'Cowper was everything': How the Nats won the 'lineball' seat

Victory: Nationals newcomer Pat Congahan and victor in the race for Cowper, Pat Conaghan, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Photo: Tracey Fairhurst.
Victory: Nationals newcomer Pat Congahan and victor in the race for Cowper, Pat Conaghan, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Photo: Tracey Fairhurst.

At 6pm on May 18 the Town Green Inn in Port Macquarie was buzzing.

Tired but excited Rob Oakeshott volunteers streamed in.

Free snacks greeted them, alcohol flowed and volunteers swapped stories.

Mr Oakeshott's children and their cousins played in the background while the national media waited expectantly ready to capture a victory.

Sportsbet had Mr Oakeshott in front at $1.73 to the Nationals' Pat Conaghan on $1.93.

But within two hours the buoyant atmosphere started to wane. It became clear it was not the result they had hoped for.

It was expected to be close. It wasn't. Worse, they didn't know why.

"I'm bewildered," said one shell-shocked volunteer after it became clear the Nationals would win Cowper.

In the end Conaghan romped home with around 57 per cent of the two party preferred vote to 43 per cent for Mr Oakeshott. The Nationals increased their vote by around two per cent.

Retiring Cowper MP Luke Hartsukyer.

Retiring Cowper MP Luke Hartsukyer.

The contest 

Nationals HQ was worried.

"We were never confident of winning Cowper, we started in January 10 points behind," NSW State Director Ross Cadell said.

They threw everything at the seat.

The seat which includes Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour was always vulnerable to a challenge due to the retirement of long-serving member Luke Hartsuyker, a sky-rocketing youth unemployment rate in Coffs Harbour and anger over the mismanagement of the Coffs Harbour bypass.

To the NSW Nationals Cowper was everything for us, that was reflected in myself, my deputy and 80 per cent of our head office staff in Cowper for the last few days.

Ross Cadell

The Nationals had held the state and federal seat where Coffs Harbour falls for decades yet failed miserably to make any dent on youth unemployment or the bypass.

In Coffs Harbour at least there was a real case for change.

When Mr Oakeshott ran in 2016, despite starting his campaign three weeks from polling day he got close, reducing the margin to 4.5 per cent.

With more time to campaign and build his profile - particularly in the northern part of the electorate where his name recognition was low in 2016 - he was expected to be more than competitive. He was expected to win.

The strategy that won

The Nationals say their strategy was "all about the last two weeks".

"Pat quietly went about meeting people and building his brand but after the Easter break we accelerated," Mr Cadell said.

"We had visits from Michael McCormack, Scott Morrison, increased advertising.

"Everything was build around those last two weeks."

It was hard to miss the avalanche of toxic, negative advertising directed at Rob Oakeshott which was unleashed.

Mr Oakeshott was attacked for "walking away from medicine", never having "done a hard day's work in his life" and waiting to "top up his retirement savings out of tax payer dollars."

It highlighted he voted majority of the time with Labor when he was member for Lyne with one ad morphing his face into Bill Shorten's.

Mr Oaksehott's media director Deb Spillane said they felt their campaign got "steam-rolled in the last few weeks by a well-funded, well-oiled propaganda machine."

"The massive advertising spend across all platforms was something that we, as an Independent grassroots campaign couldn't match," Ms Spillane said.

"The fact that the final push of TV ads, posters, leaflets and even massive billboards put up for Election Day focused on discrediting Rob's experience and integrity says everything about the bullying nature of party politics in this country."

Ms Spillane said she was "shattered" by the result.

Mr Cadell rejects criticism of the strategy.

"We wouldn't have done it if a) we didn't think it was honest and b) we didn't think it would have an effect," he said.

"People were coming to us who were leaving Oakeshott and telling us the reason was what he did with Labor and he had always been a political staffer.

"We piggybacked off those concerns and amplified them."

A National Party insider told me curtly when I queried him on the strategy that negative advertising only works when there is something to exploit.

The strategy clearly had results.

"We were picking away at Oakeshott voters slowly but in the final week it really hit. It came not a trickle but a torrent and we polled ahead for the first time on Wednesday night where we were confident enough," Mr Cadell said.

Then the unthinkable happened a Labor legend, former Prime Minister Bob Hawke passed away.

"We had no idea what the electorate would do, we were confident on Thursday but by Thursday night we just didn't haven't a clue."

Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke died just days before voters went to the polls.

Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke died just days before voters went to the polls.

Impact of federal labor on the nose  

Mr Oakeshott's connections to Labor - controversially supporting Gillard's Labor Government during the hung parliament - was always a sore point for voters.

"His connection to Labor was a big negative," Ross Cadell said.

The connection was particularly toxic for Mr Oakeshott given the unpopularity of Bill Shorten and a broad tax agenda which was significantly adverse for retirees.

Labor candidate for Cowper Andrew Woodward admits Labor's plans to tackle franking credits (the coalition labelled it "Bill Shorten's Retiree Tax") was a massive issue in the local campaign.

Mr Woodward spent a lot of time defending the policy.

"The Nats had big swings to them in Port Macquarie and Kempsey," Mr Woodward said.

In Kempsey, Pat's childhood home, there was a big personal vote for Pat, in Port I put it down to people locking in behind the Nats over franking credits.

Andrew Woodward

Labor's proposed changes to negative gearing and capital gains tax (labelled by the Coalition Bill Shorten's Housing Tax) also worried voters.

One concerned older friend told me "I made my money through property, through negatively gearing houses because I couldn't get a job in my forties. How can Labor take that away?".

Charles Sturt University Political Science Associate Professor Dominic O'Sullivan said it wouldn't have mattered if there was a swing towards Labor as people were expecting but given it was the other way it proved disastrous for Oakeshott.

Voters did not know how Mr Oakeshott would vote on these issues or who he would support in a hung parliament which looked a possibility in the final week. He didn't say.

All they had was his history supporting the Gillard government and a National Party exploiting it through negative advertising.

And while Mr Oakeshott might be a media darling to some media he remained public enemy number one to shock jocks Ray Hadley and Alan Jones.

I can't tell you how many times I would turn on the radio and hear Hadley mouthing off Oakeshott and given Hadley's monopoly over the radio market it had to cost votes.

National Party members congratulate Patrick Conaghan on his Cowper victory.

National Party members congratulate Patrick Conaghan on his Cowper victory.

Credit to Pat Conaghan and what issues mattered

Even his opponents label Pat Conaghan a nice guy.

Andrew Woodward describes him as "decent" and plans to catch up with him for a beer in the coming weeks.

The former cop and lawyer was a Liberal councillor for North Sydney Council in another life.

He grew up in Kempsey but only moved back to the region in the last few years.

Those that met him described him as "nice" and "humble" if not slightly underwhelming.

His demeanor seemed at odds with the toxic, negative advertising the Nats utilised in the campaign and ironically may be one of the reasons the backlash against the tactics didn't stick.

Mr Conaghan appeared ill at ease with the media and when Agriculture Minister David Littleproud visited the region he joked "I better watch how this is done", well aware of his inexperience.

Some in the National Party muttered about his lack of branch work when he beat the bolshie Judy Plunkett.

But it was a mistake to underestimate him.

The small community of the Hatch on the outskirts of Port Macquarie were thrilled when he came he visited twice in the space of a couple of months and later promised to seal their main road.

The Hatch resident Stuart Redman was thrilled a local member was engaged in local issues.

The Hatch resident Stuart Redman was thrilled a local member was engaged in local issues.

"No other candidate has ever visited us," Stuart Redman confided in me.

"We like him, it's a vote changer."

Surprisingly it was when the stakes were high - when the Prime Minister Scott Morrison was in town and the pushy Canberra press gallery overwhelmed the local media - Mr Conaghan rose to the occasion.

He spoke passionately about his simple upbringing in Kempsey and why he should be elected.

"We didn't have a pool, we didn't go overseas, ever, we were just another family who went to the primary school, who went to the Catholic school," Mr Conaghan told the audience.

"But one thing my father told me me was that if you work hard you will get ahead in life.

"You work hard you get ahead and you can provide for your family.

"You work hard and you can retire and look after your grandchildren but you can hand them back afterwards.

"My five brothers and sisters was raised on this motto.

"That ethos of working hard to get ahead is now under threat.

"That is why this election is the most important election of my lifetime because the alternate is devastating."

Conaghan's message was simple. It appealed to the "quiet Australian" and he made it clear that he was one of them.

Rob Oakeshott flanked by supporters.

Rob Oakeshott flanked by supporters.

Upshot for Oakeshott and lessons learnt 

Rob Oakeshott and his team were gutted on Saturday night.

