After 24 long years in Opposition, the new Coalition Government was understandably pleased to be in office. Yet despite its victory, the Coalition's clear majority over Labor in the popular vote had not been reflected in the new Government's Parliamentary majority.
The Askin Government had only a tenuous hold on office, so altering the electoral system to remove some of Labor’s previous changes became one of the new Government’s important priorities.
One step was the reintroduction of postal voting, which had effectively been abolished by the McGirr government in 1949. Labor had introduced electoral visitor voting, which assisted voters unable to attend a polling booth owing to illness or infirmity. There was general agreement that this system was inadequate for other classes of voters who found it difficult to attend polling places on election day, especially voters who lived long distances from a polling booth. An amendment to introduce a system of postal voting similar to that in operation for Commonwealth elections was passed in 1965.
One failed attempt by the Government to secure its majority was the appointment of Labor MLA for Bondi Abe Landa to the post of Agent-General in London. Labor retained his seat at an October 1965 by-election, but Labor lost Bathurst to the Country Party in May 1967 following the death of long-serving Labor MLA Gus Kelly.
A redistribution was due in the term of the Parliament elected in 1965, but without control of the Legislative Council, the Askin Government could not alter the existing zonal electoral system introduced by Labor in 1949. As mentioned in previous chapters, this system seemed to produce a mild bias in favour of the Labor Party, a view that was supported by the Coalition’s narrow majority after the 1965 election.
The major problem with the existing zonal system was that metropolitan Sydney had begun to expand beyond the 48-seat Sydney Zone defined in 1949. Without a change to the number of seats in or boundaries of each Zone, predominantly rural seats in the existing Country Zone were under threat from rapid growth in those parts of the Country Zone near Sydney.
The final report of the Electoral Districts Commissioners released in August 1966 changed the boundaries of most existing seats. A total of 13 districts were abolished, the same number created, though eight of these changes amounted to little more than the adoption of a new name.
In the Country Zone, there was a shift of two country seats to the edges of Sydney. The city of Broken Hill had long been divided between the seats of Sturt and Cobar, and Labor found itself with one less seat when the new boundaries included the entire city within a single seat of Broken Hill. On the North Coast, the Country Party seat of Casino was also abolished. The new Country Zone seats were Campbelltown on the south-west edge of Sydney, and Kembla in the southern Illawarra. In the Sydney Zone, the inner-city Labor seats of Dulwich Hill and Redfern were abolished, the new Labor seat of Merrylands created in Sydney’s west, and the notionally Liberal seat of Northcott in Sydney’s north-west.
Labor predictably denounced the outcome as blatantly inequitable. The Country Party was also unhappy over the loss of Casino. Country Party Leader CB Cutler blamed the previous Government’s legislation and said the Coalition would amend the electoral act as soon as it gained control of the Upper House. The previous mild bias in favour of Labor in 1965 was transformed into a mild pro-Coalition bias at the 1968 election.
The Askin Government in its early years had some drive and vigour. It set about delivering on election promises and tackling some issues Labor had put aside as too hard. There were also some useful reforms. Legislation was passed for a criminal injuries compensation scheme, a National Parks and Wildlife Service was set up, and the Law Reform Commission established.
The campaign for the February 1968 election was uneventful. Two decades of economic prosperity had removed much of the fire from State politics. The programmes of the Parties were broadly similar, with both sides addressing the key issues of education, housing, support for rural producers and family benefits.
The Government was easily returned, winning 53 seats, an increase of five seats in addition to Bathurst gained at a 1967 by-election. The Coalition won 49% of the primary vote, its share of the two-party preferred vote estimated at 54%, a swing of 1% to the Government. The swing to the Coalition was 0.4% in central areas, a more decisive 2.2% in country areas.
One feature of the results was the good performance of several popular Labor Members. Despite their hold on their seats having been weakened by the redistribution, Labor’s Reg Coady in Drummoyne had a 5% swing in his favour and Syd Einfeld 3% towards him in Bondi, as did Harry Jensen in Wyong. Another outstanding instance of a good performance by an effective local MLA was in Murrumbidgee where, in spite of the general anti-Labor trend in the country, Al Grassby held the seat for the ALP with a 13% swing.
Overall the 1968 election re-affirmed the Askin Government in office. Despite the good performance of individual Members, the Labor Party made little impact on the standing of the new Government, at this stage showing little sign of re-generating itself in Opposition. AG