New South Wales

David Clune and Rodney Smith

Key terms/names

Bob Carr, electoral systems, Federation, Henry Parkes, Labor Party, Legislative Assembly, Legislative Council, Liberal Party, minor parties, National Party, Neville Wran, Nicholas Greiner, representative government, Robert Askin, William McKell

 

New South Wales (NSW) politicians tend to see their state as ‘the premier state’, a claim once emblazoned on NSW vehicle number plates. This contentious claim of pre-eminence rests on two main strands. One strand is cultural centrality: in 1788, the convict colony in NSW initiated the ‘defining moments and symbols’ of the later Australian nation.1 One version of this idea incorporates stories of colonial politicians successfully pressing for self-government, public works and land development, the great strikes of the 1890s, the founding of the Labor Party (ALP) and, most recently, Sydney’s rise as a global city – ‘the quintessential Australian city, raffish, hedonistic, where old wealth means nothing and new wealth is admired and ostentatiously displayed’.2 A more critical version of the idea of cultural centrality sees the colony’s founding on ‘Australia Day’ as emblematic of unresolved conflicts and inequalities between the colonisers and Indigenous Australians.

The second strand has to do with the size of NSW. Although it is not physically the largest of the six Australian states, NSW has the biggest population, the greatest wealth and the most government activity. In 2018, NSW had 7.95 million people (1.52 million more than Victoria, the next most populous state) and generated 32.7 per cent of Australia’s gross domestic product (compared with Victoria’s 23.4 per cent). In 2016, NSW became the first quarter of a trillion dollar state economy in Australia. The NSW public sector employed 473,000 workers, almost twice as many as the Commonwealth (241,000) and over 100,000 more than Victoria.

NSW’s potential to dominate national politics, as well as the fears this potential has generated in other parts of the country, have been clear since the Federation debates over the Australian Constitution. NSW has played a major role in national politics and is often seen as the state that is politically closest to the national centre. It sends about one-third of the members to the House of Representatives (currently 47 out of 150) and has provided almost half of the country’s prime ministers (14 of 30). The state’s citizens have identified more closely with the centre and have possessed weaker state loyalties than citizens of other states.3

Perhaps for this reason, NSW has rarely been a leader of the states in Commonwealth–state conflicts and has not been particularly innovative among the states in developing new directions and approaches in public policy.4 As Elaine Thompson comments in her survey of NSW governments, ‘Pragmatism seems to be the order of the day rather than bold visions from either the Left or the Right’.5 Politics within NSW has been dominated by practical problem-solving administration, tinged with anxiety about whether the performance of the state’s government and public sector match its claims to premier status.

The constitutional framework

Over a period of a century or so after 1788, NSW developed a pattern of representative and responsible government – including strong bicameralism, entrenchment of key constitutional provisions and judicial review – that later helped to form expectations about the Australian Constitution.6

Until 1823, all legislative and executive authority in the British colony of NSW, which covered most of the continent of Australia, resided in the governor. The Legislative Council was established in 1823 to give the colonists token involvement in the legislative process. An Executive Council was formed in 1825 to advise the governor in his administrative capacity. Both were nominated bodies consisting of officials and leading colonists. This was the beginning of the process of establishing representative government in NSW. A Supreme Court with full judicial independence was created in 1823, providing legal protection against government action.7

In 1843, the Legislative Council became Australia’s first elected legislature, with the majority of its members directly elected, albeit on a restricted franchise. There was growing pressure within the colony for NSW citizens to be given the same rights, including self-government, as existed in Britain. The British government’s philosophy was to grant self-government to colonies when they were ready and it agreed to do so in NSW.8 Under the guidance of the colony’s pre-eminent statesman, William Charles Wentworth, the NSW Legislative Council drafted a constitution. After some amendments by the UK government, this draft became the Constitution Act 1855 (NSW).9

In 1856, the NSW parliament assumed the bicameral shape it has today. The Legislative Council became an upper house along the lines of the British House of Lords. Members of the new lower house, the Legislative Assembly, represented geographic districts and were elected on a broad manhood suffrage. Governments and individual government ministers were responsible to the parliament, holding office only while they had the support – ‘the confidence’ – of the popularly elected Assembly. Public funds could only be expended with parliamentary approval. Finance Bills had to originate in the Assembly. The governor acted on the advice of ministers. The Executive Council, consisting of the ministry and the governor, was the formal mechanism by which Cabinet decisions were given official legitimacy. The legality of government actions could be tested in the courts.

