Four years ago, as Labor campaign director, Luke Foley declared: “The heartland is gone.” Photo: Alex Ellinghausen NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley visits the Lidcombe Public school voting booth during the NSW State Election campaign on Saturday 28 March 2015. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley visits the Lidcombe Public school voting booth during the NSW State Election campaign on Saturday 28 March 2015. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
As the reckoning began about Barry O’Farrell’s whopping election victory four years ago, some senior Liberals dared to ask themselves a question: could this be an opportunity to rewrite the NSW electoral map forever?
The catalyst was the tsunami of Liberal blue that flooded seats in western Sydney the party had never before considered itself capable of holding.
In his victory speech O’Farrell nominated Campbelltown, just won by a former local policeman, Bryan Doyle, and Parramatta, won by Geoff Lee.
But there were plenty of others such as Penrith – where Stuart Ayres was returned after setting the stage by winning it in a byelection the previous June – as well as Mulgoa and Granville.
On election night, a jubilant O’Farrell said the Liberals had “won tonight seats we never dreamed of winning”. The victories in Campbelltown and Penrith, he declared, demonstrated that “we Liberals can represent anyone”.
Meanwhile, a dejected Labor campaign spokesman Luke Foley declared of the result: “The heartland is gone.”
The next day former premier Nick Greiner went so far as to tell Fairfax Media that O’Farrell had an unprecedented opportunity “to rework the electoral map in a permanent sense”.
So on the other side of another election, how has the Coalition fared in that task?
The raw numbers certainly favour the idea that the Liberals have made great strides towards the goal.
The party managed to hold four western Sydney seats Labor could have expected to bank in the natural “swing back” to the party after the thumping 2011 defeat.
Liberal candidates held onto East Hills, Mulgoa, Parramatta and Penrith.
In East Hills (where it must be noted an appalling smear campaign was undertaken against Labor candidate Cameron Murphy) the swing to the Liberals was 0.9 per cent. In Parramatta it was 1 per cent.
Elsewhere in western Sydney there was a 1.5 per cent swing to the Liberals in Auburn, the seat won by Labor leader Luke Foley.
(Although this was probably more to do with the campaign against Foley run by the Lebanese Muslim Association over the disendorsement of former local mayor Hicham Zraika following branch-stacking revelations.)
All of this against the backdrop of a statewide swing against the government of about 9 per cent.
On the negative side of the western Sydney ledger for the Liberals, the party lost Campbelltown with a significant swing to the ALP.
Campbelltown in particular, whose former MP Bryan Doyle had been singled out for praise by O’Farrell in his 2011 victory speech, was an unexpected loss.
So the Liberals held onto four key western Sydney seats and lost one.
But it is another seat that some Liberals are pointing to as an example of the Liberals’ consolidation in western Sydney: Seven Hills.
Created under the recent distribution of electoral boundaries, it was formed from the old seat of Toongabbie, most recently held by retiring former Labor premier Nathan Rees.
The redistribution turned it into a notionally Liberal seat, but local Liberals say it remains significant that their candidate, Mark Taylor, managed to win a seat held by a former Labor premier.
There was, they point out, a small swing to the Liberals of 0.3 per cent.
So far so good for the Liberal party. But what if Labor won back those western Sydney seats? Where would it stand in terms of forming government?
The short answer is that it would still be a long way from the prize.
Labor looks like making a net gain of 14 seats this election, bringing it to 34 seats in the Parliament. With the four western Sydney seats it would get to 38.
Suppose it even managed to win back from the Greens the inner-city seats of Newtown and Balmain. The total would still be just 40 – a full seven seats short of the magic number for an outright majority.
Viewed this way, Luke Foley’s declaration last Saturday night during his concession speech that Labor was back in the game for the 2019 election was valid, but a little optimistic.
It’s clear the party still has a long way to go before it can be confident of preventing a third term for the Coalition. Winning back its former heartland of western Sydney is only part of the task.
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