were a major drag on the state coalition’s result. They didn’t win back seats they had lost in by-elections and lost at least another two; at the time of writing, the final seat tally is not determined. The seat of Barwon, which takes in Broken Hill and the degraded Darling River with its million dead fish, was lost with a 20% swing to the Shooters Party.
Shooters candidate Roy Butler blamed the Nationals for ignoring the “stuff that matters” to the people of the region. He singled out appalling water management. Here there’s no doubt the state government bears some of the blame but the federal government and its former water minister Barnaby Joyce have their fingerprints all over it. They all blame the drought. No doubt it is the major factor but how the diminishing resource is allocated cannot be ignored. The voters certainly didn’t. And they won’t on 11 May when the federal election is most likely to be held.
The Country Labor candidate in Monaro, Bryce Wilson, has no doubts the disastrous last week put in by his leader Michael Daley contributed to the extent of his loss. Daley’s TV debate ineptness with the premier was one thing. But there is also the lesson of the toxicity of racism after the Christchurch atrocity. Daley’s remarks, caught on video last year at a politics-in-the pub event, were leaked by the Liberals at the beginning of the week. Daley blamed a loss of Sydney jobs for young people on highly qualified Asians displacing them.
The leaking was not without risk. In the past, racist dog whistling has been employed to win votes. It may still, but it can also lose them. Thousands of ethnic Chinese voters in the seat of Kogarah punished Labor.
But the outpouring of grief and sympathy after Christchurch is an amber light to politicians attempting the same tactic in the looming poll. It won’t stop One Nation; hopefully, it will deter others.