‘One of the most likely to fall’: independent push gathers steam in regional Victoria

By Tom Cowie and Benjamin Preiss

Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce stood high above the Murray River, ready for day one of the election campaign.

He was in the seat of Nicholls, prime Nationals country, to open a $324 million bridge, replacing an antiquated crossing that first joined the river towns of Echuca-Moama more than a century ago.

Joyce’s presence on the Victorian border indicated his party was sufficiently worried about losing a seat with a 20 per cent margin that he needed to shore up votes.

Rob Priestly, independent candidate for Nicholls in regional Victoria.Credit:Luis Ascui

“There’s no such thing as a safe seat,” he said, as paddle steamers chugged behind him.

Attention during this federal election has focused on Liberal strongholds in inner Melbourne, where the “teal” independents are threatening to defeat government MPs.

The Coalition is also staring down serious challenges in the bush, leading to a fight to prevent seats from becoming marginal – or worse – losing them altogether.

Nicholls, which takes in the central and northern Victorian towns of Echuca, Shepparton, Seymour and Yarrawonga, is a prime example.

I do think it’s one of the most likely to be won by an independent, it’s a stronger chance than some of the urban seats.

Several circumstances have put the former seat of Murray in play: the retirement of popular sitting National MP Damian Drum, a prominent cashed-up independent in Rob Priestly, and the Liberals and Nationals both contesting the seat.

“I do think it’s one of the most likely to be won by an independent, it’s a stronger chance than some of the urban seats,” says the ABC’s election analyst Antony Green.

Priestly needs a minimum 30 per cent primary vote to win, Green says. Preferences become crucial, he says, because leakage between the Coalition partners could help elect the independent.

“There is a bit of a history that Liberal preferences flow more strongly to National than the other way around,” he says.

Once lost, the seat may prove difficult to regain – neighbouring Indi elected Cathy McGowan in 2013 and is still independent three elections later.

Independent MP Suzanna Sheed also won the state seat of Shepparton in 2014, the same year major employer SPC was knocked back for assistance by the Abbott government.

“People are open to the idea of an independent,” she says.

While voters want their fair share of spending, as shown by the wrangling over credit for the new Dhungala bridge spanning the Murray, it’s what flows underneath that can make or break politicians.

Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce opens the Dhungala Bridge with Victorian transport minister Jacinta Allan. Credit:Nine

The Goulburn Valley is among Victoria’s food bowls, producing vast quantities of stone fruit, apples, tomatoes and dairy.

Water policy is vitally important here, with local anger simmering over the Murray-Darling basin plan and water buybacks.

“A lot of people are making money out of water,” says Rod Mauger, a 66-year-old undecided voter who spoke with The Sunday Age on Wyndham Street in Shepparton this week.

“The important thing for me is that water should be used to actually grow food.”

The potential recovery of 450 gigalitres of water from irrigators, to be directed back to the environment downriver, is a key concern.

The Nationals sought to scrap the 450 gigalitre component of the plan in parliament but lost that fight with the Liberals.

Shepparton is not a typical election battleground, but the town is awash with advertising putting Priestly’s name front and centre in voters’ minds.

Nicholls candidates Rob Priestly (independent), Sam Birrell (Nationals) and Steve Brooks (Liberal).Credit:Luis Ascui

All major candidates were visible in corflutes on fences this week, but paid marketing such as billboards clearly favoured the independent.

Priestly points out his fundraising is entirely grassroots, with donations coming from local farmers and businesses.

Seeking to win over a conservative electorate, Priestly says he does not have the support of Simon Holmes a Court’s Climate 200 fundraising vehicle or the local Voices for Nicholls advocacy group.

But, like the city independents, he backs climate action, including an emissions cut of up to 50 per cent by 2030, and a new federal integrity commission.

Priestly has taken leave as a councillor at Greater Shepparton City and spruiks his industry credentials, which includes his successful Gouge Linen business.

Shepparton.Credit:John Gollings

He dismisses criticism that independents would create dysfunction.

“If there are more people with real-world experience in parliament as independents that can only be good for democracy,” he says.

He says locals have been let down on water: “We’re still in a situation where that is hanging over some heads of this community.”

Indi has provided the playbook for a rural independent taking it up to the political establishment – even down to the orange branding being used by Priestly.

Cathy McGowan (right) won the seat of Indi in 2013, which is now held by fellow independent Helen Haines.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Liberal candidate Steve Brooks says he is encouraged by those voting early this week.

“I could count on one hand the number of negative interactions I’ve had,” he says.

The pomegranate grower, who has worked as a commodity trader and teacher, says the Liberals previously held the seat for 20 years until 2016 and can do it again.

Brooks says the electorate desperately needs more healthcare workers, citing the Coalition’s promise of $19.5 million for a new clinical health school in Shepparton.

He rejects suggestions Nicholls is overlooked, arguing former Liberal MP Sharman Stone successfully attracted significant funding.

Brooks agrees water management is a major issue, insisting the additional 450 gigalitres only be recovered if there is no economic or social impact.

Nationals candidate Sam Birrell, who resigned from his job as Committee for Greater Shepparton chief executive to contest the election, believes he has a reasonable chance of helping scrap the 450 gigalitres from the plan.

The old Echuca-Moama bridge. Credit:Joe Armao

A poster on his campaign office reads: ‘KEEP OUR WATER HERE’.

“I think we could negotiate it out in a Coalition government and that’s what I’ll be trying to do,” he says.

Birrell dismisses any suggestion that an independent could achieve the same outcome as “farcical”. However, he acknowledges voters are frustrated.

“I understand that,” he says. “But we have to find a way to govern the country.”

While Joyce has visited several times, the Nationals leader doesn’t appear on local campaign material. Birrell says Joyce is not a drag on the vote.

“If he’s coming here to make announcements and help me deliver things that make the people’s lives of Nicholls better, then that’s an advantage.”

Liberal MP for Wannon, Dan TehanCredit:Nicole Cleary

Meanwhile, in the south-west of Victoria, another regional independent is hoping to tap into major party malaise.

Comedian and former Triple J radio host Alex Dyson is taking on Wannon Liberal MP Dan Tehan, who has a 10 per cent margin.

Dyson collected 10 per cent in 2019 after his video performing a dance before jumping off a pier dressed in a suit went viral.

“My first campaign was small, but I had young people behind me,” he says.

This time, Dyson is serious. Stronger action on climate change, integrity in politics and tackling regional housing shortages are resonating with voters, he says.

He is backed by Climate 200, which he says will contribute about $60,000. He has also raised more than $20,000 locally and is tipping in a lot of his own money.

Comedian Alex Dyson is running again in Wannon as an independent. Credit:Nicole Cleary

Although Wannon isn’t marginal, Dyson thinks he can win, particularly if he can at least double his primary vote.

But Tehan, the minister for trade, tourism and investment in the Morrison government, appears relaxed about the challenge. He says he defeated five independents in 2010.

“This is something that’s been going on since federation and will continue,” he says. “Isn’t it wonderful? We live in the best democracy in the world.”

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