Tomorrow sees the end of an Australia-wide by-election drought going back to the Katherine by-election in the Northern Territory in October last year. Voters in Dubbo will go to the polls to choose a replacement for independent state MP Tony McGrane, who passed away on September 15. The state Labor Party, who have recently been taking a hammering in the opinion polls, have sensibly decided they have little to gain from fielding a candidate in a safe conservative seat where they would certainly suffer an embarrassing result as well as unnecessary expense. The real point of interest is whether the electorate will give the resurgent John Brogden-led Coalition a vote of confidence by returning the seat to the National Party.
Dubbo was held for the Coalition from 1959, Gerry Peacocke winning it for the Nationals in 1981 after the retirement of recently deposed Liberal leader John Mason. Peacocke, described by Antony Green as "an old-style irascible National Party MP", is perhaps best remembered for describing then-premier John Fahey as "a gutless little wimp" after he failed to tell him personally that he had been dumped from cabinet. When Peacocke retired at the 1999 election the Nationals preselected local talkback radio host Richard Mutton, but long-serving Dubbo mayor Tony McGrane ran against him as an independent and won by a mere 14 votes. His foothold established, McGrane had a less nervous time of it at the March 2003 election, leading the Nationals candidate 41.6 per cent to 38.2 per cent on the primary vote and prevailing by 5.5 per cent after preferences.
This time around the Nationals have nominated Jan Cowley, the party’s Parkes Electoral Council secretary, whose preselection opponents included Sam Peacocke, son of Gerry, and former mayor Greg Matthews. The Daily Liberal quoted a "key supporter" of McGrane saying his backers would endorse a new candidate if the nomination went to Matthews, who they linked to Richard Mutton; presumably the candidate they had in mind was Parkes mayor Robert Wilson, widely mentioned as a likely starter and described by the Daily Liberal as a friend of McGrane’s. Wilson indeed declined to run, but Dubbo deputy mayor Dawn Fardell has taken the field and should give Cowley a run for her money, having won public backing from state indepedents Richard Torbay and Peter Draper and federal independents Peter Andren and Tony Windsor. Ben Shields – who is on Dubbo City Council, along with Fardell, Matthews, Mutton and Sam Peacocke – was reportedly keen to run as a Liberal candidate but the party hierarchy thought better than to enter the contest. Rounding out the field of four are two candidates who contested the corresponding federal seat of Parkes at the October 9 election – Terrance Loughlin, of the Greens, and Makere Rangihaeata, a Citizens Electoral Council candidate at the federal election who is now running as an independent.
The final element that warrants a mention is New England MP Tony Windsor’s allegations of bribery against Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson and Senator Sandy Macdonald, with some suspicious folk linking the timing of Windsor’s announcement earlier this week with tomorrow’s poll. The suggestion is that Windsor, who also gave strong backing to Tony McGrane at the 1999 election, was seeking to give Fardell a boost over Cowley. If so, the impassioned rejection of his claims by businessman and supposed go-between Greg Maguire might mean the move has backfired, although many will continue to accept Windsor’s version of events. The episode has called attention to the long-standing debate in these parts about the relative merits of independent and major party representation; although the Poll Bludger cannot claim any connection with this particular part of Australia, and has no opinion polling to go on, his gut feeling is that the mood has swung in favour of the latter and that Jay Cowley will prevail. The impact of this on the numbers in the lower house will be barely measurable – from 55-6-32 to 55-5-33 – but it will provide a shot in the arm for an opposition that already has good cause to feel confident about its future prospects.