The Shooters Fishers and Farmers (SFF) party’s victory in the Orange by-election has given a shot in the arm to critics of forced council mergers.
SFF candidate Philip Donato clinched the Nationals blue ribbon seat by just 50 votes on Monday night, with a devastating swing of 21 per cent against Nationals candidate Scott Barrett but swings of up to 60 per cent in some parts of Cabonne.
It is the first time the seat has not gone to the Nationals since 1947 and it will be the first time the SFF has a lower house MP.
The result has given ammunition to those who oppose forced council mergers, after strong local opposition to the slated council merger between Orange, Cabonne and Blayney Councils.
Former (independent) Cabonne Mayor Ian Gosper attributed the Nationals drubbing at the polls primarily to the spectre of a forced council merger between the three councils.
Cabonne recently lost its merger case in the Land and Environment Court against the NSW government but has narrowly voted to appeal.
“It just goes to vindicate all along that we’ve been listening to our communities and perhaps the state government hasn’t been,” Mr Gosper said.
“Our communities in various villages and towns have been saying all along that they don’t agree with the forced amalgamations and they thought they were going to lose out from it.”
The council merger, combined with the greyhound industry ban and perceptions that the Nationals have strayed too far from their rural powerbase have all been cited as reasons for Mr Barratt’s election loss.
Asked whether the result could be an indication the Liberals/Nationals may suffer further election pain, particularly when the NSW election was not until 2019, Mr Gosper said: “Country people don’t forget and I think that’s pretty true of everybody”.
Shadow Minister for Local Government Peter Primrose spent time in Molong, Cabonne in the lead up to the election.
He said council mergers played a key role in the Nationals loss but was not the whole picture. The greyhound ban and the poor state of the local hospital and roads were also influential.
“Overall, it doesn’t matter if it was greyhounds, councils or local roads and hospitals, the most striking similarity of communities … was that people felt that they weren’t being listened to or ignored,” Mr Primrose said.
“The message I got from lots and lots of people over lots and lots of issues was that the process the government kept putting in place was unfair and wrong.”
Local Government NSW President Keith Rhoades trumpeted the SFF victory as a victory for “people power” and said voters had sent a clear message to NSW Premier Mike Baird that his government had overstepped the mark by forcing council amalgamations.
“These are hugely significant results, and demonstrate very clearly that communities will not tolerate a government that doesn’t respect their right to have a say in their day-to-day lives,” Mr Rhoades said.
“This massive repudiation of forced amalgamations comes hot on the heels of the September 10 local government elections, where voters of stand-alone councils sent an equally clear ‘back off’ message to the Liberal/National government.”
Tom Sherlock from Save Our Councils Coalition said the Nationals had not been listening to their core electorate and doing what they had been elected to do.
“I think it’s quite amazing that the Nationals would allowed councils for areas like Cabonne and Oberon to be forcibly merged against the clear wishes of their community and pretend at the same time they are active reps of their community. They’ve fundamentally failed in their basic political and democratic role.”
He said that Nationals Leader Troy Grant had stood by and said nothing as Premier Mike Baird made “arbitrary and arrogant decisions” without explaining these decisions to the community or consulting them.
Mr Grant quit last week after initial reports of a massive swing against his party in Orange, rather than face a spill motion at the party room with Skills Minister John Barilalo taking his place.
Mr Sherlock said: “Things could change between now and 2019 and I hope that they do. I think local government was one of the two key issues but they [the greyhound ban and forced mergers] had a lot in common: they were arbitrary decisions, not explained or consulted.”
Greens MP David Shoebridge said the Nationals had haemorrhaged support in Orange because they had “sat mutely while their Liberal-led Coalition started dismantling local councils”.
“This was a response to people being ignored and searching for any outlet to express their frustration,” Mr Shoebridge said.
“No one respects politicians who make large moral commitments one day and then run away from them when the political pressure starts to tell.”
The by-election was called after Nationals MP Andrew Gee successfully contested the federal seat of Calare. It attracted intense interest and controversy both before and after the November 19 polling day.
Radio talkback heavyweights Alan Jones and Ray Hadley headed up to Orange to tell voters to put the Nationals last on their ballot papers.
The result also attracted more heat when NSW Education Secretary Adrian Piccoli lambasted NSW Labor last week for directing its preferences to a party that he said wanted to weaken the country’s gun laws. He aimed at NSW Labor MPs in Parliament saying: “Bang, bang, bang”.
Whether forced council mergers will still haunt Mr Baird on the hustings the 2019 NSW elections remains to be seen.
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