Ministers exercised considerable patronage in appointments at all levels of the growing public service until the 1890s, when the creation of the Public Service Board established a model of independent recruitment, promotion and deployment of staff that continued until the 1980s. After 1988, ‘new public management’ reforms included the abolition of the Public Service Board, decentralised public service recruitment and greater ministerial control over senior public servants. A system of elected local councils developed from the 1840s; however, the existence, funding and powers of local government bodies have never been entrenched in the NSW constitution and local councils remain subject to the control of the government.10

The Legislative Assembly

The 19th-century Legislative Assembly was not dominated by disciplined political parties. Governments often rose and fell in the house, rather than at elections, as premiers gained and lost support from other members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) (see Table 1). The Assembly occupied a more central position in the democratic process than it ever would again. In the early 20th century, Labor and non-Labor parties began to control the Assembly. The house’s deliberation and scrutiny functions atrophied as governments gagged debate and rushed legislation through.11

The main exception to majority party control of the Assembly occurred after the 1991 election, which left the Liberal–National Coalition government of Nick Greiner in a minority. In return for support from three independent members, Greiner implemented a charter of reform that led to a revival of the Assembly’s deliberative and scrutiny processes.12

With the return to majority government at the 1995 election, the Assembly reverted to government dominance, a situation that remains today. The Assembly does, however, exercise partisan scrutiny of the executive through attempts by the opposition to score points, for example, at question time.13

The Legislative Council

After 1856, the appointed Legislative Council was intended to be a house of review and a conservative check on the popularly elected Assembly. Until 1934, members of the Legislative Council (MLCs) were appointed by the governor. From 1934 until 1978, all MLCs were elected by members of both houses of parliament.14

The advent of Labor governments from 1910 saw an increase in conflict between the lower and upper houses, as the Council treated Labor’s legislative programs more harshly than those of non-ALP administrations. Between the 1920s and the 1960s, Labor governments made several unsuccessful attempts to abolish the Council.15 In the 1970s, Labor Premier Neville Wran was determined to reform a Council he could not abolish. After much negotiation, the opposition agreed to a reform proposal that was then overwhelmingly passed by a referendum in 1978. It provided for a house of 45 members elected by proportional representation on a statewide basis. One-third retired at each general election.16

Further change came under Liberal Premier Nick Greiner. In 1991, the Council was reduced to 42 members and the term of office reduced from 12 to eight years, with half the MLCs ending their terms at each election. The quota required for election was consequently lowered, increasing the opportunities for minor party and independent representation. No government has controlled the upper house since 1988, during which time the Council has largely exercised parliament’s roles of reviewing legislation, scrutinising the executive and holding it accountable.17

The electoral framework

The questions of who should vote and be eligible to stand for the NSW parliament were largely settled by the early 20th century. In 1858, all males aged 21 and over who were British subjects resident in the colony for three years and not in receipt of charity were enfranchised. A requirement, abolished in 1893, that a voter had to reside in his electorate for six months disqualified many potential voters, including large numbers of itinerant workers. Women had to wait until 1902 to gain the vote, until 1918 to be able to stand for the Legislative Assembly, and until 1926 to be eligible for the Legislative Council. Indigenous people have always had the same formal voting rights as others in NSW, although the residential and charity disqualifications led to much Indigenous disenfranchisement. Compulsory enrolment was introduced in 1921 and compulsory voting in 1928. The voting age was reduced to 18 years in 1973.18

Methods of electing representatives have been subject to greater variation, as governments have sought to gain electoral advantage or reverse an advantage enjoyed by their predecessors. Until 1910, NSW had used plurality (‘first-past-the-post’) ballots in single-member districts to elect the Assembly. Rapid experimentation took place from 1910 to 1928, with second round ‘run-off’ elections, proportional preferential voting in multi-member electorates, optional preferential voting (OPV) in single-member electorates and, finally, full preferential voting in single-member electorates. The latter system was retained until 1979, when the Wran Labor government provided for OPV in single-member districts. This method has continued since, allowing voters to allocate preferences to as many or as few candidates as they wish.19

Since 1978, Legislative Council elections have used OPV, with ‘above-the-line’ or ‘group ticket’ voting introduced from 1988 to simplify the process. The rules about upper house preferences have been altered over time to reflect changes in the size of the Council and to prevent minor parties with little support being elected.20

The boundaries of individual Assembly seats have long been drawn independently of governments. Legislation in 1893 instituted an Electoral Commission, consisting of public servants, to draw up the electoral boundaries. It also created a regular process to review them. In 1928, the position of electoral commissioner was established to head the Electoral Office. The electoral commissioner replaced parliament as the final consent authority for redistributions in 1949. Currently, the commissioners for a redistribution are a judge of the Supreme Court (past or current), the electoral commissioner and the surveyor-general. Redistributions are automatically triggered after every second general election, if more than a quarter of electoral districts do not have an equal number of voters or if there is a change in the number of members of the Legislative Assembly.21

As in most other states, for many years non-Labor and Labor governments alike used zonal systems to attempt to maximise their chances of election by manipulating the numbers of votes required to elect a representative from Sydney, regional areas around Sydney and rural areas. Reforms by the Wran ALP government in 1979 abolished the long-term over-representation of rural voters in the Assembly. In 1991, the government’s right to call an early election was replaced by a fixed four-year electoral term, with elections held every four years on the fourth Saturday in March. These changes were entrenched in the NSW constitution, so they cannot be repealed without a referendum.22

Until the 1980s, election candidates raised their own campaign funds and were not required to reveal who had provided them with funding. In 1981, NSW passed the first laws in Australia providing for public funding of elections and public disclosure of political donations. Within a few years, public funding of candidates winning 4 per cent or more of the vote proved relatively uncontroversial.23 By contrast, public disclosure of the sources and sizes of election donations has become an increasingly contentious and complex issue over the past decade. The controversies began with claims that some donors and candidates had used loopholes in the rules to disguise their funding arrangements, or had simply broken the rules without detection or punishment. Recent efforts by a series of NSW governments to ban contributions from particular types of donors, including property developers, to cap contributions from other donors and to restrict the amount that candidates can spend on campaigns have been highly contentious and subject to legal challenges. How much influence election donations buy and how such donations should be regulated are ongoing questions in NSW.24

The political contest

The political contest in NSW since the advent of representative and responsible government in 1856 can be divided into five broad eras: faction politics in the early colonial period; a late colonial period dominated by Free Traders and Protectionists; an unstable contest between Labor and anti-Labor parties from the 1900s to the 1940s; a Labor versus Coalition contest from the 1940s to the 1980s, dominated by Labor; and a period from the late 1980s when Labor versus Coalition competition has been modified by minor party and independent challengers.

The colonial period

At the first popular elections in 1856, the political contest was between liberals and conservatives. In the ensuing decades, the conservatives disappeared as a political force. Almost all politicians labelled themselves ‘liberal’, which became a diffuse, diluted creed. Competition for government was between loose factions gathered around dominant political leaders, such as Charles Cowper, John Robertson, James Martin, Alexander Stuart and the greatest of them all, Henry Parkes, who still holds the record as NSW’s longest-serving premier, completing a cumulative term of 11 years and nine months (see Table 1).25

A two-party system emerged in the 1880s between Free Traders and Protectionists. As a major trading centre, Sydney was a Free Trade stronghold. Protection was supported by manufacturers and farmers who wanted tariffs to safeguard them from imports from overseas and from other colonies. Federation made the fiscal issue irrelevant in NSW, as the Australian Constitution entrenched free trade between the new states and gave power over tariffs to the Commonwealth government. The Free Traders became the Liberal Party and the Protectionists became the Progressives.26

Election*

Premier/s between elections**

Main support in Assembly

Government status

1856

Stuart Donaldson

Charles Cowper

Henry Parker

Charles Cowper

Independents

Cowper faction

Independents

Cowper–Robertson faction

Minority

Minority

Minority

Minority

1858

Charles Cowper

Cowper–Robertson faction

Minority

1859

Charles Cowper

William Forster

John Robertson

Cowper–Robertson faction

Independents

Cowper–Robertson faction

Minority

Minority

Minority

1860

John Robertson

Charles Cowper

James Martin

Cowper–Robertson faction

Cowper–Robertson faction

Martin and Forster factional coalition

Minority

Minority

Minority

1864

James Martin

Charles Cowper

James Martin

John Robertson

Martin and Forster factional coalition

Cowper–Robertson faction

Parkes and Martin factional coalition

Cowper–Robertson and Forster factional coalition

Minority

Minority

Minority

Minority

1869

John Robertson
 

Charles Cowper
 

James Martin

Cowper–Robertson and Forster factional coalition

Cowper–Robertson and Forster factional coalition

Martin and Robertson factional coalition

Minority
 

Minority
 

Minority

1872

Henry Parkes

Parkes faction

Minority

1874

John Robertson

Henry Parkes

John Robertson

Robertson faction

Parkes faction

Robertson faction

Minority

Minority

Minority

1877

John Robertson

James Farnell

Henry Parkes

Robertson faction

Independents

Parkes and Robertson factional coalition

Minority

Minority

Majority

1880

Henry Parkes

Parkes and Robertson factional coalition

Majority

1882

Alexander Stuart

George Dibbs

Stuart–Dibbs–Jennings faction

Dibbs–Jennings faction

Minority

Minority

1885

John Robertson

Patrick Jennings

Henry Parkes

Robertson faction

Dibbs–Jennings faction

Free Trade

Minority

Minority

Minority

1887

Henry Parkes

George Dibbs

Free Trade

Protectionist

Minority

Minority

1889

Henry Parkes

Free Trade

Minority

1891

Henry Parkes

George Dibbs

Free Trade

Protectionist

Minority

Minority

1894

George Reid

Free Trade

Minority

1895

George Reid

Free Trade

Minority

1898

George Reid

William Lyne

John See

Free Trade

Protectionist

Progressive

Minority

Minority

Minority

Table 1 Elections, premiers, Assembly support and government status in the colonial period.

*Year of first day of voting if voting occurred on multiple days.
**The first premier listed next to each election date is the first leader who secured office as a result of the election. Premiers who continued to govern for short periods after losing an election until a successor was sworn in are not included.

The Labor Party changes the contest

A stronger challenge to the colonial pattern of political competition came from the formation of the Labor Party. In January 1890, the NSW Trades and Labor Council decided to elect representatives to parliament to protect and further its interests. The initial platform was a practical, down-to-earth document, mainly concerned with matters such as industrial, electoral, land, educational and social reform. The new party drew support not only from the urban working class but also from small farmers, shopkeepers and intellectuals. It had socialist elements but these were never predominant. From its inception, Labor was committed to the parliamentary road to reform.27

Labor did well in the 1891 poll, winning 29 per cent of the primary vote. As a third party holding the balance of power, Labor’s approach was to support the party that offered to advance its agenda the most.

