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NORTHERN NSW: The new political battleground

A police officer escorts protestors out of the work site at the Glenugie site. Photo Adam Hourigan / The Daily Examiner
A police officer escorts protestors out of the work site at the Glenugie site. Photo Adam Hourigan / The Daily Examiner Adam Hourigan

CHANGING demographics and dynamics will be driving voters' choices at the polls on the New South Wales north coast region this federal election.

The western suburbs of Sydney will again play a key role in the outcome of next month's poll, but parties also are closely watching the new dynamics in several regional seats, including the north coast's regional battlegrounds of Page and Richmond.

While many voters in both seats are likely concerned about coal seam gas, Griffith University's Professor of Communications Stephen Stockwell said he saw that issue as symbolic of the changing demographics, and politics, of both electorates.

 

The marginal seats of NSW are mainly located in Western Sydney and on the North Coast
The marginal seats of NSW are mainly located in Western Sydney and on the North Coast

In Page, where first-term Nationals MP Kevin Hogan faces a challenge from his Labor predecessor Janelle Saffin, Prof Stockwell said "the CSG issue" had given rise to alliances between farmers "who were once rusted-on Nationals supporters" and the Greens.

"There's always been a connection between the farmers concern for environment, which they rely on for their business, and the Greens concerns and that's starting to become a significant force to be reckoned with," Prof Stockwell said.

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He said that issue would be one that could yet "unsettle the outcome" across Page voters in Lismore, Grafton and Casino.

"But also the recent redistribution will mean Labor will need something like a 3.1% swing against the Nationals to pick up Page," Prof Stockwell said.

"That's going to be a hard call, and it's going to be a number of things in Page - government support for rural areas and 'agricultural welfare', as some call it, will also be part of that I expect.

"Even with the recent storms you can see there's an expectation among many of these rural seats that the federal government should be out helping immediately."

Labor's Justine Elliot has held Richmond, once a Nationals heartland seat, since 2004, driven in part, Prof Stockwell said, by a continuing "sea-change" to areas like Tweed Heads and Kingscliff, "making it much more like a typical Australian seat".

"The electorate isn't so dependent anymore on farming like it used to be, and that sea-change means people are bringing their city ways to what once was part of the Nationals heartland," he said.

Complicating the likely outcome in Richmond this year was a strong swing to the Greens against Ms Elliot in the 2013 election and the recent electoral redistribution has left the incumbent with only a 1.6% margin heading into this poll.

"But she's got her hooks pretty well into the area, she has deep connections to the community and the luxury of incumbency, so I think short of there being another big slippage to the Greens, she'll do well," Prof Stockwell said.

In the long Nationals-held seat of Cowper, former independent MP Rob Oakeshott also will be a wildcard up against incumbent Luke Hartsuyker, despite Mr Hartsuyker's strong 13.2% margin over the north coast seat.

Mr Oakeshott said in a Facebook statement he had decided to stand against Mr Hartsuyker in the 2016 poll as his home town of Port Macquarie was redistributed into Cowper.

The redistribution has also set the scene for closer contests in other regional NSW seats, Prof Stockwell said, including Robertson, Central Coast's Dobell, Gilmore, Barton and the once-bellwether south coast electorate of Eden-Monaro.

But he said "the crunch" of the electoral contest would likely still come down to western Sydney and similar outer suburban areas in Brisbane and Melbourne.

"Part of the reason the campaign is being presented as the top end of town against the workers, there is a realisation that in western Sydney and areas like it, people's wages are not going up the way they used to," Prof Stockwell said.

"Labor is trying to capitalise on that, so there's the potential to be a backlash against the government in areas that aren't doing that well economically."

Prof Stockwell said while the tight polls of recent months showed it was a real contest, the Coalition had been fighting much of the battle on traditional Labor ground.

"The script was that by this stage, Mr Turnbull would be so far ahead he could just canter to the finish line, but it's going to be a lot more complex in the second half of this campaign," he said.

"That's one of the problems of a long campaign; it gives time for the issues to unravel, people have more time to think about it.

"The Labor Party is currently doing a better job in setting the issues of the campaign and as a result, the Coalition is responding to it."

Topics:  editors picks justine elliott kevin hogan labor national party page richmond


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