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Winning Back the Bush

A focus on marginal seats in the cities has made NSW Labor's aim of forming government more difficult than ever. George Simon discusses what the party needs to do to become competitive again.

Leading into the 2019 state election, Labor faced an uphill battle to take majority government. Of the fourteen seats that Labor needed to win, eight were located in country NSW. To pull it off, we needed a near perfect campaign combined with a whole lot of luck. History will likely record that it was neither a perfect campaign and that luck was not on our side.

Outside of Sydney, Illawarra and the Hunter, there was not a single electorate where Labor had a primary vote above 30%. In many places, Labor dropped to third or fourth place. Even in Lismore, the only seat in country NSW that Labor won from the Coalition, Labor won 26% of the primary vote. It’s clear that in many of these regions, Labor is no longer seen as a natural party of government or opposition.

The fracturing of our vote in country NSW comes at a huge electoral and financial expense. Electorally, the task of forming government is near impossible if our only strategy is to target a small handful marginal seats in west and south-west Sydney. A narrowing of our electoral coalition to metropolitan regions also means we risk ignoring the large concentration of disadvantage that exists in parts of country NSW.

Just as importantly, in a public campaign funding model built on the number of primary votes we receive at an election, a collapse in our primary vote puts us at a big financial disadvantage for future campaigns.

If we want to win back the bush, we have to start by asking whether the organisation of Country Labor is capable of delivering the campaigns we need to win elections. Given our recent performance in elections, no option should be off the table when it comes to the future structure of the organisation.

If we want to win back the bush, we have to start by asking whether the organisation of Country Labor is capable of delivering the campaigns we need to win elections.

We’ve built an organisation in Country Labor to help us manage a unique legislative environment in NSW but we’ve never really stopped to ask; what do we want it to do? The objectives and function of the organisation have been an afterthought. The result is an organisation that is not fit for purpose. The current structure is failing party members in the bush. There is no comprehensive training program for engaging party activists. Members struggle to get materials to hand out in their communities. We don’t have a platform that recognises the distinct issues that country communities face.

The organisational structure of Country Labor also requires us to campaign under the Country Labor brand. Many members in the bush have complained that the brand of Country Labor has the potential to be confusing to voters particularly when state elections are close to federal election as was the case last year. Other members will tell you that the branding Country Labor is an advantage in their region where Labor is not naturally seen as a party for the bush. Despite this diversity of opinions, Country Labor has never commissioned research into voter attitudes and recognition of the Country Labor brand. We’ve spent millions of dollars printing Country Labor on materials and billboards but we don’t have a clue what impact that is having on our vote.

Despite these challenges, we can point to pockets of success and learn from those. In the Federal election last May, the only Labor gain in NSW was the victory of Fiona Phillips in the regional electorate of Gilmore. Similarly, the 2016 and 2017 local government elections saw Labor take the mayoralty in a number of country towns including Broken Hill and Lismore. Many of these victories have been built on candidates who are connected to their communities and are supported by strong networks of grassroots party activists.

The Country Conference this weekend will provide us with an opportunity reflect on these failures and successes and demand a party organisation that can help us win back the bush. In this moment of crisis in our performance in the bush, we should be open to radical changes in the way we organise, resource, and target our campaigns in the bush. Our regional communities are currently being devastated by drought, bushfires, and government cuts. They are relying on us to get this right.

George Simon is the Assistant Secretary of NSW Labor.

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