Teals and independents are fighting hard to win seats in NSW parliament. Have they done enough?

Three-horse races and optional preferential voting making calling seats ahead of Saturday’s state election a risky wager

The independent running for the New South Wales seat of Wakehurst, Michael Regan, has told volunteers he wants his to be the first seat called by the ABC’s election analyst, Antony Green, on Saturday night.

By that he means he wants to emulate the blistering win of the independent Zali Steggall, who scored a second term in the overlapping federal seat of Warringah in 2022 with more than 50% of the primary vote.

To set such a goal in this Saturday’s state election shows either hubris or a deep-seated knowledge and connection to his community. It’s hard to know which is accurate, as there has been little polling of individual seats the teals and other community backed-independents are seeking to win.

But as the longstanding northern beaches mayor, Regan has sky-high recognition and deep local knowledge of what some deride as “the insular peninsula”.

There are a group of independents contesting seats around Sydney, with most concentrated on the north shore. Insiders believe Regan has the best chance of success.

“I have been around since 2008,” he says. “There is a sense that people think, ‘Michael is one of us and he’ll look after us. He’s been an independent for years, so he’s safe.’”

Also, he says Steggall and another federal independent, Sophie Scamps, show that “independents can make a real difference to policy”.

On the northern beaches, like everywhere else in the state, cost of living is an important issue. But Regan says the topics that ignite passions among its residents – and which can be fixed – are closer to home.

They include the unreliability of buses privatised by the Perrottet government, congestion on the Wakehurst Parkway, proposed developments such as the 450-lot Lizard Rock project and ongoing concerns about the Pep-11 oil exploration licence off Sydney.

Community-backed independents are running in six Liberal-held seats on the northern beaches and north shore: Lane Cove, Manly, North Shore, Pittwater, Wakehurst and Willoughby. They are also running in Wollondilly, on the fringes of Sydney, and Vaucluse, in the eastern suburbs.

Some, but not all, are backed by Climate 200, the climate lobby group that supported a number of federal independents in 2022.

At the state election, independents’ issues are more diverse, but there are some common themes: a feeling that the communities have been taken for granted by the Coalition and that their particular concerns about development, environment, and services in their regions are still being ignored by the government.

‘Vote 1’

Official looking sign that says “Important: you can just vote one on the Legislative Assembly ballot paper” and have a small Liberal branding on the bottom-right, hidden by grass
These official-looking signs actually carry a Liberal logo. Photograph: Anne Davies/The Guardian

“You can just vote 1,” is the message of official-looking black and white signs at pre-poll places in a raft of North Shore seats.

Look more closely and they carry a Liberal logo. Such is the tightness in these three corner contests that every preference will be crucial, and convincing people to cast them (or not) is the main game in the dying days of the campaign.

Independents trying to win safe seats generally count on coming second on the primary vote, before leapfrogging the incumbent through preferences from other parties. But NSW is the only state with optional preferential voting, meaning voters don’t have to number every box.

The teal candidate in Pittwater, Jacqui Scruby, has complained to the NSW Electoral Commission about the Liberal posters but has been told the signs are within the rules. She has now vowed to make restoring preferential voting one of her demands in negotiations with a minority government if she is elected.

Jacqui Scruby standing by a truck-based sign that says “Want change this election? Don’t risk wasting your vote. Number every box (in the lower house).”
Jacqui Scruby’s mobile sign encouraging preferential voting. Photograph: Anne Davies/The Guardian

Her campaign is using billboards urging people to fill out all the boxes. This is not aimed at Scruby’s voters, but at those backing Labor or the Greens: it will be their preferences that will be most important to the teals.

Labor and the Greens are advocating filling out all the boxes in seats being contested by the teals, and putting the independent above the Liberal, but it’s not known whether their voters will follow the how to votes. In the 2019 state election, 53% of people chose to only “vote 1”.

Green voters tended to be more likely allocate preferences (61%), but there is little information about what Labor voters do.

In the Willoughby byelection last year – between the Liberals and the independent activist Larissa Penn – 46.71% of voters chose to vote 1.

Of the balance, 43.23% preferenced Penn, and only 10% preferenced the Liberal, Tim James.

Penn is running again and her campaign believes anger about local issues – including the Beaches Link tunnel project, bus services and overdevelopment – will prevail.

“At last year’s byelection, I achieved a 19% swing against the state government,” Penn says.

“Since then, nothing has changed. Our transport system is a mess, our environment is being destroyed, our teachers and nurses are being ignored, our open spaces are diminishing and our cost of living/housing is skyrocketing.”

The other unknown is whether voters in these north shore seats have now learned to vote strategically in the wake of the 2022 federal election. Many in the area have the lived experience of representation by independents at federal and local government levels, and have seen the attention you get when you find yourself living in a marginal seat.

But one problem may be the low-key campaigns being run by Labor.

Climate 200 did polling in the state seat of Pittwater late last week, which overlaps with the federal independent Sophie Scamps’ seat. It shows the Liberal candidate, Rory Amon, on 35.7%, Scruby on 29.7%, Labor with just 9.4%, the Greens at 5.1%, other at 6% and undecideds at 10%.

Scruby will need strong preference flows and a chunk of the undecideds to best Amon.

Independents standing outside NSW parliament
Independent candidates are contesting a swathe of Liberal-held seats. Karen Freyer (Valcluse), Joeline Hackman (Manly), Jacqui Scruby (Pittwater), MP Alex Greenwich, Victoria Davidson (Lane Cove), Helen Conway (North Shore), and Elizabeth Farrelly (legislative council). Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

The executive director of Climate 200, Byron Fay, says: “Our research shows that if NSW had compulsory preferential voting, like we do federally, Jacqui Scruby would win Pittwater on Saturday.

“If enough voters allocate preferences by numbering every box, then climate, integrity and economy-focused independents like Jacqui Scruby will win.”

Even if the independents fall short, there will be lessons for the Liberal party on the north shore. If the independents win in even a few seats, they will probably make it impossible for the Perrottet government to win more seats than Labor to form a minority government.

An expanded crossbench could also consign the Coalition to the opposition benches for years. Independents, once elected, tend to get re-elected until they retire because their vote is personal.

The implications for the dominant moderate faction of the NSW Liberals would be profound. Power in the party depends in part on having representation in parliament: it helps with fundraising, and having safe seats attracts membership to the branches. Losing several state seats after the federal losses would be a disaster for the moderates.

But the results will probably confirm there is a significant bloc of Liberal voters who want a progressive voice on issues like the environment, development and climate change – and the party ignores them at their peril.

Regan says the voters of the northern beaches have come to understand the value of voting independent in a region that has been largely taken as a given by the Liberal party.

His optimism can be infectious. But with the twin uncertainties of three-corner contests and optional preferential voting, it would be a brave person who called a seat for the teals ahead of Saturday night. In fact, it might take days to get a result.

The only indicator is Sportsbet odds, which have the teals competitive – but behind – in six races.

But of course, those odds are based on how much money has been wagered. Given many of the independents are campaigning for stricter gaming laws, do their supporters bet?


Anne Davies

The GuardianTramp

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