Three byelections will be fought in New South Wales tomorrow, with the “unpredictables” — they are called “deplorables” in the US — about to determine the results.
The main action is concentrated on Orange, a west-of-the-divide rural seat, and Wollongong, the former steel and coal city on the South Coast.
The third contest is in Canterbury, a Labor stronghold previously held by Linda Burney, now a federal MP. This Sydney seat is likely to stay in the ALP fold. But who can tell for certain these days?
According to received wisdom and traditional logic, Orange is pure National Party, or “tiger country” as Country Party bush seats used to be called, and Wollongong is “solidarity forever” rusted-on Labor.
But in the uncertain post-Donald Trump and post-Brexit world, those certitudes no longer apply.
Right-wing populist broadcasters Alan Jones and Ray Hadley took their malevolent breakfast and morning shows to Orange on Thursday to rev up the campaign against Nationals candidate Scott Barrett and Premier Mike Baird’s government.
Those who thought that Jones and Baird had reached a polite and respectful understanding over the ban on greyhound racing have been proved wrong. Baird backflipped after a private meeting with Jones at the shock jock’s Circular Quay apartment in October, but their “peace agreement” came to abrupt end when Jones started broadcasting from the Orange Ex-Services’ Club bistro at 5.30am yesterday.
Hadley joined him in the second half of the program, and the two broadcasters hammered the Coalition over council amalgamations, changes to Crown land ownership, privatisation, the transfer of the Powerhouse Museum from Darling Harbour to Parramatta and the strict curbs on greyhound racing.
The byelection has attracted eight candidates, seven of whom are opposed to the Baird government and are putting the Nationals last on their list of preferences.
Labor is bussing in campaigners from Sydney hoping to unseat the Nationals and deliver a potentially career-ending blow to Deputy Premier Troy Grant, the influential Nationals leader.
The Shooters and Fishers Party are mobilising gun lovers against the Coalition because of its refusal to support the importation and sale of rapid-fire shotguns.
A third group, the Save Our Councils’ Coalition, is planning to campaign at polling booths in Orange, Parkes and Forbes to oppose the proposed merger of Orange, Cabonne and Blayney Councils.
SOCC will be supported by Cabonne Shire’s Amalgamation No Thank You (ANTY), whose spokeswoman, Marj Bollinger, said: “We’re never giving up hope.”
At the other byelection flashpoint, Wollongong, Labor’s 25-year stranglehold is threatened by the city’s popular independent mayor, Gordon Bradbery.
“Labor representation has given us invisibility,” Bradbery said. “Labor has become more concerned about holding this seat rather than helping it.”
It is an appeal that resonates with Wollongong voters, who were sorely neglected and scandalised by corruption during the recent Labor era. In the past Wollongong voters have switched to an independent MP when they’ve felt betrayed.
Wollongong mayor Frank Arkell successfully represented the state seat from 1984 to 1991, assuming the nickname of “Mr Wollongong”.
Bradbery is hoping to don that mantle tomorrow and inflict collateral misery on Opposition Leader Luke Foley’s team.
Although publicly showing studied disinterest, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten will be glued to the results in all three contests.
Any electoral reverses in Orange, Wollongong or Canterbury will impact on them as well as Baird, Grant and Foley.
Traditionally, byelections are weather vanes for the popularity (or otherwise) of governments in mid-term. They also give an indication of how oppositions are travelling with the voting public.
For these reasons it is no surprise that the NSW political class has been acting so irritably and nervously in the last few days.