Labor constructed its organisation on the innovative basis of grassroots control. In practice, these democratic ideals were often subverted by dominant factions that ruled with an iron fist. The early electoral successes of the Labor Party pushed non-Labor forces together into a single party, the Liberal Party, in the 1900s, creating the Labor versus Liberal dynamic of party politics that has dominated NSW politics ever since.28

Election

Premier/s between elections*

Main support in Assembly

Government status

1901

John See

Thomas Waddell

Progressive

Progressive

Minority

Minority

1904

Joseph Carruthers

Liberal

Minority

1907

Joseph Carruthers

Charles Wade

Liberal

Liberal

Minority

Minority

1910

James McGowen

William Holman

Labor

Labor

Majority

Majority

1913

William Holman

Labor then Nationalist

Majority

1916

William Holman

Nationalist

Majority

1920

John Storey

James Dooley

George Fuller

James Dooley

Labor

Labor

Nationalist–Progressive Coalition

Labor

Minority

Minority

Minority

Minority

1922

George Fuller

Nationalist–Progressive Coalition

Majority

1925

John Lang

Labor

Majority

1927

Thomas Bavin

Nationalist–Country Coalition

Majority

1930

John Lang

Bertram Stevens

Labor

United Australia–Country Coalition

Majority

Minority

1932

Bertram Stevens

United Australia–Country Coalition

Majority

1935

Bertram Stevens

United Australia–Country Coalition

Majority

1938

Bertram Stevens

Alexander Mair

United Australia–Country Coalition

United Australia–Country Coalition

Majority

Majority

Table 2 Elections, premiers, Assembly support and government status from Federation to the Second World War.

*The first premier listed next to each election date is the first leader who secured office as a result of the election. Premiers who continued to govern for short periods after losing an election until a successor was sworn in are not included.

In 1910, Labor formed its first NSW government; it was re-elected in 1913. This level of success proved impossible to repeat throughout the next few decades, with Labor only governing for two-fifths of the period from 1910 to 1941 (see Table 2). Although Labor governments had some important achievements to their credit in this period, they were repeatedly brought undone by internal divisions.

The party split when Labor Premier W.A. Holman defied Labor policy and supported conscription in the First World War. Holman and most of his Cabinet left Labor in late 1916 and combined with their former enemies to form the Nationalists. The conscription split reinforced the belief within the unions and the party machine that Labor politicians could not be trusted and needed to be kept under strict control. Jack Lang, who became Labor leader in 1923, plunged the party into an internal war; his inflammatory style as premier led NSW close to major civil disorder. In 1932, Governor Sir Philip Game used his reserve powers to dismiss Lang. At the ensuing election, Labor suffered a crushing defeat and remained in the wilderness for much of the next decade.29

In the period after 1910, the major non-Labor party went through two realignments, absorbing the Labor conscription defectors to become the National Association of NSW (the Nationalists) in 1917 and then reforming as the United Australia Party (UAP) in 1932. Although electorally more successful than not, the Nationalists and UAP were both organisationally weak parties, heavily reliant on strong parliamentary leaders. Disastrous election losses in the early 1940s led to the UAP’s dissolution.30

Apart from facing Labor’s challenge, the Nationalists had to deal with farmers, graziers and rural business people who were angered by what they saw as the Nationalists’ neglect of ‘the bush’. Disaffected conservative rural politicians ran under the Progressive banner at the 1920 election, winning 11 seats in rural NSW. A split among the Progressives over how closely to support George Fuller’s Nationalists led to the formation of the NSW Country Party in 1922. A workable relationship between the conservative parties of town and country was not resolved until after the 1927 election, when the Country Party won 13 seats and negotiated five ministries, including the deputy premiership, as junior partner in a Nationalist–Country Coalition government. This established the long-term pattern of Coalition relations whenever the major non-Labor parties governed in NSW.31

Postwar Labor dominance

William McKell, who replaced Lang as Labor leader in 1939, won a landslide victory in 1941. Labor would dominate NSW politics over the following eight decades, governing for more than two-thirds of that time, over three lengthy periods: 1941 to 1965, 1976 to 1988 and 1995 to 2011 (see Table 3).

