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For the first time in 97 years, Labor has swept to the lead in the polls in the previously ironclad National Party seat of Benalla.
With the Benalla by-election for former deputy Premier, Pat McNamara’s seat five days away, Labor is poised to drive a stake through the party’s heartland. Labor polling shows the party ahead 50.5% – 49% on a two party preferred basis.

A Benalla win would deliver Labor a huge advantage on the floor of Parliament. It would only need the vote of one of the three Independent MP’s to secure legislation. Right now, it needs all three – Russell Savage, Craig Ingram & Susan Davies – to get its legislative program through the Lower House.

As a result, all three Independent MP’s are leveraging enormous influence on the Government’s program. If the ALP was able to play off one MP against the other two, it could ram through contentious legislation far more easily than now.

Don’t Let The Labor Bull Lose In The China Shop

Simply put, a Labor win in Benalla would allow the party’s radical elements to concoct and enact the kind of wacky laws which saw Victoria bankrup after the Cain-Kirner years.

By contrast, an Independent win would give Benalla more influence on State Parliament than ever before, and ensure the big political parties paid close attention to its electors needs over the next three years.

Independents will decide the fate of the by-election, with more than a third of the electorate planning to vote 1 or 2 for an Independent. If an Independent doesn’t win, the seat will be decided on Independent preferences.

The two major Independents, Warrenbayne farmer Bill Hill and Upper Lurg accountant, Geoff Rowe, are polling at between 9.6% and 20% with a week to go in a volatale electoral cauldron. A survey last week of 900 electors by the Border Mail indicated 9.6% support for Independents and revealed that 35% of voters would place an Independent either 1 or 2 on their ballot. Some 25% of voters planned to vote 2, Independent – while 45% were still undecided on their 2nd preference.

The Crikey Beer Offer

Crikey is willing to wager a slab of fine Australian beer with any pundit who thinks Independent Geoff will outpoll Independent Bill on primary votes. This simply will not happen. National Party qualitative polling shows Bill outpolling Geoff 2:1. Labor polling shows Geoff narrowly outpolling Bill – fair dinkum, their pollster, Matt Viney, must have only interviewed Geoff’s immediate family.

Bill Sykes – Waving, Not Drowning

Nationals Candidate Bill Sykes has allowed his party attack dogs to unleash their smear file on Labor candidate Denise Allen.

During the week, National heavies leaked dirt on Ms Allen to the Herald Sun’s provocative columnist, Andrew Bolt, who did a beautifully-mannered hatchet job on the Labor candidate. Simply put, Denise has been around. She’s had 22 jobs in her employment history, from selling for Mike Gore’s white shoe brigade on the Gold Coast to starting up hairdressing salons in the Victorian bush.

A Bolt From The Blue – Denise’s Dole Sabbatical

Bolt indicated she had fudged a period of time she spent on the dole in the late 90’s as a personal sabbatical. And he said Labor HQ had tried to hide her CV.

Indeed, Labor HQ is furious with Denise that she misled them about her past. They hauled her over the rack last week – only to discover a couple more skeletons in her past which they are certain will be revealed by the Nationals in the final week of the campaign. For them, it’s bad enough that Denise has been revealed as a flighty type who was nowhere to be found when the Kennett-McNamara Coalition government was taking an axe to rural jobs and services.

Labor HQ has so far made the decision not to retaliate in the war of mud, despite the existence of a large sludge file on the Nationals’ Bill Sykes. Last week, when Crikey examined Labor’s vaults, we were unable to find the Sykes Sludge File, indicating one of two things: it was being dusted off in preparation for use, or Labor HQ has ordered its destruction.

Labor State Secretary David Feeney headed to Benalla over the weekend to take over the campaign. Buoyed by positive polling, he will be joined by Labor’s most potent weapon, Steve Bracks, as the party tries to nail down what would be a huge win.

Crikey Rates The Candidates

Bill Sykes (National Party) Bill has a long & interesting career in veterinary and country politics. A longtime National, he brings to this campaign personal flair, an urbane wit and a traditional background of country footy and farm animals.

He’s used this people experience to best effect in a number of small-town meet-the-people events where he’s displayed a genuine feel for locals and a desire to understand their needs. Problem is, he should have been doing this months ago, Pat McNamara should have been doing this years ago and the National Party should have been doing this decades ago.

