In 1998, my local branch asked who was interested in running as the Labor candidate for the seat of Dubbo in the next state election, which was held in March 1999.
Dubbo was a very safe Nationals seat, so a Labor candidate wasn’t expected to win and the main job was to get a good primary vote to drive more Labor votes in the upper house, where the votes would count.
I put my hand up and said I’d be interested in being the local Labor candidate and my candidature was endorsed by the Dubbo State Electoral Council.
Dubbo was the safest National Party seat in the state. I’d need a 21 per cent swing to be elected and I certainly didn’t expect to win it.
The flip side of it being such a safe seat was that the National Party spent hardly any money on that local area, assuming their candidate was a shoe-in.
But the Labor Party had taken a particular interest in the seat of Dubbo at this election for two reasons.
First, the Nationals’ longstanding member for the seat, Gerry Peacocke, was retiring and the Nationals were going to run a local radio personality for the seat, a man called Richard Mutton.
Second, the Mayor of Dubbo, Tony McGrane, was running as an independent.
McGrane was a popular local identity, affectionately known in the area as “Migraine”.
The Labor Party saw this as an opportunity for an independent to knock the Nationals off their perch. The plan was for Labor to run harder in the seat than usual and give preferences to McGrane, putting the Nationals last.
With this strategy there was a chance McGrane could win.
McGrane and I played “good cop, bad cop” in the election.
He walked around the town, shaking hands with everybody, saying wonderful things about how much potential it had if only it was taken out of the hands of the Nationals – who only looked after their own interests – and was put into the hands of an independent with the interests of the local area in his heart.
While he was doing that, I was walking the same streets, savaging the Nationals, and telling whoever would listen that things locally would go to rack and ruin if Mutton was elected.
I ran a fierce campaign. I pounded the pavements through parks, community gatherings and shopping centres. I doorknocked every second door in every town in the electorate. (Knocking on every second door takes half as long as knocking on every door and you hope that some of the people you meet chat over the fence with the people you didn’t meet.)
I was the only candidate who went out doorknocking. The Nationals regarded the seat as theirs by right, so limited campaigning to TV and radio, and McGrane was already well known and popular in the electorate.
The Nationals were used to winning Dubbo and took it for granted. There were places all over the electorate where candidates never bothered to visit.
At one house in West Dubbo I heard a group of women inside playing music and laughing, having some kind of girls’ night. I knocked on the door.
“Are you the stripper?” a woman called out.
“Only if you vote for me!” I said.
* * *
Kerry Chikarovski had recently become state opposition leader.
She was well liked but still a relatively untested proposition.
It would be an uphill battle in any event, with the Carr government in a strong position.
In 1999, the Liberal Party was running on a policy of privatising the state’s electricity assets. Regional New South Wales has never been supportive of electricity privatisation and this was a tough message to sell in Dubbo.
It was a very sensitive issue and the Labor Party and the unions played it for all it was worth.
Not helping her campaign was Richard Mutton, who thought he could support the privatisation policy but pander to local opposition to privatisation.
He told the Daily Liberal the Coalition was only going to sell off the bad electricity assets, not the good ones.
So my campaign faxed the newspaper interview to Labor HQ in Sussex Street and they passed it on to a Sydney journalist.
At Chikarovski’s next press conference, the journo asked her to clarify the Coalition’s privatisation policy.
The journo then read Mutton’s statement to the Daily Liberal.
The story became that the Liberals and Nationals were at odds, and Mutton had to recant his position and confirm his agreement with Coalition policy.
So what happened in Dubbo? McGrane and I had effectively worked it so that he would be elected.
Mutton got a 32 per cent vote and McGrane came in second with 23 per cent.
I came in third with 20 per cent, which was a huge swing for Labor. I did well in the places Dubbo people called the “redneck towns”, all of which I visited and for most of which I was the first politician who had bothered to go out and meet them.
And I got more votes in Cookamidgera than any other candidate.
With mine and other preferences, McGrane won the seat as an independent by fourteen votes.
The Nationals were shocked. McGrane was re-elected in 2003 but sadly died in 2004 from cancer.
But, even after his untimely death, the seat still didn’t go back to the Nationals until 2011.
My efforts were ultimately instrumental in keeping the Nationals out of power in that seat for twelve years.
- Warren Mundine – In Black and White is published by Pantera Press. Warren Mundine will be celebrating the launch of his memoir at Dubbo Library on December 14 at 5.30pm