Eight months after its crushing state election victory, Barry O’Farrell’s government faces its first electoral test next Saturday with a by-election in the north coast seat of Clarence. In the absence of any particularly high-profile independent challengers, the poll is unlikely to present too much difficulty for the incumbent Nationals. However, Labor has sportingly decided to enter the field despite the drubbing it received in the electorate at the March state election, and there are suggestions they might at least enjoy some electoral dividend from local dissatisfaction over the coal seam gas issue. However, it might equally be expected that federal issues such as the carbon tax and pokies reform will result in any Labor revival being fairly subdued.
Clarence’s main population centres are Grafton (situated on the river which gives the electorate its name) and Casino, and it covers the coast from Corindi Beach north to Broadwater. Traditionally a conservative seat, it only fell to Labor with the 1981 landslide and when Harry Woods tenuously held on from 1996 to 2003 on the back of a personal vote built up as federal member for Page. Labor’s current member for the latter electorate, Janelle Saffin, did very well at the August 2010 federal election to record a slight majority in the booths covered by Clarence (a small number of which are in Nationals MP Luke Hartsuyker’s seat of Cowper). Labor took a particularly heavy hit in Clarence amid the devastation of the March state election, suffering swings of 19.8 per cent on both the primary and the two-party vote. Their candidate finished a distant third behind independent and Clarence Valley mayor Richie Williamson, who polled 17.0 per cent to Labor’s 10.2 per cent. In Labor-versus-Nationals terms, the two-party margin went from 11.6 per cent to 31.4 per cent.
Apart from the two Labor interruptions just noted, Clarence has been held by the National/Country Party since it was re-established as an electorate in 1927. Labor’s member after the 1981 election was Don Day, who lost the seat to Nationals candidate Ian Causley in 1984. Causley served as member until he gained Page from Woods as part of John Howard’s 1996 federal election victory. The defeated Labor member, Harry Woods, then filled Causley’s state vacancy after picking up a resounding 14.0 per cent swing at the subsequent by-election. This added a handy buffer to what had previously been the Carr government’s one-seat majority. In 1999 Woods came within 143 votes of losing the seat to Nationals candidate Steve Cansdell, a signwriting business operator and Grafton councillor. Cansdell secured the seat on his second attempt when Woods retired in 2003, picking up a small but decisive 1.7 per cent swing, to which he added a further 6.5 per cent in 2007.
The current by-election was initiated when Cansdell resigned from parliament in September after admitting he signed a false statutory declaration to avoid a speeding fine. His successor as Nationals candidate is Chris Gulaptis, a former Clarence Valley councillor and mayor of Maclean, and unsuccessful Nationals candidate for Page when he sought to succeed Ian Causley at the 2007 federal election. The other candidates for preselection were Richie Williamson, the aforementioned independent candidate from the state election; his council colleague Karen Toms; Stuart George, son of Lismore MP Thomas George, whose run hit trouble when it emerged his company Capital Car Sales was in liquidation; Alumy Creek farmer Fiona Leviny; Grafton solicitor Paul O’Connor; and Maclean restaurant owner Jason Cleary. Labor’s candidate is Peter Ellem, a policy adviser to Janelle Saffin and former editor of the Daily Examiner. The remainder of the field includes two independents – Wade Walker, a former paramedic who is calling for an upgrade to the Pacific Highway, and Stewart Scott-Irving, a frequent independent and one-time Labor candidate with a modest electoral record – along with nominees of the Greens, the Christian Democratic Party, the Australian Democrats and the Outdoor Recreation Party.
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More info available from Antony Green; this site will as always offer live coverage of the by-election count on Saturday evening.