Tension mounts over a three-way contest in Nicholls’ electorate, despite a vast margin of nationals

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It’s Thursday night at the Aussie Hotel in Shepparton and Sam Birrell is trying to win over the crowd.

He’s a familiar face to patrons of the bustling local pub where he performs, sings and plays guitar.

It’s a face that’s been plastered across town for weeks.

“I’m part of this community,” he said.

“I want to have fun with the people here, whether it’s through the arts, through sports, like I always have.”

National candidate for Nicholls Sam Birrell performs at a pub in Shepparton.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Courtney Howe)

Three-way competition heats up

The Nationals candidate for Nicholls, Mr Birrell is hoping to replace incumbent Nationals MP Damian Drum, who currently holds the safe Tory seat by a vast 20% margin.

But among the sea of ​​corflutes that line the streets of the electorate, two colors break up the Nationals’ green.

There’s the Liberal Party’s blue – under the coalition agreement, an MP retiring means both parties can field candidates.

A man in a light blue shirt and black pants stands in front of a lake
Steve Brooks, a Cobram grenade producer and former teacher, is Nicholls’ Liberal candidate.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Courtney Howe)

The Liberals nominated Steve Brooks, a Cobram pomegranate grower and former teacher who moved to Shepparton to try his luck.

There is also the orange of independent candidate Rob Priestly.e

A prominent local businessman and former deputy mayor of Shepparton, Mr Priestly has raised his own campaign finance, turning down offers from Climate 200, which backs other high-profile independents.

Although he did not confirm who he would support in the event of a suspended parliament, he said he would negotiate the best deal for his community.

A dark-haired man wearing blue jeans and a jacket smiles while standing next to one of his placards at an early voting center
Independent candidate for Nicholls Rob Priestly.(Facebook: Rob Priestly for Nicholls)

Independent belt threatens conservative stronghold

Last week, Mr Priestly confirmed he had been approached to run at the national championships before running as an independent.

He is one of a growing number of independent candidates in the region.

The neighboring Indi seat is held by independent Helen Haines, while within Nicholls, the state seat of Shepparton is also in the hands of an independent, Suzanna Sheed.

It is this emergence of an “independent belt” that threatens to overthrow Coalition rule for the first time in the siege’s 73-year history.

And that has led to a revolving door of senior national politicians descending on the seat since the election was called.

Three men at a press conference
National Party leader Barnaby Joyce is among senior nationals who have visited Nicholls’ constituency in recent weeks.(Provided: The National Party)

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has visited four times in recent months, making various funding announcements – most of them costed as part of the latest federal budget.

Victorian Senator Bridget McKenzie has also become a familiar face in the city.

Mr Priestly claimed it was a taste of the attention and investment Nicholls could enjoy if he became an independent seat, but Mr Birrell disagreed.

A dark-haired man in a business shirt and jacket is smiling and looking at the camera.
Rob Priestly is running as an independent candidate for the Nicholls electorate in Victoria.(ABC News)

Coalition urges Nicholls not to vote independent

As the Coalition continues to flout claims that it fears losing the seat, it has ferociously promoted the same message: don’t vote independent.

They warned voters that an independent would have limited access to funds and could side with the Labor Party.

“We have an independent who stands for integrity and transparency but who doesn’t really tell the electorate how he’s going to side,” Mr Brooks said.

three men walking in an orchard
Steve Brooks, David Littleproud and Sam Birrell at Ardmona.(ABC Shepparton: Courtney Howe)

Last week, Nationals deputy leader David Littleproud went so far as to claim that if Nicholls voters did not elect a Coalition candidate to the seat, the Coalition would lose the government.

Mr Priestly called it alarmist and said it could only mean one thing: National Liberals are nervous.

“Right now the parties are not representing the views of the community,” he said.

Seat has a history of coalition leadership

Nicholls stretches across northern Victoria, from Yarrawonga and Echuca on the border, to Shepparton, Kyabram and Nagambie and as far south as Seymour and Broadford.

It is the safest coalition seat in the state and has consistently had a Conservative vote 20-30% stronger than for Victoria as a whole.

This year, there is a crowded field of 11 candidates vying for the seat.

While Labor’s Bill Lodwick came second in 2019, there are fears he could be relegated to fourth place this time, only nominated by his party days before the Australian Electoral Commission’s nominations close.

A group of people stand with flyers
National Liberal candidate for Nicholls, Steve Brooks, thinks he would be the coalition’s best candidate for the seat.(Provided: Facebook)

The Liberal Party has a history here – when known as Murray, the seat was held by Sharman Stone for 20 years until his retirement in 2016.

“I would say I am that candidate.”

Water policy among the major issues

All three candidates have proven water policy credentials in a seat where the Murray-Darling Basin plan is a constant source of angst.

Mr Brooks came out strong, claiming he was the only candidate with a record of advocating for water issues – a claim his two rivals passionately denied.

But while they disagree on how the Murray-Darling basin plan should be implemented, all three agree on one point: the region will suffer if Labor’s plans for the basin go forward.

Dead trees in a river.
The Murray Darling basin plan is a major issue for the region.(ABC News)

In addition to water, residents have a long list of familiar issues they want addressed, including the cost of living, a federal ICAC, and increased funding for elderly care.

Desperate pleas have also been made for candidates to address the shortage of medical manpower in the region.

Independent calls for change

Birrell said only a coalition MP could get results on these issues.

“I think people look at the candidate and look at the quality of the representative,” he said.

“They look at my predecessor Damian Drum and they see someone who was very genuine, very honest, very well liked and delivered on his promises.

A crowd watches the pigeons fly off a trailer
Nicholls independent candidate Rob Priestly releases homing pigeons in Wunghnu to highlight problems with mobile phones and internet reception in the area.(ABC Shepparton: Courtney Howe)

But according to Mr. Priestly, it is time for a change.

“Everywhere I go people are excited about the opportunity to have someone who truly represents the community,” he said.

“Rather than being stuck behind a voice that sometimes votes for things that aren’t good for us.”

Three corflutes on a street corner
A three-way contest is expected for Nicholls’ federal electorate.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Charmayne Allison)
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