Dumped Robertson MP Belinda Neal has again refused to rule out running as an independent at this year’s federal election after Central Coast residents were push-polled over a potential Neal solo tilt.

Mt White resident Chantal Lewis told Crikey that she was relaxing at home on Sunday when market researchers rang and listed Neal’s “achievements” since her election in 2007, including increased funding for the F3 freeway, the redevelopment of local parks and boosts to childcare, before asking whether Robertson would be “better served by an independent”.

Follow-up questions asked whether Lewis would be “more likely to consider voting for Neal if she ran as an independent” in light of her local successes and whether the Central Coast was being “ignored” by the federal government in Canberra.

After Lewis responded that she was not planning to back Neal, a list of alternative candidates were trotted out, including bitter rival Deborah O’Neill, who defeated her for ALP preselection in March.

“I called my partner over once I realised what the call was about,” Lewis, who is on the national Do Not Call list, explained.”It was just so centred on her.” She said the call lasted for around four minutes.

Crikey understands that other voters in Robertson have also been polled.

If Neal begins a solo campaign, she would be immediately dumped from the ALP and would be forced to sit on the cross-benches for the remainder of her term. Any assistance rendered by husband and NSW Upper House MP John Della Bosca would also lead to his immediate expulsion from the state ALP, despite his term expiring in 2015.

Neal’s electorate officer, Dez Karlsson, refused to deny the polls or rule out an independent tilt when queried on the specifics by Crikey this morning.

“At this time extensive polling is being done by parties candidates and the media in a range of seats, including the Central Coast. Ms Neal intends to apply the standard convention of not discussing polling,” said Karlsson.

“Ms Neal has made no decision about her future but intends to continue working hard for the Central Coast community as she was elected to do.”

Della Bosca has previously conducted private polling under Labor’s official radar. Last year, he reportedly paid Western Australian firm Australian Community Research $20,000 to gauge the electorate’s temperature on the prospects of him ousting then-Premier Nathan Rees from the state’s top job.

In April, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Neal was mulling the possibility of going solo during a week away with her husband. Since then, she has continued a relentless program of gladhandling in the local electorate, attending numerous dinners and functions to press the flesh with civic and business leaders. A stand at the Erina Fair shopping centre and an appearance at the Terrigal Surf Club has also raised eyebrows.

A source close to O’Neill’s campaign said they were surprised by the strategy: “If Belinda wants to run as an independent then she can find out just how popular that she is.”

“Her behaviour is entirely consistent with her running again. She’s been turning up to events everywhere, acting like she’s still the candidate…she’s been campaigning hard as if nothing’s changed.”

But another senior Labor source was sceptical, wondering what a run as an independent would achieve. “She might be threatening to run to get a payback later on,” the source noted.

Other possibilities for Neal include a play for the state seat of Gosford, but that would require the current sitting member, 70-year-old Marie Andrews, to resign.

Peter Fray

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