COMMENT: Piccoli’s parliament shots indicative of major parties under fire

HOW many punters missed the bravura performance of former NSW State National Party parliamentary deputy leader Adrian Piccoli last Thursday?

BOLD CLAIMS: "Piccoli asserted that the election result has opened the way for more dangerous firearms to be imported into Australia."

BOLD CLAIMS: "Piccoli asserted that the election result has opened the way for more dangerous firearms to be imported into Australia."

Television news services and the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald displayed Piccoli on the floor of the House lambasting the state's Labor opposition regarding their preferencing the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers (SFF) Party at the recent Orange byelection.

As a result of a record 34 per cent swing against it, the Nationals have lost this hitherto blue-ribbon seat to the SSF who for the first time will be represented in the lower house in NSW.

Piccoli asserted that the election result has opened the way for more dangerous firearms to be imported into Australia. Holding aloft a picture of an assault rifle, Piccoli stated that, because they travel, he and his family had had a lucky escape not to be in Port Arthur when many innocents were slaughtered by Martin Bryant.

Then, in a memorable gesture, Piccoli held his hand in the manner of a child pretending to have a gun and proceeded to mime shooting the Opposition.

While this display did little for the dignity of the current Education Minister of NSW, the desperation it reflected demonstrates an important truth of Australian politics this year – one of the country's major parties has lost a traditional stronghold to a fledgling, philosophically conservative party.

There were three byelections held on the day that saw the right wing revolt in Orange. All created outcomes worthy of noting by traditionally major parties. An even more interesting picture appears when the informal votes and voter abstentions for these three seats are examined.

In Orange, of the 49,687 votes cast, 2.7 per cent were informal. Almost 7,000 of those enrolled, about 12 per cent of the electorate did not bother to vote at all. In Canterbury, 4.63 per cent of the votes cast were informal and some 13,000 people, about 22 per cent of the electorate, did not vote. In Wollongong, the numbers were three per cent informal, while about 16 per cent of voters were no-shows.

Indeed if these non-voters are pursued by legal process there are some 30,000 people to be investigated, a sufficient number to clog the courts of New South Wales for months.

These figures confirm results at the most recent federal election. This saw heavy voting for minor parties and very high informal votes (with reports of comments written on papers like "None of them!" being common) clearly playing a role in outcomes.

While the causes of voter rejection for the Nationals in Orange were clearly due to the reduction of the number of councils and especially to the since-reversed ban on greyhound racing in NSW, the rejection of the Labor Party at the same time is also worthy of examination.

Some close to the ALP see its endorsement last year of measures sharply reducing the standard of living of members of a core constituency, former public servants, as the cause a rejection of Labor by tens of thousands of citizens who had previously supported Labor through long and responsible working lives.

Although the results of a single round of state byelections in NSW cannot be taken to demonstrate irreversible trends, recent events have raised important causes of concern for Australia's major parties.

Ross Fitzgerald is a professor of history at politics at Griffith University