Electorate: Port Macquarie
Margin: Independent 4.5% versus Nationals*
Region: Mid-North Coast
Click here for NSW Electoral Commission map
* Result of 18/10/2008 by-election. Result at 2007 election: Independent (Rob Oakeshott) 28.2% versus Nationals.
Electorate analysis: Port Macquarie has been in independent hands since Rob Oakeshott quit the National Party in March 2002, bequeathing the seat to his staffer Peter Besseling when Oakeshott successfully contested the federal seat of Lyne after former Nationals leader Mark Vaile quit in the wake of the defeat of the Howard government. The contest has assumed enormous psychological importance at the coming election, with the Nationals viewing it as a proxy war in their campaign to at least punish Oakeshott for his decision to back the Gillard government, and at most to persuade him to revisit his decision.
The town of Port Macquarie is at the northern end of a 70 kilometre stretch of central coast covered by the electorate bearing its name, which extends south as far as the mouth of the Manning River. It also takes in Lord Howe Island. The electorate was created with the short-lived expansion of parliament in 1988, when Nationals member Bruce Jeffery moved in from the temporarily abolished Oxley. Jeffery returned to Oxley when it was recreated in 1991 and Port Macquarie went to Wendy Machin, who had held Gloucester from 1985 to 1988 and Manning from 1988 to 1991, both of which were abolished. Machin’s retirement in 1996 resulted in a by-election that almost caused the National Party to withdraw from the coalition over Liberal Party plans to field a candidate. The Liberals were attempting to court John Barrett, who came within 233 votes of defeating Mark Vaile in Lyne at the 1993 election but had since quit the party. They stayed out of the race when Barrett insisted on running as an independent, polling 32.2 per cent and finishing 4.9 per cent behind after preferences.
The newly elected Nationals member was Rob Oakeshott, was quickly promoted to the front bench after the 1999 election with the sport and recreation, fisheries and ports portfolios. Then in March 2002 he quit the Nationals, complaining of the influence of property developers in local branches and questioning whether the party was still relevant to an electorate transformed by tourism and demographic change. The Nationals strongly attacked Oakeshott in the 2003 election over his liberal social views, in particular his support for drug law reform, but he was overwhelmingly re-elected with 69.8 per cent of the primary vote, and again with 67.1 per cent in 2007. At the Lyne by-election on 6 September 2008 he polled 63.8 per cent to Nationals candidate Rob Drew’s 22.9 per cent with Labor in the field at the 2010 election his vote fell to 47.2 per cent, and his two-candidate preferred margin was down from 23.9 per cent to 12.7 per cent.
The by-election to replace Oakeshott in Port Macquarie emerged as a contest between Peter Besseling, who as well as being Oakeshott’s press secretary had been president of the Port Macquarie Pirates rugby union club, and Nationals candidate Leslie Williams, who also ran at the 2007 state election and was described at the time as a teacher, student nurse and small business owner. Local Liberals were reportedly angered that their party had declined to enter the race, with local party branch president Ken Dodds publicly endorsing Besseling. However, Besseling’s run was complicated by the entry into the race of four members from the sacked Port Macquarie Hastings Council, and he ultimately managed a fairly modest victory with 35.9 per cent of the primary vote to Williams’s 33.7 per cent and a margin after preferences of 4.5 per cent. Leslie Williams will again run for the Nationals at the coming election.
In the second last week of the campaign, new local publication the Port Paper published a poll of 373 respondents conducted by Strategic Marketing. This had Peter Besseling on 34 per cent, Nationals candidate Leslie Williams on 40 per cent and Labor on 14 per cent, which panned out to 50-50 between Besseling and Williams after preferences (although skepticism has been expressed about the methodology used here).
Analysis written by William Bowe. Please direct corrections or comments to pollbludger-AT-crikey.com.au. Read William’s blog, The Poll Bludger.