The 1978 election was a double triumph for the Wran Government. Not only was the Labor Party returned to office with a 'Wranslide' majority, it also gained control of the Legislative Council at that Chamber's first popular election.
Having gone to the election promising major electoral reforms, the results were the starting point for the most significant changes to the State’s electoral system since the 1920s.
The Government began implementing its promises with two bills introduced to Parliament in April 1979. The first bill amended the Parliamentary Electorates and Elections Act to incorporate new electoral and redistribution procedures. The second bill was more controversial in that it entrenched key aspects of the changes to the Constitution, requiring any future Government to hold a referendum to change these provisions.
The bills amended redistribution procedures by abolishing the existing electoral zones and entrenching the new one-vote
one-value enrolment quota in the Constitution. All future redistributions would require districts to be drawn with equal enrolment, with a permitted variation from quota of up to 10%. Other procedural changes required the Electoral Districts Commissioners to publicise their draft boundaries and give due consideration to objections. The six year rule triggering redistributions was replaced by a two term rule, although an early redistribution could still be initiated by a change in the number of electoral districts. The Commissioners retained final authority to determine boundaries without the need for Parliamentary approval.
In a move that seemed designed by the Labor Party to disadvantage the Coalition, the Government also introduced optional preferential voting. Future three-cornered contests between Liberal and National Country Party candidates risked delivering seats to the Labor Party as preferences could exhaust between competing Coalition candidates. Optional preferential voting was entrenched in the Constitution, along with the continued use of single Member electoral districts and compulsory voting.
The Government had also promised to introduce public funding for elections. After a twelve month inquiry by a Parliamentary Committee, legislation to provide Government funds to top up party fund-raising, along with related laws on the disclosure of donations, was introduced and passed in early 1981. The Liberal and National Parties refused to register for public funding at the 1981 election, but failed to make it an issue in the campaign. In a dire financial position after the election, the Liberal Party applied for retrospective funding, a request that was to be denied.
Further legislation instituted a register of pecuniary interests for Members of Parliament and extended the Legislative Assembly term to four years. Both measures affected entrenched provisions of the Constitution and required referendums, which passed with 86% and 69% support respectively. Four year terms were to apply from the end of the three year Parliament elected in 1981.
The 1978 election was the last conducted under the Askin Government’s zonal electoral system. The 66 districts in the Central Zone had an average enrolment of 33 855, against 25 734 for the 33 districts in the Country Zone. District enrolments in 1978 varied from 20 687 for Temora in the Country Zone to 46 901 for Campbelltown in the Central Zone.
Under the new one-vote one-value rules, a common quota of
31 118 would have applied. This entitled the abolished Country Zone to just 27 seats. The looming redistribution would effectively shift six seats from the country into the old Central Zone, though the abolition of the Zone boundary blurred the distinction between country and city seats on the edges of Sydney and Newcastle.
Of the existing 33 Country Zone seats, Labor held only six following the 1973 election, including the predominantly mining and industrial seats of Cessnock and Broken Hill. Labor gained two seats at the 1976 election and another three in 1978. Despite its landslide victory, Labor held just 11 out of 33 Country Zone seats against 52 of 66 Central Zone seats. Labor may have had a principled position in supporting one-vote one-value electoral boundaries, but it was equally clear that it was also the Party most likely to benefit from the new system.
After passage of the amending legislation, an Electoral Districts Commission was appointed to draw the new boundaries, finally gazetted in March 1980. The names of nine Country and seven Central Zone seats disappeared from the map, with three new country seats and 13 predominantly urban seats created. On the new boundaries, Labor notionally increased its number of seats from 63 to 68 or perhaps 70. The Liberal Party notionally lost two seats and the Country Party three seats.
Of Labor’s marginal rural seats, Burrinjuck, Clarence (formerly Casino) and Murrumbidgee appeared to remain in Labor hands. The inclusion of Lithgow made Bathurst a notional Labor seat, while the Labor seats of Albury and Castlereagh became notional Coalition seats. The new seat of Northern Tablelands, an amalgamation of Labor-held Armidale and Country-held Tenterfield, had a notional Country Party majority. On the edges of the old Central Zone, the formerly Liberal seat of Maitland became a notional Labor seat.
The new boundaries understandably created tensions in the Coalition. A number of by-elections in 1980 raised the prospects of the newly re-named National Country Party temporarily holding more seats than the Liberals. The new boundaries caused several rural MPs to retire while others were forced to find new seats.