But they should be proud he made the seat marginal.

It was always a tough ask to go head to head with the National Party machine which Mr Oakeshott referred to a "big beast" on election day.

The fact the Nationals poured so much money and resources into the seat is testament to the quality of the competition.

Mr Oakeshott is charismatic and articulate and he should be proud he didn't resort to personal attacks to make the case for change even if the electorate didn't ultimately buy his agenda.

It was his insertion in the race that galvanised a national media to focus on Cowper and saw the Nationals commit to a number of big ticket items to the electorate such as a tidal pool to Port Macquarie (never mind whether this project is even feasible).

Apart from his achievements as the member for Lyne Mr Oakeshott should take some consolation from that.

There were some own goals.

The informal vote in Cowper in 2016 was 5.15 per cent in 2019 it was 7.46 per cent.

This could be attributed to Mr Oakeshott's How To Vote card where he said just vote 1 for Rob Oakeshott when a valid vote needed every box numbered.

The difference is nearly the 2 per cent swing in favour of the Nats.

And crucially Mr Oakeshott's broader agenda didn't ultimately gel with enough voters.

On the night of the election Mr Oakeshott told Annabel Crabb on ABC News 24 that the "days of defining local or national issues are over".

"We have a large section majority who want to see action on climate change, we have a majority of people who want to see action on the Uluru statement, proper treatment of our First People ..." he said.

Rob Oakeshott.

Rob Oakeshott.

Climate change, Uluru statement and Adani (another issue Mr Oakeshott campaigned against) is unlikely to register with voters in Cowper when the average income is less than $60,000.

If this was the election about climate change, then voters in Cowper rejected major action on it.

If Mr Oakeshott was to have a real shot at Cowper he needed to position himself as a moderate and not be so quick to adopt the causes of the hard Left - that might work in a rich, prosperous electorate like Warringah, but it was always risky in Cowper.

He also needed to show people with conservative values he was prepared to listen to their concerns and hear them out even if he didn't necessarily agree with them.

And he needed to be transparent on his thoughts about changes to negative gearing, capital gains tax and franking credits. He needed to be prepared to critique Labor's tax agenda which left many voters uncertain about their future.

These might be "hip pocket issues", not nearly as sexy as saving the future of the planet but to mums and dads battling to get ahead and older Australians who had worked hard to put themselves in a strong financial position in their retirement they were critical.

Labor candidate Andrew Woodward.

Labor candidate Andrew Woodward.

Future of local, state and federal Labor 

There is likely to be a hell of a lot of soul searching being done at a local, state and national level in the Labor Party.

Particularly in NSW where the party has had a disastrous state and federal result.

The party appears to have alienated its base as it lurches to the far Left. The last majority Labor government was under Kevin Rudd who positioned himself firmly in the centre. That has to say something about the type of Labor leader Australians respond to.

A far Left agenda doesn't resonate with crucial Western Sydney or regional voters. It would take a particularly skillful politician to sell it. Think Jacinta Ardern. Shorten was certainly no Ardern.

"Had Rob not run we considered ourselves an outside chance because of the Nationals' poor handling of the Coffs Harbour Bypass," Mr Woodward said.

"Labor's vote always drops significantly when a bit of independent bling comes along."

On a policy front Mr Woodward acknowledges there were problems.

"Labor took some big choices to the election - changes to taxation and changes to act on climate change.

"These were too much for older and more socially conservative country people."

Pat Conaghan with his wife Ilona and two children.

Pat Conaghan with his wife Ilona and two children.

The future of Cowper 

Cowper has the highest number of voters in country.

It is unlikely that Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour will continue for much longer to be part of the same seat.

Boundaries will change and this will affect the seat.

The Mid North Coast at a state and federal level is now a National Party stronghold.

It is likely Mr Conaghan will grow in the role as local member and cement his position.

CSU lecturer Dominic Sullivan believes it takes a "unique set of circumstances" for Independents to flourish.

"You look at Warringah and Mr Abbott was such a polarising and detached local member that clearly didn't apply in Cowper," Mr Sullivan said.

"While there were some important local issues for Independents to run on they were ultimately not big enough in Cowper."

He predicts unless Mr Conaghan turns into a "divisive figure" (which appears highly unlikely) or there is a significant local issue which he mishandles he is likely to hold the seat for a long time yet.