Coalition partners battle to control Nicholls


Samuel Edwards

Sam Birrell, left, with retiring member Damian Drum

Nationals candidate Sam Birrell is fighting to retain his party’s control of an electorate in Victoria’s far north, locked in a contest with his Coalition partner.

Liberal Steve Brooks is contesting the seat of Nicholls in this year’s federal election, following the retirement of incumbent member Damian Drum.

Drum has represented the electorate of Nicholls since 2016. He comfortably won the 2019 contest with a 20 per cent margin.

“Damian in the Nationals has shown how it can be done – with integrity, honesty and effective delivery,” Birrell said.

However, he conceded that it didn’t mean his campaign would be easy.

“It’s never quite as safe as the margin might make out,” he said.

Each time a member for Nicholls – formerly Murray – has retired, there has been a switch in which Coalition party holds the seat. Dr Sharman Stone won the seat for the Liberals in 1996, after the National Party’s Bruce Lloyd retired. Similarly, National Damian Drum won the seat after Dr Stone’s retirement in 2016.

This election, Drum’s retirement has allowed both Coalition partners to nominate a candidate. Brooks was pre-selected by the Liberal Party earlier this year.

Strong local connection

According to Birrell, there remains a clear distinction between him and his rival candidate

“Steve is from here, but he hasn’t been living here for a very long time,” Birrell said.

He said that, unlike Brooks, he had “very strong community connections, particularly in the Greater Shepparton area”.

Birrell said the Nationals would continue to be “totally focused on regions” and doesn’t think the same can be said about the Liberal Party.

But the election is not shaping up to be the two-way race that many assumed it would be.

Early polling reported by The Sydney Morning Herald showed Brooks as the most popular candidate, holding 20.2 per cent of first preferences, while Birrell held 17 per cent.

Independent Rob Priestly, at 16.3 per cent, wasn’t far behind.

An independent’s push

Priestly was deputy mayor of Greater Shepparton before he decided to run for parliament and is a prominent local businessman, the owner of Gouge Linen and Garment Services based in nearby Mooroopna.

Kate Radevski, partnerships and programs manager at St Paul’s Lutheran Church in Shepparton, said that many people were familiar with Priestly. The Independent candidate held his campaign launch at the church, commonly known as St Paul’s African House.

Radevski said that Priestly was running a multicultural campaign and had strong links within Shepparton as an employer.

However, Birrell was sceptical about Priestly’s reasons for contesting the seat. He said that independents only ran if the incumbent member had done a bad job, or if the successor within their party appeared to be incapable, and he didn’t believe either scenario was true.

“I’m not sure what [Priestly] thinks he will achieve that Damian hasn’t and I won’t,” he said.

When it came to policy, the Shepparton-born Nationals candidate was clear in his passion for representing regional voices.

After working in agricultural science, Birrell served as CEO of the Committee for Greater Shepparton from 2016 until 2021.

He said this role had been a career highlight, allowing him to collaborate with the local community, and work on projects that would “move this region forward”.

This focus on regional representation is reflected in Birrell’s policies. If elected, he’s eager to reverse the impact that the Murray Darling Basin Plan has had on farming communities.

“[The plan] has been pretty devastating for this region, and this region has given up a lot of water for the environment,” he said.

He said he would seek to ensure that as much water as possible was reserved for local agricultural purposes.

Re-staffing the regions

Birrell is a supporter of the Goulburn Valley Designated Area Migration Agreement (DAMA), which was designed to bring migrant workers to regional areas.

Astrid O’Farrell, economic development manager at Campaspe Shire Council, is one of the councillors affiliated with the Goulburn Valley DAMA. She said that sectors that had been “under pressure” – such as retail, healthcare and agriculture – were especially excited about the framework.

O’Farrell also praised incumbent National Damian Drum’s involvement, saying he was “instrumental in bringing the DAMA to the area”.

While she had not discussed the scheme directly with Birrell, she remained hopeful that his party would continue to support the initiative.

Birrell believed a DAMA would have a positive impact on the community.

“I think it’s a real opportunity. We have a booming economy, the only thing stopping it is [a lack of] people,” he said.

Birrell said the wider community was supportive, but it was up to locals to ensure that new migrants felt safe and comfortable.

“If the answer is not an overwhelming yes, then we have work to do, and we need to do this work really quickly,” he said.

“Not everything’s perfect… but it’s a really amazing community, and I feel it doesn’t break down on the lines of race, religion or background.”