Liberals Not Contesting Newcastle By-Elections Isn't 'Atonement' -- It's Just Good Accountancy

Politics has run aground in Newcastle. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty

Pity the poor voters of Newcastle and Charlestown. They now have to vote twice in five months and unless a strong independent candidate steps forward in the next month or so, the options are unappetising.

The Liberals will not to contest the October by-elections brought about because two of its MPs, Tim Owen and Andrew Cornwell, accepted banned election donations from developers and finally resigned.

You’d think, given that the area is traditionally a Labor stronghold, that they’d be a shoo-in, but the ALP is equally culpable in this mess, as the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) hearings into the matter reveal.

Not only did former ALP powerbroker Eddie Obeid work hard to destroy the political career of someone on his own side of politics, Jodi McKay – one of the few MPs who deserves the epithet “Honourable” – but his gangrenous influence on the party continues with the ICAC also turning its attention to Ian McNamara, chief of staff of the current opposition leader, John Robertson, who was involved in the successful plot to unseat the Newcastle MP in 2011.

Tim Owen beat McKay. Last week he admitted to lying under oath about accepting illegal donations and resigned, along with Charlestown MP Andrew Cornwell, but not before the pair tried to tough it out on the parliamentary crossbench as evidence against them continued to mount.

Which brings us to Premier Mike Baird’s weekend mea culpa.

Only last week, Baird resisted a motion to expel Owen and Cornwell from the NSW Parliament, labelling it a political stunt and adding the usual anodyne observations about the MPs needing to “consider their positions” and how they had “the right to due process”.

But with eight NSW Liberal MPs, including his predecessor, Barry O’Farrell, now vanquished by this sorry business, the party obviously decided the haemorrhaging was too much and a public apology would somehow cauterise the wound. Just 72 hours later, the Premier cast aside due process for regret, writing an open letter to voters saying “I am deeply sorry for the way the Liberal Party has let down the people of Newcastle.”

Like Flagellants during the Black Death, Baird and Liberal Party state director Tony Nutt paraded through the weekend media expressing their disgust at the “extraordinary and reprehensible conduct of a small number of its elected representatives, members and activists”.

But the second paragraph of the Premier’s open letter is telling.

He says:

What hurts me most of all is that the actions of a few have tarnished the wonderful achievements of the Liberals and Nationals in the Hunter Valley since 2011.

So what hurts most is not the betrayal and corruption and lies by members of his own party, but that they’ve squandered the Party’s political capital in the region.

And that’s the prism through which the Premier’s “explicit act of atonement” – that the Liberals won’t contest the Newcastle and Charlestown byelections – should be viewed.

Atonement is a religious idea: offering reparation or amends for a wrong or injury, in the hope that sins will be forgiven.

It’s hard to see how avoiding the wrath of voters at the byelection is atonement. It is, however, cost effective.

The actions of his MPs will cost taxpayers around $1 million in conducting the by-elections.

While candidate election spending will be capped at $111,200 when the March 2015 election rolls around, the spending cap at a by-election is doubled, so by not contesting the two seats, the Liberal Party is effectively saving $444,600.

That will no doubt be better deployed five months later when Baird is fighting for a second term. There’s no doubt the Liberals will contest these seats in the general election. So this isn’t atonement. It’s good accountancy.

Those who feel the sorriest from the ICAC revelations are the voters of Newcastle and Charlestown. Politicians from both major parties have betrayed them again and again.

Politics in NSW has much to atone for.

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