Wagga Wagga loss lies squarely at Premier's feet
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Wagga Wagga loss lies squarely at Premier's feet

Gladys Berejiklian owns the Liberals’ spectacular loss in Wagga Wagga to independent Joe McGirr. While there is no doubt that the bloody war that erupted mid-campaign between Berejiklian's federal Liberal colleagues was very damaging, it was not the major factor.

The byelection in the safe Liberal seat only came about because its long-term MP, Daryl Maguire, was caught on a phone-tap trying to broker a deal with Chinese developers.

After Maguire resigned, Berejiklian handpicked the Liberal candidate who tried to replace him. The Premier was the face of the re-election bid. And she allowed her office, not party headquarters, to run the campaign.

Electorates punish parties for byelections. The average swing against the government of the day in NSW byelections over the past decade has been 16.1 per cent.

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Wagga Wagga was not going to be any different. In fact, a bitter internal stoush between the state Liberals and the Nationals ensured the campaign was troubled from day one.

The Nationals believe they have a claim over Wagga Wagga. They hold the overlapping federal seat of Riverina and when the state seat became available, they wanted it.

The Deputy Premier and Nationals leader, John Barilaro, was agitating for his party to contest it but eventually, and reluctantly, gave in to his Liberal colleagues.

Joe McGirr and his wife, Kerin Fielding, celebrate as victory looked imminent in Wagga Wagga on Saturday.

Joe McGirr and his wife, Kerin Fielding, celebrate as victory looked imminent in Wagga Wagga on Saturday.Credit:Nick Moir

When the Premier fronted the media on Sunday, she said the "government took full responsibility for the loss". People are disillusioned with politicians and them only "being in it for themselves". That was clearly a snipe at her federal colleagues.

But the Coalition battle over who would contest the seat, with the Nationals hoping the Liberals would lose to enable them to run in March, shows navel gazing is not confined to Canberra. Both parties seemed happier for the seat to be lost to an independent or Labor than each other.

It is impossible to know whether the NSW Nationals could have won Wagga Wagga had they been allowed to run. But they could have distanced themselves from Maguire.

And while the federal Liberal implosion could not have been predicted, again the Nationals could have presented themselves as a conservative alternative.

But Berejiklian stood her ground and insisted the Liberals contest the seat. Instead, it has landed in the hands of an independent. Country independents are hard to dislodge.

Berejiklian surrendered a safe seat and is unlikely to ever get it back for the Liberals. The deal was that if the Liberals lost, the Nationals could run in the March general election.

John Barilaro wanted the Nationals to contest the seat, not the Liberals.

John Barilaro wanted the Nationals to contest the seat, not the Liberals.Credit:AAP

The Premier commands wide respect within her party. She is known to be hard-working, principled and decent. But she will face intense criticism from her MPs.

Only seven seats stand between majority and minority government. The Liberals have just lost one of those.

Gladys Berejiklian addresses the media after the Liberals' byelection loss.

Gladys Berejiklian addresses the media after the Liberals' byelection loss.Credit:James Alcock

With at least three Liberal seats at risk - East Hills, Coogee and Penrith - and Tweed and Lismore a major concern for the Nationals, March will be a serious contest.

The Premier’s office was clearly panicking late in the week when strategists decided to leak internal party polling to News Corp in a bid to lay the groundwork for a loss.

While some Liberal MPs questioned the veracity of the polling, given the primary vote for the Liberals was an astonishing 24 per cent, it seems the office knew what was coming. They were facing a wipeout.

Despite the weekly visits from the Premier, and a parade of ministers passing through Wagga Wagga, the government’s $100 million-plus spending campaign failed.

The blatant pork barrelling in an already cynical seat was a strategic disaster. Powerbroker and the Premier’s long-time confidant, Arts Minister Don Harwin, also made a very telling comment to the party faithful at the post-election wake.

“This is a community that has missed out for too long,” Harwin said of the seat that his party had held with a safe margin for six decades.

This contest was never about Liberals versus Labor. Although Labor had a very strong candidate, the biggest threat was always going to come from independent Joe McGirr.

Berejiklian’s Canberra colleagues certainly did her no favours by executing a prime minister mid-campaign.

But to claim they alone cost her government a critical seat just months out from a general election would be seen as arrogant and lacking in self-awareness.

Alexandra Smith is state political editor.

Alexandra Smith is the State Political Editor and a former Education Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald