Strathfield will be Mike Baird's biggest test

Antony Green is possibly the state’s best-known psephologist. He has analysed more than 50 territory, state and federal elections for the ABC.

So it came as a surprise when, six months out from the next NSW State election, his famous pendulum put the seat of Strathfield into the “swing to Labor” category. Especially since the only official candidate standing so far is the incumbent, Liberal Charles Casuscelli.

According to Mr Green, Strathfield’s exploding population and the resulting boundary changes mean a swing away from the Liberals of around six per cent.

Neighbouring Drummoyne, another Liberal win in 2011, has also had population changes. But MP John Sidoti’s majority on two-party preferred was twice the vote of his Labor opponent last time out, and he at least appears to have little to worry about.

Strathfield, however, with its chequered political history, ought to be an important case study for Mike Baird’s Government.

According to the polls, the coalition maintains a comfortable lead over the Labor opposition despite losing 11 Liberal MPs during the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) investigation.

A Newspoll published in The Australian last month said the coalition leads Labor 54 per cent to 46 per cent on a two-party-preferred basis.

But the poll also said Labor’s primary vote is up two points to 33 per cent, its highest level since the election in 2011, while the coalition’s primary vote is now 40 per cent, down three percentage points from the last poll.

Last time out, Mr Casuscelli faced Virginia Judge – four times Mayor of Strathfield and a minister in a government admittedly unpopular and heading for the exit door.

An engaging personality, a transport expert and a hard worker, Mr Casuscelli surfed in on the huge swing to the Coalition.

Fast forward to 2015: enormous increases in population along the Parramatta corridor have changed the complexion of the seat. And even though he hasn’t had an official opponent, Mr Casuscelli still spent the last three months doorknocking homes with a team of young Liberals. Even his wife Maria has taken to the streets in a blue T-shirt.

No-one can say Mr Casuscelli is complacent. Nor can he afford to be.

Many of the State Government’s policies impact directly – and on the surface at least, adversely – on his seat.

The massive $11 billion road building project of WestConnex may well be a boon, but the benefits will be a long time in coming and initially, important components like enforced property purchases were badly bungled.

Population increase is still a work in progress, with many fearful that traffic and amenities such as hospitals, schools and green spaces will be seriously affected.

And council amalgamations is an unknown quantity. While Mr Baird has been careful to set a June deadline for councils to submit plans, municipalities like Strathfield are determined to keep the issue in people’s minds and intend to put another $100,000 behind the Save Our Strathfield campaign to ensure it stays there.

Quite why Labor hasn’t yet got an official candidate in the field is a bit of a mystery. But with a public pre-selection on the cards in days, all that will change.

Former Strathfield Mayor Daniel Bott wants the job. But Burwood Mayor John Faker was supposed to be the shoo-in.

His local profile and long history in the area make him a formidable opponent. But now, it is suggested, Labor leader John Robertson’s eye has moved elsewhere.

Jodi McKay is a former minister and MP for Newcastle. She gave evidence at ICAC over attempts by former billionaire Nathan Tinkler to bankroll her campaign in return for support for a coal loader, and a smear campaign against her when she refused.

She has lived in Ashfield for three years. But she says she still has not made up her mind, though she did reveal to the Scene that she has talked to Labor Party officials about standing.

A challenge between Ms McKay, former Strathfield Mayor Daniel Bott and Burwood Mayor John Faker would be a diverting contest. A final decision is expected in early November.

Mr Casuscelli’s early work has given him some insights into what voters are thinking.

The “number one issue by far” is traffic congestion, he says, maintaining that WestConnex is a “big tick”.

“I would say 98 out of a hundred people have expressed either very strong support or strong support for WestConnex. They see major investment by a government to try and do something about traffic congestion.”

Amalgamation? Mr Casuscelli plays it safe.

“What am I hearing from the community? To be honest in the last four weeks, I’ve had just one person that I’ve door-knocked raise it as an issue.”

So where does he stand?

“I don’t know what the council’s plan is. I know they are against amalgamation. I applaud the current mayor Gulian Vaccari. I think one of the first things he stated when he became mayor was that he and his liberal councillors will be fighting hard against amalgamation.

“I assume that’s fighting hard against amalgamation as a principle – and forced amalgamation is the implication.

“At the moment we have some talk about a policy that has voluntary amalgamation through incentivisation. I’m waiting to hear from the councils the response to what the government has put out.”

And his prospects six months out from a poll?

“My feeling is that thanks to God’s providence, things are becoming easier for me. I can’t understand why a political party that is genuinely concerned about the community has left it this late to select a candidate to represent them. This smacks of the same old previous government’s approach to representation.

“They are doing me a lot of favours but I don’t think they are doing the community a lot of favours.”

And his achievement in his first term? 

“We’ve been able to get the WestConnex up and running in our first term, which is amazing given its history. I’ve got commitments to upgrades at two stations – Croydon and Flemington. And a major refurbishment of Strathfield – it will open very soon, and it is looking fantastic.

“We’ve announced so many new bus and rail services. Just in that space alone, I must say I am very, very proud of our achievements.

“We’ve done in the first term what the previous Labor Government wasn’t able to do in 16 years.”

Mr Casuscelli’s regrets? “Perhaps becoming a politician – but I don’t think there is anything I would do again differently.

“People suggest if I were to piss off fewer ministers… But I don’t actually regret that, to
be quite honest. I just don’t.”

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