McKell and many of his colleagues had been scarred by the Lang years and were determined to create a new style of Labor government. McKell’s emphasis was on internal unity, political moderation and efficient administration. During his two terms, he implemented significant social, industrial and environmental reforms and established a model of negotiated compromise between the ALP machine and Labor governments that continued under his successors. This model, along with political skill and continuous prosperity in the long postwar boom, helped Labor to retain office until 1965.32

Election

Premier/s between elections*

Main support in Assembly

Government status

1941

William McKell

Labor

Majority

1944

William McKell

James McGirr

Labor

Labor

Majority

Majority

1947

James McGirr

Labor

Majority

1950

James McGirr

John Cahill

Labor

Labor

Minority

Minority

1953

John Cahill

Labor

Majority

1956

John Cahill

Labor

Majority

1959

John Cahill

Robert Heffron

Labor

Labor

Majority

Majority

1962

Robert Heffron

John Renshaw

Labor

Labor

Majority

Majority

1965

Robert Askin

Liberal–Country Coalition

Majority

1968

Robert Askin

Liberal–Country Coalition

Majority

1971

Robert Askin

Liberal–Country Coalition

Majority

1973

Robert Askin

Thomas Lewis

Eric Willis

Liberal–Country Coalition

Liberal–Country Coalition

Liberal–Country Coalition

Majority

Majority

Majority

1976

Neville Wran

Labor

Majority

1978

Neville Wran

Labor

Majority

1981

Neville Wran

Labor

Majority

1984

Neville Wran

Barrie Unsworth

Labor

Labor

Majority

Majority

1988

Nicholas Greiner

Liberal–National Coalition

Majority

1991

Nicholas Greiner

John Fahey

Liberal–National Coalition

Liberal–National Coalition

Minority

Minority

1995

Robert Carr

Labor

Majority

1999

Robert Carr

Labor

Majority

2003

Robert Carr

Morris Iemma

Labor

Labor

Majority

Majority

2007

Morris Iemma

Nathan Rees

Kristina Keneally

Labor

Labor

Labor

Labor

Majority

Majority

Majority

Majority

2011

Barry O’Farrell

Michael Baird

Liberal–National Coalition

Liberal–National Coalition

Majority

Majority

2015

Michael Baird

Gladys Berejiklian

Liberal–National Coalition

Liberal–National Coalition

Majority

Majority

 

Table 3 Elections, premiers, Assembly support and government status since 1941.

*The first premier listed next to each election date is the first leader who secured office as a result of the election. Premiers who continued to govern for short periods after losing an election until a successor was sworn in are not included.

Labor won the 1976 election under Neville Wran, who was premier for the next decade. As well as maintaining the McKell model, he took account of the emergence of new policy issues concerning quality of life and equality of opportunity. Wran was re-elected with record majorities in 1978 and 1981, and less easily in 1984.33

Bob Carr led Labor back to office with a narrow victory in 1995, before winning easily in 1999 and 2003. Economic efficiency and environmental sustainability were the key elements of the Carr model. He became the longest continuously serving NSW premier, remaining in office for 10 years and four months. Carr’s premiership was followed by a period of instability and rapid leadership change. The ALP’s organisational wing clashed with the government over electricity privatisation. The influence of back-room figures such as Eddie Obeid, who was subsequently imprisoned for corruption, was a major issue. At the 2011 election, Labor suffered its worst defeat since 1904, winning just 36 per cent of the two-party preferred vote.34

Why was NSW Labor so dominant after 1941? Part of the answer lies in the sheer extent of the NSW UAP’s collapse in the early 1940s and the difficulty of establishing a competitive Liberal organisation. The NSW division of the Liberal Party, formed in 1945, had a similar structure to the UAP, except that it controlled its own finances, rather than relying on shadowy business interests. Liberal head office under General Secretary John Carrick developed a more co-ordinated statewide organisational structure than the UAP had achieved or even desired.35

The Liberal Party suffered from several long-term problems. Its leaders were no match for able ALP premiers like Joe Cahill. The parliamentary party was internally divided and was often in conflict with the machine. Relations with the Country Party were poisonous. Like others in the NSW Liberal Party, Carrick’s main emphasis was the national contest, where the party quickly showed it could defeat Labor. The NSW Party finally found a successful leader in the long-serving and popular Robert Askin (deputy leader 1954–59; opposition leader 1959–65; premier 1965–75). His government was initially innovative, establishing a Law Reform Commission, Ombudsman and Consumer Claims Tribunal. However, it became noticeably lethargic in its final years.

Subsequently, the Liberals have struggled to find leaders who have been able to dominate NSW politics for long periods in a similar way to Labor Premiers Wran and Carr. Recurrent factional conflicts within the party since the 1980s have added to these difficulties.36 These problems have dogged the Liberals in office, although relations between the Coalition partners have been stable.

Since their landslide election win in 2011, the Liberals have had three premiers, with the transitions being smoothly managed. Barry O’Farrell (2011–14), after a capable and reformist beginning, was forced to resign over a minor scandal involving a gift. His successor, Mike Baird (2014–17), for a time the most popular premier in Australia, retired from politics after less than three years because of a backlash over decisions to ban greyhound racing and amalgamate local councils. His replacement, Gladys Berejiklian (2017–) halted the government’s sliding fortunes in 2019 and became the first woman to lead a party to election victory in NSW.

The previous period of Liberal-led government (1988–95) saw the premiership of Nick Greiner (1988–92) cut short following an ill-advised government appointment.37 While Liberal premiers have certainly helped to reshape NSW politics and public policy – Greiner was the driving force behind the sweeping public sector microeconomic reforms that later came to dominate Australian approaches to government38 – they have generally had less impact than their Labor counterparts.

