Nats need to be more independent
ROB Oakeshott’s thumping win on Saturday in the NSW north coast federal seat of Lyne may have wide repercussions. The loss of the seat held by retiring Nationals leader Mark Vaile since 1993, and by the Country-National Party since 1949 when the seat was created, spells trouble federally for the Nationals.
Despite a strong performance in the June by-election for Gippsland (which is the Nationals heartland), Oakeshott’s crushing victory in Lyne is a clear example of how, if they are offered the choice of an independent candidate with a strong track record, electors in regional and rural areas who feel their local interests aren’t being addressed or are being sacrificed to other interests, will vote based on the performance of individual candidates, and not because of party allegiances.
Of course, 38-year-old Oakeshott, who was a former Vaile staffer, is strongly associated with the Nationals. He was elected a National Party MP for Port Macquarie in 1996 and was Opposition spokesman for gaming. Increasingly disenchanted with the Nationals, he quit the party in 2002. In 2003, standing as an independent for the same seat, Oakeshott walloped the Nationals with a 69.75 per cent primary vote.
Oakeshott now joins the two other federal independents in the House of Representatives: Tony Windsor, independent MP for New England, and Bob Katter, independent MP for the vast seat of Kennedy in north Queensland.
Following the premature death of the highly respected independent member for Calare and Senate aspirant, Peter Andren, this means a return to the status quo of three hugely popular regional independents in Canberra’s lower house.
Oakeshott, Windsor and Katter are all strong regional performers who became deeply disillusioned with the federal Nats.
All three regionally based independents were previously loyal National Party MPs who became outraged at the federal leadership selling out rural and regional interests for the sake of coalition harmony.
They were disgusted at the sale of Telstra, for example, through to what they regarded as the breaching of Australia’s previously watertight national quarantine arrangements, through the largely unsupervised free trade import of foreign oranges, tomatoes and bananas.
All three independents were and are also distressed that federal governments – non-Labor and Labor – appear to put the interests of huge conglomerates such as Woolworths ahead of Australia’s growers, producers, and consumers.
All three amigos have fought and won their seats on the basis of championing the interests of country and rural Australia. In so doing, they have turned traditional Nationals seats independent.
Windsor now has the third safest seat in Australia; Katter continues to keep at bay all the main parties despite redistributions and the demographic shifts within his seat; while Oakeshott has now won Lyne by a huge majority.
It seems electors in the three constituencies thought the fact of these popular MPs being outside the main parties was an advantage.
A big question is whether the three independent MPs in the House of Reps could presage a shift in voting patterns?
Post Pauline Hanson, there appears to be enough fire in the belly of political malcontents, alienated from the existing party-political system, particularly in federal seats outside the cities, to consider more independent options.
The time seems ripe for citizens of Australia to re-engage and to ask more from their supposed representatives.
If the mainstream parties don’t deliver, we are likely to see more electors, especially at a federal level, opting for rural and regional independents.
However, there is another possibility. In Western Australia, the strategy of the Nationals leader, Brendon Grylls, has been to run separately from the Liberals and it has been richly rewarded.,
Far from dwindling into insignificance, the four Nationals MPs hold the balance of power and are negotiating with both main parties to get a better deal for the regions they represent.
It is a lesson that Nationals around the country will be studying with great interest