NSW 2019 – the race on the North Coast


There are eight seats covering the north coast of New South Wales, stretching from Myall Lakes to Tweed.

Seven of these seats are held by the Nationals, while the eighth seat was won off the Nationals by the Greens in 2015.

This is one of the two main regions dominated by the Nationals in NSW politics, the other being inland NSW. But there is a growing divide between the demographics and issues of these two regions, which was discussed in my recent podcast.

Electorates in this region have seen an influx of sea changers as people from the cities move into these regions, which has changed the dynamics of these seats.

This is most obvious in the far north, where the Greens won the seat of Ballina in 2015, and came close to winning the neighbouring seat of Lismore.

There are also pockets of Greens support further south. The Greens came second in the seat of Oxley in 2011 thanks to a collapse in Labor support, and poll particularly strongly in Bellingen (just over 30% of the primary vote in the local council area in 2015).

Independents have also had success, with Rob Oakeshott holding the seat of Port Macquarie as an independent from 2002 (when he resigned from the Nationals) until he moved to the overlapping federal seat of Lyne in 2008. He was succeeded in Port Macquarie by fellow independent Peter Besseling at the subsequent state by-election but he was swept out by the Nationals in 2011.

Labor has previously had more success in the region, holding Clarence from 1996 to 2003 and Tweed from 1999 to 2007. And Labor has been successful federally: from 2008 until 2013, the Nationals held only one of the four federal seats in the region, with two held by Labor and one held by Rob Oakeshott.

I’m going to profile four seats below the fold. These seats are highlighted on this map:

The seat of Ballina covers the Ballina and Byron council areas on the far north coast. The area has always been a strong area for the Greens, with Greens from this area holding a seat in the Legislative Council consistently since 1995 (Ian Cohen, Jan Barham and Dawn Walker). But their support is mostly concentrated in Byron Shire, which makes up about a third of the seat’s population. Campaigns around coal seam gas peaked around the time of the 2015 election, and saw a surge in both the Greens and Labor vote. Both progressive parties polled primary votes in the mid-20s, with the Nationals primary vote crashing by 20% down to 37%. The Greens gained preferences from Labor and from an ex-Greens independent councillor and won with a 3.1% margin after preferences.

Local Greens MP Tamara Smith has a relatively low profile compared to her Sydney-based colleagues and it’s not clear if the disappearance of coal seam gas as a major issue will make things harder. If the Greens want to solidify their hold on this seat they will need to strengthen their vote in the Ballina council area. This is effectively the Greens’ only marginal seat so will surely be a focus of the campaign.

The Greens came close to winning a second seat on the north coast in 2015, falling just short in the neighbouring seat of Lismore. A 17% swing against the Nationals saw Labor and the Greens each pick up big swings. Just over half of the seat voted for either Labor or the Greens, but preference exhaustion and leakage meant the Greens fell 2.9% short.

The Greens are aiming to win Lismore in 2019, but Labor is running a high profile candidate in former federal MP Janelle Saffin, so either progressive party could be in the hunt. Like in Ballina, coal seam gas was a key issue in 2015 but has since faded in salience.

The Greens campaigns in Lismore and Ballina will also likely be hurt by the party’s internal conflict and the departure of Greens MLC Jeremy Buckingham. Members affiliated with Buckingham and his factional allies are concentrated on the north coast. While I don’t believe it will have a big direct impact on voters, I’d expect to see the party lose volunteers and activists which may hinder their campaigning.

Labor also has a good chance at winning the neighbouring seat of Tweed, which is held by the Nationals with a 3.2% margin. Tweed is effectively an urban electorate, with most of the population concentrated in the north-east corner of the seat across the border from the Gold Coast.

Tweed and Lismore are both amongst the six most marginal Coalition seats in the state. If these six were to flip, the government would lose its majority, so they are critical to the result of the election.

I also wanted to mention Coffs Harbour. It’s always hard to pick which independent candidates could have a shot at winning, but local councillor Sally Townley has put her hand up in this seat. Townley was elected as a Greens councillor in 2012, and re-elected in 2016. She was originally expected to run as the Greens candidate for the federal seat of Cowper but resigned from the party recently to run for Coffs Harbour as an independent instead. This is an area where Rob Oakeshott will be hoping to pick up support in his independent run for the federal seat of Cowper. Townley will likely fall short but it’s a seat worth watching.

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  1. Great article Ben, In my view i also believe Port Mac, could be in play (Vs IND possibly) But i expect it to stay national as this is Oakeshott territory. Clarence and Myall lakes are also in play (Vs Labor) However this will only happen if Labor does indeed well in regional areas on election night, If they pull off a Victoria 1999 then they might be able to win back some rural seats like these, even if it’s almost standstill in and around Sydney.

  2. Clarence….previous national MP standing for shooters party… port Macquarie Oakeshots stamping ground and is likely to win Cowper

  3. The betting markets are certainly not favouring the Greens prospects in Ballina and Lismore. In Ballina they are $5.50 vs the Nats $2.00 and Labor $2.25. In Lismore $4.00 to the Nats $2.00 and Labor $2.20. Tamara Smith’s re-election campaign I expect to be the most impacted by the loss of volunteers and activists who were supporters of Buckingham, particularly after her public support for her lower house colleague Jenny Leong’s statement which I understand raised the ire of many of her key supporters in the party. I don’t think that will affect Sue Higginson in Lismore as much. I agree though that the internal issues, whilst they may affect campaign organisation, aren’t likely to have a major impact with voters – by far the bigger issue for the Greens being to what extent the CSG issue produced an inflated ‘protest vote’ in 2015 and whether that can be maintained. Also a problem for the Greens in Ballina is that the Labor candidate probably has better credentials as an environmentalist than the Greens representative.

    In Coffs Harbour I have also heard talk of Sally Townley potentially being in contention, apparently according to Labor polling.

    Clarence certainly may also be one to watch with the former MP running for the SFF. In Port Macquarie I’m not aware of any declared independent candidates so it’s probably the safest and most boring seat in this region this election.

  4. Nick C raises an interesting point for this upcoming election and that is the Jeremy Buckingham affair. With his departure from the party and with OPV in place, how much could he have an influence on other seats in NSW on the Greens Vote?

    I saw this because, although OPV does reduce the influence of candidates winning from 2nd (and 3rd place), it shouldn’t be understated, especially in genuine 3-cornered seats. Ballina comes to mind, also the Blue Mountains, Coogee and Lismore.

    Could this be an election where we see an even higher exhaustion rate, given the rise of SFF and ONP as well?

  5. yes opv complicates matters….. green and alp voters should preference the other unless they prefer a liberal. This is not just an either or choice… people can number all squares or one only or in between eg 1 green 2 alp or 1 alp 2 green
    I think the net impact of opv is to allow the party with the highest vote in a seat an advantage
    In rural based seats there will be a big fracturing of the vote and the default position is a national
    mp so if some does not wish this to happen they need to consider their 2nd 3rd and even 4th preference carefully
    eg Barwon I would expect alp shooters nationals and even greens to . poll 10% plus maybe 20% plus for labour and nats and shooters….. eg nat 35% alp 30% shooters 20% gr 10%ind 5% is possible exhausted votes effect the final 2 vote……. who wins in my exampl


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