The National Party received a harsh lesson in grassroots democracy on Tuesday night during its inaugural Public Candidate Forum, a preliminary event to Saturday’s community vote that will decided who the party fields in November’s Victorian election.
Two members of the audience used the question-and-answer session to mount a sustained personal attack on one of the three candidates in what seemed to be a deliberate attempt to derail the candidate’s preselection campaign.
The candidate’s wife appeared visibly shaken following the forum and members of the audience of 60 voiced their displeasure at the prolonged disruption.
Forum host, Federal Member for Murray Damien Drum, said the attack highlighted the risks the National Party had taken in opting for a community based preselection model.
But Mr Drum was also keen to highlight the positives of running such a US-style ballot.
‘‘I was mildly surprised by the depth of the questions, the engagement from the people. I think the candidates handled themselves very well. You had three very contrasting characters,’’ Mr Drum said of the evening, held at the Westside Performing Arts Centre in Mooroopna.
‘‘This is a test run (in Victoria). We’ve used this well in NSW.’’
Mr Drum was blunt about the party’s chances at the November state election, suggesting why the Nationals had opted for the novel style of preselection.
‘‘The reality is that Suzanna Sheed will be difficult to beat. I don’t think a first-term independent has ever been unseated ... So we’ve gone down a different path (with preselection and) these three candidates all bring a different dynamic to the table.’’
For more than an hour the prospective candidates — Peter Schwarz, Peter Shields and Daniel Watson — spoke, each fielding questions from the audience and host.
Members of the audience sought to reveal the candidates’ positions on a range of issues with law and order and the economic prospects of the Shepparton region proving popular issues.
The Andrews Government’s fire services bill and its impact on the CFA also featured heavily.
One questioner struck a cord with those attending when he confessed to sleeping with a baseball bat under his bed for fear of home invasion.
Questions relating to issues of equality and domestic violence drew applause from many of the women in the room.
The three candidates were united in their positions on the majority of issues canvassed, but differed in approach.
Mr Schwarz cited his involvement in and knowledge of politics derived from his role as federal treasurer for the National Party, coupled with his local roots and experience as a farmer.
Mr Shields drew on his experience as a glazier and his connections with the community.
Mr Watson pointed to his various roles in the public service that gave him a knowledge and understanding of policy, and how to present it to government.
National’s state director Matthew Harris said he was looking forward to Saturday’s vote and was not concerned should there be any attempts to unduly influence the election through underhanded tactics.
‘‘Anyone can vote in the election on Saturday; if people want to try and influence it then so be it. We hope there will be enough people voting so that won’t be a problem,’’ he said.
Polling booths open this Saturday across the region with details available at sheppartonvotes.com