An early scratching raises eyebrows in what will be one of the most interesting and keenly watched electorates this May.
Cowper has a rich history, home to the Gumbaynggirr Aboriginal Nation from Nambucca north to Coramba, Karangi and Karora. Down by the Macleay River the Dunghutti community describe their long history while Uncle Bill of the Birpai peoples will welcome you to country along its southern margins.
The electorate derives its name from Archdeacon William Cowper; product of an Evangelical revival in England, he accepted a 260 pound commission to come to New South Wales shortly after the Rum Rebellion and was at one point mostly responsible for the British colony’s missionary work towards the convicts, First Nations and others. John Oxley’s 1818 survey north from Bathurst brought Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s penal settlement and Europeans to the Hastings River estuary and the Mid-North Coast.
Politically this is Nationals land through and through; the party currently holds the state seats of Coffs Harbour, Oxley and Port Macquarie. Cowper was one of the 65 original electorates in 1900 and has been held almost totally by the country party since World War One. The north of Cowper is well known for the Big Banana, a council with its own Koala Habitat, and The Clog Barn, the Dutch-themed tourist centre.
The Nationals’ Luke Hartsuyker has represented the electorate since 2001.
Labor’s dominance of the Turnbull/Morrison Government has had prognosticators salivating at a future upset in Cowper for quite a while. In April last year Andrew “There’s never been a more exciting time to be Labor’s candidate in Warringah” Woodward confided to the Bellingen Courier his candidacy for Cowper while holding his dog Rainbeau. This was less than two years after his tilt to replace Tony Abbott approximately 600km south. The former radio sports journalist and management consultant now hails from Bellingen or what we locals call Bello.
Bello is Cowper’s Haight Asbury and it would never be satisfied with a mere Labor candidate. So about the time Turnbull was punted Dr Sally Townley, an environmental scientist, announced her candidacy on the Port Macquarie Town Green.
Things were clearly looking exciting here in Cowper even before ex-Minister Luke Hartsuyker announced his retirement. In October the Nationals preselected Kempsey boy, come NSW Police Detective, Prosecutor and Solicitor, Patrick Conaghan, now residing in Port Macquarie.
But keen AusVotes readers will know Cowper was just getting started. Port Macquarie local boy Rob Oakeshott – he who had previously managed to hold the nation in suspense for a traumatic 17 minutes before ushering in the Gillard Government – ensured all eyes of fellow political tragics in our glorious nation were turning to the electorate reaching from Coffs Harbour to Port Macquarie.
Rob Oakeshott, drawing on his customary appreciation for audience anticipation, actually waited until early January this year to declare his candidacy. Rumours abound that Oakeshott used his time well up until his announcement, building relationships with state independent candidates.
While no formal agreement has been mentioned, the Greens’ Townley was persuaded her fortunes lie in this week’s Coffs Harbour state electorate race, as an independent, shortly after Oakeshott’s announcement. Other Greens members in Cowper have also been persuaded to leave the party. They now cite the Greens’ civil war in Sydney and have admitted their plans to support Oakeshott in May.
So, with two months until the federal election, Cowper is seemingly without its greatest voice for the National Parks Association’s hoped for Great Koala National Park, but that is unlikely to prevent the nation’s eyes watching keenly for any political change in this Mid-North Coast land we locals love.
This cub correspondent will share this drama with you from the frontlines.