High-profile independent candidate for the NSW electorate of Cowper Rob Oakeshott recently released his commitment to climate change action at the small Macleay village of Gladstone.
His two-page document included a promise to vote against any new coal or gas power stations, calling out dirty money used for lobbying and to support policies that prioritise climate change action.
Oakeshott’s candidacy comes six years after leaving parliament, when he and Tony Windsor supported the minority Gillard Government after the 2010 election delivered a hung parliament. During his tenure Oakeshott supported the emissions trading scheme of the Labor government, putting him at odds with his traditionally conservative electorate. In the 2010 election Labor received just 13.5 per cent of the vote in Lyne electorate with many voters seeing Oakeshott’s support of Gillard as a betrayal.
Oakeshott’s past hasn’t been forgotten by outgoing incumbent Nationals MP Luke Hartsuyker, who released a press statement this week slamming Oakeshott as a “sham” for previously supporting Labor. Mr Hartsuyker said: “We all know on the North Coast that he is Labor – Labor in Independent’s clothing”. Oakeshott responded on Tuesday that “the Nationals don’t have a positive vision for our region so they’ve started name calling.”
Running the gauntlet
Mr Oakeshott isn’t receiving any fanfare either from the Labor candidate Andrew Woodward, who shared this image on Twitter.
As an Independent, Oakeshott runs the gauntlet with critics on both sides of politics. Some conservatives disparage him as being a Labor candidate in disguise and that he ran in the 2016 election for financial gain from AEC election funding. Critics on the left argue he doesn’t go far enough in supporting progressive environmental policies.
Adding to Oakeshott’s woes was the appearance of a fake Instagram account claiming to be him last week. The ABC reported that an unknown user behind the fake profile attempted to solicit a $25,000 political donation and flirted with a woman in Oakeshott’s electorate. Mr Oakeshott became aware of the account after the woman involved notified him and the account has since been deleted. The issue is being investigated by police but for some it’s clear that a campaign of dirty tricks has begun.
However, Oakeshott supporters are unfazed and believe action speaks louder than words. During his 18 years in politics – 12 in state and six in federal, Oakeshott negotiated $110 million for an expansion of the Port Macquarie base hospital; encouraged Charles Sturt University to bring a campus to the town of 45,000, and secured federal funds for important infrastructure including roads, bridges and community centres all making him a popular figure in the community.
With Port Macquarie’s inclusion in the Cowper electorate after major changes were made to its boundaries in 2016, Oakeshott will hope to capitalise on his achievements there so he pickup votes from Coffs Harbour. With youth unemployment at 23.3pc in Coffs Harbour (the second highest in Australia), Oakeshott can point to Port Macquarie at just 8pc youth unemployment as evidence of his success.
“In the past Port Macquarie had high youth unemployment, up in the high teens,” he said.
“We dealt with it by bringing a range of local groups together — employment agencies, the business community, council, Indigenous bodies, TAFE and other areas of education — as well as state and federal governments.”
With Kerryn Phelps’ win in last year’s by-election and Zali Steggall’s strong campaign in Warringah, Oakeshott may be able to ride on a wave of popularity for Independent candidates but he is the first to admit that winning the seat of Cowper will be no easy feat. Either way, with a high public profile and previous experience, Oakeshott’s chances are better than ever. The voters of Cowper are in for an interesting election.