16 December 2016
Lots of people probably breathed a sigh of relief on the first Saturday night of July this year, as results came in for a Federal election that day. Although the election was too close to call on the night, and took a number of days to produce a clear result, albeit a narrow one, many people were worried about results in two particular seats during the election campaign, and only when the results became clear did they settle down.
One seat making people uneasy was New England, in northern New South Wales, where Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce faced a challenge from a former Independent MP of some repute. The former Independent, Tony Windsor, had held New England for about a decade before retiring in 2013, and had previously sat in State Parliament for years before then, but decided to come out of retirement because of local concerns about mining on prime farmland, among other things. As an observer, I didn’t believe that Windsor would win, because he’d upset many people when he chose to support the Labor Party while holding the balance of power in Federal Parliament from 2010 to 2013 – being in a rural seat, he’d have been expected to support the Liberal-National Coalition in a balance-of-power situation, where neither Labor nor the Coalition had a parliamentary majority and the ability to govern alone. When he retired, he looked like he was running away to escape the anger of voters. It also looked to me that, for this year’s election, there was more support for him outside New England than inside it, with that support probably coming from people who admired him for opting against supporting the Coalition in 2010, when the polarising Tony Abbott led the Coalition. These were my reasons for doubting that Windsor would beat Joyce. And indeed Joyce won pretty comfortably.
But the other seat worrying people in that Federal election in July was Cowper, on the northern NSW coast. Standing in that seat was another former Independent MP who came out of retirement to run for the seat. This Independent sat with Windsor on the crossbench during those balance-of-power years in Federal Parliament, and had also upset many people in choosing to support Labor instead of the Coalition in 2010, before retiring in 2013, supposedly to escape the anger of voters. With those things in mind, this Independent, who didn’t choose to run until the last possible moment, shouldn’t have been in with a chance of coming back – but the election results came uncomfortably close to proving this assumption wrong. The name of this Independent was Rob Oakeshott.
How could this happen? Oakeshott copped much flak for supporting Labor instead of the Coalition while holding the balance of power from 2010 to 2013, just as Windsor did. He looked like something of a coward when he retired, just as Windsor did. And his last-minute decision to contest this year’s election looked a lot like the action of a person trying to make mischief. Nobody would’ve given him a chance. Yet he came within striking distance of winning the seat of Cowper – in fact, he came closer to beating the sitting MP, Luke Hartsuyker, than Windsor came to beating Joyce. He mightn’t have won, but he certainly left many people unsettled.
I’ve lost count of the number of times in politics when the unexpected has happened. To be fair, long-time political junkies should be used to expecting the unexpected. But even they witness or hear things from time to time which raise more than a few eyebrows. And if I had to pick eyebrow-raising moments from this year, the close call for Oakeshott was one of them.
Oakeshott had held the seat of Lyne, next to Cowper, before retiring in 2013. When he decided to contest this year’s election, he ran for Cowper, because his support base in Port Macquarie was moved into Cowper in electoral redistributions. People in Port Macquarie probably knew him better than elsewhere.
Given his reputation, and the anger stemming from his decision to support Labor in 2010, as well as his last-minute decision to run, he shouldn’t have been in with a chance of winning Cowper. Yet despite winning just over a quarter of the primary vote in Cowper, he pushed Hartsuyker more than Labor could have done. Hartsuyker ended up holding his seat by a margin of about 4.6 per cent after preferences. If Oakeshott hadn’t run, official election results suggest a margin of about 12.9 per cent over Labor for Hartsuyker.
The close call for Oakeshott suggests greater anger with the Coalition among voters on the northern NSW coast than otherwise thought. It’s a region where voters traditionally support the Coalition, and non-Coalition voters end up supporting Labor because they have nowhere else to go. Oakeshott clearly won lots of those non-Coalition voters, and probably won over many who stick with the Coalition because of disliking Labor. I doubt that Oakeshott would win if he runs again. But the closeness of his run this year would’ve raised eyebrows and made the critics think hard about why it happened.