With little more than two weeks to go, the picture ahead of the New South Wales state election has come into slightly clearer focus following yesterday’s closure of candidate nominations, fully outlined in the the Poll Bludger Election Guide.

Included in the mix on March 28 will be two castaways from the Howard government, a Labor candidate who was once busted for dealing cocaine, candidates in every electorate for the No Land Tax Party (including six from one family), and the indefatigable Reverend Fred Nile, who is saddling up for yet another term in the upper house at the age of 80.

Now that it’s established who’s doing what and where, the Baird government has a clearer sense of the task it faces in seeking to retain at least 47 out of its existing 60 seats, beyond which it will face minority government — or worse.

Not included in the total of 60 seats are nine that the government has lost through misadventure during its four years in office, eight of which related to the work of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in investigating unlawful donations from property developers (the ninth being the Sutherland Shire seat of Miranda, which Labor won at a byelection after Liberal member Graham Annesley decided, mid-term, that politics wasn’t really for him).

Two of these seats, Newcastle and Charlestown, fell to Labor at byelections held after their Liberal members resigned in the second half of last year. A further six MPs have served out the latter part of the term on the crossbench, of whom only Garry Edwards in the southern Newcastle seat of Swansea is making a quixotic attempt to retain his seat as an independent.

Given that seven of the eight ICAC-affected seats are concentrated in the central coast and Hunter region, it might be thought that this area will offer Labor a plentiful harvest of low-hanging fruit.

However, voters on the central coast have had all too much experience with misbehaviour on the part of their elected representatives, and there has been little evidence so far of it having much effect on their voting behaviour.

Going into the 2010 federal election, Labor jettisoned the serious political liability that was Belinda Neal from the knife-edge marginal seat of Robertson, and was presumably bracing for defeat there. Instead, the seat was one of a handful across the state where the swing was actually in Labor’s favour, a result that proved crucial in allowing Julia Gillard to cling on to government. Craig Thomson’s neighbouring seat of Dobell went closer to script at the 2013 election, in that it did in fact fall to the Liberals, but the swing was entirely in line with the statewide average.

Even so, Labor will be hoping for a fillip in the region’s naturally marginal seats, one particularly auspicious case being The Entrance, which will be vacated by another ICAC casualty in independent (formerly Liberal) MP Chris Spence.

The Liberals are no doubt having sleepless nights at present over the precedent of the 1991 election, when Nick Greiner’s government was unexpectedly reduced to a parliamentary minority just one term after sweeping to power in a landslide.

The Entrance played a key role in that result, falling to Labor by a handful of votes. The seat is now being contested for Labor by David Mehan, who presented Labor with what proved to be a missed opportunity ahead of the 2010 election, when he challenged Craig Thomson for preselection in Dobell.

The odds on a replay of 1991 will further shorten if a few Coalition seats can be picked off by independents or minor parties. One such possibility in the Hunter region is Maitland, where Liberal member Robyn Parker is set to retire, despite being a rare local Liberal who has emerged untainted by ICAC. Among the contestants for the seat is independent councillor Philip Penfold, who has been spruiking privately conducted polling that supposedly shows him outpolling the Liberals.

Further afield, Peter Draper will seek to recover his old seat of Tamworth, which he won as an independent in 2003 and 2007 before being swept out by the Coalition tide in 2011.

It was also noted here earlier this week that the coal seam gas issue might cause the counter-cultural community of the north coast to make its presence felt by getting the Greens over the line in the Byron Bay-region seat of Ballina. One slight piece of good news for the Nationals in this regard is that they will not face further competition from local councillor Sharon Cadwallader, who has not followed through on her threat to run as an independent after the party knocked her back for preselection.

Another independent curiosity has emerged in the seat of Penrith, where Jackie Kelly will be one of two Howard-government MPs seeking to make a comeback in western Sydney (the other being Pat Farmer, the former member for Macarthur and now the Liberal candidate for Macquarie Fields).

Penrith is at the heart of Kelly’s old seat of Lindsay, which she held for a period precisely coinciding with the Howard years from 1996 to 2007. Kelly has lately complained that the Liberal Party is being run by “lobbyists”, and is running primarily in opposition to proposed airport at Badgerys Creek.

It’s hard to say how much the burghers of Penrith remember or care about Kelly’s farewell act in federal politics, when her husband was caught disseminating fake pamphlets in which Labor was praised for supporting the “unjustly sentenced” Bali bombers — an incident Kelly weakly sought to dismiss as a “Chaser-style prank”.

But at the very least, her candidacy threatens to split the conservative vote and potentially give Labor a look-in in a seat that, taking into account the 16.3% margin from 2011, the Liberals really ought to have bolted down.

Peter Fray

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