It’s showtime for Warren Truss, the invisible man of Federal political leadership.

We’ve barely heard from Truss since he was elected leader of the Nats (when Mark Vaile made way for “generational change”). Admittedly, we’re not Truss’s constituency, but as the alternative Deputy Prime Minister, he has been off the political radar.

Now he and his party face a massive test in Gippsland. As one National Party source told The Australian , this is life or death.

The departure of the thick but nice Peter McGauran exposes Gippsland to a rampant Rudd Government. Although today’s Morgan Poll shows a drop in Labor’s primary vote, they’re still streets ahead of the Opposition, 60.5-39.5. In a seat already on a 5.9% 2PP margin, that spells trouble for Truss and the likely candidate, Darren Chester, a former state candidate and currently a staffer for Victorian Nationals leader Peter Ryan.

As Possum Comitatus has previously explained, if any of the Government-in-exile seats will fall, it will be this one. What role will Truss play in the campaign? It’s likely that barely anyone in the seat knows who he is.

How much the three-cornered nature of the contest complicates things isn’t yet clear. Under the Federal Coalition deal, the Liberals can run a candidate as well. Whether they do or not – or more particularly how hard they run, is the issue.

Gippsland is not natural Liberal territory. Party sources say that if they can find a high-profile local candidate to take on Chester, they may have a real tilt. However, they also face potential by-elections in their own seats of Mayo and Higgins. Throwing serious money at Gippsland in an attempt to snare it from the Nationals is a lower priority. Moreover, as the three-way contest in Leichhardt showed last year, the spectacle of Nats and Liberals bagging each other wouldn’t be a particularly edifying spectacle.

So there is a real chance the Liberals will run dead, hoping to maximise the flow of preferences to the Nationals candidate and help their Coalition partner avoid the ignominy of defeat. However, that assumes that Liberal voters are happy to preference the Nationals. Comitatus notes that there’s an increasing tendency for Liberal voters in three-cornered contests to not preference the Nationals – meaning a third place for the Liberal candidate could get Labor across the line on preferences.

Malcolm Mackerras, however, is happy to predict a Darren Chester victory. According to Mackerras, history suggests a Labor Government will struggle to defeat the Nats, especially when both the Nationals and Chester himself have performed well in the region in recent elections.

The headache for Brendan Nelson is that the focus will once again turn to the Coalition’s former ministers. Peter Costello continues to keep his own counsel – apparently from everyone – on his future, although one business source says his overtures to the corporate sector have been rebuffed. Alexander Downer, however, is likely to go at the time most convenient to his party. That means, now that McGauran has kicked off the by-elections, sooner rather than later. Nelson may have a Super Saturday yet.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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