A GENERAL feeling of political disillusionment in the regions has led to a surge of strong rural independent candidates, who could have a major influence on the outcome of the upcoming election and the future of their communities for years to come, political pundits say.
Although the region's have always had a history of large-than-life independent politicians, such as Tony Windsor, Rob Oakshott and Bob Katter, they are generally former Nationals candidates or MPs who renounced the party.
This election, there is a wave of well-resourced, well-organised grassroot campaigns underway in Coalition-held seats across the country, with candidates and support teams with little to no affiliation with a major party.
There are notably strong independents in Nicholls (VIC), Mallee (VIC), Groom (QLD) and Hume (NSW), while the independent candidates in the northern NSW seats of Page and Cowper are expecting a wave of protest votes following the government's handling of the region's devastating floods.
Incumbent independent MP Helen Haines - who will recontest her Victorian seat of Indi - is the gold standard for rural independents. She was the first independent to succeed another independent in a federal seat, when she took over the reins from her predecessor Cathy McGowan in 2019.
Ms McGowan said it was "huge mountain to climb" for rural independents to topple a sitting MP, but they didn't necessarily need to win to have an influence that would be felt for years to come - they merely had to erode the Coalition's margin.
"Many communities have seen what happened in Indi, and to a lesser extent [independent Sydney seat] Warringah, and made the connection between safe and marginal seats," Ms McGowan said.
"The impact won't just be felt on election night. The impact will be some of these once-safe seats will definitely become marginal. Some will be very close on election night - whether or not they win, that's a big ask in a safe seat."
Turning a seat margin is "a real problem" for the government, and particularly the Nationals, Ms McGowan said, because they have to pour resources into electorates they haven't had to fight for in the past.
"[The major parties'] election machine is geared towards marginal seats, where it's usually the Liberal-Nationals versus Labor, so it causes quite a reaction when they have to fight on their 'home turf'," she said.
The major parties' "election machine" is often ill equipped to respond to local issues - which often make up the core of an independent's campaign - because it is geared towards national talking points.
Former political heavyweight and independent MP Tony Windsor said the key to a successful independent campaign was to develop a network and be "much bigger than you as an individual".
"It's not about the 'me', it's about the 'we'," the former New England MP said.
"You'll never beat [the major parties] with money, they'll out gun you every time. But you can win with people, because everyone gets a vote.
"Get the enthusiasm and the reasons for change, and that becomes infectious. The people who can create that are in with a big shot."
Many rural independents are following the successful 'Voices For' model established in Indi by supporters of Ms McGowan and Dr Haines. Voices For provides grassroots campaigns with a model for success, revolving around a hyper-local approach and policies that are formed by collecting community views through thousands of "kitchen table conversations" in people's homes, a process some groups spend years on.
While the Voices For model has provided organisation and structure for many independent candidates, another organisation, Climate 200, has supplied the funding. The fundraising organisation, convened by renewable energy investor Simon Holmes a Court, has garnered a $7-million war chest from more than 10,000 donors, to support independent candidates.
However, a number of the high-profile rural independents have declined funding from Climate 200 - including, Nicholls candidate Rob Priestly and Groom candidate Suzie Holt, who have promised to only take donations from locals - because it could be weakness exploited by their political opponents.
Mr Priestly is considered among the most likely rural candidates to be elected, with a strong local profile as a councillor for Great Shepparton City Council, where he has previously served as deputy mayor.
He'll also benefit from a three-post race, with the Liberals and the Nationals facing off, potentially splitting the Coalition's vote, following the retirement of Nationals MP Damien Drum.
Ms Holt is another well organised and funded rural independent. Groom is one of the safest seats in the country and Ms Holt is unlikely to dethrone sitting LNP MP Garth Hamilton, but there are high hopes Ms Holt could make the seat marginal.
Mr Windsor there was a "general disillusionment" with both sides of politics in rural communities.
"It's been said before, but I think people actually feel it more now than in the past," Mr Windsor said.
"People in general are disappointed or appalled with how politics is being done at the moment, irrespective of who is in government. [Prime Minister] Scott Morrison in particular has followed Trump's style of saying anything for effect, but it doesn't have to be true."
John Warhurst said disillusionment in the bush had been fuelled in part by the government's response to bushfires and floods, as the regions begin to feel the effects of climate change, but voters aren't "excited by either party".
"In the cities, the Greens tend to lap up a lot of the protest votes, but they're much weaker in the country, so there is a bit more space for independents in the rural political landscape," Dr Warhurst said.
"This rise in independent candidates comes off the back of a number of state level independents, and emerging state-level parties offering people viable alternatives such as Shooters, Fishers and Farmers and SA-Best.
"Communities are seeing what's possible with the current [federal] independent MPs politicians and emulating, like Helen Haines and [Warringah MP] Zali Steggall."
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