A thought privoking piece from Bill Hill, who never lets us down

The forthcoming State by-election for Benalla will not only let country voters flex their new-found electoral muscles – it will provide a telling insight into the future of the Howard Government.

The seat neatly overlays parts of two sensitive federal seats, the lower section of Indi and the upper part of McEwen. Although still considered safe, Indi just became more marginal with the retirement of popular Liberal MP Lou Leiberman who is leaving at the next election.

McEwen has been marginal for most of its existence. Currently it is held by Fran Bailey, who battles continuously to hold it for the Liberals. Labor has held the seat and must see it as a necessary prize in a change of government.

The opportunity for Benalla voters to leverage their votes in the widely anticipated by-election has never been better. With an apparently pro country Minority Labor government in power in Victoria, the Benalla electorate appears to be in a great position to take full advantage of its powerful bargaining position.

This once safe seat is definitely savouring the advantage of its newly discovered marginal status. You may argue that a National vote of 57% hardly makes the seat vulnerable; but this is down from a two party preferred vote of 65% in 1996. If we generously give incumbent Pat McNamara a 5% personal following, then the real vote is more like 52% – and it was only a two horse race in September 1999.

Governments, both state and federal, are now interested in our views and in us; this was reinforced around Christmas when voters from the electorate were polled for their voting intentions at least three times. The results for the Nats were ghastly, and the imminent departure of Mr McNamara was put on hold and Pat had to front up to the autumn session of parliament, while the Nationals looked in vain for one of their own to represent them. Finally they preselected a cleanskin, who was not even a party member when the coalition fell from grace in September.

Although a federal election will probably not be held before June 2001, the federal Government appears to have rediscovered the “bush.” Treasurer Costello and Deputy Prime Minister Anderson are reported to be filling a large “war chest” to tackle the “problems of the bush.”

The focus will be on Benalla and any decrease in the conservative vote will send an unequivocal message to Canberra; listen and take us seriously or don’t be surprised if you continue to lose support.

My message to those voters who can bring themselves to depart from their former practice is that I will run a split ticket. So if you vote for me and I am not successful then your vote will return to your original allegiance through your preferences.

If I am successful I will not have a party to hide behind – and if I don’t live up to your expectations, I will not expect you to give me a second chance.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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