The comments were made on Tuesday and I waited a couple of days to see if they would be picked up in the national and metropolitan press. In the end, only AAP thought they were worthy of reporting, with the entirely apt headline “Independent gushes over Rudd visit”.

This is Independent MP Rob Oakeshott on Tuesday, at a press conference with the Prime Minister.

Firstly, it is to say a very big thank you to the Prime Minister, coming to Port Macquarie and the mid North Coast generally, and in particular, coming to Port Macquarie Hospital to look at growth pressures of a particular nature here in Port Macquarie …

It was a fruitful discussion, and it was a genuine discussion. For anyone who is in any doubt that this is some sort of just process of consultation for consultation’s sake, can I confirm what was a meeting that was supposed to go for forty five minutes I think nearly went for two hours, at the Prime Minister’s request …

There would be 1000, at least, postcodes throughout Australia, and the Prime Minister could choose to go to any one of those throughout this country. To choose this area, and to genuinely take the time to listen and consult, to meet with patients and to meet with community members, is certainly greatly appreciated.

The following day, Oakeshott turned up at another Rudd press conference, at the completion of the Ocean Drive Bridge, and said:

Just very quickly, it’s probably the last time I’ll get to thank the Prime Minister for his visit over the last day and a half. In the words of one of the fellas behind us, he said it’s ‘absolutely awesome’ that the Prime Minister takes the time to come to talk to someone like me. I think that sums up the visit of the last two days.

The Prime Minister could’ve flown in and flown out. He could’ve done a paid fundraiser for political purposes. He hasn’t, he has met with real people about real issues on the mid-north coast. So thank you for spending two days in the region, and exploring some of the issues that local members, State and Federal deal with on a daily basis.

Rudd did more than visit the Port Macquarie area and open a bridge. He handed out over $200,000 to help Port Macquarie Base Hospital handle elective surgery waiting lists. And he held a community cabinet meeting in the town.

Oakeshott is no mug. You don’t have a track record of electoral success as an independent like his without some serious political smarts. This is the bloke who walked on the NSW Nationals nearly a decade ago and easily kept his state seat until last year, when he used Mark Vaile’s retirement to seize the former leader’s seat of Lyne.

Oakeshott knows how the game is played. Bob Carr — well after his landslide second election win — made a point of courting him with infrastructure funding for his electorate and Oakeshott established a good relationship with Carr. And since his arrival in Federal Parliament, several NSW Labor Ministers, like Chris Bowen and Joel Fitzgibbon, made a point of sitting with him for a chat during Question Time.

To the west of Lyne is Tony Windsor’s seat of New England. Windsor’s another former Nat, and his hold on New England makes Oakeshott’s look downright marginal. To the south is Liberal Bob Baldwin in Paterson, long ago a Country/Nationals seat which became very marginal in 2007 and, if the proposed redistribution holds, will be much more so next year. To the north is Cowper, held by Luke Hartsuyker, the amiable if low-profile Nationals frontbencher who copped a 5.5% swing in 2007 and now sits on a margin of a little over 1%. The Greens did very well in Cowper last time around, getting their vote above 11%.

Go a little further north and you’re back in Labor territory right up to the border – Janelle Saffin in Page, and then Justine Elliot in Richmond, both seats where the Nationals have been trying to fend off the ALP since the late 1980s, with decreasing success. Elliot now has a solid 8% margin but Saffin remains marginal, particularly given she benefited from an 8% swing in 2007.

Labor aren’t courting Oakeshott to join them. He’s much more useful as an Independent. He is popular and respected by voters who have returned him election after election for over a decade. His praise for Rudd is political gold for Labor across the region. So too was the extensive and excited media coverage of “Kevin Rudd in Port Macquarie”. Nearly two years into his Prime Ministership and Rudd is still being treated with rock star-like adulation in some areas.

The spending on Port Macquarie Base, the Port Macquarie community cabinet and the two-day visit to the region were all aimed squarely at Luke Hartsuyker and Bob Baldwin, with the goal of turning what was once solid National Party territory between Newcastle and the border into a Labor/independent bastion. Barnaby Joyce’s new direction of greenhouse denialism and Coalition division will do nothing but help that in Cowper. And Baldwin will have to maximise his personal vote to hang on in Paterson. Malcolm Turnbull’s personal appeal isn’t going to help him.

Oakeshott appears happy to accommodate Labor, particularly as it ensures a steady a stream of funding for his electorate — the same game he played successfully with Bob Carr.

The only problem for Labor is the Greens. Green preferences are more important the further north you go along the coast. The Green vote was nearly 15% in Richmond. Even on a softer vote in 2007 they were 8% in Page. The Greens are likely to go hard at the Government next election on climate change, and while they won’t threaten regional seats like they’ll threaten Lindsay Tanner (who will be up against Adam Bandt again and faces a real challenge) and Tanya Plibersek, the Greens could be kingmakers on the North Coast if they can get some discipline into their preferencing. Admittedly the chances of the Greens preferencing a Nat appear slim, but from the Greens’ point of view there’s minimal difference between the mainstream parties anyway.

And no matter what happens, Oakeshott will remain firmly ensconced.

Peter Fray

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