A decade of leadership turmoil and policy instability has damaged the reputation of major parties among rural voters, and they're turning to independents as a potential solution.
Independent members of Parliament could better represent regional Australia, according to about half of the 1155 respondents to a survey undertaken by Australian Community Media's agricultural mastheads.
With election polls on a knife edge, the results, published in print in the ACM agricultural papers today, will be of particular concern to Liberal and National MPs battling independent candidates in several former safe regional seats across the country.
77 seats are required to form a majority government and the major parties are evenly poised. The Coalition has 73 seats, Labor has 72 and there are six MPs on the crossbench.
A whopping 64pc of survey respondents said political instability had undermined their confidence in any government being able to deliver constructive reform.
Alarmingly for the Nationals, one quarter of respondents who identified as their voters were either going to change their vote (14pc), or were yet to make up their mind (10pc).
Nearly one in five (19pc) of respondents said an independent MP would be a better regional representative, while one in three (29pc) said an independent might be a better choice (Figure1).
Eight per cent of respondents were undecided on the question of independents compared to major party MPs, and 44pc thought independents were not better representatives.
In Victoria, the safe Nationals seat of Mallee could potentially fall to an independent, while Indi might remain on the Nat's wishlist if they can't claw it back from Cathy McGowan's replacement, Helen Haines.
Meanwhile, in NSW the Nats could be a victim of former MP Rob Oakeshott's return to politics in the North Coast seat of Cowper, while the Liberal MP Sussan Ley could lose the formerly safe seat of Farrer to Albury Mayor Kevin Mack.
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When asked to expand on their reasons for favouring independents to represent regional electorates, a majority of respondents said it was because they didn't have to toe the party line, and their allegiances weren't split between their constituents and the priorities of a major party.
One female respondent, aged 45-54, said independents were "able to focus on the region and issues that directly affect the electorate they represent, rather than having to focus on party politics and taking the party line".
A woman, aged over 65, said she had "heard that you have to toe the party line if you are in one of the major parties". Another's concern centred on the Nationals' perceived attitude to safe seats.
One man, aged 55-64, said "if the Liberals/Nats aren't challenged, they just sit there doing little".
"The big parties only look after unsafe seats," said another man, 35-44, "and if you are a safe seat you get no focus or help in your area."
More than half the respondents (52 per cent) said they believed in climate change, while 47pc did not. Of those skeptical, nearly one in three (28pc) said they did not believe and one in five (19pc) were undecided.
A whopping 88pc of respondents impacted by the water market said reforms had a negative impact, while 12pc said they had been positive (Figure 2).
The Murray Darling Basin Plan, and the price of irrigation water during prolonged drought are particularly contentious issues for this election.
The Coalition wants to limit further change to environmental recovery, Labor says more recovery may be required and several independents are pressuring both parties with calls to rewrite the reform agenda.
When asked their opinion on the management and supervision of foreign owned farmland, more than two out of three respondents (66pc) said they were completely or somewhat dissatisfied.
26pc were either somewhat or very satisfied with the management, while 18pc were neutral.
Farmers were asked if there should be more scrutiny on agricultural sales to foreign entities.
More than half (55pc) said there should be more scrutiny, with the threshold increased, and one in three (28pc) said it should be decreased.
When asked for any further comments on the election, respondents listed a wide range of issues, but a negative theme was present among many.
A man 55-64 said he was "underwhelmed by the choices on offer" and another said he "will be glad when it is all over".
Another aged 45-54 wanted a "coalition of good independents to become a third viable option".
Infrastructure and healthcare topped the list of important issues for farmers in all states.
Asked to rank seven issues in order of least to most important, ranging from one to five, respondents gave infrastructure an average score of 4, slightly above healthcare which scored 3.87, water at 3.83 and education at 3.58 (Figure 4).
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