The Askin Government survived the 1971 election with a reduced majority, but the next 18 months were to reveal evidence of a further decline in support for the Coalition.
In December 1972, Gough Whitlam led the Labor Party to office in Canberra after 23 years in the wilderness. While Labor’s vote improved across the nation, the swing in NSW, particularly in the outer suburbs of Sydney, alarmed the Coalition. This concern proved short-lived, as the Whitlam Government experienced only a brief political honeymoon. In March 1973, there was a 7% by-election swing against it in the Liberal-held seat of Parramatta. While Labor’s defeat owed much to Whitlam’s promise to build a second Sydney airport at Galston, the Labor Party’s internal review of the campaign indicated that the new Government’s rapid pace of change was also partly to blame.
The State Government quickly realised that Whitlam provided an opportunity for the Coalition to revive its support. The next State election was not due until mid-1974, but by early 1973 the NSW Government was laying the groundwork for an early election to capitalise on the changed political mood. The legislation introducing the new electoral zones before the 1971 election had also included provisions to ensure redistributions took place only after a gap of six years. However, the Government now chose to override this, arguing that the surge in enrolments produced by the recent lowering of the voting age to 18 justified a redrawing of boundaries. The Government triggered the redistribution by increasing the size of the Legislative Assembly from 96 to 99 seats. To ensure boundaries would be in place for an election in late 1973, the Government pushed the legislation through Parliament in a late night sitting before the winter recess.
Three new seats were added to the Central area, minimising boundary changes in rural seats and also resulting in the new seats being created in the rapidly growing outer suburbs of Sydney. An increase in the permissible variation from the quota to 20% was an important feature of the redistribution. When the new boundaries were released in July, the six electorates with the largest enrolment were Labor held, as were two-thirds of the above quota seats in the Central area. On most assessments, the new boundaries strengthened the Coalition’s hold on office.
The expected early election was called for 17 November 1973, capitalising on the growing unpopularity of the Whitlam Government as well as a series of industrial disputes. In particular, a dispute in the electricity industry had produced large-scale blackouts. As well, the Government cleverly timed the election so that it was in the aftermath of the Queen’s October visit to open the long-delayed Sydney Opera House. Early elections usually disadvantage Oppositions, but Labor had an additional problem in 1973 due to a serious financial deficit from the 1972 Federal campaign. Rather than aiming at victory, Labor embarked on a defensive campaign to retain the seats it notionally held. The election result saw an overall two-party preferred swing to the Coalition of 2.5%, with a significantly larger swing of 6.1% in the country.
Despite the swing, few seats changed hands. Labor managed to hold all of its rural seats, with the exception of Burrendong which was regained by the Country Party after one term with Labor. As well, at his third attempt Independent John Hatton won South Coast following the retirement of the sitting Liberal MLA. The Government’s increased majority was essentially due to the redistribution, the Liberal Party effectively gaining the three new Central zone seats. There was one oddity in the results, with the Liberal Party losing its safest seat of Gordon to the DLP. The sitting Member, Health Minister Harry Jago, had failed to lodge his nomination in time.
What was to prove of greater long term importance than the results themselves was the transfer of Labor’s Legislative Council Leader Neville Wran to the Lower House. The move was engineered by Labor power brokers, who agreed to Wran’s resignation from the Council and ensured his nomination for a conveniently created vacancy in the safe seat of Bass Hill. When the Labor Caucus met after the election, Wran immediately challenged Opposition Leader Pat Hills. In a vigorously fought contest, Wran narrowly prevailed with the support of the left and ALP head office. He was elected on a count back after the vote was tied.
Leadership speculation also abounded in the Liberal Party, with Askin expected to retire before the next election. When he eventually departed in January 1975, the Party surprisingly chose the relatively unknown Tom Lewis over Askin’s long-serving deputy Eric Willis. Over the next twelve months, it became apparent the Liberals had made the wrong choice. Lewis demonstrated poor media skills, especially in comparison to Wran, and also lacked political judgement and tactical skills. A perception of looming disaster after a bad result in the December 1975 Wagga Wagga by-election saw Lewis deposed in the party room in favour of Willis in January 1976. Willis now had ten months to change public perceptions of the Government. A poor result in the Orange by-election in February was dismissed, but a tougher test was set down for April in the marginal seat of Monaro. It quickly became apparent that the Liberal Party was likely to lose the seat, a result that would have damaged its prospects for the election due by the end of the year.
Despite the Government’s problems, the State Labor Party was struggling to separate itself from the disasters that had surrounded the dismissal and landslide defeat of the Whitlam Government in December 1975. In March 1976, the Hamer Liberal Government in Victoria had capitalised on this mood, winning a landslide victory. With hints from the Fraser Government that a tough mini-budget would be forthcoming, Willis chose to gamble on an early election on 1 May, thus cancelling the Monaro by-election. Willis believed this offered a better chance of re-election than waiting until the end of the year.
The gamble nearly worked. Labor recorded 50% of the primary vote to the Coalition’s 46%. But the Coalition’s advantage in the electoral system made the result much closer, Labor winning the barest of majorities with 50 seats. Labor had gained Coogee at a 1974 by-election. Now it added the five further seats required for office, gaining Monaro in the country, the peripheral Sydney seats of Gosford and Blue Mountains (the latter from a conservative Independent), and the Sydney seats of Ashfield and Hurstville. After the aberration of 1973, the Liberal Party regained Gordon from the DLP. The margin of victory was excruciatingly narrow, Hurstville was won by just 44 votes, Gosford by 74 and Blue Mountains by 236. Critical to the outcome was Labor’s campaign to improve public transport, overwhelmingly the key issue in railway-dependent Gosford and Blue Mountains.
Once in power, the popularity of the new Government soared. Willis stayed on as Opposition Leader. However, his hold on the job was undermined after an unwise comment in the wake of the January 1977 Granville train crash comparing the Wran Government’s rail safety record with the Coalition’s. Peter Coleman replaced Willis as Liberal Leader in December 1977, Willis retiring from Parliament in June 1978.
Throughout its first term, the Labor Party pushed to introduce popular election of the Legislative Council. After negotiating with Wran, the Opposition effectively conceded reform was impossible to stop. With the six-year rule preventing a redistribution before the next election, the Coalition’s focus became preventing the Government gaining control of the Council before the next election and changing the electoral boundaries. A referendum to reform the Council in June 1978 was passed with 73% support. The following month, Labor convincingly won the Earlwood by-election following the retirement of Willis. Labor’s primary vote increased 7%, with the Liberal vote falling 12%. The swing encouraged Labor to capitalise on its improved fortunes with an early election. By September, by-elections were required in three more electorates, and the Government used these and the need to end speculation on an early poll as justifications for calling an election for 7 October 1978.
The result was a “Wranslide”, Labor polling 58% of the primary vote to 37% for the Coalition. Labor’s vote rose 8%, the Coalition’s vote was down 9%. In the country Labor gained Albury, Armidale and even Wollondilly, the seat of former Premier Lewis. In Sydney, Labor swept everything south of the Harbour with the exception of Vaucluse and Bligh, retaining Earlwood and gaining Burwood, Cronulla, Miranda and Yaralla. Labor even pushed into the Liberal’s North Shore heartland, gaining Manly, Wakehurst and Willoughby, as well as defeating Liberal leader Peter Coleman in Fuller.
In the first election for the Legislative Council, Labor won nine of the 15 vacancies and gained immediate control of the Upper House. Now with the ability to pass its legislation through both Houses, the Wran Government embarked on major changes to the electoral system. The 1978 election was the passing of an era, as future NSW elections would not be held under an electoral system giving extra weight to voters in country seats. AG