It is passing strange that rural seats are likely to be crucial to the outcome of the New South Wales election, yet there has been little attention paid to what is happening west of Penrith.
There are three things that makes regional seats the wildcards at Saturday’s poll.
Firstly, the big upset in the 2019 election was the Nationals’ loss of Barwon and Murray, and in the previous byelection, Orange. Whether one or a number of those seats flip back to the Nationals is a live question.
Secondly, there is the growing regional discontent over land use, not only for coal and gas mining but for solar and wind in renewable energy zones and the accompanying transmission lines. This has energised some formerly disengaged communities and will disconnect some voters from their traditional party of choice.
Thirdly, the last term has been bookended by bushfires and floods. These disasters have exacerbated housing, labour and infrastructure shortages, dreadful road conditions, teacher shortages and health service shortfalls. All of these issues could combine to send votes spraying willy-nilly in an optional preferential system.
While there are few high-profile lower house independent candidates in the bush, the field has also widened with micro parties and groupings such as Legalise Cannabis and the Elizabeth Farrelly Independents.
These parties try to bridge the urban-rural divide on issues that resonate, such as land use and medical cannabis, while providing an alternative to major parties.
So only a mug would predict the outcome.
Remember the Victorian election? While the Coalition lost badly in November, the Nationals retook seats from incumbent independents Suzanna Sheed (Shepparton) and Ali Cupper (Mildura) and Morwell also returned to the National fold.
That could happen in some NSW regional seats. The Nationals loss to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party (SFF) of Barwon and Murray was the big shock of the 2019 election after Orange fell in a 2017 byelection.
Since then, Roy Butler in Barwon, Phil Donato in Orange and Helen Dalton in Murray abandoned the SFF and will all contest as independents in this election.
Coalition numbers will be determined by whether the Nationals can win those seats back.
The biggest seat by geography is Barwon – about the size of Germany – where Butler has a 6.6% margin. Butler’s main opponent is the Nationals’ Annette Turner, a White Cliffs farmer and former president of the Country Women’s Association.
In Orange, Donato is looking very safe on a margin of 15.5% with his main challenger the National party’s Tony Mileto.
Independent Helen Dalton is on a smaller margin of 2.8% and is up against the mayor of the Edward River Council, Peta Betts. Recent news that federal Labor will start buying back water has got that region talking about river management again. The most recent fish kill has turned up the water debate a notch. Dalton appears most vulnerable out of the three MPs.
Land usage has been one of the key issues that continues to set political debate alight in rural places.
In Narrabri and the Liverpool Plains, a swag of farmers are at war with gas company Santos over mining. They invited a visit from city-based federal teal MPs, including Farrelly, and have started running videos urging votes for state independent candidates. Liverpool Plains farmer Pip Murray is on Farrelly’s upper house ticket.
Santos’ Hunter Gas Pipeline runs through the Nationals seat of Upper Hunter, won by David Layzell on a 0.5% margin.
In Walcha, some farmers are welcoming in wind turbines in opposition to their town counterparts, who are opposed to windfarms. Neither of those groups of traditional Coalition voters are happy with the state government and are unlikely to vote Labor. They will be looking for other candidates.
Wagga Wagga independent Joe McGirr is on a healthy margin of 15.5% but he made some surprising policy calls which go against the conventional wisdom for regional seats.
He backed Dominic Perrottet’s cashless gaming card reforms – something MPs like Butler and Donato have not done because they argue it would threaten jobs in regional communities. The National party was sceptical of pokies reforms.
Despite the hesitancy of his political opponents, he has not been subject to aggressive political campaigns at a local level. On the contrary, he said constituents have congratulated him and shared their own family stories of gambling addiction.
He also called for the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Act to be abolished, implicitly backing a reduction in feral horse numbers.
McGirr’s advantage is that the Coalition is running a three-cornered contest, with both National and Liberal candidates in the field.
There is another three-cornered contest in Port Macquarie, where sitting National-turned-Liberal candidate Leslie Williams is facing a new Nationals candidate Peta Pinson.
In the flood-affected electorate, Pinson told a forum she was not convinced climate change was man-made. Nationals leader Paul Toole backed her in, saying “you need to take in all sides” on the issue. How that goes down with flood victims is a moot point.
Dubbo is a sleeper. While it is listed as a very safe Nationals seat on an 18% two-party-preferred margin for the agriculture minister, Dugald Saunders, the party suffered a big swing last election against an independent and won by just 2.1%. The safe margin masks the potential discontent in that seat.
This state election is messy, fracturing into smaller localised issues that give no clear reading on an outcome. But one thing is certain: bush seats will be important in determining the outcome and the size of the crossbench in any hung parliament. That is why it is worth watching.