NSW Premier Nathan Rees has apologised for Labor’s recent performance as he prepares for another hit in the polls with a series of upcoming by-elections planned for October.

The ALP appears to have been outpolled by the Liberal Party and the Greens in a number of traditionally strong Labor councils in yesterday’s NSW local government elections.

The party has been punished in the Lower Hunter region and inner western Sydney, and recorded significant swings against it in the western and south-western Sydney areas of Parramatta, Fairfield and Campbelltown.

“The people of NSW have clearly sent us a message and it’s a message that I’m hearing loud and clear,” Rees told reporters today.

“I apologise to them for the last 18 months for this government’s performance.”

Vote counting is still underway following the close of polls last night.

It is the first opportunity to gauge voters’ reactions since the upheaval in NSW politics in which a number of MPs jumped ship over the past eight days.

Former health minister Reba Meagher retired from politics yesterday, a move which is expected to secure her a $130,000 annual pension.

Rees today admitted he was surprised to hear Meagher had quit.

“I heard it through the media initially but it would be disingenuous for me to say that’s where I heard it,” he told reporters in Sydney today.

“Reba and her staff had tried to contact me and my office and they made contact with my staff, I just hadn’t received the message.”

Meagher’s departure means four by-elections, three in government seats, will be held in upcoming months.

Rees says he supports a proposal to hold the by-elections all on the one day.

“We’ve got a couple on October 18 and with a bit of luck we can shepherd the other toward that date too,” he told reporters.

He deflected speculation that his party would be at risk of losing government if more disgruntled MPs decided to quit.

“I don’t think that’s the likelihood (losing government) because I think there are some of these by-elections that we will win and I think we’ve probably seen the level of movement in terms of resignations,” Rees told reporters.

He said Labor would have “a really uphill task” to retain the seat of Ryde, in Sydney’s north, but he expected dumped planning minister Frank Sartor to stay and to continue to have a good relationship with the six independents.

However, state Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell dismissed Rees’ apology, saying voters could see right through the new premier and his new cabinet.

“Apologies won’t count for anything if nothing changes going forward,” O’Farrell told Macquarie Radio.

“When we saw the Carr to Iemma move, the Iemma to Rees move, we’ve seen no sign of change and no confidence that the public can trust the Labor government.”

He said a 6.5 per cent swing towards the Liberals in Parramatta yesterday showed the party was making significant gains.

“While the community have delivered the Labor Party a clear message, there have been some encouraging swings to the Liberal Party,” O’Farrell said.