Labor hopeful in Nats’ heartland

TWO high-profile Labor candidates - Isaac Smith in Lismore and Paul Spooner in Ballina - have emerged as the region faces what may be its hardest-fought state election in decades when voters go to the polls in 10 months.

Both seats have been held by the Nationals with strong margins.

In Lismore, which Labor has not held in 40 years, Thomas George was given a 24% margin at the 2011 election and Ballina MP Don Page is not far short of that on 23.8%.

In any other year that would mean - and has meant - the Lismore and Ballina seats are unassailable.

But this time, it's different.

Mr Page has said he will retire at the next election and his departure will cost the Nationals much of his strong personal vote - leaving the way clear for people like Byron councillor Paul Spooner - who has been endorsed by Labor's Byron Bay branch and is hopeful of winning preselection for the seat - to win Ballina.

Mr Spooner, who joined the ALP last year, said he was approached by Labor party organisers even before Mr Page announced his intention to retire.

"We have had two decades of the National Party and we can do a lot better," Mr Spooner said. "Our electorate is changing demographically and I'd like to see us getting back to grassroots representation."

On the other side of the electoral boundary, in Lismore, Mr George currently appears to be prepared to contest the seat again, but the furore over coal seam gas and intense criticism from some sectors of the community may have weakened his position.

Without polling - and if anyone's done any they're keeping it to themselves - it's impossible to say with certainty.

Even assuming the CSG controversy has hurt Mr George's electoral standing, 24% remains a big margin and while Mr Smith enjoys a strong profile in Lismore, he's a virtual unknown in the seat's outer reaches of Murwillumbah and Tenterfield.

"It's going to be difficult," Mr Smith conceded. "... but I'm confident I can get out and talk to them."

Mr George was contacted for comment but was unable to respond.

Topics:  isaac smith paul spooner state government

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