Throughout the postwar period, the ‘country’ partner in the NSW Coalition has proved remarkably resilient in the face of a declining rural economy, long-term population drift to urban centres and periodic challenges from independents, minor parties and even its Liberal ally. This resilience has been due to a mix of adaptation – the most obvious sign of which was a name change from the Country Party to the National Party in 1982 – and continued assertion of the need for a distinctively rural voice in the parliament and in government.39

The postwar vote share of Country/National Party candidates in Assembly elections has remained stable, and the party’s share of Assembly seats has fluctuated within a narrow band (12.9 to 19.4 per cent). Its lowest Assembly seat return occurred at the 2003 election but the party bounced back to record its highest postwar share of seats at the 2011 election.40

The ability of the Nationals to fend off demographic and political challenges has meant that coalition agreements have persisted, with Nationals continuing to hold the deputy premiership and other key ministries in Coalition governments. The Queensland option of merging the Liberal and National parties has not been seriously entertained in recent decades.41

Minor party and independent challenges since the 1980s

The electoral support of Labor and the Coalition parties has softened since the 1980s. As noted earlier, the Coalition was forced into minority government between 1991 and 1995 with the support of several independents. More recently, independents, the Greens and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party (SFFP) have all won Assembly seats.

Single-member districts make winning Assembly seats difficult for minor parties. The proportional representation system used for Legislative Council elections provides minor parties with more encouragement, since they only need to win a relatively small vote across the state to win a seat. Since the democratisation of the Council, 10 minor parties have won Council seats and minor parties now command one-quarter of the vote at every Council election (see Table 4). The longest standing of these parties is the socially conservative Christian Democratic Party (CDP), whose leader, Fred Nile, first won a seat in 1981, when the party was named Call to Australia (CTA). CTA was frequently opposed in the Council by the socially and environmentally progressive Australian Democrats, with both parties critical to the passage of government Bills at different times between 1988 and 1995.42

Election

First preference votes (%)

Seats won (n)

 

Labor

Liberal–National

Other

Labor

Liberal–National

Other

1978

54.9

36.3

8.2

9

6

0

1981

51.8

33.8

14.4

8

5

2 (CTA; AD)

1984

46.9

42.6

10.5

7

7

1 (CTA)

1988

37.5

46.2

16.3

6

7

2 (CTA; AD)

1991

37.3

45.3

17.4

6

7

2 (CTA; AD)

1995

35.3

38.5

26.2

8

8

5 (CTA; AD; Gns; SP; BFC)

1999

37.3

27.4

35.3

8

6

7 (CDP; AD; Gns; PHON; RLS; UP; ORP)

2003

43.5

33.3

23.2

10

7

4 (2 Gns; CDP; SP)

2007

39.1

34.2

26.7

9

8

4 (2 Gns; CDP; SP)

2011

23.8

47.7

28.5

5

11

5 (3 Gns; CDP; SP)

2015

31.1

42.6

26.3

7

9

5 (2 Gns; CDP; SP; AJP)

2019

26.7

34.8

38.5

7

8

6 (2 Gns; 2 PHON; SP; AJP)

Table 4 NSW Legislative Council elections: vote and seat shares. Source: Australian Politics and Elections Database, University of Western Australia. http://elections.uwa.edu.au/.

CTA = Call to Australia (later renamed Christian Democratic Party [CDP]); AD = Australian Democrats; Gns = Greens NSW; SP = Shooters Party (later renamed Shooters and Fishers Party and then Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party); BFC = A Better Future for Our Children; CDP = Christian Democratic Party; PHON = Pauline Hanson’s One Nation; RLS = Reform the Legal System; UP = Unity Party; ORP = Outdoor Recreation Party; AJP = Animal Justice Party.

After 1995, other minor parties became important players in the Council at various times. Of the minor parties currently represented in the Council, the Greens have the strongest organisation. The CDP relies on support networks within the churches, the SSFP mobilises through gun clubs and hunting associations, and the Animal Justice Party has strong connections to animal rights groups. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party (PHON) won two Council seats at the 2019 election with former federal Labor leader Mark Latham as its lead candidate.

The continued success of minor parties has changed the dynamic of NSW electoral and parliamentary politics. The Labor Party now competes with the Greens for left of centre votes, while the Coalition parties face electoral challenges from right of centre minor parties such as the SFFP and PHON. Governments still initiate almost all legislation that is passed by the NSW parliament; however, they often need to take the views of minor parties into account to prevent contentious Bills being defeated by a combination of opposition and minor party MLCs.43

Conclusions

NSW has a well-established set of formal political institutions that have adapted to changing pressures over two centuries. This adaptability is perhaps best illustrated by the development of the Legislative Council from an appointed to an elected house of review. The institutional framework of NSW politics currently appears to be relatively settled; however, the major political parties face challenges to adapt their traditional outlooks and operations to new circumstances. Recent revelations by the Independent Commission Against Corruption of political corruption involving both the Labor and Liberal parties point to integrity and transparency as key concerns for future governance in NSW. NSW Labor is yet to overcome the legacies of the post-Carr era, while the Coalition government has staked its reputation on a massive infrastructure spending program. This program is intended to address Sydney’s growth and the economic development of regional NSW. Even if the government succeeds in completing the promised roads, rail lines, stadiums and so on, it may face a legacy of unresolved issues, such as population growth, overdevelopment, environmental damage, the merits of private versus public provision of services, lack of consultation and disruption to local communities. A key question is whether the old laws of NSW politics – when the ‘pork barrel’ ruled – still apply or whether NSW is moving into an age in which tolerance, sustainability, quality of life and access to social capital are more central to citizens’ perceptions of what it means to live in the ‘premier state’.

