Rob Oakeshott

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull should be wary of the precedent of Brexit — a conservative PM who kowtowed to the right of his party with dire consequences for himself and his nation — says Rob Oakeshott.

The former member for Lyne has thrown his hat in the ring for the New South Wales seat of Cowper this election (Cowper encompasses his home town of Port Macquarie), where he is hoping to unseat Nationals MP and former frontbencher Luke Hartsuyker. According to a ReachTEL poll conducted earlier this month, Oakeshott is in with a chance, with a two-party-preferred vote at 50-50 between Oakeshott and Hartsuyker.

Oakeshott’s return to the political scene, along with Tony Windsor’s bid for New England, has led to the Coalition warning of a return of the “Glee club” of a minority government of Labor, Greens and independents. In the wake of the UK voting to leave the European Union and the global economic uncertainty that has followed the vote, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has repeatedly urged the public to vote for a “majority stable Coalition government” on Saturday.

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[Is Tony Windsor doomed to follow in the footsteps of Maxine McKew?]

However, Oakeshott tells Crikey that Turnbull can’t make that case while ignoring the events that led to the Brexit vote.

“I know they’re trying desperately to link Brexit with the importance of stable majority government, [but] it was David Cameron, a somewhat moderate leader of the Conservative Party in the UK, trying to butter up to UKIP, which is essentially the far-right party. The lesson to be learnt for Australia is for moderate leaders of conservative parties to actually be moderate leaders and not to butter up with the far right,” he said. “The conservatives were in bed with the far right, and so the conservatives themselves cannot claim Brexit as the example to vote for them, when they are to blame for this blowing up.”

Oakeshott says the key to stability and reform in Australia is to reject the “faction of mass destruction” of right-wing popularist politicians who aren’t interested in reform. Oakeshott made the pitch that even in the event of a Coalition government after the election, losing some right-wing MPs would be good for the Coalition and the country.

The parallels between Brexit in the UK and the Australian situation are already being drawn, with Turnbull promising a divisive public vote on same-sex marriage, something he didn’t want to undertake himself but was forced into in order to appease the so-called DelCons in his party.

[Brexit — the shockwaves spread out from a departing Britain]

The independent candidate doesn’t think a repeat of the 2010 hung parliament would happen again, but if it did, the circumstances would be different. If he is elected, he says, the negotiations to form government — something both Labor and the Coalition have stressed will not happen — would be very different.

“The playing field has changed. There’s still remnants of all the confusion that was around that time, but I think there is an overwhelming sentiment that it wasn’t that confusing a time now in hindsight, and what is confusing now is double dissolution elections and political parties who are saying ‘elect us and we won’t talk to anyone and we will somehow, magically, with fairy dust, make the parliament work’.”

Like Tony Windsor, Oakeshott thinks people understand now why he supported Labor over the Coalition in 2010.

“I got slapped around for sticking by [Julia] Gillard, but as much that time, I was rejecting [Tony] Abbott as I was supporting Gillard. I think people have lived that whole experience as well. And now it all makes a lot more sense.”

He says health and education are vital to the people of Cowper. As the former chair of the National Broadband Network committee, Oakeshott will also be campaigning on the issue of the NBN. He says he views broadband as a utility, and he compares the government’s fibre-to-the-node approach to forcing people to bring a bucket to the end of the street just to get water.

“I’m bemused we’ve ended up in a partisan debate on something so obvious, and the jobs and growth theme is best delivered by delivering internet to every home.”

Oakeshott is also campaigning on what he says he achieved for the area during what is being labelled as the “chaos” of the hung Parliament.

“What I’ve got now which I didn’t have before is actual building works complete on everything that was negotiated in the 43rd Parliament. There was $1.2 billion of work negotiated in the local area. We’ve got new university facilities, a brand new hospital in Kempsey, a new hospital in Port Macquarie, all of that was just words in 2013, now it is reality. I think there’s a lot of people who go ,’Jeez, we want a piece of that again’.”

Last week, a report in The Australian suggested Oakeshott — who is also studying to be a doctor — was struggling on his $70,000-per-year parliamentary pension, and stood to pocket $47,000 from this election without running much in the way of advertising. Oakeshott says TV and radio ads started this week as the campaign enters the final days.

The Australian always had a particular line they were going to run before they even turned up. I’ve never cried poor about money, but they still made that a line,” he said.

“It’ll be a very close contest. We’ve at least stripped 13% off the Nats. That’s what the community wants. They want this at the very least a marginal seat, and plenty more, such as myself, want to see actual change.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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