Senior Liberals have warned the NSW government faces a “humiliating loss” in the Wagga Wagga byelection because of an “expensive but lacklustre campaign” that missed the mark.
The scathing assessment from the premier’s MPs comes as it emerged that the Liberals’ candidate Julia Ham only joined the party three months ago.
Ms Ham became a member of the Liberals’ Tumbarumba branch in June and needed special dispensation from the party to contest the Wagga preselection because party rules stipulate six months’ membership.
The Liberals are facing a bitter battle in Wagga Wagga and senior government Liberals have slammed the campaign, arguing the leadership has been “tone deaf”.
The byelection is also causing tensions within the coalition, with the deputy premier and Nationals leader, John Barilaro, conceding that his members are backing a high-profile independent candidate.
Local doctor Joe McGirr, is the Liberals’ biggest threat. Dr McGirr ran as an independent in 2011 and secured 30 per cent of the vote.
One senior government source said: “We have run a city campaign in a country seat and it is turning out to be a disaster. We told them [the leadership] to stop the spending but they ignored us.”
Another senior Liberal said: “We have run a presidential campaign by rolling out the premier day after day but country electorates are cynical and they do not like that.”
Gladys Berejiklian is due to make her fifth trip to Wagga Wagga in as many weeks on Friday in a last-ditch attempt to save the seat. But it is understood she will not stay around for polling day on Saturday.
It is understood that Ms Berejiklian insisted that the Liberals run a female candidate in Wagga and one senior government source said Ms Ham was a “captain’s call”.
The byelection was prompted by the resignation of former MP Daryl Maguire, who had to quit in disgrace after being embroiled in a corruption hearing in June.
Polling, conducted by parties including the Liberals and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers, has the primary vote for Ms Ham as low as 24 per cent. If accurate, the Liberals would be expected to lose.
Several sources have said that Ms Ham joined the Liberal Party at the suggestion of Mr Maguire, who wanted her to consider running for the Liberals in Albury.
But Ms Ham denied this and said she joined the Tumbarumba branch because it was the most appropriate because she is a councillor on Snowy Valleys Council.
"The Tumbarumba branch suggested I go there because I'd have direct access to [Albury MP] Greg Aplin," Ms Ham said.
"I don't understand anyone running for a seat if they're not well connected to it, and I'm not well connected to Albury at all."
Mr Aplin is retiring at the next election.
A spokesman for the Liberal Party said it was not unusual for candidates to seek dispensation to contest preselection and confirmed Ms Ham joined the party "in 2018".
The government has promised more than $100 million on a range of projects in Wagga, a $50 million redevelopment of Tumut hospital, $10 million for a conservatorium of music and and a $30 million multi-storey car park for Wagga’s base hospital.
One Wagga Liberal said: “With the money being spent in Wagga, you should be able to get a donkey up.”
Alexandra Smith is the State Political Editor and a former Education Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald