EDITORIAL: Coalition’s election challenge

THE steady exodus of NSW MPs continues, with Deputy Premier and National Party parliamentary leader Andrew Stoner announcing that he won’t contest the general election next March.

The announcement came as another Coalition MP, former resources minister Chris Hartcher, also confirmed he wouldn’t seek re-election in March.

Premier Mike Baird welcomed Mr Hartcher’s departure but expressed regret that Mr Stoner would be quitting.

Mr Stoner said he wanted to spend more time with his family, denying that his decision had anything to do with this year’s hearings in the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Mr Stoner told the ICAC that, as shadow minister for ports, he had six meetings with representatives of companies associated with coal deal-maker Nathan Tinkler, who was pushing to be allowed to develop a coal-loader at Mayfield. But there has been no evidence suggesting any wrongdoing on his part, unlike some other MPs.

Mr Hartcher, for example, has been accused of soliciting illegal donations for a slush fund to help the Coalition’s election campaigning.

The former minister was one of several MPs forced onto the crossbenches and one of a group of Central Coast and Hunter representatives caught up in the ICAC hearings.

It is fortunate for Premier Baird that his majority in Parliament is so commanding. It would require a big swing in a lot of seats to cost the Coalition power.

Even so, the election will present Mr Baird with many challenges. On the Central Coast and in the Hunter, he will have to find fresh candidates for Newcastle, Charlestown, Upper Hunter, Terrigal, Wyong and The Entrance. And in Port Stephens and Swansea, both former Liberal MPs are now sitting as independents, following the admission by one that he failed to declare some donations and caused a sham invoice to be created to disguise their source, and by the other that he accepted money from a banned category of donor.

The approaching byelections for Newcastle and Charlestown might have been seen as a kind of gauge of the public response to the Coalition’s ICAC woes, except that the Liberals chose not to field candidates.

Presumably, they will endorse candidates in those seats for the general election, and it remains to be seen whether alterations to electorate boundaries between the two polls make a difference either way.

One big challenge for the Coalition, and the Premier, is to cut through the noise of continual reminders of the ICAC – and like it or not, these latest departures are such reminders too – and getting a clear run into the general election.

It’s starting to look as if that might not be possible at all.