An Independent Lost In The Nationals' Heartland?

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Focus has turned to the re-election chances of federal independent MP Rob Oakeshott in his Port Macquarie-based seat of Lyne after local newspaper the Port Paper reported a poll putting him at a distant third in the seat.

The poll reported that Oakeshott’s support had plummeted to less than 15 per cent in the seat, where he had polled 47 per cent in 2010. The poll reports that a majority plan to vote for the Coalition at the next election.

Oakeshott has attacked the newspaper, accusing it of links with the National Party. The writer of the story, Sharon Davidson, was employed by neighbouring National Party MP Luke Hartsuyker until April this year. The founder of the Port Paper was previously employed by Mark Vaile, who served as Member for Lyne prior to his resignation in 2008, which led to Oakeshott’s election to federal Parliament.

Oakeshott has complained to the Press Council about the newspaper’s reporting.

There have also been criticisms of the company that produced the poll, ReachTEL. A radio interview by a representative of the polling company suggests a less than impartial attitude towards Oakeshott. In addition, the pollster asked the voting intention question third, after questions about the government’s carbon price package, and the proposed legislation restricting poker machines.

The company uses the new technology of robo-polling, which hasn’t been common in Australia’s polling. William Bowe at Poll Bludger has reported that the company had previously polled the overlapping state electorate of Port Macquarie before the NSW state election, and despite some errors was fairly accurate in picking the level of support for Oakeshott ally Peter Besseling.

While the poll is questionable, there is a great deal of evidence that Oakeshott will have a bumpy ride in winning re-election. Oakeshott held the state seat of Port Macquarie until he resigned in 2008 to contest Vaile’s seat of Lyne at a by-election. While Oakeshott had held the seat with a 78.2 per cent two-candidate vote at the 2007 state election, his ally Peter Besseling only managed 54.5 per cent at the by-election, and lost the seat to the Nationals with an 11 per cent swing in March this year.

Lyne is a traditional National Party seat. Prior to Oakeshott’s win in 2008, the seat had been held by the National Party continuously since the it’s creation in 1949. The Coalition polled over 45 per cent in the seat in the Senate at the 2010 election, compared to only 30 per cent for the ALP.

The seat has also been a key target of Tony Abbott and the conservative media since Oakeshott sided with the Gillard government in September last year. Oakeshott and Windsor are both former members of the National Party and hold seats that would have likely gone to the Coalition if they hadn’t stood in last year’s election. Many Coalition supporters thus blame Oakeshott and Windsor personally for Gillard being in power, and for those key policies that have been unpopular in the community, such as the carbon price and the poker machine laws.

Tony Abbott and his Coalition colleagues quickly gave up any hope of convincing Oakeshott and Windsor to switch over and support them in government, and have instead focused on a strategy of defeating them in their electorates at the next election.

But is there really no hope for Oakeshott in his electorate? Oakeshott was incredibly popular in the state seat of Port Macquarie, winning over 78 per cent of the two-candidate vote at his last election in 2007. He managed to win almost 74 per cent of the two-candidate vote in the larger electorate of Lyne at the 2008 by-election and still managed 62 per cent in 2010.

The hostility between the National Party and these independents is nothing new either. It has been a long time since the Labor Party has been serious competition for the National Party in its heartland, and independents like Oakeshott, Tony Windsor, Bob Katter and similar figures in state politics have been the fiercest opposition the Nationals have faced in such places.

The vote for the Greens and Labor collapsed in Lyne when Oakeshott stood, with most of their votes transferred across to Oakeshott. While it is true that Oakeshott had to win some traditional Nationals voters to win his seat, it’s important to note that people like Oakeshott and Windsor were elected in direct opposition to local National Party machines.

This isn’t to deny that both Windsor and Oakeshott have lost support in their electorates and will have a tough time winning re-election. If an election was held now a whole swathe of Labor seats would fall to the Coalition, and Windsor and Oakeshott’s seats would likely fall too.

There’s also no denying that Lyne is a conservative electorate. Independents such as Oakeshott, Windsor and Peter Andren have often managed to hold on to conservative electorates with large margins while supporting progressive policies, but it’s very different arguing for these policies from opposition as opposed to supporting a Labor government and helping implementing policies your electorate doesn’t support — especially in the current political environment.

If the election is held at its scheduled time in two years, however, things could be markedly different. Despite never being as popular as Oakeshott, and running in an election where the Coalition was winning seats with huge swings, Besseling managed to only suffer an 11 per cent swing. Oakeshott’s fate will likely depend on how long this Parliament lasts and whether the policies that have caused him damage in his heartland can be resolved.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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