Inside story of the 2019 Cowper campaign - from strategy to predictions

From negative advertisements to cringeworthy political jingles and big name politicians flying into the Cowper electorate it is hard not to know there is an election on May 18. Are Cowper voters easily swayed by each party's campaign tactics, or have they had enough?

Sports reporter Deb Spillane was happily retired in Valla on the NSW Mid North Coast when she was approached by Independent candidate for Cowper Rob Oakeshott to be involved in his tilt for the seat.

"I've been unhappy with the general quality of Australian politics for some years and I couldn't pass up the chance to use my media experience to help someone who promises to bring that quality," Ms Spillane said.

She said she has found the campaign, "exhilarating, exhausting and at times, hilarious".

"But it has really felt like something extremely important to be involved in".

She said the strategy from the Oakeshott camp has been a "bottom up affair", meeting as many people as possible.

Ms Spillane who is in charge of media for Mr Oakeshott said the team has tried to "stay positive" about Rob's message but felt they had no option but to respond to some of the negative advertising directed at him by the National Party.

Independent candidate Rob Oakeshott and family. PHOTO: Andrew Meares

Independent candidate Rob Oakeshott and family. PHOTO: Andrew Meares

Our preference has been to 'cut out the noise' and stay positive about Rob's message but earlier this week we decided we had to push back against the straight up lies that were being spread in paid ads, online, on TV, radio ads - and via letter boxes.

Deb Spillane

Former Nationals Deputy Prime Minister Ian Sinclair, now based in the Manning Valley, also laments the negative tactics from all side of politics.

"This campaign has been far too personal, it has delved into the backgrounds of individuals," Mr Sinclair said.

"What should be central is the well-being of Cowper and policies."

He believes Nationals candidate Pat Conaghan will win on May 18.

He is a remarkable young man.

Ian Sinclair

Mr Sinclair said Independents can "bark like cattle dogs on a leash from the sidelines but they cannot implement policy".

Voters tuning out 

Three million pre-poll votes had been cast by Wednesday May 15, up from about 1.8 million at a similar stage of the last election.

Former state MP for the Shooters Fishers and Farmers Party John Tingle said the record number of pre-poll votes points to the fact voters have tuned out.

People have had enough which is why they have rushed to vote early.

John Tingle

"The tactics have been disgusting, particularly the attacks on Rob Oakeshott. The usual things are not in play because people have stopped listening," Mr Tingle said.

He said the Federal Election is "unlike anything I have seen before" because voters are "well and truly fed up".

Nationals candidate Patrick Conaghan with his family. PHOTO: Facebook

Nationals candidate Patrick Conaghan with his family. PHOTO: Facebook

Mr Tingle believes it will be "very tight" in Cowper but expects Mr Oakeshott to win by a "hair's breadth".

Charles Sturt University Political Science Associate Professor Dominic O'Sullivan said political parties wouldn't invest in negative advertising if it didn't work.

"There is research saying it works and that is why parties do it," Ms O'Sullivan said.

New candidate building his name

Cowper is considered National party heartland but the insertion of Independent Rob Oakeshott in the campaign has challenged that assumption.

The former member for Lyne ran for Cowper in 2016 and despite starting his campaign three weeks from polling day reduced the margin to 4.5 per cent.

Professor O'Sullivan said the Nationals candidate Patrick Conaghan has had to almost "start from scratch" as he doesn't have the name recognition of Mr Oakeshott, but that he wasn't a "divisive figure like Tony Abbott and other MPs facing threats by Independents."

While Mr Conaghan has seemed at times ill at ease during media appearances, his seminal moment in the campaign perhaps came during the Prime Minister Scott Morrison's visit to a group of Port Macquarie senior citizens where Mr Conaghan spoke from the heart about his humble upbringing in Kempsey and plans for the electorate.

Mr Oakeshott has had to battle perceptions he is too close to Labor after he supported the Gillard government in a hung parliament in 2010.

Some voters (and shock jocks) it seems have never forgiven him.

Ms Spillane said Mr Oakeshott had "no regrets" about the decision.

"He negotiated in the best interests of his electorate as an Independent should," she said.

Going down to the wire

William Bowe from the website The Poll Bludger said the result is likely to come down preferences.

"Oakeshott got 77 per cent of Labor voters' preferences and 61 per cent of other candidates' preferences in 2016, and I would expect something similar this time," Mr Bowe said.

"So the Nationals will need a primary vote quite a bit higher than Oakeshott's if they are to hold out against him."

The surprise packet might be the United Australia Party (under Clive Palmer) which has invested significantly in advertising and whose preferences to the National Party ahead of Mr Oakeshott may prove crucial. They did not field a candidate in the 2016 election.

Sportbet has Mr Oakeshott as favourite at $1.72 followed by Patrick Conaghan at $1.93.

But with polls appearing to tighten in Cowper it looks like every vote will count.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Patrick Conaghan's campaign team was contacted for comment and declined the offer.

There are eight candidates contesting the seat of Cowper.

Ruth Meads from the Christian Democratic Party (Fred Nile Group) drew the number one position on the ballot.

The Nationals candidate Pat Conaghan is listed second, followed by Alexander Stewart from the United Australia Party in third.

Then there is Andrew Woodward from the Labor Party, Independent Robert Oakeshott, Lauren Edwards from the Greens, Kellie Pearce from the Animal Justice Party and Independent Allan Green.

The Cowper electorate has the most voters in Australia.

A record 16,424,248 Australians are enrolled to vote in the 2019 federal election.

What else is making news?

This story Inside the battle for Cowper and the tactics used to win first appeared on Port Macquarie News.