With the defeat of former Leader Peter Coleman at the 1978 election, the Liberal leadership fell to John Mason, Member for the rural seat of Dubbo since 1965. With the coverage of politics increasingly dominated by television, Mason was no match for the media-friendly Wran. Opinion polls showed Labor’s dominance continuing, Mason even failing to capitalise on bitter factional disputes in the Labor Party in 1980 and a series of problems in the electricity system that caused blackouts in mid-1981. In June 1981, Mason was dumped in favour of Kirribilli MP Bruce McDonald. More direct and colourful than Mason, he was to prove no more effective in denting the Wran Government’s popularity.
A State election was called for 19 September 1981, and after a campaign in which McDonald and the Opposition made little impact, the Wran Government was returned with 69 seats, a record Labor majority of 39. Despite an estimated 2% two-party preferred swing against the Labor Party, the new electoral boundaries saw the Government increase its majority. The Liberal and National Country parties returned 14 Members each. There were two Independents.
In Sydney, Labor continued its push into middle class seats it had rarely held. Labor lost Willoughby, but retained Manly, Wakehurst, Ryde, Earlwood, Burwood, Cronulla and Miranda. Labor also gained Bligh with the new boundaries. The Liberal Party was reduced to holding only Vaucluse south of the Harbour.
Labor also held its own in the country. The mining seat of Broken Hill was never in doubt. Labor also retained Clarence, Burrinjuck and Murrumbidgee. Bathurst was added courtesy of the new boundaries, Labor also increasing its vote. Sitting MPs were re-elected in the notionally Coalition held seats of Albury and Northern Tablelands. Labor’s only loss was Castlereagh, a defeat expected despite a surprise by-election victory the previous year. The seat had been held by Labor’s Jack Renshaw from 1941 to 1980. With new boundaries and the loss of his personal vote, the seat was won by the National Country Party.
The attrition rate in former Liberal leaders’ seats continued. After Labor won Earlwood, Fuller and Wollondilly in 1978, two more seats of Liberal leaders fell in 1981. The National Party won Dubbo on the retirement of John Mason, while the disastrous election campaign saw Liberal leader Bruce McDonald defeated by Independent Ted Mack in North Shore.
The Labor Party was lucky that the 1981 election took place before the economic downturn of 1982-83. By the time of the next New South Wales election in 1984, the Australian political landscape had been transformed by the election of Labor governments in South Australia, Victoria, Western Australia as well as at the 1983 Federal election.
Between 1981 and 1984, the Wran Government faced stormier political waters. The economic downturn created problems for the State’s finances, and allegations of corruption over the administration of the police force and justice dogged the Government. As well, the Liberal Party in mid-1983 finally unearthed a credible Leader in Nick Greiner, the eighth Leader in eight years. His accession to the Leadership in place of John Dowd was well-timed, coming just before Wran was forced to stand aside as Premier for the period of the Street Royal Commission, inquiring into allegations that Wran had been party to an attempt to improperly interfere in the handling of a criminal matter before the Magistrate’s Court. Wran was cleared of the allegations, but his standing had been damaged in the process.
Corruption problems continued, with allegations leading to the resignation of Deputy Police Commissioner Bill Allen and Corrective Services Minister Rex Jackson. In early 1984, when a commission of inquiry into several corruption allegations found against the complainants, Wran saw an opportunity. Judging the time to be right, without even waiting for party polling Wran called a State election for 24 March to “clear the air” on corruption. As corruption allegations were to return with force later in the year, Wran’s political timing was impeccable.
Labor’s primary vote fell to 49%, the Coalition polling 43%. In two-party preferred terms, Labor polled 52%, a swing against the Government of 6%. Despite this, Labor was returned to office with 58 Members and retained control of the Legislative Council. The Liberal Party won 22 seats, the newly re-named National Party won 15, and there were four Independents, including the Independent Country Party MP for Lismore Bruce Duncan. The 1984 election cost Labor many of its middle class inroads. On the northern beaches, Manly and Wakehurst were lost, as were Miranda and Cronulla in Sutherland Shire, along with Bligh, Camden, Burwood and Hurstville. Wollongong was also lost to an Independent.
For all the running National Party Leader Leon Punch had made on corruption, the swing in country seats was less than half of that in metropolitan areas. Labor lost Clarence and Murrumbidgee with the retirement of long-serving Members Don Day and Lin Gordon, but established Labor MPs held their own against the swing in Bathurst, Northern Tablelands, Albury, Burrinjuck and Maitland.
The 1984 election restored a measure of balance to the Parliament. The Coalition emerged with sufficient numbers to become a viable Opposition. The next election looked set to be a closer contest, though Labor was again to tinker with the electoral laws. AG