‘Friendly’ rivalry in O’Connor: can the Nationals win again?

WA Nationals MP Tony Crook is not running for re-election in September. Who will succeed in the ‘friendly’ battle for O'Connor? AAP/Penny Bradfield

The Western Australian seat of O’Connor provides a fascinating battle between the Liberal and National parties that reflects a struggle to win the hearts and minds – and votes – of regional Western Australians.

O’Connor rose to national prominence in 2010 when its long-serving MP, controversial Liberal Wilson Tuckey, lost acrimoniously to the Nationals’ Tony Crook, giving the Nationals their first WA member of the House of Representatives in more than 30 years. Crook initially declared himself an independent National who would not formally belong to the Coalition in Canberra, although he supported Tony Abbott over Julia Gillard in the post-election negotiations.

Earlier this year, however, Crook announced he would not contest the 2013 election. With no sitting member claiming a personal vote, the competition for O’Connor between the Liberal and National parties is intense. This mirrors the situation in the adjoining seat of Durack, where long-time Liberal member Barry Haase is also retiring and a closely-fought battle between the two non-Labor parties is also expected.

The situation in both seats has been further complicated by Labor’s decision to direct preferences to the Liberals ahead of the Nationals, reversing the situation from three years ago. Whether this will be sufficient to stall the WA Nationals’ aspirations to consolidate and improve on their 2010 election performance remains to be seen.

Tuckey’s defeat, after 30 years as the local member, came on the back of a redistribution in 2010 that saw O’Connor change shape from its traditional arc covering the state’s wheatbelt stretching from the mid-west coast to the south coast. The new boundaries removed the western coastal areas and the coastal city of Geraldton, and instead added the inland city of Kalgoorlie and other mining towns.

These new boundaries made O’Connor the third largest seat in Australia, stretching east from the WA central wheatbelt to the South Australian border and north from the Great Australian Bight to the Gibson Desert. In the north of the electorate, the major centre is Kalgoorlie-Boulder and in the south it is the port city of Albany, where around a quarter of the electorate lives.

As a result, O’Connor has lost its singular wheatbelt character - although farming still makes up 11.1% of employment compared to 1.2% nationally - and now also includes a large swathe of mining areas (6.9% of employment compared to 0.6% nationally). It is still very Anglo, with 75% of the population having Australian, English, Scottish or Irish ancestry compared to 65% for Australia as a whole, and is relatively poorer, with family incomes about 90% of the national median.

Tuckey had traditionally won easily against Labor, with his majorities being boosted by Labor coming second on primary votes so that he secured Nationals’ preferences. In 2010, though, the Nationals – resurgent after a strong showing at the 2008 state election – triumphed by winning nearly 29% of the primary vote and pushing Labor into third with just 17%, while the Liberal primary vote dropped to 38%. With Labor and the Greens (who polled 9%) both preferencing against the Liberals, the Nationals won with 53.5% of the two-party-preferred vote and Tuckey’s parliamentary career was over.

Wilson Tuckey, the long-time member for O'Connor, was defeated in 2010. AAP/Alan Porritt

Crook distanced himself from the federal Coalition initially, but joined the party room in 2012. Even then, in late 2012 he voted with the Labor government and against almost all his colleagues - including east coast Nationals and most WA Liberals - to support the government’s legislation to deregulate wheat export marketing, citing support from WA farming groups.

The Nationals have preselected William “Chub” Witham, a mining geologist, in Crook’s place. Witham’s Liberal opponent is Rick Wilson, a farmer from Katanning, who has been campaigning for two years. Labor’s candidate is Michael Salt, a union official who lives in the adjacent seat of Durack.

With the two non-Labor parties providing the main contest, and with the electorate no longer having a solely wheatbelt character, policy differentiation between the Liberals and Nationals is unlikely to be prominent in O’Connor. Both parties will emphasise their opposition to the mining and carbon taxes and their support for agriculture, regional health and education. The main battle is over identity: which party is seen as the natural defenders of rural and regional Western Australia in the federal parliament.

The Nationals’ win in O’Connor in 2010 continued their electoral revival at state level. This has come on the back of its championing of the Royalties for Regions program, which has delivered millions in financial support from the WA government for community, public and industry infrastructure in regional WA.

Support for this policy saw the Nationals successfully break out of their rural heartland into areas where Labor were traditionally the Liberals’ main opponents. This strategy helped the Nationals win seven seats at the 2013 state election compared to four in 2008, defeating both Liberal and Labor challengers in the process.

O’Connor overlaps some or all of six state lower house seats, four of which (Central Wheatbelt, Kalgoorlie, Wagin and Warren-Blackwood) are held by the Nationals, one (Eyre) very narrowly by the Liberals over the Nationals, and one (Albany) by Labor through a popular local member.

The Nationals’ success at state level may explain Labor’s decision to preference the Liberals in O'Connor and Durack. Labor’s tactic appears to be to maintain competition between the two conservative parties and thereby cause them to commit valuable resources that would otherwise be deployed against Labor in other seats. Labor may also be concerned with preventing the Nationals from consolidating their position at state and federal level in these areas.

Whether Labor preferences will be decisive is unclear. In the state election, the Nationals won two seats where Labor and the Greens preferenced the Liberals. Labor’s influence on the outcome in O’Connor depends on the size of its primary vote, whether it has supporters available at booths to hand out how to vote cards, and if enough voters follow the party’s recommendation.

With O’Connor now being a rural and regional blend, it will provide a good test of the Nationals’ ability to consolidate its state election success at a national level when voters go to the polls on September 7, or whether it will return to its former Liberal Party home.

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