‘Not a local’
The Nationals, which have already begun positioning Ms Credlin as an outsider, plan to choose their candidate on Saturday, January 19.
“While she has a high profile, I don’t think that’s what the people living there are looking for,” Victorian Nationals president Neil Pankhurst said on Sunday. “Whilst she is originally from the area, she hasn’t got a continuous presence here.”
From irrigated fruit and vegetable farming around the Murray River to parched grain and cattle farms in the south, Mallee has long been populated by conservative rural communities distrustful of what they see as city-based elites.
Ms Credlin’s populist columns in tabloid newspapers and after dark appearances on Sky News have turned her into a well-known commentator who could tap into conservative rural sentiment, some Liberals believe. The last time the Liberal Party ran in the seat, in 2013, its candidate lost by a relatively narrow 6.2 per cent.
“Her views are what country people quite like and they would very much support a local,” said Terry Mathieson, the owner of the Royal Mail Hotel in Wycheproof. “Wycheproof would be very receptive.”
Nationals losing control
Nationals regard Ms Credlin as a threat who could exacerbate the party’s weakening position in the region.
At November’s state election the party lost the upper and lower house seats that share the most voters with Mallee. Until recently, they had been considered almost impregnable.
There are other signs the area’s politics may be changing. While Mr Broad famously compared same-sex marriage with ram-on-ram sex, Mallee voted in favour 54 per cent to 46 per cent.
At the state election the northern electoral region, which extends from Mildura, Mallee’s biggest city, to Wodonga, elected two Labor MPs, one Liberal, one Liberal Democrat and one from Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party. The sitting Nationals MP lost his seat.
Ali Cupper, a left-wing independent who won the state seat of Mildura last year, said she was surprised by how many people told her that climate change was contributing to water shortages threatening the region’s farming economy.
“I didn’t think the average voter plugged into that issue or was aware of the life and death situation we have with water uncertainty and water insecurity,” she said on Sunday.
“Peta might be surprised by the extent to which her hard-line Abbott-style social policies may be a liability in our electorate. If she truly wants to win Mallee she may have to moderate her views.”
Climate change is just ‘politics’
A career-long political adviser who played a central role in Mr Abbott’s 2013 election victory and now works for News Corp, Ms Credlin portrays herself as a conservative outsider willing to defy media and political elites.
“Scientific fact or not, any issue that’s galvanised the Left to the point of hysteria makes me sceptical that it’s more about the politics than anything else,” was how she described climate change in 2017.
Liberal activists have long spoken of Ms Credlin as a likely candidate for Menzies, a suburban Melbourne seat held by former Defence Minister Kevin Andrews. But Mr Andrews doesn’t plan to retire at this year’s election, and Mallee looks like the only extra Victorian seat the Liberal Party has a chance of winning at the federal election, which is expected in May.
If Mr Broad had re-contested the seat, the Liberal Party would not be permitted to run a candidate under the Coalition agreement.
“I think she would shake things up and that’s what we need,” said one Liberal involved in selecting candidates.
Another conservative who knows Ms Credlin said she would be unlikely to run in Mallee against a highly credentialled female National. “If they choose a bloke or a weak female candidate, she will run,” he said.
Three men and two women have nominated to run for the Nationals: social worker Anne Webster, businessman Toby Heil, policeman Paul Mathieson, and farmers Shane McGrath, Bernadette Hogan and Daniel Linklater.