References

Aitkin, Don (1972). The Country Party in NSW: a study of organisation and survival. Canberra: ANU Press.

Bramston, Troy, ed. (2006). The Wran era. Annandale, NSW: Federation Press.

Chaples, Ernie, Helen Nelson and Ken Turner, eds. (1985). The Wran model: electoral politics in NSW, 1981 and 1984. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Clifford, Eamonn, Antony Green and David Clune, eds. (2006). The electoral atlas of NSW, 1856–2006. Sydney: NSW Department of Lands.

Clune, David (2017). Connecting with the people: the 1978 reconstitution of the Legislative Council. Sydney: Legislative Council of NSW.

—— (2011). 1843: the year it all began. Australasian Parliamentary Review 26(1): 23–40.

—— (2010). The development of legislative institutions in NSW, 1823–1843. Australasian Parliamentary Review 25(2): 80–90.

—— (2005). Bob Carr: the unexpected colossus. In John Wanna and Paul Williams, eds. Yes, premier: Labor leadership in Australia’s states and territories. Sydney: UNSW Press.

—— (1988). The McKell style of government. In Michael Easson, ed. McKell: the achievements of Sir William McKell. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Clune, David, and Gareth Griffith (2006). Decision and deliberation: the parliament of NSW, 1856–2003. Annandale, NSW: Federation Press.

Clune, David, and Rodney Smith, eds. (2012). From Carr to Keneally: Labor in office in NSW 1995–2011. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

Cunneen, Christopher (2000). William John McKell: boilermaker, premier, governor-general. Sydney: UNSW Press.

Davey, Paul (2006). The Nationals: the Progressive, Country and National Party in NSW, 1919 to 2006. Annandale, NSW: Federation Press.

Deane, Joel (2015). Catch and kill: the politics of power. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Dodkin, Marilyn (2003). Bob Carr: the reluctant leader. Sydney: UNSW Press.

Gauja, Anika (2012). Election rules, public funding and private donations. In David Clune and Rodney Smith, eds. From Carr to Keneally: Labor in office in NSW 1995–2011. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

Golder, Hilary (2005) Politics, patronage and public works: the administration of NSW 1842–1900. Sydney: UNSW Press.

Green, Antony (2012). The results. In David Clune and Rodney Smith, eds. From Carr to Keneally: Labor in office in NSW 1995–2011. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

Hagan, Jim, and Ken Turner (1991). A history of the Labor Party in NSW 1891–1991. Melbourne: Longman Cheshire.

Hancock, Ian (2013). Nick Greiner: a political biography. Ballan, Vic.: Connor Court.

—— (2007). The Liberals: the NSW division 1945–2000. Annandale, NSW: Federation Press.

Hirst, John (1998). New South Wales. In Graeme Davidson, John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre, eds. The Oxford companion to Australian History. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Holmes, Jean, and Campbell Sharman (1977). The Australian federal system. Sydney: George Allen & Unwin.

Hughes, Colin (1984). The proliferation of portfolios. Australian Journal of Public Administration 43(3): 257–74. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8500.1984.tb01014.x

Laffin, Martin, and Martin Painter, eds. (1995). Reform and reversal: lessons from the Coalition government in NSW 1988–1995. Melbourne: Macmillan.

Loveday, Peter, and Allan Martin (1966). Parliament, factions and parties: the first thirty years of responsible government in NSW, 1856–1889. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press.

Loveday, Peter, Allan Martin and Robert Parker, eds. (1977). The emergence of the Australian party system. Sydney: Hale & Iremonger.

Melbourne, A.C.V. (1963 [1934]). Early constitutional development in Australia. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Nairn, Bede (1986). The ‘big fella’: Jack Lang and the Australian Labor Party 1891–1949. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press.

—— (1973). Civilising capitalism: the beginnings of the Australian Labor Party. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press.

Nelson, Helen (1985a). Policy innovation in the Australian states. Politics 20(2): 77–88. DOI: 10.1080/00323268508401966

—— (1985b). The Liberal Party. In Ernie Chaples, Helen Nelson and Ken Turner, eds. The Wran model: electoral politics in NSW, 1981 and 1984. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Parker, Robert (1978). The government of NSW. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Sharman, Campbell (1989). Australia as a compound republic. Politics 25(1): 1–5. DOI: 10.1080/00323269008402101

Smith, Rodney (2012a). The Liberal Party. In David Clune and Rodney Smith, eds. From Carr to Keneally: Labor in office in NSW 1995–2011. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

—— (2012b). Parliament. In David Clune and Rodney Smith, eds. From Carr to Keneally: Labor in office in NSW 1995–2011. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

—— (2006). Against the machines: minor parties and independents in NSW 1910–2006. Annandale, NSW: Federation Press.

