It was a golden opportunity for Jodi McKay and the NSW Labor Party. An opportunity which they believed was within reach. However, another demoralising defeat, another leadership spill, and another lack-lustre campaign have left the party searching for answers.
The Upper Hunter byelection was triggered after it emerged that former Nationals MP, Michael Johnsen, was under police investigation over allegations he raped a sex worker. This isn’t the first scandal for the NSW government in the last couple of years, with Kiama MP Gareth Ward stepping down from his ministerial role while police investigate allegations of sexual violence and Drummoyne MP John Sidoti resigning for the duration of an ICAC investigation. These scandals and controversy lead back to revelations at the Independent Commission Against Corruption about Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s personal relationship with disgraced former MP Daryl Maguire. After all the drama, this was the first electoral test for the Liberal Party and an immense opportunity for the Labor Party.
However, it was another disappointing defeat for the Labor Party, who once again failed to cut through to the voters. The national’s candidate (who are in a coalition with the Liberal Party to form the government) was awarded over 55% of the vote in the byelection, including a 2.7% swing in favour of the party. The Labor Party didn’t make any ground; in fact, they actually went backwards.
Labor’s primary vote also dropped to 20%, more than 8 points lower than in 2019, forcing questions to be asked about the leadership of Jodi McKay. My inkling would be that if you walked around the Sydney CBD and asked 1000 people who Jodi McKay was, I doubt more than 10 people would provide the correct answer. I understand that half of her leadership term has occurred during a pandemic, but I’ve never seen a more quiet and uninspiring party leader. Being in the opposition is incredibly difficult because you don’t have the freedom to ‘coast’, you have to take risks, you have to be courageous, because otherwise, there is no reason for voters to change sides.
McKay failed at this task, and after the demoralising defeat, and pressure to resign, she stepped down from her position as opposition leader. A few days of debate ensued between Kogarah MP, Chris Minns, and former leader Michael Daley. However, Daley pulled out of the leadership race, leaving Minns the new leader of the Labor Party. Minns has attempted to take leadership of the party multiple times over the past 4 years, and now he has his wish.
It may seem like taking over a party with a 20% popularity rate is a political death wish; however, I think it brings about a huge opportunity. At the end of the day, it can’t really get worse for the Labor Party. Minns could announce that the Labor Party wants to ban popcorn from supermarkets and car dealers from selling Mitsubishi’s, and the primary vote would still likely remain the same. He has the freedom to take the party in whatever direction he desires, as the only way to go is up.
With that being said, I hope Minns can acknowledge the party’s current position and learn from the mistakes of previous party leaders. Courageous and public decision-making is imperative in the first 6 months of his term. People need to know who Chris Minns is and what he stands for. That is the first step if the Labor Party is going to have any chance of competing in the next state election, and hold the government accountable.
Furthermore, Minns needs to lead a process of developing a clearer set of policies to sell to the state. One of these critical issues, especially in regional areas such as the Upper Hunter, is a clear policy on the future of coal mining. Moreover, creating a robust and competitive economic policy is deeply required to stand any chance at the next election. Also, as I mentioned earlier, alternative policies, especially on social issues such as euthanasia and Indigenous incarceration, must be prioritised to regain control on these topics from the Greens and Independents. This will ensure that the government can reach out to voters, present a clear set of policies, and ensure it continues to directly pressure the government on crucial issues.
Chris Minns, there’s no time to wait.