'Battle for the Bush': Who will Australia’s drought-stricken farmers vote for?

Ahead of the federal election, a range of independents and minor parties are throwing their Akubras in the ring and vying for votes historically aligned with the Nationals.

In the regional New South Wales seat of New England, disaffected voters are looking for alternatives to the major parties, as they suffer through their worst drought yet.

It's been more than two years since Karen and Peter Weller saw decent rainfall at their property in Winton, 30km west of Tamworth.

The cattle and sheep farmers have been forced to sell much of their stock to keep the farm running. And now heavily in debt, Ms Weller says life has become a waiting game.

Karren and Peter Weller, Winton NSW.
Source: SBS

"The lack of rain leads to no money to pay bills and it leads to depression, anxiety," she told SBS News. 

"We don't just work 9 to 5 and get to go away from it. We live and we work here, so it's seven days a week and you don't sleep very well because you're worrying through the night about what you're going to do the next day, how you're going to pay the next lot of bills."

You don't sleep because you're worrying about how you're going to pay the next lot of bills.

- Karen Weller, Farmer

Half an hour east of Tamworth, in Tintinhull, turkey farmer Colin Quast's greatest concern is the rising cost of feed.

At the end of last year, New South Wales was the most expensive place in the world to buy grain.

Colin Quast, Tintinhull NSW.
Source: SBS

"We had zero grain that grew of our own last year, there was just no crop at all," Mr Quast said.

"Come September, they're saying, that there will be no grain available in Australia that hasn't already been allocated."

While he believes the federal government is doing all it can to help, Colin Quast says some voters in his New England electorate are becoming desperate for a change.

"They're just hoping that someone's going to be able to help them, and sort of wave their magic wand, you know. They're probably very disillusioned with everything at the moment."

New England 

The incumbent member Barnaby Joyce, says the Coalition is doing all it can to help farmers suffering the effects of drought.

"I would challenge anybody, if they have a solution to a drought, if they can make it rain, whatever it is, a peculiar dance, a special prayer to whatever god they wish to follow, then go out and do it," Mr Joyce told SBS News. 

"But in the meantime, we will try our very best to help the people on the ground in the ways a government can, but it's always a mitigant, never a solution."

Barnaby Joyce says the federal government is doing everything it can to help drought affected farmers.
Source: AAP

His New England opponent, independent candidate Adam Blakester, claims he's the man to see the region through its toughest trial because he's unaffected by party politics.

"We have no national strategy for farming. We have a complete failure of water governance, these are two massive issues," Mr Blakester said. 

We have no national strategy for farming.

- Adam Blakester, Independent candidate for New England 

"I have the ability to work truly for the electorate. What the people here want, what their priorities are, that is the only interest I have as an Independent."

Independent Candidate for New England Adam Blakester.
Source: SBS

'Battle for the Bush'

Regional seats will be key battlegrounds in the upcoming federal election - set for 18 May. 

After losing significant ground to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party in the New South Wales state election last month, Nationals candidates will be hoping they can regain voter confidence before they reach the ballot box.

Tamworth, part of the New England electorate, is home to Australian country music and the Big Golden Guitar.
Source: SBS

Once a staunch Nationals supporter, Gunnedah nurse Heather Franke says she is now looking for alternatives.

"I've always been a Nationals supporter because that's where we lived and those people were supposed to help us in the rural areas, and possibly in the past that happened, but lately it's not. We seem to have been forgotten again and again," Ms Franke said.

Heather Franke is a nurse in Gunnedah, NSW.
Source: SBS

University of Sydney politics professor Rodney Smith says the "battle for the bush" will be a complex challenge for the Nationals.

"There will be a battle out in western New South Wales, which will be between the Nationals and probably the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers, if they run," he said.

"They've got a different battle on the coast where they're battling in at least one seat against a strong Independent, and in the north-eastern coastal region, just south of the Queensland border, there's a different sort of battle again against both the Labor party and against the Greens."

Cattle at Karren and Peter Weller's farm in Winton, NSW.
Source: SBS

"So, really the difficulty for the National party is that it's fighting battles on several fronts against different opponents."

For farmer Ms Weller, there's only one thing that will help those in her electorate - and it's not an option on the ballot sheet.

"Nobody can get us out of this mess until it rains," Ms Weller said.

Published 11 April 2019 at 3:11pm, updated 11 April 2019 at 3:54pm
By Michelle Rimmer