—— (2003). New South Wales. In Jeremy Moon and Campbell Sharman, eds. Australian politics and government: the Commonwealth, the states and the territories. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

—— (2001). Australian political culture. Melbourne: Longman.

—— (1995). Parliament. In Martin Laffin and Martin Painter, eds. Reform and reversal: lessons from the Coalition government in NSW 1988–1995. Melbourne: Macmillan.

Starr, Grahame (2012). Carrick: principles, politics and policy. Ballan, Vic.: Connor Court.

Steketee, Mike, and Milton Cockburn (1986). Wran: an unauthorised biography. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Thompson, Elaine (2007). New South Wales. In Brian Galligan and Winsome Roberts, eds. The Oxford companion to Australian Politics. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Turner, Ken (1985). New rules of the game. In Ernie Chaples, Helen Nelson and Ken Turner, eds. The Wran model: electoral politics in NSW, 1981 and 1984. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

—— (1969). House of review? The NSW Legislative Council 1934–1968. Sydney: Sydney University Press.

Twomey, Anne (2012). NSW and federalism. In David Clune and Rodney Smith, eds. From Carr to Keneally: Labor in office in NSW 1995–2011. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

—— (2004). The constitution of NSW. Annandale, NSW: Federation Press.

Watson, Lex (1979). The United Australia Party and its sponsors. In Cameron Hazlehurst, ed. Australian conservatism. Canberra: ANU Press.

West, Andrew, with Rachel Morris (2003). Bob Carr: a self-made man. Sydney: HarperCollins.

West, Katharine (1965). Power in the Liberal Party: a study in Australian politics. Melbourne: F.W. Cheshire.

About the authors

Dr David Clune OAM was the Manager of the NSW parliament’s Research Service and the parliament’s historian for many years. He has written extensively about NSW politics and history. He is the co-editor (with Michael Hogan) of The people’s choice: electoral politics in twentieth century NSW (2001), co-author (with Gareth Griffith) of Decision and deliberation: the parliament of NSW, 1856–2003 (2006), co-editor (with Ken Turner) of The premiers of NSW, 1856–2005 (2006) and The governors of NSW, 1788–2010 (2009), and author of Inside the Wran era: the Ron Mulock memoirs (2015). He was awarded the Centenary of Federation Medal in 2001 and the Order of Australia Medal in 2011.

 

Rodney Smith is professor of Australian politics in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. Among other books, he is the author of Against the machines (2006) and Australian political culture (2001) and co-editor of From Carr to Keneally (2012). He is the current editor of The Australasian Parliamentary Review.

1 Hirst 1998, 464.

2 Hirst 1998, 464–5.

3 Holmes and Sharman 1977, 34–59; Smith 2001, 281–2.

4 Deane 2015; Hughes 1984; Nelson 1985a; Twomey 2012.

5 Thompson 2007, 361.

6 Sharman 1989.

7 Clune 2010; Melbourne 1963.

8 Clune 2011; Melbourne 1963 [1934].

9 Melbourne 1963 [1934]; Twomey 2004.

10 Clune and Griffith 2006; Golder 2005; Parker 1978; Twomey 2004.

11 Clune and Griffith 2006.

12 Clune and Griffith 2006; Smith 1995.

13 Clune and Griffith 2006; Smith 2012b.

14 Clune and Griffith 2006; Turner 1969.

15 Clune and Griffith 2006; Turner 1969; Twomey 2004.

16 Clune 2017.

17 Clune and Griffith 2006; Smith 2006; Smith 2012b.

18 Clifford, Green and Clune 2006; Parker 1978; Twomey 2004.

19 Clifford, Green and Clune 2006; Smith 2003.

20 Green 2012.

21 Clifford, Green and Clune 2006; Parker 1978; Smith 2003.

22 Twomey 2004.

23 Turner 1985.

24 Gauja 2012.

25 Loveday and Martin 1966.

26 Loveday, Martin and Parker 1977.

27 Nairn 1973.

28 Hagan and Turner 1991; Nairn 1973.

29 Hagan and Turner 1991; Nairn 1986.

30 Hancock 2007; Watson 1979.

31 Aitkin 1972; Davey 2006.

32 Clune 1988; Cunneen 2000.

33 Bramston 2006; Chaples, Nelson and Turner 1985; Steketee and Cockburn 1986.

34 Clune 2005; Clune and Smith 2012; Dodkin 2003; West and Morris 2003.

35 Hancock 2007; Starr 2012.

36 Nelson 1985b; Smith 2012a; West 1965.

37 Hancock 2013.

38 Laffin and Painter 1995.

39 Aitkin 1972; Davey 2006.

40 Green 2012; Smith 2003.

41 Davey 2006.

42 Smith 2006.

43 Smith 2012b.