What to make of the Upper Hunter by-election

By Jim Jose
Professor of Politics, Newcastle Business School

The aftermath of the May by-election for the seat of Upper Hunter in New South Wales Legislative Assembly has provided the political parties plenty to think about.

The National Party has held the seat for 90 years. Although the Nationals retained the seat and appeared to improve their hold on the seat, as measured by their share or the two party preferred vote, their share of the primary vote continued to decline a further 2.79% from its 2019 tally.

The NSW Australian Labor Party (ALP) aspired to wrest the seat from the Nationals. However, that aspiration was decisively thwarted with a drop in the party’s primary vote (a disappointing 7.46% from its 2019 level). Its share of the two party preferred vote also declined.

This provided an excuse for bringing to a head the leadership tensions within the party—an outcome that will not be lost on the federal ALP leader, Anthony Albanese.

Both the Nationals and the ALP have good reason to be nervous about how this might translate at the federal level. The trajectory of National Party’s primary vote continued its downward trend over the past fourteen years, from 60.3% in 2007 to 31.2% in 2021.

Similarly, the ALP’s 2021 primary vote continued dropping, from a high point of 32.5% in 2015 (off the back of an historic low of 17.9% in 2011) to 28.65% in 2019, and further to 21.19% in 2021.

Of the three minor parties—the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party (SSFP), One Nation, and the Greens—only One Nation could be pleased with its showing. It gained a primary vote of 12.32%.

The SFFP, on the other hand, saw its primary vote effectively halved, falling from 20.04% to 11.96%. As for the Greens, their primary vote continued its incremental decline from its 2007 highpoint of 8.5% to 3.47% in the by-election.

One of several independent candidates, Kirsty McConnell, attracted 8% of the primary vote, probably at the expense of Labor and the Greens. But we cannot discount that the possibility that One Nation picked up ALP voters as well as disaffected National Party voters.

One Nation had not run a candidate in this electorate for eighteen years and so its performance needs to be treated with some caution. Even so, this will still pose a headache for the ALP at the federal level.

A good deal of the division of Upper Hunter sits inside that of the federal division of Hunter. One Nation’s primary vote (21.59%) in Hunter in the 2019 federal elections nearly matched that of the Nationals (23.47%). Their combined primary vote exceeded that of the ALP’s (37.57%). This was a drop of 14.22% from the ALP’s 2016 result.

The by-election outcome suggests that ALP has good cause to worry about at least two things in the electorate of Hunter. One is whether it will be able to restore its share of the primary vote to pre-2019 levels. The other is whether One Nation will continue to make gains in its primary vote, possibly at the expense of the ALP.

While preferences enabled the ALP to hold on with a comfortable two party preferred buffer, it is not clear that preferences will necessarily flow as strongly to the ALP in the future.

On the other hand, the federal electorate captures a larger number of town-based voters, which has the potential to favour the ALP. Two of the major towns and surrounds where the ALP did reasonably well in the by-election are also in the federal division.

This should give the ALP a chance to win back those voters who moved over to the National Party and One Nation, while holding on to those who supported it in 2019. However, the continued downward trajectory for both major parties in Upper Hunter, combined with the parallel resurgence of One Nation, suggests that the ALP will not have an easy time of it.

Those Upper Hunter SFFP voters who also live within the boundaries of the federal division of Hunter are not likely to see the ALP as a first choice since it is likely that in the 2019 federal election their votes went to One Nation or one of the other non-Labor candidates.

Significantly, the ALP electoral strategy in the by-election did not succeed in shoring up the ALP vote, let alone increasing it. The ALP ran a well-known candidate with strong ties to the local community and of the mining industry. It also articulated a strong pro-coal mining political message. The Nationals, the SFFP and One Nation also pushed pro-coal positions (though with varying caveats).

Yet despite their pro-coal stance, neither the ALP nor the Nationals added new Upper Hunter voters to their cause. Given that the ALP lost primary votes, it would appear that it was unable to attract many disaffected NP voters. It is unlikely that disaffected National Party voters would have chosen the ALP over the SFFP or One Nation.

This means that at the federal level, at least as far as the federal seat of Hunter is concerned, such a strategy might also meet a similar fate. In a context of a declining share of the primary vote, the likelihood of the ALP winning back voters who shifted to One Nation and the Nationals has to be considered low.

In 2019, voters in the electorate of Hunter shifted their loyalties despite the fact that the ALP had held the seat for decades and the incumbent’s pro-coal and pro-mining views were well-known. Moreover, the ALP’s by-election a strategy is also likely to alienate voters elsewhere in Australia whom the ALP will need to win back if they are to win the next election.

This poses a thorny problem for the ALP. To what extent should the ALP recalibrate its overall electoral strategy to suit individual seats, possibly at the expense of national success? The recent speech to the Minerals Council of Australia by the ALP’s federal leader would suggest that the ALP is trying to articulate a coherent strategy around energy and mining capable of appealing to diverse electorates.

However, such a strategy does not address the problem of the ongoing alienation of voters from the major parties. It does not speak to an increasingly negative view of politicians as self-serving careerists for whom serving the public and trying to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number is a quaint but outdated sentiment from bygone eras. This in turn reinforces voters’ alienation from politics generally, and their scepticism as to whether the current political system and its institutions has much relevance for their lives.

An electoral strategy around energy and mining is one thing, perhaps a step in the right direction. Yet for the ALP to rebuild its electoral credibility a more wide-ranging but coherent vision for how Australia might manage the multiple complex challenges it faces will need to be articulated. This will also require the ALP to recognise the changing nature and composition of Australia’s workforce in the 21st century.

These are issues for the two Coalition parties as much as for the ALP. That these issues are real is reflected in the continuing long-term trajectory of decline of the major parties’ respective shares of first preference votes. The Upper Hunter by-election was a reminder of this trend.

Banner image: The town of Muswellbrook, NSW is one of the major towns in the Upper Hunter. Source: Flickr

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