The Nationals are preparing to roll the dice in a fight to regain the seat of Shepparton, but more than a year out from the 2018 state election it’s unclear who their competition will be.
A bold plan to allow community pre-selection for its candidate in the seat of Shepparton will see the party hand control from the party stalwarts to the general community.
The plan was approved at the party’s state conference as part of a campaign to win back the formerly safe Nationals seat which was lost to independent Suzanna Sheed at the 2014 state election.
However, Ms Sheed said she was yet to make a decision on whether she would contest the seat at the next election, with plans to make a decision in the new year.
The Nationals’ plan is seen as a way to recalibrate the party after a number of strategic errors in previous elections, including the loss of the party’s heartland seat of Murray in 1996, starting a run of seven consecutive Liberal wins in the seat.
The return of Nationals candidate Damian Drum saw the party regain control of the seat in the 2016 federal election after more than 20 years out in the cold.
Victorian Nationals leader Peter Walsh said community pre-selection was a unique concept.
‘‘The vote was overwhelmingly in favour and brings us another step closer to delivering a unique opportunity for the Shepparton community to help decide their next representative,’’ he said.
‘‘There are many people in the Shepparton community with strong grassroots connections and a deep understanding of local issues who would make a great candidate in the seat of Shepparton in 2018.’’
This new strategy is a chance to ‘‘try something new’’ according to The Nationals’ state president Neil Pankhurst, with the loss of the seat of Shepparton, a seat that had been in The Nationals’ control for decades, seeing a swing of 28.5 per cent against the party and helping the untested Ms Sheed win the seat.
Whether she contested next year’s state election or not, Ms Sheed said she expected a ‘‘vigorous’’ campaign for the seat in 2018.
‘‘There is no doubt that Shepparton will be a seat that will be strongly contested and that’s a good thing and is part of the reason I stood as an independent, because we have been taken for granted for a number of years,’’ she said.
Mr Pankhurst acknowledged there would be a challenge to take back the seat, but said the party was looking forward to trying something a bit different.
‘We certainly always try to select candidates to represent the party from the local base but it offers a chance for the community to be more involved and better engaged in the election and selection process,’’ he said.
‘‘There’s certainly been some interest shown from outside the party.’’
The Nationals will now formulate a procedure for Shepparton pre-selection before announcing the process and timeframe to the public.
To be eligible to stand in the community pre-selection, candidates must be a financial member of The Nationals for at least 30 days.
Candidate selection is expected to take place in the first quarter of 2018 in preparation for the state election.