Less than 10 weeks out from the state election, the Liberal Party has not announced candidates for Maitland nor any of Newcastle’s five Labor-held electorates.
The Newcastle Herald understands the party will unveil Blake Keating, a recent University of Newcastle graduate and president of Newcastle Liberal Students, as its candidate for Newcastle this week.
The government’s parliamentary secretary for the Hunter, Scot MacDonald, has been mooted as a potential opponent for Labor’s Jenny Aitchison in Maitland, but he declined late last week to discuss his political future.
No Liberal candidates have been forthcoming in Wallsend, Swansea, Charlestown and Lake Macquarie, either, and it is understood the Liberals and their coalition partners, the Nationals, have not worked out which party will stand in Cessnock against Labor’s Clayton Barr.
The only Liberal Hunter candidate in place for the March 23 poll is Jaimie Abbott in Port Stephens, the most marginal of the seven Labor-held seats in the Lower Hunter.
The absence of Liberal candidates in Newcastle gave opposition leader Michael Daley a free swing at the government when he visited Port Stephens last week.
“I’m just astounded the Liberals can’t find anyone that wants to run, or they’re so disorganised they haven’t got around to fielding candidates,” he told the Herald.
Liberal MP Catherine Cusack, who beat Mr MacDonald in a preselection ballot in November for a winnable position on the party’s upper house ticket, said it was “quite common for later endorsements in seats that are tough for either side to win”.
“Obviously Port Stephens has been a huge focus for us,” Ms Cusack said.
“We had a late endorsement at the last election in a seat we had a great shot of winning.
“We’re in much better shape there, which is good.”
The party’s state executive endorsed Ms Abbott on August 14 to take on Labor incumbent Kate Washington, who turned a safe Liberal seat red after sitting MP Craig Baumann lost endorsement in 2015 over the ICAC investigation into illegal political donations.
That investigation also cost the Liberals two other sitting members, Tim Owen in Newcastle and Andrew Cornwell in Charlestown, and precipitated double-digit swings against the government in the Lower Hunter in 2015.
Ms Cusack acknowledged the party had learnt a “humbling” lesson from the fallout of the Operation Spicer investigation, but she said the lack of visible candidates had helped foster cooperation between the Labor-dominated Newcastle City Council and the conservative government.
“I would look at this as a very big positive for Newcastle and for the region because the government has been spending record sums on infrastructure going gangbusters, and many of these projects for years have been crippled by petty politics and infighting,” she said.
“The region has had the clean air that it needs for these projects to all go ahead smoothly.
“We’ve had cooperation from councils. We’ve just had that break that the Hunter and Newcastle, in particular, has needed so that everyone can focus and get on with the job.
“That’s been an invisible ingredient as to why there’s been so much success and the region’s really starting to go gangbusters … The level of focus that’s been placed on the Hunter and Newcastle during this term is really unprecedented for any government.”
The government has spent about $700 million since the last election on its Newcastle revitalisation program, including the soon-to-open light rail, seemingly giving the coalition a platform to try to unseat Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp in March.
But to date it has had no candidate in the field to take political advantage of announcements such as last week’s unveiling of a $55 million landscaping plan for Honeysuckle.
That announcement was made in a media statement on the Hunter and Central Coast Development Corporation website.
Similarly, work is due to start soon on a new $470 million hospital in Maitland, a seat the Liberals lost in 2015 and one Ms Cusack described as a “priority”.
In contrast, Ms Washington and Mr Crakanthorp have organised three media events in the past six days as they ramp up their campaigns.
Labor established wide electoral margins across the Lower Hunter at the last election, led by a host of women candidates which also included Swansea’s Yasmin Catley, Charlestown’s Jodie Harrison and Wallsend’s Sonia Hornery.
Ms Cusack said the Liberals would field candidates for each seat but said it was up to the party’s state executive to manage the timing of announcements.
The Liberals had announced Karen Howard and Steve Thomson as candidates for Newcastle and Maitland before Christmas leading up to the last election.
Asked whether it was difficult for the Liberals to attract candidates in the Hunter, Ms Cusack said: “I think the Hunter region and Newcastle have traditionally been very strong Labor areas. This is not unusual. This is normal process and this is the normal way it goes.
“I think what’s different is the government has done and achieved so much in the area.
“From our perspective it’s been very advantageous for the political temperature to be lowered in the area so these projects can go ahead smoothly.
“You could make an argument that had we put candidates in the field a year ago the progress that’s been made would have been significantly inhibited. That’s been the priority.”
But Mr Daley said the lack of candidates suggested the Liberals had “given up on the Hunter”.
“The whole point of fielding candidates early is that you care enough about the community that you want to give the community time to look at your candidates and their policies and make an informed choice,” he said.
“You would think that if they had confidence in their record, and if they thought they’d done a good job, they’d be shouting it from the rooftops.
“It seems to me they probably think they’ve made some big mistakes.”
Labor has its own troubles in Upper Hunter, the region’s most marginal seat, where candidate Martin Rush is facing an internal investigation over an anonymous letter containing allegations he was involved in a drunken altercation with a female flatmate in September.
The Greens have named candidates in Newcastle, Wallsend, Upper Hunter and Cessnock.
- Held by: Tim Crakanthorp (ALP)
- Margin: 7.4%
- History: Libs’ Tim Owen resigned in 2014 over ICAC scandal
- Held by: Jodie Harrison (ALP)
- Margin: 12.9%
- History: Libs’ Andrew Cornwell resigned in 2014 over ICAC scandal
- Held by: Sonia Hornery (ALP)
- Margin: 20.8%
- History: Always Labor since seat was reformed in 1968
- Held by: Yasmin Catley (ALP)
- Margin: 13%
- History: Ms Catley won marginal Liberal seat in a landslide in 2015 after incumbent Garry Edwards was disendorsed over ICAC scandal
- Held by: Greg Piper (Ind)
- Margin: 10.7%
- History: Held by Mr Piper since 2007
- Labor candidate: Jo Smith
- Held by: Kate Washington (ALP)
- Margin: 4.7%
- History: Two-term Libs incumbent Craig Baumann lost endorsement in 2015 over ICAC scandal
- Liberal candidate: Jaimie Abbott
- Held by: Jenny Aitchison (ALP)
- Margin: 13.8%
- History: Ms Aitchison won in a landslide in 2015 after retirement of Liberal incumbent Robyn Parker
- Incumbent: Clayton Barr (ALP)
- Margin: 22%
- History: Labor since 1991, but was marginal before Mr Barr’s big win in 2015
- Held by: Michael Johnsen (Nat)
- Margin: 2.2%
- History: Has never voted Labor but came close with Mr Rush last time
- Labor candidate: Martin Rush