ANALYSIS: Byelection relief for Nats, but swing must halt if they want to survive

Cootamundra High School at the weekend.
Cootamundra High School at the weekend.

MURRAY and Cootamundra will stay canola yellow – but if the NSW Nationals’ vote erodes by as much at the 2019 election, those and other formerly bankable seats could see Coalition resigned to Opposition. 

The campaigns for Austin Evans and Steph Cooke rallied at the death to help the Nationals stagger through the dual byelection – a race many say was saved by a final-week refocus on gun control to smother the threat of the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers.

Despite primary swings of nearly 15 and 20 per cent, Deputy Premier John Barilaro said the win over the “Shooters, Fishers and Failures” was a rejection of the party’s “extreme policies” and an indictment on Labor for preferencing them. 

Newly-elected Nationals' Murray MP Austin Evans and Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

Newly-elected Nationals' Murray MP Austin Evans and Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

“I know a few (Labor) members Opposite who were very uncomfortable their leader did a deal with the Shooters,” Mr Barilaro said during a rowdy session in parliament on Tuesday.

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Both he and Premier Gladys Berejiklian denounced the Opposition’s “dirty deal”, while the Nationals leader also said those who used the phrase “put Nationals last” in Cootamundra had effectively backed Jim Saleam, “a Nazi sympathiser”. 

Labor pointed out the Premier had not ruled out a deal with One Nation in 2019, something her federal colleagues succumbed to in 2016. 

Among it all, Mr Barilaro also informed parliament a formal complaint would be made against an unnamed Labor MP who “aggressively attacked” a young female Nationals volunteer handing out how-to-vote flyers in Gundagai. 

Mr Barilaro said the MP in question did later apologise, and that a volunteer from another party had lead the confrontation. 

When they did have the floor, Opposition were content to tie the weekend’s events to what they – and obviously between 15 and 20 per cent of byelection voters – saw as a wider narrative of dissatisfaction in the bush. 

They pointed out in in both Murray and Cootamundra, the swing that knocked the Nats out of Ballina in 2015 had merely continued along its arc.

Nats' MLC Bronnie Taylor, new Cootamundra MP Steph Cooke, and Northern Tablelands MP Adam Marshall.

Nats' MLC Bronnie Taylor, new Cootamundra MP Steph Cooke, and Northern Tablelands MP Adam Marshall.

“Until last weekend Murray and Cootamundra were among the government’s safest seats - but they aren’t any more,” Member for Maroubra Michael Daley said. 

Labor remarked Northern Tablelands MP Adam Marshall could “be like Tom Hanks in Castaway” in the Lower House if the Nationals experienced similar trends at the polling booth in 18 months’ time.

Mr Marshall’s 31 per cent primary jump in 2015 was the only double-figure swing to the Nationals, and one of only four increased primary votes for the party across the state.

Incidentally, one of those positives came in Orange (a 8.4pc primary swing to the Nats), which of course, 18 months later, was swept away in an extraordinary combination of events stoked by a solid Shooters’ effort.  

A repeat of last weekend’s byelection swing – likely to be helped along by Labor and Shooters parties who smell blood in the water – would see Murray and Cootamundra gone, while Clarence, Lismore, Myall Lakes, Oxley, Tweed and Upper Hunter (where Michael Johnsen replaced an incumbent) would also be lost. 

Deputy Premier and Nationals leader John Barilaro. Stats up-to-date as of Tuesday evening.

Deputy Premier and Nationals leader John Barilaro. Stats up-to-date as of Tuesday evening.

In Lismore and the far-west seat of Barwon there’s the extra headache of replacing long-standing members Thomas George and Kevin Humphries with candidates who can handle a fierce contest. 

The Shooters also see Bathurst and Dubbo as extremely vulnerable. Their MPs – Paul Toole and Troy Grant – are regarded by some as the faces of unpopular council merger and greyhound decisions. 

Then there’s Deputy Premier’s own seat of Monaro, which he holds by 2.5 per cent.

It’s a traditional bellwether, although he did improve his popularity there two years ago. 

On Tuesday he maintained the Cootamundra-Murray byelections had not weakened, but strengthened the Coalition, and that there was no stronger Lib-Nat alliance than in NSW.  

“I do take on board the message and what has happened on the weekend,” Mr Barilaro said. 

“I accept that there are legacy issues - some of which came from the party opposite. And there is always a protest vote against the government of the day.

“The good news is the Shooters were rejected outright. Their challenge will be Pauline Hanson.”

Time – and preferences – will tell. 

This story Byelection relief, but swing must halt if Nats want to survive first appeared on The Land.