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NSW byelections preview; federal Coalition rebounds in Essential poll

Four state byelections will occur in NSW on Saturday, with polls closing at 6pm AEDT.

The byelections are in the seats of Bega (Lib, 6.9% margin at the 2019 election), Monaro (Nat, 11.6%), Strathfield (Labor, 5.0%) and Willoughby (Lib, 21.0%). Labor and the Coalition have nominated candidates in all seats except Willoughby, which Labor won’t contest. Willoughby independent candidate Larissa Penn won 9.9% at the 2019 state election.

These byelections are being held owing to resignations. Former NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian resigned as member for Willoughby, as did former Nationals leader John Barilaro (Monaro) and former Labor leader Jodi McKay (Strathfield). Andrew Constance (Bega) resigned to contest the federal Labor-held Gilmore at the federal election.

ABC election analyst Antony Green says that, owing to COVID, all voters in these four seats will be sent a postal pack, though they can still vote in-person, early or on election day.

Checks that someone who voted in person did not also vote by post will be required, so counting of postal votes will not begin until next Wednesday February 16. If the on-the-night result is at all close, we’ll have to wait until at least then to know the winner.

Most Australian elections use compulsory preferential voting, in which full numbering is required for a formal vote. NSW uses optional preferential, with only a “1” required. Primary votes are more important as about half of preferences exhaust.

I have seen no polls for these byelections, but the Essential poll below suggests that both the federal and NSW governments are recovering from their COVID-inspired nadirs in mid- to late January.

I do not believe these byelections have implications for either the federal election or the next NSW election in March 2023. Byelection swings have little relationship to general election swings. The national and NSW polls will be a far better guide to the results of these elections than byelections.

Green said the Coalition won 48 of the 93 NSW lower house seats in 2019, to 36 Labor, and three each for the Greens, Shooters and independents. Since then, two Coalition MPs have moved to the crossbench owing to accusations of wrongdoing, so the government is technically in minority.

Even if the Coalition lost the three seats they are defending, they would still have a 43-38 seat lead over Labor. It is unlikely they would be forced out of office before the next scheduled election.

Federal Essential poll: Coalition trails by just one point

Essential released voting intentions for their four federal polls conducted in December, January and February. On Essential’s “2PP+” measure that includes undecided, Labor led the Coalition by just 47-46 in this week’s poll, down from 50-43 last fortnight. In the lead-up to the election, Essential will release voting intentions each fortnight, rather than back-releasing after every few months.

The federal government also recovered from its first negative rating on COVID last fortnight, as 40% gave it a good rating for COVID response (up five), and 34% a poor rating (down four).

Other than Victoria and WA, state governments also rebounded, with NSW’s good rating up seven to 44%, SA’s up ten to 53% and Queensland’s up ten to 56%. Victoria’s good rating dropped five points to 42% good and WA’s dropped two to 64%.

57% thought three doses, including a booster, should be required for people to be considered fully vaccinated, while 31% thought two doses were adequate. By 66-17, voters thought social media companies are not doing enough to ensure a safe online environment.

This poll was conducted before Tuesday from a sample of 1,069. Analyst Kevin Bonham said that Essential has been better for the Coalition than Newspoll or Morgan since late 2021. This implies that a Newspoll conducted now would have Labor further ahead than Essential.

However, given this poll, it’s likely the next Newspoll will have Labor’s lead down from their 56-44 last week. And Newspoll could be wrong, as it was in 2019.

COVID has eased rapidly in Australia, with the 7-day rolling average of cases falling from a mid-January peak over 100,000 to about 30,000 now. Daily death rates have also begun dropping. This poll suggests that is much more important to swing voters than what Gladys Berejiklian or Barnaby Joyce texted about Scott Morrison in the last year.

Morgan poll: 56.5-43.5 to Labor

A federal Morgan poll, conducted January 17-30 from a sample of almost 2,800, gave Labor a 56.5-43.5 lead, a 0.5-point gain for Labor since early January. Primary votes were 37.5% Labor (up 0.5), 33% Coalition (down 1.5), 11.5% Greens (down 0.5), 3.5% One Nation (up 0.5), 2% UAP (up 1.5), 8% independents (down 0.5) and 4.5% others (steady).

This poll was taken in mid- to late January, while the Essential poll was conducted in early February. If the Coalition has recovered from its COVID nadir, as Essential suggests, it will show up in the next polls.

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