The National Party has a spectacular record of losing the seats once held by its federal leaders.
Ian Sinclair’s seat of New England has fallen into the unassailable grasp of Independent Tony Windsor, Doug Anthony’s seat of Richmond is in the hands of Labor’s Justine Elliot while Tim Fischer’s seat of Farrer has been occupied since 2001 by Liberal Sussan Ley.
Is it now the turn of Mark Vaile to watch his NSW mid-coast seat of Lyne fall to a non-National?
As soon as he resigned from the Nationals leadership after the Coalition’s election debacle in November, it was obvious to blind Freddy that Vaile didn’t intend to hang around.
Obvious, that is, to everyone except the party’s federal administration. As a result of this reckless indolence, no succession plan appears to have been put in place.
When Vaile announced his resignation last Friday, it was reasonable to assume that a “star” candidate would appear on cue to outline a political plan to hold the seat with the full support of the former deputy prime minister. But nothing of the sort happened. Instead, political disarray and confusion abounds.
Two Nationals are considering whether to run in the by-election at a date to be announced: Rob Drew, the former mayor of the now sacked Port Macquarie Council and NSW Nationals Leader Andrew Stoner, MP for the neighbouring state seat of Oxley.
The wild card is Rob Oakeshott, MP for Port Macquarie, who dramatically quit the Nationals in March 2002 to become an independent.
Oakeshott is now being wooed by the Liberals to stand as their candidate in the Lyne by-election. And the wooer is none other than Senator “Buffalo” Bill Heffernan, the Junee farmer whose political toxicity has become legendary.
Is is feasible that Oakeshott could stand as an independent, Liberal or joint Lib/Nat candidate in Lyne and win? Yes.
Is is feasible that his political arch-enemy Stoner could stand in Lyne and hold it for the Nationals? Yes again.
Both would have to resign their state seats, causing two by-elections. Whereas Oakeshott has much to gain by transferring to Canberra in Independent or Liberal colors, Stoner would struggle.
According to all the poll indicators, Stoner is on track to become deputy premier to Coalition leader Barry O’Farrell at the March 2011 state election and have the pick of the senior portfolios in the first NSW conservative government since 1995.
On the other hand, going to Canberra to serve under the risible leadership of Warren Truss is an unattractive proposition. There is excitable talk of Stoner being drawn to Canberra so that he can be drafted as a future leader but that is something of a political mirage.
The Nationals’ immediate target is to hang onto Lyne. If Vaile’s seat is lost – coming on top of the loss of Ian Causley’s seat of Page at the November election — then the party will be facing an entry in the register of endangered species. Lyne is going to be a turning point.