The Riverina has become a key battleground for the hearts and minds of voters, with all sides seeking to capitalise on their rivals’ mistakes.
NSW Labor leader Luke Foley was in Gundagai on Friday to take a swing at the government for its refusal to allow merged councils to split.
“Last weekend voters in (the) Cootamundra (council area) – and across NSW – overwhelmingly rejected the Liberal and Nationals’ policy of forced council mergers,” Mr Foley said.
“I want, and the community wants, the state government to conduct a plebiscite with voters participating in the upcoming by-election on whether they want their council to remain merged.
“Labor will allow local plebiscites on de-merging these councils.”
Anti-merger campaigner Abb McAlister was the front-runner in the Cootamundra-Gundagai council election by a huge margin, indicating strong support for de-merging.
Deputy Premier John Barilaro said he understood the level of anger, but reversing course was not the answer.
“Our job now is to show people that there are indeed benefits (to the mergers),” Mr Barilaro said.
“Labor has forgotten their time in government, because in 2004 they merged local councils by sending a fax overnight, without warning and without support.”
The 2004 mergers led then-Sydney lord mayor Lucy Turnbull (whose husband Malcolm would go on to become Prime Minister) to resign in protest.
In an interesting twist, Labor’s candidate for the state race will be recently-elected Cootamundra councillor Charlie Sheahan.
He joins newly-elected Hilltops councillor Matthew Stadtmiller, who is the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers candidate for Cootamundra, with both men facing the possibility of representing their communities at two levels of government.
Under electoral rules, if either of them are elected as the Member for Cootamundra, they will have two years to resign from their council posts, a point the Deputy Premier was quick to pick up on.
“Both the Shooters and Labor candidates are elected councillors which means if you vote for them you’ll be voting for another by-election,” Mr Barilaro said.
“The only thing the Shooters can deliver for the people of the Cootamundra electorate is a Labor/Greens Government.”