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With just a week to go until the NSW election, the major parties are campaigning hard to woo voters. But it’s the micro-parties that may end up deciding who will govern. By Alex McKinnon.

Minor parties the key to NSW poll

NSW Opposition Leader Michael Daley holding a news conference on Thursday.
Credit: Mick Tsikas / AAP

It is 39 degrees in Western Sydney and the New South Wales opposition leader, Michael Daley, has been locked out of a primary school.

With less than two weeks until the state election, Daley has been tearing about the city, and the state, in a bright red campaign bus with his face on it, trailed by a team of advisers and a knot of captive journalists.

Today, they have made the 85-kilometre round trip from Parliament House in Sydney’s CBD to Dalmeny Public School in Prestons, a south-western suburb of Sydney, so Daley can announce a $7.4 billion investment in building, or upgrading, buildings and facilities at 204 public schools across the state.

Unfortunately for Daley, Dalmeny Public School has not agreed to host him. According to one of the press conference attendees, the school is reluctant to have a media scrum on its grounds.

Undaunted, Daley, the shadow education minister, Jihad Dib, and Labor’s candidate for Holsworthy, Charishma Kaliyanda, stage their press conference on the footpath outside. Sweltering in the heat, local Labor volunteers dragooned into providing numbers applaud as Daley alights the bus.

The trio walk slowly up the empty path, talking with serious expressions and gesturing purposefully for the benefit of the TV cameras. They pause for photos in front of a sign tied to the school fence in support of the Gonski education reforms – the closest thing to a landmark in Prestons’ vast, hot emptiness. The politicians set upon two small, telegenic children – one wearing a “Little Labor” T-shirt. A man driving past in a black ute yells, “Vote the Liberals!” The trio ignore him.

Across the road, a pair of gardeners working in the front yard of an immense McMansion have turned the lawnmower and Whipper Snipper off at the campaign’s request. They watch for a minute. Despite being visibly unimpressed at the non-spectacle, one offers a cautious nod of approval.

“They’re promising the world,” he says, “but that’s alright.”

The NSW state election has proceeded much like Daley’s Dalmeny press conference – almost a matter of rote, everyone playing their assigned roles, none with any great urgency. One of the few sparks came last week, when Daley told radio shock jock Alan Jones he would sack the entire board of the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust, on which Jones has sat for 30 years.

Polling has Daley neck and neck with Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s Coalition government, but his Labor opposition faces an uphill battle to flip the 13 seats it requires to take office in its own right. Should the Coalition lose between six and 13 seats, the next government will likely be decided by the state’s large, powerful and politically diverse crossbench.

NSW has historically been friendly to minor parties and independents. The Christian Democrats, the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers and City of Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore’s independent brand have all found a long-term home in the state’s parliament.

But the growth of the crossbench in the lower house is something new. At the previous election, in 2015, the Greens expanded its holdings in the legislative assembly from one seat to three. Since then, disaffection with the government in rural areas resulted in surprise byelection wins for the Shooters and Wagga Wagga doctor Joe McGirr.

The legislative assembly crossbench is set to only get bigger. The Shooters are running strong campaigns in a swath of seats in the state’s west, while the Greens are focusing their efforts on the tourism and lifestyle hubs of the far north coast. The growing number of non-traditional races across the state has made predicting the outcome impossible by normal methods. ABC election analyst Antony Green hasn’t even been able to set up his traditional election swing calculator.

Whichever party attempts to form government will likely also have to deal with an upper house of bewildering complexity. The large number of seats up for grabs in the legislative council, and the state’s preferential proportional voting system, mean minor parties can win representation with a relatively small percentage of the vote.

As in the federal senate, a laundry list of right-wing minor parties – the Shooters, the Christian Democrats, former Liberal Democratic Party federal senator David Leyonhjelm, One Nation state party leader Mark Latham and Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives – are all vying for eight-year terms in the legislative council. With One Nation polling above 5 per cent and buoyed by a $10,000 donation from Alan Jones, Latham is almost certain to re-enter public life.

With the right-wingers commanding attention, the parallel emergence of several left-of-centre micro-parties has gone relatively unnoticed. The Animal Justice Party, Keep Sydney Open, Sustainable Australia and Greens turned independent Jeremy Buckingham are all seeking to contest a space the Greens once dominated.

Even in a party as racked by infighting, legal battles and sexual misconduct allegations as the Greens, the party’s NSW branch has stood out in recent years. Buckingham quit the party in December after Newtown MP Jenny Leong accused him, in parliament, of sexually harassing and intimidating women. Former state upper house MP Cate Faehrmann successfully sued the NSW Greens last year for the right to contest a vacant slot on the party’s upper house ticket.

Last month, former City of Sydney councillor Chris Harris and lord mayoral candidate Lindsay Johnston took the party to court in an effort to have the results of an ugly preselection contest overturned. A leaked internal party report last month revealed that hundreds of members had quit the party in disgust.

David Shoebridge, the Greens’ lead upper house candidate, could not be reached for comment.

But the Greens’ rivals have sensed an opportunity and have decided to run hard. Unusually for a relatively young micro-party, the Animal Justice Party has nominated 48 lower house candidates across the state. Keep Sydney Open, best known for its opposition to the Sydney lockout laws, has 42, from Murray in the state’s far west to Macquarie Fields on Sydney’s south-western fringe.

One of Keep Sydney Open’s upper house candidates, Jess Miller, is also a City of Sydney councillor with Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s team of independents. While Keep Sydney Open has not done any polling, Miller points to the party’s number of candidates as evidence it has tapped into an enthusiasm for doing politics differently.

“We just looked to see if there were people willing to run, and there were. We figured if there was a willingness from the grassroots, let’s just support that and go from there,” Miller says. “The Greens are a bit shaky at the moment, obviously, but they’ve been around for a long time. Win, lose or draw, we’re going to make our presence felt in this campaign.”

Emma Hurst leads the Animal Justice Party’s upper house ticket. She says the Greens’ difficulties have strengthened the AJP as it pushes for a second seat in the state’s upper house. Besides people who perceive the Greens as insufficiently focused on animal advocacy, the AJP hopes to capitalise on the Greens’ negative publicity on sexual misconduct by fielding a majority-female candidate list – the only party to do so.

“We put a call out to see if anyone wanted to be a candidate, and we were amazed by the number of people who responded. Most of those people actually paid their own registration fees,” Hurst says. “One of our lower house candidates was a former Greens councillor, and quite a few of our candidates are former Greens members as well. We’re seeing quite a few people move out of the Greens and being pretty vocal about it.”

Even as Berejiklian and Daley declare they won’t govern in coalition with minor parties, the proliferation of narrow issues-based movements has already forced them to adapt. In January, Daley unveiled Labor Loves Live Music, a collection of policies “to keep venues open and keep musicians in work”.

“I’m getting a lot of Labor ads about live exports on Facebook,” Hurst notes wryly. “We wouldn’t have seen that before but we’ve managed to put animal rights on the agenda.”

While both micro-parties have indicated a willingness to work with Labor should it win office, their very existence relies on the widespread disenchantment with the major parties that pervades the state’s politics.

“You know what? Fuck ’em,” Miller says. “People who see themselves as politicians instead of representatives of the community have had their day. Even if it’s not this election, or in this state, it’s coming. If the institution is to survive, it itself has to adapt. We need to kick out so many of these rusted-on people who are just in it for their own bloody egos or interests.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 16, 2019 as "Major minors". Subscribe here.

Alex McKinnon
is Schwartz Media's morning editor.