The Deniliquin district looks set to be catapulted into its strongest political position for decades in tomorrow’s Murray by-election.
The result is expected to deliver the region into a marginal seat, with a strong possibility it could fall to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party.
In a Griffith newspaper poll, SFF candidate Helen Dalton has a commanding lead of The Nationals’ Austin Evans, who is trying to replace the recently retired Adrian Piccoli.
The Nationals say they expect to win narrowly. If they don’t, they are likely to throw everything — including plenty of money — at the region before the next state election in March 2019 in an attempt to win it back.
Mrs Dalton, a farmer from Binya, east of Griffith, has for many years been a strong advocate for farming issues, in particular better water policy.
Her main opponent, Mr Evans, is battling a widely held view that his party has not done enough for the region it has represented for decades.
The Deniliquin district has been a safe Nationals’ seat for more than 35 years.
The only time it was a notionally marginal seat was following a boundary redistribution that moved our region into Murray-Darling in the lead-up to the 2007 state election. That seat was held by Country Labor’s Peter Black.
It led to Labor and The Nationals making a broad range of promises in their respective bids to win the seat, including the commitment of a new police station which, a decade later, is finally under construction.
In the current campaign The Nationals have again made generous funding commitments, and have rolled out more Ministerial visits in the last two months than we have seen since 2006-07.
Ironically, as the new station nears completion, policing is one of the issues Austin Evans has been forced to defend.
He has been unable to quash speculation the Local Area Command headquarters will be relocated from Deniliquin after the election in what NSW Police is calling a ‘re-engineering’ of command boundaries.
The Deniliquin district has learned over the years that ‘re-engineering’ and ‘restructuring’ generally means relocating local positions to larger regional centres such as Albury and Wagga.
Mr Evans and Premier Gladys Berejiklian have both denied the review of Local Area Commands will lead to less police numbers in Deniliquin.
Mrs Berejiklian was in Deniliquin last week; the only NSW Premier to visit the area since Bob Carr was here during the 2007 campaign.
Another policing issue that has caused local angst over those 10 years is Hallmark status for the Deniliquin Ute Muster.
In the 2007 campaign The Nationals pledged to ensure the Ute Muster would not have to pay for police presence, but this has never been delivered. As a consequence, the local event has since paid nearly $1 million for taxpayer-funded police services, with no reprieve in sight. Major Sydney events, including the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, do not pay for police presence.
Local government amalgamations, health, water policy and returning National Parks to sustainable working forests have been other key election topics.
The Nationals may get a backlash from residents of the former Conargo Shire tomorrow after making a commitment there would be no formed amalgamations, then last year forcing Conargo into a merger with Deniliquin Council that it vehemently opposed.
The incumbent party has also been under fire for failing to sufficiently protect the region and its farmers under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and not doing enough to retain health services in smaller communities like Deniliquin.
On the forestry issue, the Coalition has failed to reverse a 2010 Labor decision to turn local forests into National Parks. Mr Evans says he will submit a Private Member’s Bill if elected, but it is unlikely to get Liberal Party support.
Despite the claims The Nationals have not done enough to protect local communities, state leader John Barilaro has said this week he believes the Murray by-election will be tight, “but I do believe we’ll get there”.
Mr Evans this week said there would “always be some people for whom nothing is ever enough, who say that we should have delivered more. What they need to understand is that regardless of who is elected ... it’s The Nationals who will have to deliver from government”.
Mrs Dalton said ‘‘our current representatives have underperformed. We need to hold them to account for sitting complacently on a perceived ‘safe seat’.’’
She needs to make up a margin of more than 22 per cent to wrestle Murray from The Nationals.
■ More Murray by-election coverage on pages 2, 13, 18 and 19.
■Letters to the editor - page 16.