There’s an air of optimism floating through the hallway on level 10 at NSW Parliament House, home to the Opposition’s offices. It doesn’t have the same dreary feel it has had in the past.
“I can’t wait to be the Minister for Primary Industries,” says Shadow Minister for Primary Industries Mick Veitch from his office sofa.
“There is a degree of energy and enthusiasm, not just amongst the shadow cabinet but the whole caucus, and that was pretty evident in the final sitting weeks of last year.”
“Normally towards the end of the sitting year people leave the building worn down, usually pretty tired, but we actually skipped out of the building.”
Since 2011, NSW Labor has had to lick its wounds after the worst defeat of a sitting government in the state’s history. It followed a turbulent period marred by factional infighting and corruption inquiries.
Labor holds 34 seats, the Coalition 51. Seven of the 93 seats in the lower house, the Legislative Assembly, are held by the minor parties and independents, and one seat is vacant but is in a Coalition stronghold.
Six Coalition seats are held on margins of 3.2% or less meaning the Coalition government only has to lose six seats to lose its majority.
Murray and Barwon are key regional seats that will be closely watched according to Mick Veitch.
Shadow Minister for Primary Industries, Mick Veitch.
“Because of the 2011 result, the 2015 election meant we had to claw back some seats to set the platform for 2019. The 2019 election is different because rather than looking at winning some seats to get us in a good position, we’re looking at winning a few seats to get us into government.”
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In the first major poll ahead of the March election, Newspoll had Labor and the Coalition neck and neck on 50-50. But Labor also knows it has its work cut out. As the party’s leader, Michael Daley has pointed out he needs to “win more seats than anyone I think since Neville Wran”.
Coalition well aware regional seats are key to election
Meanwhile, the incumbents know it’s going to be close, so are not resting on their laurels – but say they have a strong plan for the future. “It’s going to be tight. There is no doubt about that,” says Niall Blair, Minister for Primary Industries and Deputy Leader of the Nationals.
If there’s one thing all sides of politics can agree on it’s that this election will be won or lost in regional NSW.
Gabrielle Chan, political journalist and author of Rusted Off: Why Country Australia is Fed Up, explains why she believes the regions will be critical to the outcome.
“Regional seats are starting to see a lot more political competition,” she says. “In the past I think people have assumed regional seats are ‘owned’ by Coalition parties, mostly Nationals in NSW but also some Liberal MPs.
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“While we won’t see, I don’t think, blanket upsets across the board, we will see much heavier competition and much more scrutiny of candidates and that’s already happening on the ground,” Gabrielle says.
The Nationals know they have ground to make up after the Coalition’s unpopular plans to ban the greyhound racing industry and forced council amalgamations in regional NSW, which they eventually decided against.
“I think it would have been arrogant if we hadn’t made those decisions particularly after the feedback that we had been given in by-elections, so I would prefer to be able to say that we did respond and that it did require us to change direction in some policy areas,” says Minister Niall Blair.
Minister for Primary Industries, Niall Blair.
Most notable of these by-elections was in Orange, which saw the safe Nationals seat handed to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party in November 2016.
It’s impossible to predict the 23 March outcome but many suggest a minority government will be formed.
Minor parties big visionaries for regional NSW
“There is a chance the lower house will resemble the upper house in that we’ll have a broader crossbench that we haven’t seen in a long time in the lower house,” says Labor’s Mick Veitch.
“None of the major parties can take the minor parties for granted. That would be politically just really silly and it doesn’t matter if it’s the Greens on one end, or whether it be the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers.”
The minor parties have very different visions for regional NSW. On the right, there is the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party and One Nation campaigning on property rights, a relaxation of native vegetation laws and tougher right-to-farm legislation.
A local asks questions of the four politicians on the panel in Wingham.
Says One Nation upper house candidate Mark Latham, “Farmers don’t have the capacity to site the dams they want on their properties, farmers have dreadful problems with land clearing laws in NSW. So I think it’s time to say that if you own a farm you’ve got the property right to site your dam, clear your land and get on with making your enterprise commercially viable.”
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Upper house member Robert Borsak from the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party says native vegetation laws need to be reassessed and right-to-farm legislation introduced to stop “animal terrorists from having the ability to invade and disrupt agribusiness of any type in the bush”.
One Nation and Shooters, Fishers and Farmers have made a deal not to step on each other’s toes. One Nation won’t contest the seats of Barwon, Murray and Orange and both parties will preference each other second on their how-to-vote cards for the upper house.
The Barwon electorate is by far the largest in NSW, and includes towns like Broken Hill (pictured), Bourke and Narrabri. Source: Getty Images.
On the left, the Greens believe the party’s policies to address climate change will see them win votes. “The major parties aren’t really dealing with the big issue of regional NSW which is climate change – how that affects people on the land, how it affects water supply, how it affects the future of agriculture and the future of regional economies,” says Greens upper house member Justin Field.
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Gabrielle Chan agrees. “Climate change is going to play into this election a lot more than we’ve seen in the past. It’s one of those issues that we have seen over the last decade that has waxed and waned. Experience and history shows us that when we are in the middle of a roaring drought, as we are now, and as we were in the noughties, it becomes a much bigger issue in regional seats.”
Right-to-farm and research and development key election issues
Labor says its priorities are getting more young people into primary production, investing in freight, innovation and research, and controlling weeds and pests. One of the party’s first election commitments has been announcing $4 million to help tackle Q fever.
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The Coalition points to its record over the past eight years as the reason why voters should re-elect its candidates. “It’s a really interesting election in the sense that there is a lot of risk, particularly for farmers,” Minister Niall Blair says.
ABC rural reporter Michael Cavanagh interviewing Niall Blair.
“When voters in our regional seats dig down, and particularly from a farming point-of-view look at what we have to offer with continuing with property rights, whether it’s in water or land management, what we have invested into agricultural research and development, accessing new markets and issues like right-to-farm and animal welfare, I think it is pretty clear that we have been able to deliver in that space.”
The Coalition has also pledged to review the state’s biodiversity reforms, and appoint an Agriculture Commissioner.
If there’s one thing for certain about the upcoming election it’s that country voters should never be taken for granted in this fraught political environment.
“In some ways country communities are ahead of where governments are at, and what we’re seeing with the leakage of votes is country voters dragging governments and opposition to policy solutions and trying to get something done,” says Gabrielle.
“I’m one political reporter who is not going near the city seats this state election. I’ll be watching the country seats for sure.”
And for once all sides of politics will be too.