In what’s rapidly developing into a Melbourne Cup field, the National Party has pre-selected Queanbeyan Palerang Regional Council member Trevor Hicks as its candidate for the forthcoming Eden-Monaro by-election.
Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack made the announcement on Saturday (6 June), flanked by Mr Hicks and the Member for Monaro, John Barilaro (who is alleged to have sent a series of angry texts to his leader several weeks ago, at the height of speculation over the seat).
A Captains Flat resident, Mr Hicks is a longtime councillor who has also been deputy mayor (and a former Braidwood Redbacks rugby player). Local speculation had been mounting over the past few weeks as he appeared at funding announcements alongside Mr Barilaro and Queanbeyan mayor Tim Overall.
Mr Barilaro said Mr Hicks was a “grassroots candidate … who understands the land”.
Mr Hicks flagged the need for job creation in the fire devastated electorate, adding that there was a need to “get the community back running, back working” after an extremely difficult summer.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack described Mr Hicks as “an outstanding candidate”.
Yass landscape architect Fleur Flanery, Cooma grazier and sheep breeder Michael Green and Bywong nutritionist Mareeta Grundy also contested the pre-selection.
The announcement comes weeks after a very public row between Mr Barilaro and the neighbouring Liberal Member for Bega, Andrew Constance, over who would run for the seat. In the event, neither man will contest the by-election and Fiona Kotvojs won Liberal pre-selection with strong support from local branch members.
Leaked texts are said to have revealed that Mr Barilaro questioned Mr McCormack’s National Party leadership and failure to support his quest for the plum seat, long a bellwether for Australian politics.
“To feel threatened by me clearly shows you have failed your team and failed as a leader. You will never be acknowledged by me as our leader. You aren’t. You never will be,” the texts are alleged to have said.
“Your lack of public enthusiasm or support for my candidacy went a long way to my final decision”.
However, no National has ever held the seat and at the 2019 election Yass Valley resident and small business owner Sophie Wade garnered just 7 per cent of the vote in a tightly contested race between sitting ALP Member Mike Kelly and Liberal candidate Fiona Kotvojs.
The 2020 election will be just the second time in three decades that the Nationals have run a candidate. Last week the Shooters Fishers and Farmers Party announced that Harden businessman Matthew Stadtmiller would run for the seat and the Greens announced Cathy Griff as their candidate.
High profile former Bega Valley mayor Kristy McBain won ALP preselection and a number of other smaller party candidates and independents have also indicated their interest in the seat.
Both Mr McCormack and Mr Barilaro strenuously resisted attempts by media on Saturday to draw them back into the leadership confrontation, although it was the first time they’d been seen together in public since May’s dramatic events.
“John and I know we’ve got an outstanding candidate in Trevor Hicks. We’re both very much behind him,” Mr McCormack said, while Mr Barilaro said that he and the Deputy PM were united in their support for Mr Hicks.
“Michael McCormack is the deputy prime minister of this country. He leads the federal National Party. I lead the NSW National Party. One of the things we will always put first is our communities,” Mr Barilaro said.
He was, however, insistent that a vote for the Nationals was not simply a vote for the Coalition, denying that they were the junior partner in the long-standing arrangement. At this stage, there is no formal indication where Nationals preferences will flow.
“We’ll make those decisions as we need to but at the end of the day the voters of Eden-Monaro will decide where their preferences go,” he said.