Sykes’ dilemma is that he’s a good candidate being saddled with a National Party which is, deservedly, on the nose in the bush. Only the opportunists and rusted-on party faithful will stick with the Nats this time – and, incredibly, this motley crew means the party still has an eachway chance of victory.

The Sykes problem is a reflection of the party’s appalling record of succession managament. Unlike Labor, they don’t identify young potential leaders and mature them in local and branch politics until they are ready to take on a senior job. New Nationals leader, Peter Ryan, understands this and until the Nats put a succession planning program in action, their existance as a political force in Victoria, and throughout Australia, is under real challenge from Labor and a new breed of rural Independents.

Sykes Disowns The Nats

Sykes has desperately tried to distance himself from the Nationals, Peter Ryan & Pat McNamara during the campaign. If he gets up, it will be a testament to his political flexibility and country Victoria’s long held fears about Labor.

Personal Rating: 8

Party Rating: 2.5

Final word: Should have run as an Independent, and probably will next time.

Denise Allen (Labor)

Denise was chosen to contest this seat against Pat McNamara at the September State election because everyone knew Labor couldn’t win and no-one better was available. Labor heavyweights acknowledge she is an ordinary candidiate with no identifiable electoral strengths. They believe the Nationals’ attack on her employment record and reliability last week may, perversely, attract women – and the sympathy vote. She is trying her best, but would be a poor local MP, and Labor would be battling to retain the seat next time from a renewed Bill Sykes, running as a Country Independent Liberal.

Personal rating: 4

Party Rating: 8

Final word: If Denise gets in, Emily’s List will be delighted.

Bill Hill (Independent)

After spending most of the past month at Warrenbayne with Bill and his family, Crikey heartily endorses this fine man as the best candidiate for the Benalla electorate and the best representative in Parliament for this rural seat.

He has been consitently under-rated by most pundits, even though he gained 16 per cent of the vote when he stood, on principal, against Pat McNamara, in 1996 back in the days when being an Independent was ‘un-Victorian’.

Bill’s campaing has been carefully tailored to take into account the nature of this seat, and the people who live there. He has a compelling story to tell – an extraordinary story of fighting against the Kennett-McNamara regime – and people are listening, and logging in to his website: www.billhill.com.au. He may yet win.

Personal Rating: 9 Party Rating: 10 (ie: no party baggage) Final Word: Bill’s 12 year old son, Jonathon, is baking a special pie for dinner on Saturday. There will be a lot of pundits eating crow if Benalla turns to an Independent Farmer.

Geoff Rowe (Independent)

Geoff decided to run for Benalla over Christnmas – and it shows. He hasn’t clearly identified the issues, and his public delivery of his message is muddled.

But, he is a solid, eager candidate who is learning fast. If he put in lots of hard work over the next three years, he could yet be a strong Indepenent candidate next time.

Personal rating: 6.5

Party rating N/A

Final word: Crikey will be putting Geoff Rowe second on our ballot paper as independents should stick together.

Alf Smith (Australian Reform Party)

Alf has been arguably the best performer at the limited number of public candidate forums he has appeared in so far. Concise, intelligent, willing to listen and with a strong message that the time has come for Independents to be welcomed by the voters, he is a splendid candidiate. We hope he gets his deposit back.

Personal rating: 9

Party rating: 9 (great name for a party!)

Final word: This guy is the real deal. If he had run for Labor (Not that he would), he would win and hold this seat for a generation.

Janet MacKenzie (Greens)

Janet is a book publisher who works on-line and is wise to the new economy. She has made some interesting points about the environment and the bush during her campaign.

Personal Rating: 7.5

Party rating: 3.5

Final word: Janet is a fine spokeswoman for her cause. The day the bush turns Green, however, is a long, long way distant.

Maurie Smith (Independent)

Maurie has been unwell, and unable to attend the various candidate forums – which is a pity. His is an old digger who cares for his country’s future. His prime reason for standing is to be able to tell his grandkids: at least I stood up and had a go. Maurice believes (and righty so) that Australia was dudded by the Brits, and the Menzies Government, at Maralinga. He’s fighting for a fair go for diggers, & believes we need more Snowy River-syle mega projects – like diverting excess water from Queensland to drought-stricken NSW & Victoria.

Personal rating: 9

Party rating: N/A

Final word: Hang in there, Maurie!

Peter Fray

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