Council anti-merger campaigners have vowed to inflict pain on the NSW Government in three upcoming by-elections, after North Shore MP and former Health Minister Jillian Skinner finally resigned officially this week.
Ms Skinner tendered her resignation to Speaker Shelley Hancock late on Monday, apparently after failing to score her beloved Health portfolio in NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s first Cabinet reshuffle at the end of January.
The NSW Electoral Commission will now set a date for three by-elections: Ms Skinner’s North Shore seat, Manly and Gosford. Manly was former NSW Premier Mike Baird’s seat and Labor MP Kathy Jackson recently quit her Gosford seat for health reasons.
All three seats have been flashpoints for local council forced merger tensions but it is debatable whether Manly and North Shore – both strong Liberal seats – will really slip from the party’s grasp.
However, the Orange by-election result in November, when Shooters Farmers and Fishers candidate Philip Donato seized the rock solid Nationals seat, will no doubt still be painfully fresh in NSW Premier Gladys Berejikilian’s mind.
Tom Sherlock from anti-merger community group Save Our Councils Coalition (SOCC) said council mergers were likely to have an influence on by-election results.
“I’ve seen some reports that say the Liberals will be massacred but I wouldn’t go quite that far. There are some people who will always vote Liberal,” Mr Sherlock said.
“My hope is that there will be some really quality debate about what communities want and what the alternatives are [to mergers].”
He said SOCC would be making sure candidate forums occurred and the group would be asking the candidates questions at forums. The group is encouraging voters to put the Liberals last in protest over forced amalgamations.
Ms Skinner’s North Shore state electorate, which covers Lane Cove, Mosman and North Sydney, is overwhelmingly Liberal territory but council mergers here have been some of the most fiercely contested.
The NSW government said this month that it will still push ahead with Sydney mergers, despite halting regional mergers, and this includes one between Mosman, North Sydney and Willoughby Councils and another between Lane Cove, Hunters Hill and Ryde Councils, subject to the outcome of court cases.
The North Shore seat has a history of independents throughout the eighties and it is possible that a credible independent candidate could take the fight to the Liberals.
Mr Sherlock said Ms Skinner said she opposed local council amalgamations but ‘she never spoke out’ and that she ‘basically let the community down in a very big way’.
The Liberals could get a nasty surprise come election time, which is likely to be in late March or early April.
He said: “The Liberals have taken the North Shore for granted and they might get a big surprise. In that way it’s very similar to Orange. Orange was taken for granted by the Nationals. They brought in a candidate from outside the area and assumed people would vote National.”
Meanwhile, Manly could also give the Liberals a fright if there is a backlash against the newly created Northern Beaches Council.
Manly voters have a history of voting for independent candidates and focusing on local issues and personalities. Independents took the seat in all four elections between 1991 and 2003.
Mr Sherlock said that Pittwater residents in particular were angry over the loss of their council but he said that the majority of the electorate may still back the Liberals.
Warringah residents were more sanguine about council mergers because the former Warringah Council had a dominant role in the new council and some residents had wanted Manly Mayor Jean Hay deposed, said Mr Sherlock.
Manly residents might be more worried about other issues, such as the Western Harbour Tunnel and Northern Beaches Link.
But it is Gosford, one of state’s most marginal seats, where and the forced merger between Gosford City and Wyong Shire Councils could tip the balance against the Liberals.
Labor MP Kathy Smith narrowly beat Liberal state MP Chris Holstein in 2015 by only 203 votes. It is here where council mergers could be the difference between success or failure for the Libs.
A spokesperson for the NSW Electoral Commission said the Commission was still waiting for the government to issue the writs for the by-elections adding that ‘there is no legislated timeframe for when a by-election has to occur’.
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