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Senior National says "gloss is going off" Phil Donato, but is it just wishful thinking?

September 11, 2022

By Peter Holmes

Tony Mileto, a councillor for Orange, has been nominated by the Orange branch of the National Party to run against Phil Donato in the March 2023 state election.

Nominations closed yesterday (Saturday September 10, 2022) although the party is able to extend the deadline under certain circumstances.

The Orange News Examiner has sighted an email sent on Friday to members of the Orange branch of the National Party inviting them to a family BBQ later this month at which “our Nominee as Candidate for State Election, Tony Mileto will speak”.

The event, in the Orange Botanic Gardens, costs $20 and is BYO “drinks and glasses”.

The theme is “Bring a friend” and the other speakers are Sam Farraway MLC and Scott Barrett MLC. Barrett, who lives in Orange and is the duty MLC for Barwon, stood against Donato in the 2016 Orange by-election, losing by a handful of votes.

"Ladies" have been asked to consider bringing a salad or a dessert to the BBQ.

Ultimately, the candidate for the Nationals will be decided at a vote in Molong on October 15.

Four groups will elect the winner - the National Party's Orange, Parkes and Forbes branches, and the overarching Orange Electoral Council. Each had the opportunity to nominate candidates. The full list of nominees has not been announced.

The appearance of both Farraway and Mileto at the family BBQ might signal to some that Farraway - who sits in the NSW upper house - has chosen not to throw his hat into the ring.

“No, that doesn't mean that at all,” Orange branch treasurer and former NSW MLC Rick Colless told The Orange News Examiner.

“All that means is that the Orange branch has arranged to have a family BBQ and Sam is officially the duty MLC that looks after Orange.”

Comment was sought from Farraway, who was taking care of royal business at NSW Parliament House on Sunday.

Whoever is chosen to take on Donato faces a monumental task.

At the last state election in 2019 the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers MP won 49.1 percent of the primary vote (24,718 votes). The National Party’s Kate Hazelton won 25.8 percent of the primary vote (12,987).

After preferences were distributed, Donato had secured 65.2 percent of the overall vote, with Hazelton on 34.8 percent.

Colless said the greyhound ban and council mergers under previous premier Mike Baird were the “things that lost us the seat” to Donato at the 2016 by-election.

“They've been well and truly undone, and the policy positions of the Nats are very different to what they were in 2016," he said. "That in itself, as far as policy, has been resolved.

“What hasn’t been resolved and still remains an issue for us is the public perception of all that … and it’s reflected in the popularity of Phil.”

As a long-time political operative and observer, and a member of the NSW National Party's Central Executive, Colless said he had watched National seats at both state and federal level in NSW fall to independents such as Tony Windsor and Robert Oakeshott, only to later return to the fold.

“They played the same game, they were populists, they didn't really achieve all that much in terms of significant policy changes, or getting significant funding benefits for the community,” he said.

“After two or three terms, of course, the gloss starts to go off them as people start to realise they are actually not delivering anything.

“I think we’re starting to see that in its early stages with Phil. From what I'm hearing around the community that gloss is going off Phil a little bit, and that's where we need to jump in and make sure we take full advantage, and hopefully win the seat back.”

Colless’s remarks about Donato’s shine fading could be filed under “Of course they would say that”. Colless believes, however, that the Nationals will sink significant resources into backing whoever is pre-selected.

He doesn’t believe there will be a cash splash of promises, but that the party will focus on what he said are the achievements of the Nationals in NSW over its 11 years of sharing power with the Liberals.

He praised former Nationals leader John Barilaro for work done on the Stronger Country Community Fund and Regional Growth Fund.

“I think by having these programs country communities start to realise what the Nationals in the Coalition government can do for country communities.

“Rather than have one-off big items for a seat we don't hold, the rollout of those funds have shown that the Nats can deliver for regional NSW.”

Asked about rumours that the Nationals’ approach to a high-profile female candidate to run against Donato was rebuffed, Colless said: “We've approached a number of people, probably 10 or a dozen, and among [those] were three or four high-profile female prospects. Some of those discussions are ongoing, but I can't tell you anymore, sorry.”

Donato, meanwhile, keeps plugging away, racking up tens of thousands of kilometres as he roves the electorate meeting locals, hearing their concerns, advocating on their behalf.

He has a huge electoral buffer. For him to lose next March, about 6,000 voters out of some 50,000 would need to flip on first preferences from the Shooters, Fishers & Farmers to the Nationals. The Nationals know those SFF voters haven’t always voted that way and may be enticed back into the fold.

However one senior National in NSW told The Orange News Examiner recently that the seat was Donato’s "for as long as he wanted it", such was his popularity.

Donato told The Orange News Examiner in May that he wasn’t concerned about who the Nationals put forward.

"To be perfectly frank I don’t really care who it is - it's going to have to be somebody. It's a matter for them. Doesn’t bother me one way or the other.

"You just do your job to the best of your ability and trust what you’ve done as the local member holds you in good stead."

Colless said he was not aware of any polling done in Orange, but that it would begin in coming months.

If the polling looked good, the Nationals would tip more money into promoting the candidate.

And if the numbers looked bad, that money would be diverted elsewhere by the party.

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