Nationals’ candidate Scott Barrett.
Talkback heavyweights Alan Jones and Ray Hadley will lead an anti-council merger convoy out west to Orange this week in an effort to apply some extra heat to the Nationals at the Orange by-election on Saturday.
Mr Jones – long a vocal critic of forced NSW council mergers – leaves for Orange with the Save Our Councils Coalition (SOCC), ready to urge locals to put the Nationals last on their ballot papers on polling day in a 2GB broadcast from Orange.
What must have initially have seemed like a distant prize – the Nationals have held the seat since 1947 and hold it by a 21.7 per cent margin – appears finally to be in reach for the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party (SFF) or Labor as the Nationals face the fiercest battle they have had for the seat in living memory.
The by-election was prompted by the resignation of Nationals MP Andrew Gee, who quit to contest the federal seat of Calare, which he later won.
But NSW Premier Mike Baird’s recent greyhound industry ban and the proposed merger between Orange, Blayney and Cabonne Shire Councils have both taken their toll and removed the sheen off the party in rural NSW.
Mr Baird overturned the greyhound ban in early October but it may not be enough to save Nationals candidate Scott Barrett, who spent almost two years working as a senior policy adviser for NSW Minister for Primary Industries, Lands and Water, Niall Blair.
Mr Barrett faces serious challenges from Labor’s Bernie Fitzsimon, a Public Service Association delegate, and local police prosecutor Philip Donato from the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party.
There are also two independent candidates running, Kevin Duffy and Scott Munro.
SOCC President Carolyn Corrigan said there was a real chance the Nationals could be toppled at the election, probably by SFF or Labor.
“Well, I think you really have to have your ear to the ground but certainly from what the locals are saying to us they feel it’s very close,” she said.
Despite the greyhound ban being overturned a month ago, Ms Corrigan said the party did not seem to have achieved the bounce it wanted in the polls.
Instead, she said that voters found the original ban heavy-handed and were cynical about the conditions attached when the industry was reinstated.
“The general feeling is that the Macquarie Street National Party does not have the interests of the country people at heart.”
The Central Western Daily newspaper reported last week that Mr Barrett said at a recent candidates’ forum that the fight against amalgamating the three councils was almost certainly lost.
Cabonne Council lost its Land and Environment Court case against a merger in October and was ordered to pay the state government’s costs. Tthe council is now awaiting the outcome of its appeal.
But Ms Corrigan said Mr Barrett was incorrect.
“If you ask a lot of people, they don’t believe the fight is lost or over. In fact, the Orange by-election gives us all a change to step up that fight and send a really clear message back to Macquarie Street that they’re not listening.”
Two other NSW by-elections are also happening this weekend, Canterbury and Wollongong, after Labor’s Linda Burney won the federal seat of Barton and State Labor MP Noreen Hay quit her Wollongong seat.
Ms Hay suffered a sustained campaign to oust her following electoral fraud charges against a senior staffer in her office and earlier brushes with scandal during the ICAC investigation into Woollongong Council’s planning decisions (where she was exonerated) and an allegation that Kiama MP Matt Brown involved her in his famous undies dance at a drunken party in parliament.
Labor’s Sophie Cotsis is expected to take Canterbury and Wollongong University academic Paul Scully is expected to retain Wollongong for Labor.
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