Nationals Member for Morwell Russell Northe says he is not concerned about an apparent branding strategy by Labor to reclaim conservative country seats including Morwell.
On Tuesday, The Australian reported leaked Labor polling showed the ALP had “drawn ahead of the Nationals in Morwell” and the party planned to use a ‘Country Labor’ brand at the next state election.
The report cited an unnamed Labor campaign source, who said the party had a two or three-point lead in Morwell.
Mr Northe said he was under no illusion Labor was keen to win back the seat, but “that was always going to be the case”.
“I’m not concerned, that’s just the reality of the situation,” Mr Northe said.
Mr Northe questioned whether Labor really cared about the Morwell electorate and Gippsland, labelling the ‘Country Labor’ brand political opportunism.
“I’m concerned about the removal of a whole range of programs that affect the Latrobe Valley like the Latrobe Valley Industry and Infrastructure Fund,” Mr Northe said.
“Labor seems to be focused on Bendigo, Ballarat and Geelong.”
Labor upper house member for Eastern Victoria Harriet Shing said the whole of Gippsland was her “absolute focus”.
“I’m relocating my office to Morwell to make sure I’m as accessible as possible,” Ms Shing said.
“I’m not aware of the polling, it’s not something I comment on. I’m absolutely focused on doing the right thing on the ground.
“I’ve been spending my time almost exclusively in Gippsland to bring focus on regional growth, development and community.”
Last year’s state election went down to the wire in Morwell, with Labor candidate Jadon Mintern securing 48.20 per cent of the two candidate preferred vote to Mr Northe’s 51.80 per cent.
The seat of Morwell has traditionally been Labor heartland, with its 36-year reign ending in 2006 when Mr Northe was unexpectedly elected on the back of preferences from Labor defector Lisa Proctor, who ran as an independent against sitting member Brendan Jenkins.
By 2010 Northe had made significant ground, drawing 56.11 per cent of the primary vote in that year’s election, but 2014 brought Morwell’s safe status to an abrupt end.
Monash University senior politics lecturer Nick Economou said when former Premier John Brumby was opposition leader, he embarked on a campaign at making Labor “palatable to regional cities”, targeting areas like Bendigo and Ballarat.
“That Brumby model I think is considered as being successful and presumably that’s what Labor is trying to pursue,” Dr Economou said.
Labor is not the only political party looking to use ‘country’ in its branding.
An application by the Nationals currently sits with the Victorian Electoral Commission to change its name back to ‘The National Country Party’ – Victoria.
The move followed an application by the Australian Country Alliance, to change its name to another one of The Nats’ former titles, the ‘Australian Country Party’.
That application was approved on 17 August.
Mr Northe said he was disappointed the change was approved.
“I stand on my record and I’m not worried about backlash at the election, but I am disappointed it may encourage voter confusion at the time,” he said.
Under section 47 of the Electoral Act 2002, the VEC can refuse names if they are the name of another registered political party, or closely resemble the name of another registered political party “that it is likely to be confused with, or mistaken for, that name”.
VEC spokesman Paul Thornton-Smith said no current registered party had a name resembling Australian Country Party, so the commission “couldn’t legally reject” the application on those grounds.