The final boundaries for the 1961 redistribution were released in August.
Seven seats were abolished. Four were held by the ALP: Leichhardt, Merrylands, North Sydney and Paddington-Waverley. The Liberals lost two seats, Neutral Bay and Woollahra, and the Country Party one, Liverpool Plains. Of the seven new seats, Wentworthville and Bass Hill were safe for Labor and Wakehurst, Kirribilli and The Hills were safe Liberal seats. Bligh and Wyong were marginal, with Bligh leaning to the Liberals and the boundaries of Wyong slightly favouring the ALP. Of seats whose boundaries were changed, Blacktown, which the Liberals had won in 1959, became a Labor seat. Labor’s position was strengthened in Waratah, previously a safe ALP seat but won by an independent in 1956. The Liberals’ hold on Drummoyne was weakened and Labor assisted in Bondi. Opposition Leader Bob Askin’s assessment was that “the new boundaries will make our task of defeating the Labor Government harder”. Country Party Leader Charles Cutler claimed that the redistribution “amounted to further centralisation of power around industrial areas”. The Country Party was particularly upset by the abolition of Liverpool Plains which it had won from Labor at a by-election in March 1961.1 Calculations by Joan Rydon lend some support to Askin’s complaint. On Rydon’s figures, Labor over-representation in the electoral system reached its highest point since 1950 at the 1962 election, when the Opposition would have needed 52% of the overall vote to win office.2
Joe Cahill died suddenly on 22 October 1959. He was succeeded by Deputy Premier Bob Heffron. He had first been elected to the Assembly in 1930. In his youth a radical, Heffron led the opposition to Jack Lang, forming a breakaway party in 1938. He was narrowly defeated in the ballot to succeed Bill McKell as Premier in 1947. If Heffron had become Leader then he would probably have been one of the more successful Premiers.
However, by the time he finally got the top job, Heffron had mellowed into a benign, avuncular figure with little in the way of vision and drive. His Premiership was marked by procrastination, lethargy and weak leadership.
Heffron had an easy victory in the 1962 election, but this was more a backlash against the Federal Government’s economic policies than a positive vote of confidence in New South Wales Labor. The Menzies Government’s attempts to deal with growing inflation and other economic difficulties in late 1960 led to an unpopular credit squeeze and rapidly rising unemployment. New South Wales was particularly hard hit with unemployment increasing by 170% in the twelve months from June 1960 to June 1961 when it reached post-war record levels. Heffron’s campaign for the March 1962 election predictably re-stated the old Cahill formula that continued prosperity in New South Wales depended on the re-election of the sound, experienced Labor Government. He combined this with attacks on the Federal Government for its economic mismanagement which had brought about the recent recession. Opposition Leader Bob Askin, by contrast, sought to play down Federal issues and based his campaign on characterising the State Government as stale, bereft of ideas and incapable of efficiently managing New South Wales. The electoral backlash against the Federal Government would seem to have been the main factor in returning Labor with an increased majority. The number of ALP seats rose from 49 to 54. Labor polled 48% of the primary vote compared to the Liberal/Country Party’s 44%.
After the 1962 poll, it became increasingly obvious that the Government was running down. Cabinet was dominated by ageing veterans of the 1940s. Caucus was divided, with a strong rebel group harassing Ministers. The Government seemed to be resting on past glories rather than developing policies for the future. Heffron resigned in April 1964 and was succeeded by his Deputy, Jack Renshaw. Although a capable and experienced Minister, Renshaw proved unequal to the challenge of reviving Labor’s fortunes. Renshaw also preserved virtually intact the ageing, lacklustre Ministry. To add to the Government’s troubles, the Opposition had a capable Leader in Askin. He skilfully projected an image of the Liberals as responsive to community concerns, energetic and up-to-date. Coalition relations were repaired, with the Liberals and Country Party presenting a united team to the voters. The Federal trend was now running strongly against Labor. Menzies had shrewdly exploited defence and foreign policy differences with the Federal Opposition to portray Labor as under extreme left domination and anti-American.
The bumbling of the Heffron era had fatally damaged the Government’s image of administrative competence, for so many years a vital electoral asset. Many voters had lost faith in Labor’s ability to deal with the perennial problems of State politics such as housing, health, public transport, education and development. Labor in New South Wales was increasingly out of touch with new directions in society. The policies and electoral formula of the 1950s were still seen as adequate by the Government. It was unable to come up with revamped policies addressing new issues in the electorate or develop a new style of politics. Inept handling by the Government of sensitive issues, such as a demand for increased retail trading hours, had given it an image of being arrogant and remote. The Government had also neglected to keep key groups of supporters in the electorate on-side. By the time of the 1965 election teachers, railway and bus workers, police and public servants were all expressing grave dissatisfaction with Labor, chiefly over pay claims. The Opposition, by contrast, effectively pursued a strategy of cultivating support from groups disenchanted with Labor and painting the Government as insensitive to the needs of ordinary people.
The electoral portents for the 1965 poll were far from encouraging for the Government. The November 1963 Federal election saw a pronounced swing to the Liberal and Country Parties in New South Wales which allowed them to take seven seats from Labor. There were also a series of poor by-election results throughout 1964. In March, the Government very narrowly retained the previously safe seat of Wollongong-Kembla. In August another safe seat, Waratah, was lost to an independent (F Purdue who had previously held Waratah from 1956-62). The Lakemba by-election in September saw a swing of over 4% against the Labor candidate.
In the campaign for the 1 May 1965 election Renshaw fell
back on the tired, old clichés of the Cahill era. Once again, the
Government attempted to sell itself as a solid, experienced team that had proved its worth. The Liberals were portrayed as inexperienced and untried adventurers who could not possibly finance all their election promises. This approach was combined with the offer of a few judicious vote-catching concessions to groups such as young home buyers, the aged and parents of children at independent schools. Renshaw also attempted to make use of the other old electoral stand-by, attacking the Federal Government in the hope of provoking a backlash against the State Liberals. He hoped to achieve this by making political capital out of a dispute then in progress between the New South Wales and Commonwealth Governments over the allocation of airline routes within New South Wales. The issue failed to catch fire, however, due to its complexity and remoteness from the concerns of most voters.
Askin, by contrast, continued to pursue effectively his strategy of cultivating the support of groups alienated from Labor and
painting the Government as complacent and autocratic. The ageing Labor Ministry was held up as a highly visible personification of the state of the Government itself. Catholic voters were wooed with a promise of direct State aid for Church schools. The Labor Party was portrayed as being in the grip of extreme left. Above all, Askin strove to project an image of the Liberals as being progressive and constructive with the modern, up-to-date policies needed to get things going again in New South Wales. In reality, there was little difference between the policies of the major parties on most issues. However, Askin’s cultivation of an image of newness was an astute response to the climate of the time.
Labor’s record term in office finally came to an end in May 1965. The Government won 45 seats to the Coalition’s 47 (there were also two pro-Coalition independent MLAs). The margin in terms of votes was more clear cut, with the ALP polling 43% of the primary vote to the Coalition’s 50%. DC