THIS weekend we’ll see if the tale of Orange byelection remains a standalone, cursed volume sealed in glass at the back of the NSW Nationals’ emporium – or a part of a tragic paperback trilogy that just sold the film rights.
We’re all familiar with the tale of Orange: The safest of safe Nationals seats, torn from out-of-touch rulers by a disenfranchised voting base and a non-threatening alternative. A sensational narrative, seized by the Shooters, Fishers, and Farmers Party – banishing any notion the NSW Nationals should be assumed heirs apparent in the bush. It also gave the Coalition the kick in the bum it needed to show regional NSW a bit of love.
But Orange isn’t Cootamundra or Murray.
Many analysts and writers, yours included, have been guilty of lumping bush electorates together as vague regional blobs, assuming each faces the same interchangeable issues, notable only for helping the Coalition hold onto power.
We know now – and you can bet the Nationals do too – that it’s this kind of thinking that sees a seat change colours.
The question leading into this weekend is not whether there will be a swing against the incumbents – Deputy Premier John Barilaro accepted as much in the Sydney press this week. It’s whether enough has been done on the ground, and in parliament, by both sides of the Coalition over the past 12 months to change the story, and nip the rot in the bud.
“On normal circumstances they are very safe National seats - but that’s not the case here,” Tally Room political analyst Ben Raue told The Land this week. “There’s the precedence of Orange hanging over everything. Maybe that won’t factor and the Nationals will win it easy.
“I will say that clearly the state government is not as popular as they were at the last election… but it also seems to me that they’ve done a good job of diffusing some of the issues around the Orange byelection.”
Government’s mid-2016 run of questionable edicts - such as the forced mergers - has left a lingering stench in some corners. But as Mr Raue alludes to, the political heat has undoubtedly gone out of some issues. Opponents in both electorates have raised a number of other relevant talking points (police resources, water politics, inland rail). But it remains to be seen if these will morph into another government-shaking wrecking ball.
A late wildcard is the Nationals’ finger-pointing on gun control. The Las Vegas massacre, and attempts to tie the tragedy to the Shooters Party, was credited by Mr Barilaro as the ‘turning point’ for the Nats’ byelection campaigns.
Will this ring true, or be seen as crass opportunism? Also interesting will be whether Labor preferences see the Shooters get over the line again.
Anyway, in the event either Murray or Cootamundra falls from Nationals’ hands, Mr Barilaro’s team has already indicated he won’t fall on his sword, a la Troy Grant.
But surely a loss in either seat would split the staples open for good – and foreshadow a disastrous 2019 election.