Race too close to call

Jarrod Whittaker

Latrobe Valley residents are not expected to know who their new MP is until later in the week after Saturday’s state election failed to yield a clear result in the seat of Morwell.

The contest was shaping up as a two-way battle between Labor’s Mark Richards and independent Russell Northe when counting stopped on Saturday night with 81.53 per cent of the vote counted.

At last count, Mr Richards was leading the field on primary votes with 34.22 per cent compared to Mr Northe’s 19.97 per cent.

Morwell, which is held by Mr Northe on a margin of 1.8 per cent, was shaping up as a key seat in the event of a hung parliament, but Labor’s thumping win means it will play no part in deciding who forms government.

ABC election analyst Antony Green was last night predicting that Labor would win 52 seats to the Coalition’s 24 with two independents and 10 in doubt, including Morwell.

Liberal candidate Dale Harriman sits third with 12.19 per cent of the primary vote, while Nationals candidate Sheridan Bond is fourth with 10.93 per cent.

The Victorian Electoral Commission is counting the two-candidate preferred vote between Mr Richards and Ms Bond, giving the Labor candidate a 51.89 per cent share of the vote compared to 49.11 per cent for the Nationals.

Late Saturday night the ABC switched its two-candidate preferred count to a contest between Labor and Mr Northe, giving the sitting MP a 53.7 per cent share of the vote using estimated preferences, which marked a 1.9 per cent swing to the incumbent.

But with a large field of candidates an accurate flow of preferences will not be available until the VEC begins counting votes as a head-to-head contest between the two frontrunners.

The possibility exists that one of the Coalition candidates, most likely Mr Harriman, could leapfrog Mr Northe into second place once preferences are allocated.

Yesterday, Mr Richards said he expected preferences to favour Mr Northe but was pleased with the level of primary support he had received.

“I think the preferences are going to make it very difficult to win,” he said.

“But what I would say is I’m very happy with the level of investment and support we’ve had from Labor in this region.”

Mr Richards said he was pleased with the support the region had received from Labor in the past few years, including the $266 million Hazelwood transition, the announcement of the GovHub, 500 electrical vehicle manufacturing jobs and election promises such as the $217 million expansion of Latrobe Regional Hospital and 800 new car parks for Morwell and Traralgon as positive steps for the region.

“We really have received more support in this region with the $266 million in the last couple of years than we have in the previous dozen or so years,” he said.

Mr Northe, by contrast, ran a more low-key campaign calling for a funding boost for the region’s Lifeline services and extra funding for LRH’s prostate cancer specialist nurse service.

Yesterday he said he was waiting “in anticipation” for the result and said he thought the VEC “would have changed their tact in terms of the two-party preferred” vote by counting between him and Mr Richards.

“Obviously, I only ran a limited campaign in a relatively short timeframe, so I was certainly hopeful that I would at least [get] into second position on primary votes but you just never, never know,” he said.

“Maybe in some sense having 11 candidates in the field may have helped my cause in getting to second position on primaries but obviously for me to win it was important that I finished above the Libs and the Nats on primary votes.”

Both Coalition candidates preferenced Mr Northe ahead of the ALP, significantly boosting his chances of picking up the seat, but he said he was not sure he would be able to count on their preferences.

“The flow of preferences is really difficult to predict,” he said.

The result will mark a major shift in Morwell if Mr Northe or Mr Richards pick up the seat.

If Mr Northe wins it will be the first time the seat has been won by an independent.

A victory by Mr Richards would mark the party’s first victory in the seat since Mr Northe broke the ALP’s 32-year stranglehold on the seat in 2006.

In 2006, Mr Northe was elected as a National but quit the party last year after taking a leave of absence to deal with personal issues