NSW Nationals’ new leader John Barilaro will return to the scene of his party’s capitulation in Orange next week, to assess the politically scorched earth in Orange in an effort to rebuild his damaged party.
But despite promising a clean slate for voters and MPs - and a realignment of party values - the man known as ‘Barra’ faces uncomfortable questions over unpopular choices that alienated its regional heartland in the first place.
One such issue is the pending forced council mergers that saw Orange voters take a baseball bat to the party at the weekend’s byelection. Mr Barilaro said he could not promise the mergers would be reversed as per the wishes of many voters in the Central West.
“I can’t say there will be a change,” Mr Barilaro said. “If any minister wants to change a policy they’ll need to bring it back through the right channels. For me it will be about finding out the issues, why there was a backlash, and we will respond.”
Mr Barilaro, a father and small businessman, began his political career as an independent councillor on the Queanbeyan City Council in 2008.
He swept to power on Monday after the resignation of former leader Troy Grant, who fell on his sword after the party’s disastrous showing at the Orange poll, which looks certain to go to a recount despite previously being a Nats stronghold.
The 34 per cent swing in the Central West had been taken as a sign of how much the Nationals had lost touch with their rural constituency following a series of policy decisions that left voters feeling taken for granted, and, at worst, completely ignored in the name of Coalition’s Cabinet solidarity.
The most prominent of these moves was the now-overturned Greyhound racing ban, while the forced mergers, and continued uncertainty over TAFE reform, have also stoked discontent.
The views of people such as Wellington rural merchant and ex-Nationals member Michael White reflect those of many.
“They just haven’t been listening,” Mr White said. “They have an agenda, but they have not explained it well enough to the people or their own party members.”
In response, Mr Barilaro said his reign as leader would begin with an analysis of Orange as a microcosm for what needs to change across the party.
“We’ve got to do is to go back out there - outside the excitement and hysteria of an election,” Mr Barilaro said. “We’ve got the message loud and clear that (our voters) are not happy, and it upsets me that the party base in a place like Orange have turned away from The Nationals.
“We’ll be out there next week - the Deputy Leader Niall Blair and I - and we’re going to listen to the community, to what the key issues are so that we can learn and we can align where the expectation of the party is at.
Mr Barilaro said his vote in favour of the Greyhounds racing ban, as well as his duties as Minister in charge of TAFE reforms, had not compromised his new leadership.
“I supported the (Greyhound) decision in cabinet based on the information we had at the time… and we’ve seen how that played out.
“What we learned there is we didn’t include people.”
He said news around TAFE reforms had been rife with misinformation.
“There have been some fantastic outcomes. We just haven’t told our story well.”
Mr Barilaro would not say if he was keen to remain in charge of TAFE when Premier Mike Baird reshuffles cabinet, likely early next year.
“No decisions have been made about portfolios or ministers going forward,” Mr Barilaro said. “What I want to ensure is that the portfolios that Nationals party members get are the ones that are important to regional NSW.”
Critics say inexperience cost Mr Grant his leadership but Mr Barilaro says he is more than a fresh face.
“Everyone talks about inexperience - but what is inexperience? I was on council for four years, I have been elected (in parliament) since 2011. I’ve done my apprenticeship in that time.
“I’m in the bellwether seat of Monaro, and marginal seats are a fight every day.
“I’ve been a small business owner for 25 years. I’ve raised a family, I’m born and bred in my community and I’ve been involved in my community. All I ask is for regional NSW to trust in me and believe that I will give this my best shot and that I will fight each and every day.”