The September 6 by-elections for Mayo and Lyne initially loomed as fizzers, with Labor showing no inclination post-Gippsland to test the waters in unwinnable seats. They have instead respectively emerged as mildly and enormously interesting, thanks to the entry of non-major party players. In Mayo, housing tycoon Bob Day will bring a cashed-up campaign to bear against the Liberals as the candidate of Family First, having failed to win Liberal preselection for Mayo after unsuccessfully contesting Makin last year. Day would nonetheless have to be considered a long shot against Liberal candidate Jamie Briggs, but it’s a very different story in Lyne where independent state MP Rob Oakeshott has been rated the clear favourite by Antony Green. Imre Salusinszky of The Australian reports that Nationals polling puts his approval rating in the electorate at over 70 per cent, and says the party is concerned Labor will direct resources to Mr Oakeshott’s campaign.
Lyne covers a 100 kilometre stretch of coastline up to 400 kilometres north of Sydney, the main population centres being Port Macquarie (home to 33 per cent of the electorate’s population) and Taree (14 per cent). Smaller centres include Old Bar, Lake Cathie and Harrington on the coast, and Wauchope and Wingham further inland. The National/Country Party has held the seat since its creation in 1949. The electorate covers the entirety of Oakeshott’s state seat of Port Macquarie, which provides Lyne with 55 per cent of its voters. Oakeshott won Port Macquarie as the Nationals candidate at a 1996 by-election ahead of independent John Barrett, who had come within 233 votes of defeating Mark Vaile as Liberal candidate for Lyne in 1993. He was promoted to the front bench after the 1999 election, taking the sport and recreation, fisheries and ports portfolios. In March 2002 he quit the party, claiming its local branches were controlled by property developers and questioning whether the party was still relevant to an electorate transformed by tourism and demographic change. The Nationals campaigned aggressively against him during the 2003 campaign, in particular over his support for drug law reform, but he was overwhelmingly re-elected with 69.7 per cent of the primary vote. This fell slightly to 67.1 per cent at the March 2007 election, his two-candidate preferred margin down from 32.8 per cent to a still formidable 28.2 per cent.
The Nationals candidate is Rob Drew, who was mayor of Port Macquarie until the council was sacked by the state government in February. The Macleay Argus reports he won a preselection vote ahead of Taree solicitor Quentin Schneider by 48 votes to 15. State party leader Andrew Stoner was reportedly urged by senior colleagues to throw his hat into the ring, but perhaps sensibly decided to stay put. The prospect of an Oakeshott candidacy was a cloud on the horizon from the time of Vaile’s departure, with Oakeshott earlier threatening to run against Vaile at the 2004 election. There has also been intermittent speculation over the years that he might be enlisted by the Liberals, although this might never have been more than wishful thinking by the party. Most recently, powerbrokers including Senator Bill Heffernan approached him to contest the by-election as the Liberal candidate, hoping that his success might push the Coalition further along the road to a merger. The party has instead opted to sit out the contest, aware that its presence would only increase the already high likelihood of an Oakeshott victory.
The other thing to be noted is that win, lose or draw, Oakeshott’s candidacy will initiate a state by-election for Port Macquarie though that is a subject for another post. While it would be open to Oakeshott to re-contest Port Macquarie, owing to what Imre Salusinszky calls a quirk in NSW electoral law, Oakeshott has declared that such a move would be unfair to the community.