When the Nationals meet Rob Oakeshott in this year’s Cowper contest it might remind some of the political equivalent of the ‘Thrilla in Manilla’, the third of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fights. With the 2008 Lyne by-election and the 2016 Federal election in Cowper behind them, Oakeshott and his former party are tied 1-1 in Federal elections.

State-wide the Nationals improved their position on the weekend in Bathurst, Cootamundra, Clarence, Monaro, Myall Lakes, Northern Tablelands, Tweed, Upper Hunter and Cowper’s Port Macquarie and Oxley.

With four retiring members they still managed to retain Dubbo and Cowper’s Coffs Harbour (limited to a 3.3% swing to the ALP). Leslie Williams (Port Macquarie), Melinda Pavey (Oxley) and new member Gurmesh Singh (Coffs Harbour) are all now in a position to assist the National’s Patrick Conaghan arrive in the ring looking to inflict a knockout in this grudge match with their conservative-agrarian traitor.

On Saturday, following the Christchurch incident, Shooters Fishers and Farmers (SFF) booth helpers had effectively dropped ‘Shooters’ and ‘Fishers’ from their lexicon in Coffs Harbour. Despite this new reticence about their name, the party will be reasonably happy with their result in Oxley and Coffs Harbour.

On the backside of the coastal range to Coffs Harbour, in the lush, green rolling hills alongside the Orara River, an interesting dynamic played out at the local Upper Orara Public School booth. Neither drought response nor fish kills resonated with any importance but water was an issue.

While the local SFF candidate, Stuart Davidson, set up his stand with the help of his precocious pre-school aged granddaughter, he was able to find common ground with the progressive independent candidate’s booth worker on the topic of water contamination from chemicals used on local blueberry farms.

The ardent booth worker for the independent, herself an ex-organic blueberry farmer, marvelled at the fact an old rural area like Upper Orara had seen a gradual influx of lifestyle inhabitants in the last twenty or so years. This was reflected come counting time with Davidson collecting 39 votes, one less than Labor, while the Green vote was devastated but only by the environmental scientist cum independent candidate, who received 89 votes to her old party’s 9 votes.

As for the National’s support in this old rural area, enforcement, or lack, of blueberry industry environmental regulations and associated water contamination bit hard in reducing Singh to 120 votes out of the 323 total votes.

In the more urban electorates, the Labor vote held up stronger, where the environmental vandalism message resonated less strongly. This led to a recount – Labor and the independent candidate had only four votes separating them – for overall second place in the electorate and the subsequent allocation of the third place’s preferences.

Oakeshott will be struggling to find a silver lining in the NSW election results or the latest Newspoll, which has the Coalition’s primary vote improving two points and Labor’s declining two points, reducing the two-party preferred Labor advantage to four points.

With the Federal budget less than a week away and the expectation of an election called a week after that, a little more clarity is emerging of where Oakeshott and Conaghan and others will be looking to exchange political blows.

It seems reasonable to expect progressive candidates will continue to mobilise around water quality up to May, as demonstrated this week just south of Port Macquarie at Lake Cathie.

At the other end of the political spectrum, One Nation is in crisis management after an attempt to gain tens of millions of dollars of support from the United States’ National Rifle Association in return for weakening Australian gun laws hit the media. Although the party is unlikely to make a big impact in Cowper, the fringe party has drawn a response from the Nationals which tackles the allocation of party preferences, an issue in its own right.

Deputy Federal Nationals Leader Bridgette McKenzie, probably the most high-profile gun user in Federal Parliament, made clear her support for shooting and hunting while clearly differentiating between Australia’s gun culture and that of the America’s for the record. She subsequently indicated the party will leave preferencing decisions to the State divisions.

The Federal Nationals party has more of a coordinating function and very little power, so this is a realist practical decision as much as anything else. While McKenzie is from Victoria, her line on the Greens being a greater threat to rural Australia than One Nation will fit neatly with the flexibility provided to the state organisations on preferences, allowing electorates such as Cowper to defend primary industries, like farming and logging, against the worst excesses of puritan environmental regulation politics.

From here on the Mid-North Coast the NSW election may not demonstrate a “deeper, fundamental breakage in rural electorates” as Guardian Australia’s Gabrielle Chan wishes to report; rather expectations at this stage would have to be that Greens and Labor will conduct lacklustre campaigns, progressives pinning their hopes on Oakeshott in his second rematch with the Nationals, just like they did in 2016.