NSW Labor has been left reeling after its by-election loss in the Upper Hunter over the weekend, with the Nationals’ Dave Layzell elected to the seat.
While Labor was never favoured to win the seat, which has been held by the Coalition for 93 years, its depleted primary vote – coming in at just 21 per cent – has been considered a “devastating” loss for Labor. Independents, including Kirsty O’Connell, who was backed by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and One Nation, took primary votes away from Labor. In the end, only one in five people had Labor as number one on their ballot.
On Sunday, Labor leader Jodi McKay noted there was a “fundamental problem” with Labor’s conversation with voters, however she said there was currently no challenge against her leadership in the wake of the loss.
“There is no challenge, I’m leader and there’s no challenge,” McKay said on Sunday, noting she believes she has to “be part of the solution” for Labor. “We’ll have more to say about what that means, but there’s no challenge to my leadership.”
“Many people are shell-shocked because even though it was an impossible task, we didn’t expect our vote would go to independents, we didn’t expect our vote to be torn away like it was.”
Despite McKay denying there is any challenge to her leadership, there is speculation that she might eventually step aside once the party’s poor performance has sunk in. And the media has been quick to put forward four Labor names as potential contenders for the leadership, if indeed McKay does not continue in the role.
Shadow Transport Minister and two-time leader hopeful Chris Minns, former leader Michael Daley, Shadow Health Minister Ryan Park and Shadow Natural Resources Paul Scully are the names circling as potential replacements.
While there’s no doubt these men have leadership ambitions, the media has been quick to dismiss the possibility of any women as contenders for the role. And this isn’t because there aren’t any eligible or experienced women who would be capable of taking it on, if indeed the leadership is in jeopardy.
For example, Yasmin Catley, Labor’s deputy leader and one of NSW Labor’s most senior women, has not been mentioned in reports as a potential contender for the leadership. Catley rose to the deputy leadership in mid-2019, making history as McKay filled half of her frontbench positions with female MPs. As well as deputy opposition leader, Catley is currently the shadow minister for rural and regional jobs, building reform and property, and rebuilding and recovery.
There are also some other female names, like Prue Car, the shadow minister for education, Jo Haylen, shadow minister for active transport, seniors and volunteers and cost of living, and Kate Washington, shadow minister for environment and heritage and rural health, who have not been considered in media commentary.
With NSW Labor in obvious need of shake-up in order to connect with voters across the state after spending a decade in opposition, why is it that only middle-aged, white men are being taken seriously as leadership contenders? One of these men, Michael Daley, has already served as Labor leader, losing the 2019 election to Gladys Berejiklian.
After the loss, Labor’s Upper Hunter candidate Jeff Drayton said the party needed to undergo some “real soul-searching” as to how it can win in communities like the Upper Hunter in NSW.
“It’s going to take honest reflection and a lot of hard work,” he said.
Falling back into old ways with the promotion of one of these men – while ignoring the potential of any other women in the party – would be an entirely predictable outcome for Labor, but it wouldn’t suggest much “soul searching” had been undertaken.