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New South Wales: Labor candidate for seat of Lindsay hopes to win back the seat by sticking with the issues that he believes are important; says no deals have been done with minor parties

PETER THOMPSON: This weekend the Howard Government faces its first electoral test since coming into power, through the by-election in the Sydney seat of Lindsay. The Liberal's Jackie Kelly won the safe Labor seat by 1,000 votes back in March but then lost it again after the High Court ruled she was ineligible to stand. Now, Labor's Ross Free, the former Keating Government Education Minister, has a chance to take back the seat that was his for 13 years.

In the next day or so we'll talk to Jackie Kelly, the Liberal Member - in fact, I guess she's no longer a Member, but the election's on again, but we'll talk to Jackie Kelly.

But first, Ian Walker caught up with Ross Free yesterday.

IAN WALKER: The electorate of Lindsay, named after artist Norman Lindsay, famous for his naughty nudes, covers a 350 square kilometre stretch of Sydney's outer western suburbs into the lower Blue Mountains. It centres on Penrith, which locals are keen to remind you, was once a country town Miles Franklin wrote about.

These days though the most obvious cultural reference point is Panthers, a clubland Mecca where the poker machines and bain-marie seemingly go on forever. The green fields have been neatly subdivided into new housing estates. It's young families and first home buyers; white bread and blue collars - traditional Labor heartland.

But something went horribly wrong for the ALP at the last election. Less than half the 80,000 voters of Lindsay backed Labor, electing instead a Liberal, Jackie Kelly. It's an experience Ross Free says his party hasn't forgotten.

ROSS FREE: Lessons were taught us on 2 March and those lessons have been learnt. They are: that you need to translate the benefits of what you do so that they are understood; they are understood by everybody; everybody has a stake in what the Government does. We needed to listen more, I think. After 13 years in Government I think sometimes you tend to listen more to bureaucrats than you do to people at the grassroots local level.

Well, over the last seven months I've had the luxury of being in the one place for an extended period, to be able to get around and listen to what people are saying, to renew old friendships and to build new ones and, I think, if given the chance I'll be a better representative because of it.

IAN WALKER: Apart from the stench of being a Keating Government Minister, Ross Free copped electoral flak in March, courtesy of State Labor reneging on promises on tollway charges and school bus passes. But now all that's been reversed he feels he can concentrate the electorate's attention on what he sees as the real enemy - the new Howard Government.

ROSS FREE: The Government's changed; Paul Keating is no longer Prime Minister or indeed in the Parliament, and all of those State factors have also changed. The schools' bus pass problems - they've been ironed out and, of course, on the long weekend at the Labor Party conference, Premier Carr announced the rebate system which effectively means that motorists will be getting refunds for the tolls they pay on the M4 - so that's another important factor that's no longer present.

And in addition, of course, this time people know more about the Howard Government. They've been able to witness locally the effect of cuts that have been imposed by the Howard Government in its first seven months. The abolition of the Commonwealth Dental Scheme; the imposition of a $26,000 average, up-front fee for nursing homes; higher prescription charges, cuts to childcare so that parents with children in care are going to have to pay more, and waiting lists are going to grow longer; cuts to higher education - our local university, the University of Western Sydney, will lose 1,100 student places. Now, all of these cuts are just not fair. In local terms, people see the Howard Government as picking on the people of the outer west.

IAN WALKER: The two most recent polls show Labor is still behind and there are several wildcards in the Lindsay by-election deck. Last night saw the launch of a Shooters' Party candidate; last week it was the turn of Australians Against Further Immigration. Both have promised their preferences to Labor, but Ross Free believes it will be his shoe leather and not the preferences of the radical right-wingers that will get him over the line.

ROSS FREE: Well, all the world's a stage in a by-election. There are 11 candidates and there are minor parties and individual Independents, all with issues to push and points of view that they want to ventilate in a by-election campaign. I am sticking with the issues that I believe are important, that local people tell me are important to them. Now, what the minor parties and the Independents do with their preferences is, of course, up to them.

IAN WALKER: No deals have been done?

ROSS FREE: No deals have been done. The Australians Against Further Immigration have given the Labor Party 11 out of 12 candidates; I think the Shooters' Party has done the same - I mean, that's some deal. If preferences flow through to us from those parties then that's a result of decisions they have made.

IAN WALKER: The Australians Against Further Immigration got more than 2 per cent of the poll last time around. Is that a big issue, the issues that they are pushing?

ROSS FREE: Well, they haven't loomed large in discussions that I've had with people when I have been getting feedback through the screen door and at the front doorstep. I guess, among 80,000 people there are always issues that are important to individuals. We'll just have to see how those minor parties go.

PETER THOMPSON: Ross Free, the Labor candidate for Lindsay, speaking there with Ian Walker.