The Perrottet government faced by-elections in four electorates, with Labor claiming to have flipped Bega as part of a large swing against the Liberal and National Parties.
The south-coast electorate has never been held by Labor since the seat was reinstated in 1988.
Voters heavily favoured pre-poll and postal voting as part of COVID-19 pandemic measures, with less than a quarter of voters casting ordinary votes today.
Despite the low in-person turnout, Labor candidate Michael Holland was the first to claim victory.
“It’s been an incredible swing to our party, it’s been a plebiscite on a couple of things, it’s been a reflection of the community’s response to the current government and our need to be heard with our concerns,” said Holland.
The local medical specialist will likely replace former Transport Minister Andrew Constance to be the first Labor representative of the area, but Liberal candidate Fiona Kotvojs has refused to concede defeat until the full results are known.
National Nichole Overall in Monaro and Liberal Tim James in Willoughby are ahead in their counts, with both candidates celebrating but reluctant to claim victory with so many votes outstanding.
Voters in Willoughby were replacing outgoing Premier Gladys Berejiklian, with Independent Larissa Penn the unexpected second choice after a campaign on local environmental issues.
The full count in Willoughby is likely to be a close preference battle between James and Penn, with Premier Dominic Perrottet confident that the government will hold the seat.
“I want to congratulate Tim James and the campaign team at Willoughby,” said Perrottet, “and also acknowledge the former Premier of New South Wales Gladys Berejiklian for everything that she has done in service of the people of Willoughby and importantly as Premier of our great state, particularly over the last two years, what has been an incredibly difficult time.”
Similarly, voters in Monaro were replacing outgoing Deputy Premier John Barilaro, with the Nationals likely holding the seat despite losing ground in the early swing to Labor.
The other high-profile retirement, that of former Labor leader Jodi McKay in Strathfield, led to a close battle between Labor candidate Jason Yat-Sen Li and Liberal Bridget Sakr.
Between the two there was a slight swing towards the local Sakr, but Yat-Sen Li did enough to hold the lead in the early results and will likely hold the seat for Labor.
“We do know enough about the results that have come in so far to be confident that we will claim the seat of Bega and the seat of Strathfield in today’s by-elections,” said NSW Opposition Leader Chris Minns.
The election was seen by many as the first real test of new Premier Dominic Perrottet, with his government’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially the wave of Omicron cases, coming under the microscope before the state heads the polls in March 2023.
“Many people, many people in New South Wales sent the Premier of New South Wales a message on their behalf at the ballot box today,” said Minns.
“The Premier of New South Wales needs to listen to that message. The government needs to change direction. It must listen to expert advice. It must have commonsense solutions to difficult problems.
“You must heed the message from the people of New South Wales in these by-election seats today. It is too important to get wrong, and a message is loud and clear if you look at the results in these booths and in these seats.”
The government has brushed off suggestions of the overall importance of these by-elections, with Liberal MP Victor Dominello explaining a swing against the government was expected in by-elections.
“It always is for governments in by-elections. I’m a by-election baby,” he said.
“I’ve been here [in Bega] pretty much all day, in Strathfield for three or four days, and not once has anybody come up and said they were particularly upset or angry at the government on a given issue.
“People generally keep to themselves and obviously reflect their intentions at the ballot box.”