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The lessons of Port Macquarie

By Zach Davis-Hancock - posted Monday, 4 April 2011

The hardest thing to achieve in politics is to win an election as an independent. The next hardest thing to do is to oust one. However, on Saturday night, the Nationals in NSW managed to achieve a 34% swing on a two candidate preferred basisagainst Peter Besseling, an Independent MP who won in a by-election in 2008. Whilst the Coalition can bask in the size of the win, Queensland must absorb whatever lessons it can.

There are three key ingredients to defeating rural independents; a change of government, the retention of the likely voter base and a direct reason to remove the independent.

The NSW election was the biggest swing away from Labor in NSW history. There would not have been the same drive to oust Besseling without there being a swing to the Liberals and Nationals. Otherwise the Nationals would have won the by-election in 2008.


The next step is to hold the voter base together. The only candidate that competed against the Nationals from the right in Port Macquarie was the CDP. The swing could not have been as big as it was without the conservative base being united in an 'Anti-Besseling/Oakeshott' movement. This meant a successful engagement of the micro right parties to ensure the base was not fractured.

However, the Nationals needed to mobilise the anti-Oakeshott sentiments against Besseling.Rob Oakeshott's unpopular decision to back the Gillard government angered the electorate. Peter Bessling, as a new independent in his first term after a by-election win did not have the chance to distance himself from that decision. Therefore, he became the vicarious whipping boy for Oakeshott's sins.

The Nationals knew this and preselected Leslie Williams, a known candidate after standing in the 2007 NSW general election and the 2008 by-election. This ensured the Nationals had a candidate with good name identification to execute the strategy of making Besseling the 'Oakeshott Independent'.

If the LNP want to hold government over the long term, the LNP need to consider an investing in a campaign to oust Peter Wellington, the MP for Nicklin since 1998.

Nicklin has similar properties to Port Macquarie. It is a traditionally National Party seat with a sitting MP that has given Labor power. Furthermore, all three elements that are required to oust a regional independent exist in Nicklin.

Firstly, according to the recent Galaxy poll, this is a change of government election. This polling has the LNP ahead 58-42 on a two party preferred basis and Campbell Newman is miles ahead of Premier Bligh as preferred premier.


The selection of former Wallabies coach John Connolly to run against Wellington is a good first step to translating this swing on a local level. A 'celebrity candidate' will ensure a little extra press coverage and interest in a seat with a 16% margin that wouldn't be there otherwise.

Secondly, the LNP must maintain a united voting base. There is the capacity to define Wellington as a 'Labor Independent', and for the LNP to reclaim its natural base. In the last election, the LNP's primary vote did not reach 30% and it hasn't done so since Wellington became an MP. Therefore, there are Liberal National voters at a federal level, voting for an independent.

Finally, there is the capacity for the campaign to provide a direct reason to defeat Wellington. Peter Wellington's support gave Peter Beattie government in 1998. This combined with a 58-42 two party preferred vote for the LNP can be used to ensure that there is sufficient reason for LNP federal voters to vote LNP at a state level.

However, 16% will require a substantial investment from the LNP. For the longevity of a conservative government, it would be a smart tactical move. Winning Nicklin would be the LNP reclaiming a traditionally conservative seat that is far less likely to swing to the ALP at the bottom of the political cycle. However, at the risk of under funding Labor marginals, the LNP will need to use local money. The LNP will be required to capitalise on a struggling economic climate for local businesses, the candidate's name ID and a strong leader in order to raise local money for the seat.

This will be especially difficult since Peter Wellington is doing everything to look as anti-labor as possible. With his support for a daylight savings referendum, opposition to Bligh's asset sales and castration for convicted paedophiles, the campaign to look conservative has begun. Taking these positions and grandstanding on unpopular decisions in his electorate is Wellington's only chance to diffuse the high profile attack.

This will not be the first time the LNP has liked its chances against Wellington. However, history has told us that defeating popular independent in a rural seat is going to require a change of government, a direction reason to remove the independent and to return the seat to party political representation. The ingredients for an upset are there, the LNP will just need to execute.

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About the Author

Zach Davis-Hancock is a student at Murdoch University and a Coalition Advisor.

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All articles by Zach Davis-Hancock

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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