17 March 2023

Seven candidates line up for Cootamundra amid roads, health and education concerns

| Edwina Mason
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Map of the seat of Cootamundra

Nine local goverment areas, now, thanks to a redistribution including the whole of Hilltops in the east, fall within the state seat of Cootamundra, the fourth largest electorate in the state. Image: NSW Electoral Commission.

The Cootamundra electorate – the state’s fourth largest – has been in the hands of the Nationals since its genesis in 2015 when a boundary redistribution eradicated its predecessor, the 65-year-old seat of Burrinjuck.

At its core Burrinjuck had been a Coalition stronghold since Cootamundra meatworker Alby Schultz ended the 38-year Labor reign of the Sheahan family in 1988.

Schultz would represent the Liberal Party until his 1998 resignation when the federal seat of Hume beckoned and it was Nationals’ Katrina Hodgkinson who took up the reins for a further 16 years until her 2017 resignation, just two years after the redistribution spirited away her hometown of Yass.

Former florist Steph Cooke has continued to represent the Nationals – holding a solid 27.1 per cent margin – at the helm of the new seat – which lies in the state’s mid-southwest.

A revision of the state boundaries in 2021 meant the Nationals margin was snipped slightly to 26.6 per cent, with pundits positing its retention by Cooke in the 25 March state election.

Cootamundra now covers 37,289 square kilometres and includes the major centres of Cowra, Grenfell, Young, Cootamundra, Gundagai, Junee, Narrandera, Temora and West Wyalong within nine local government areas that now include Boorowa, Rugby, Frogmore, Rugby and Reids Flat.

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In the past Cooke’s adversaries have sprung from the ranks of Labor and Shooter Fisher and Farmers (SFF) parties, and this year Labor is offering up Chris Dahlitz from Narrandera while the SFF is staking its hopes on Jake Cullen of Cootamundra.

Two Independents – Gundagai’s Robert Young and Cowra’s Brian Fisher – are in the thick of the seven-candidate race with Jeffrey Passlow of Stockinbingal representing the Greens and the Sustainable Australia Party by Chris O’Rourke of Bathurst, which sits outside the Cootamundra electorate.

An electorate that in the past year has been besieged by heavy rain, communities are bristling with rage about road and infrastructure damage with embattled councils struggling to repair rapidly increasing potholes and smashed pavement.

Impacts of road transportation of produce to market and ports is translating to a call for better infrastructure, a concern highlighted by lack of resolution in Hilltops, Cowra and Weddin local government areas on rehabilitation of the Blayney-Demondrille rail line.

Junee mayor Neil Smith said further funding for their road networks topped their wish list and has called on future state governments to assist with energy efficiency and sustainability projects as councils move to integrating climate change adaptation.

Out at Temora, Mayor Rick Firman says a commitment from the NSW opposition to honour an $80 million commitment for the redevelopment of Temora and District Hospital was crucial to that community as was retention of a NSW Rural and Regional Health ministry.

The dumping of RFS equipment depreciation costs on council accounts – termed the “red fleet issue” – is also rankling local councils.

“How can they be on our assets register when we have no control over them whatsoever?” Cr Firman asked.

Cootamundra-Gundagai mayor Charlie Sheahan said local government’s requirement on state and federal funding was more critical than ever and in a local government area that has seen major floods tear through towns and villages in the past year, his priority was seeking additional emergency funding.

“We can’t exist without state and federal funding, we can’t deliver much without the assistance of state and government,” he said.

“So with the state election coming up, it’s imperative that the incoming government is prepared to acknowledge that and recognise the role that local governments play and be prepared to support the priorities of our communities including health, roads and education because we don’t have other sources of income like metropolitan councils have,” Cr Sheahan said.

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Cootamundra-Gundagai’s demerger process, he confirmed, is unaffected by any election result, “that’s still going ahead irrespective of any change to government”.

But the lumbering process of the demerger figured among roads, education, and climate change at a forum hosted by Gundagai’s Council in Exile on 15 February.

Forums held throughout the electorate in the past month have echoed similar sentiments, underpinned by disquiet that the sacred cow that is rural and regional industry is being neglected and quickly depreciating.

NSW Farmers Head of Policy Annabel Johnson said people wanted to know how the next government would make things better.

“This is going to be a very tight election with the cost-of-living crisis hurting everyone, families and farmers alike, and they’re wanting to know what will be done about it,” Ms Johnson said.

“Roads range from ordinary to terrible across the state, and at the same time there’s this huge land development pressure – people are feeling like things are being done to their communities without any consultation.

“For those people who have their land compulsorily acquired for big new projects, there’s a real question around whether they’re being treated fairly and getting paid enough.”

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