Internal Nationals polling shows the party will struggle to hold the regional NSW seats of Cowper and Page at the federal election, and party leader Michael McCormack is virtually unknown to voters and poorly rated by those who are aware of him.
Polling conducted for the party in NSW before Christmas confirmed fears that Cowper — being vacated by Luke Hartsuyker — was at risk of falling to independent candidate Rob Oakeshott, while Kevin Hogan was under siege in Page.
The pollsters found Mr McCormack, (pictured above) who replaced Barnaby Joyce as Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister nearly 12 months ago, was “near invisible” to voters, but those who had heard of him were more likely to be dissatisfied with his performance.
The polling has shocked the Nationals and underlines the challenge faced by Scott Morrison at the election, with the Coalition headed for opposition if it loses just one seat.
It is understood Mr Oakeshott, the former member for Lyne who backed Julia Gillard’s minority government in 2010, tested well among conservatives and swinging voters against local Nationals candidate Patrick Conaghan.
Mr McCormack declined to comment on the research, while party officials said Mr Hogan and Mr Conaghan would run strong grassroots campaigns and be competitive on election day.
One party source said the prospect of Mr Oakeshott returning to parliament would cause the voters of Cowper to think twice.
“Oakeshott has a name but everyone knows he backs Labor, and that’s not something that will sit well with the retirees of Port Macquarie,” the official said.
Mr Hogan, who declared himself an “independent Nationals MP” after Peter Dutton’s unsuccessful challenge against Malcolm Turnbull, will face his biggest challenge from Labor’s candidate for Page, Patrick Deegan, a social worker from Casino.
Mr Deegan said there was a “mood for change” and a “definite frustration with the Nationals in the seat”.
The polling has been widely discussed among Nationals MPs ahead of parliament resuming next week. “As we get closer, it will be everyone in the lifeboats and every man and woman for themselves,” one MP said.
“I think the numbers would indicate the vote is very soft, so wherever those votes harden to will determine the outcome of the election, which is why everyone is on the ground now,” one MP said.
Mr McCormack has received criticism among some colleagues who say he has failed to differentiate the Nationals from the Liberal Party.
Originally published at The Weekend Australian – 9 February 2019.