Some formerly faithful Nationals voters are looking elsewhere because “no-one is fighting for the farmer”. (AAP: Lukas Coch)
He’s white, middle-aged and angry.
He’s a tradesman who owns his business, has a small mortgage on a nice house with a pool in a regional town.
He also used to vote for the Nationals, but not anymore.
Power prices have gone up, the drought has affected work in the town, and his wage hasn’t increased in years.
Money is tight and his wife has been forced to return to work three days a week.
This type of voter has “had enough” — and NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro is worried.
“That angry voter … is working harder [and] feeling poorer, feels like he’s not providing for his family,” the NSW Nationals leader said.
“And that’s the part we are failing and they’re the people we’re losing.”
Nationals MP John Barilaro met voters in the northern NSW town of Bellingen. (ABC News: Brigid Glanville)
The regions are becoming a key battleground in next month’s election as people turn their backs on the Nationals and look to alternatives — such as the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party (SFF) and One Nation.
Focus groups show regional voters have been disaffected with the Nationals for several years.
Voters feel abandoned by them and believe they’re too close to their coalition colleagues, the Liberals.
The state’s crippling drought, and subsequent water security issues, have not helped either.
In the central west, a community group called Anyone But Nats has formed “daring voters to be different”.
The group is taking its message across the state, holding meetings in regional areas.
At a recent forum in Mudgee, one former Nationals voter said there was “great dissatisfaction” and “a general distrust, and we certainly heard that tonight particularly about water”.
Internal polling also shows women have abandoned the party, unhappy about the actions of federal MPs Barnaby Joyce and Andrew Broad.
Mr Joyce had an affair with a staffer and Mr Broad used a dating website to meet a younger woman while at a conference in Hong Kong.
“There is no doubt it’s damaged us,” Mr Barilaro said.
“It comes down to trust and most voters won’t differentiate between state and federal when it comes to these issues.
“It’s our job to rebuild trust particularly in NSW.”
Election battle across many fronts
Bellingen is one of many regional areas where the National Party is hoping to regain voter trust. (ABC News: Brigid Glanville)
In an attempt to convince voters they’re listening ahead of the NSW election on March 23, the Nationals are hitting the road for the next six weeks, but they’ll be fighting on several fronts.
On the north coast, Labor is circling the seat of Lismore — once a Nationals stronghold, which the party now holds on a margin of just 0.2 per cent.
That contest is made more complicated by the retirement of long-time Nationals MP Thomas George, while Labor also has its eye on the neighbouring electorate of Tweed, which the Nats hold by 3.2 per cent.
The Nationals will next month try to win back Ballina, which it lost to the Greens in 2015 as debate raged about coal seam gas projects.
Labor is also expected to poll well there too, making it a three-cornered contest.
The decisions to ban greyhound racing in NSW in 2016 and to force council amalgamations in the bush are still hurting the Nationals.
The Government subsequently backflipped on both policies, although several regional municipalities had already been merged.
Mr Barilaro said while those policies were unpopular, the Government had a bigger problem.
“Is it the issue of greyhound and local government policy, or is it about the betrayal of trust?” he said.
“I think in some areas it’s both.”
While there is a perception the Nats have abandoned the bush, about $50 billion has been allocated to infrastructure in regional NSW over the past four years.
When then-premier Mike Baird sold the state’s electricity assets for $16.1 billion in 2015, regional poles and wires were not part of the deal, but country electorates still reaped the benefits of the subsequent cash splash.
The Nationals were also able to retain the full $4.2 billion earnt when the NSW Government sold its share of the Snowy Hydro scheme last year.
Despite this, opinion polls continue to show voter resentment towards the Nationals.
“I’ve been voting for the country party for years. I’m sick of it, they’re only a stooge for the Liberal Party,” one Bellingen man last week told the ABC.
A Kempsey dairy farmer said people in regional NSW needed a voice because “no-one is fighting for the farmer”.
‘Ordinary people who have a go’: Shooters
The Nationals’ biggest challenges are coming from the SFF Party, and One Nation.
The SFF are running 23 candidates in Lower House seats at the election.
“Our candidates are typified by ordinary people who have a go, who are dissatisfied with the lack of representation with the people in the bush,” SFF Upper House MP Robert Borsak said.
The vast north-west electorate of Barwon, which the Nationals hold by 12.9 per cent, is in play as mass fish kills in Menindee put the spotlight on water management.
Barwon has only ever been held by the Nationals or its predecessors, but Labor’s Darriea Turley and the SFF’s Roy Butler are expected to poll well.
It’s not just the SFF capitalising on this disaffection in the bush, with former federal Labor leader Mark Latham making a political comeback, running on One Nation’s Upper House ticket.
The party Pauline Hanson made famous is fielding around 15 candidates in NSW Lower House seats.
Their candidate in Wollondilly — a semi-rural electorate that takes in parts of Sydney’s south-west as well as several country towns — is former Nationals member Charlie Fenton.
One Nation candidates Mark Latham (L) and Charlie Fenton launch the campaign. (ABC News: Brigid Glanville)
At his campaign launch last week, Mr Latham said the Nationals Party’s problem was that they were “following the Liberal Party ways”.
“As far as I’m concerned [the Nationals] were never like that and they did what they wanted to do — but not anymore,” he said.
“Right across the state people are concerned about ‘big Australia’ immigration. They’re also concerned about loss of Australian values, free speech, merit selection, love of country, supporting Australia Day and they don’t get that consistent approach from the major parties.”
It’s likely Mr Latham will become a member of the Upper House after the election.
In a November 2016 by-election the SFF won the previously safe Nationals seat of Orange, after a massive swing of more than 30 per cent.
That vote was held only two months after the greyhound racing ban was overturned, while council amalgamations were in progress.
Mr Borsak has been spending plenty of time campaigning in the seat of Upper Hunter, which the Nationals hold by just 2.2 per cent.
It’s the type of electorate the SFF believes is vulnerable when people head to the polls next month.
“We’re seeing regional NSW as a very clear battleground where this Government could well be made or broken,” Mr Borsak said.
With six weeks to go until polling day, the Nationals may still be able to regain some voter trust and convince regional NSW they’re not just the Liberal Party in disguise.
But they’ll have plenty of competition from the SFF and One Nation candidates keen to see a changing of the guards.