Electorate: Central Wheatbelt
Margin: Nationals 18.8% versus Liberal
Outgoing member: Brendon Grylls (Nationals)
Click here for electoral boundaries map
Electorate analysis: The Nationals heartland seat of Central Wheatbelt will be vacated at the coming election upon party leader Brendon Grylls’ audacious bid to contest Labor-held Pilbara, and contested for party by Agricultural MLC Mia Davies. Created with the one-vote one-value redistribution at the 2008 election, the electorate combined the abolished Nationals seats of Merredin and Avon, taking 79% of the voters previously in the former and 73% in the latter. It extends from the Avon Valley towns of Northam and York, 90 kilometres east of Perth in the electorate’s west, along the Great Eastern Highway to Merredin and out through rural territory and Wheatbelt towns to the north and south. The redistribution has added over 2000 voters in three shires at the southern end, from Brookton through Corrigin to Hyden, while detaching a handful of voters in the Shire of Westonia to Eyre in the east.
Merredin had safely been held for the Nationals from 1977 to 2001 by Hendy Cowan, who led the party from 1985 until the 2001 election defeat, and Brendon Grylls, who succeed Cowan at a by-election held in November 2001. Cowan had gained the predecessor seat of Merredin-Yilgarn for the Country Party in 1974, which hitherto had usually been held by Labor. Avon was created in 1911 and almost invariably held by the Nationals and precursor parties until it merged with Northam in 1974, the abolition of which bespoke the town’s declining population of railways and manufacturing workers who had provided Labor’s traditional base of support. Northam MP Ken McIver nonetheless retained Avon for Labor until he was unseated in 1986 by Max Trenorden, who enjoyed secure margins thereafter with help from redistributions and ongoing demographic change. Trenorden went on to succeed Cowan as Nationals leader in 2001, holding the position until he was deposed by Grylls in June 2005.
The abolition of Merredin and Avon set Grylls and Trenorden in competition for preselection to the new seat, notwithstanding the strength of Grylls’ claim as party leader. The party took Trenorden’s threat to run as an independent seriously enough that it was suggested Grylls might either contest a Liberal-held seat or seek a berth in the upper house. The situation was ultimately resolved when Trenorden agreed to take the top position on the upper house ticket for Agricultural region, which was vacated when Murray Criddle announced his retirement. Trenorden will contest the coming election as an independent after failing to retain preselection.
In February 2012 Grylls announced his plan to contest the distant electorate of Pilbara, to be vacated at the election by retiring Labor member Tom Stephens, as part of an aggressive strategy to build upon the party’s gains from 2008. This was criticised by Colin Barnett as “risky”, not unreasonably given the post-redistribution Labor margin of 7.2%. Central Wheatbelt will now be contested for the Nationals by Mia Davies, who was a surprise winner from number three on the Nationals ticket in Agricultural region at the 2008 election. The Liberals have endorsed Bruce Rock shire president Stephen Strange, who also ran in 2008.
The government’s reluctance to keep open the unprofitable “tier 3” rail freight lines is a source of considerable local anger, as it promises to increase road train traffic on the Wheatbelt’s threadbare road network. Whereas Labor has promised $30 million over three years to keep the service open, the Liberals have so far offered only committed to a year’s extension upon the expiry of the operator’s lease, which will take it through to October. Beyond that the government would “decide, in consultation with industry and farmers, which Tier 3 lines are viable and could remain open”. The Nationals’ compliance with this position was described as “inexcusable” by Hendy Cowan, leader of the party from 1985 to 2001, who said he intended to vote for his brother Bill, the number three candidate on the independent Max Trenorden/Philip Gardiner upper house ticket for Agricultural region.