It’s beginning to look a lot like an election, at least in Shepparton.
After losing the country seat to independent Suzanna Sheed at the last state poll, the Nationals Party is looking to regain a seat it held for 47 years.
In an effort to reinvent itself in the electorate, the party has held a community poll to choose its next candidate from a field of three.
Usually candidates are preselected by party officials and party members, but the Nationals have opened the process to anyone enrolled to vote in the electorate.
A cold, wet day undoubtedly deterred voters from taking part in the voluntary poll, but just under 1,000 votes were cast, and a clear winner emerged in the party’s Federal Treasurer and Shepparton local, Peter Schwarz.
He said the process would help set up the Nationals candidate to defeat the incumbent.
“It gives a certain level of ownership to that candidate, it’s the community that’s chosen,” Mr Schwarz said.
“It’s not some three people put their hand up and two people get talked out of standing so we get left with one person, which sometimes happens in other parties.”
Nationals considering strategy for other seats
Victorian Nationals leader Peter Walsh declared the process a success, hinting the Nationals may look at a similar approach in the federal seat of Indi — also held by an independent.
“It’s something that we’ve observed our New South Wales colleagues do a couple of times now and in some ways not dissimilar to the US primaries in America,” he said.
“So it’s about getting the community involved in the preselection process which obviously comes before the actual election.
“It has been talked about with no decision made at this stage as to whether we might do it in the federal seat of Indi. That’s to be decided.”
This novel approach towards preselection signals the party’s recognition that it needed to change its strategy after the last state election.
It was a shock defeat when the Nationals’ candidate Greg Barr narrowly won the primary vote in Shepparton, but missed out after preferences were distributed.
Jeanette Powell was the former Member for Shepparton, who announced her retirement before the party was defeated in 2014.
She rejected suggestions the party treated Shepparton like a safe seat, or that there was appetite for change after such a long representation by the Nationals.
Ms Powell put the loss down to changing demographics for the seat, and changes in campaigning.
“The Nationals are really great at grassroots doorknocking, meeting people, going to functions, whereas the independent was a lot online and social media,” she said.
“Our electorate is now so diverse. So people who may have been farmers or supported farmers now work in factories.”
While lamenting the fact that no women put their hand up for the nomination, she said the community-based process would give the candidate a strong standing come November.
“This is no deals done by administration, there’s no deals done by any backroom people this is truly the community voting,” Ms Powell said.
“Our message is it’s your area, it’s your voice, it’s your vote, make it count. And that’s truly what this election’s about; if people embrace it, that’s fantastic and it will truly be a community voice.”
The right time for independents?
The local Member for Shepparton, Ms Sheed, appeared unconcerned by the Nationals’ efforts to win back the electorate.
Pointing to recent state political scandals involving both parties — Labor’s rorting of public money laid out by an ombudsman’s investigation and the Liberals’ Good Friday pairing deceit — Ms Sheed said the time was right for independents.
“You know the parties seriously are on the nose in terms of the wider community generally, the last few weeks have seen all the parties at their lowest points,” she said.
“And if ever there was a time for independents to stand up and represent their communities as opposed to representing parties, then I think the broader community and the electorate, the people of Victoria, would be willing to look at people who are prepared to do that.”
Ms Sheed said Shepparton would be the setting of a hard-fought political battle, but the Nationals would have more to worry about than the incumbent.
Under the Coalition agreement, the Liberals do not field candidates in seats held by the Nationals, but with an independent holding the mantle, all bets are off.
The Liberals have preselected Shepparton businesswoman Cheryl Hammer, making it a three-cornered contest.
“Peter Ryan at the last election called Shepparton the jewel in the crown of the National Party, so it’s been a big loss to them to lose it, they will definitely want it back.” Ms Sheed said.
“But of course this time around they have to face the Liberal Party as well as an independent, an incumbent independent.
“So it’s going to be a very hard-fought battle for Shepparton but that’s a great thing for the community.”
Ultimately, the only poll that counts will happen in November.