Phil Donato celebrates four years as member for Orange

MORE TO DO: State MP Phil Donato, who represents the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers, in Robertson Park. Photo: SUPPLIED.
MORE TO DO: State MP Phil Donato, who represents the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers, in Robertson Park. Photo: SUPPLIED.

Four years ago to the day - amid the chaos of the times - the stars aligned for Philip Donato, the university dropout from Sydney who became a cop and then a police prosecutor.

With the state government imploding over premier Mike Baird's move to ban greyhound racing following revelations of animal cruelty, and a plan brewing to force councils to amalgamate, a window of opportunity appeared.

Not so much a window, perhaps, as a peep in the cracks.

Orange state MP Andrew Gee, a National, had quit in May 2016 to chase the federal seat of Calare, and a by-election for his seat was due.

Mr Donato took leave from his job as a police prosecutor and - with the backing of right wing radio jocks Ray Hadley and Alan Jones - stood as the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers candidate.

To say he scraped across the line is an understatement.

At the 2015 state election Mr Gee had attracted 65 percent of the vote (31,998), but the 2016 by-election saw Nationals candidate Scott Barrett's vote crash to 31 percent (15,276).

At the same by-election Mr Donato was the first choice for just 23 percent of voters (11,487), however with preferences from other parties, and after recounts, he was declared the winner. It was a remarkable victory conjured from thin air.

At the 2019 state election, with the dishlicker ban in the rear view mirror, Mr Donato (24,718 votes) smashed the Nationals's Kate Hazelton (12,987 votes), winning the seat by a margin the Nationals used to consider its birthright.

Talking from parliament house, Mr Donato recalled that despite the groundswell of support, and the air lift supplied by premier Baird's policies, he didn't back himself to win in 2016.

"It was such a safe seat for so long," he said, "[but] that breeds complacency and arrogance ... it's easy to become lazy and disinterested.

"[My win] caused massive upheaval - the downfall of a deputy premier, Troy Grant, and it probably led to Mike Baird's resignation."

As a member of a minor party that doesn't hold the balance of power, Mr Donato has no control over the state's purse strings, or the ability to horse trade for a greater slice of the pie.

Part of his job is to assist, and advocate on behalf of, local community groups and individuals as they seek to navigate the world of grants, petitions, unfair treatment and major projects, and then convince the Berejiklian government of the worthiness of the projects he supports.

"Their aim is to see me out of a job," he said with a laugh.

In his maiden speech he said health, education, jobs, roads and the interests of SFF's members would be his focus, and today he points to successes including the Charles Sturt medical school, the palliative ward to be built at Orange Health Service and road works around the district, from major upgrades to a school crossing in Canowindra.

"[The crossing] had been on the agenda for decades, you'd think something so simple could be achieved with the stroke of a pen, but it wasn't," he said.

"We had a campaign, engaged with P&Cs and residents, I made speeches in parliament - that's just one small example."

Mr Donato said the people of Orange were "very lucky" in terms of health care.

"We have a terrific hospital and health service facility and some wonderful doctors and specialists; in my inaugural speech I raised the need for a medical school and it's great to see that happen."

But he lamented the lack of sufficient medical services in some of the smaller towns around the district.

Of late, he's been irked by National MLC Sam Farraway, who Mr Donato believed was claiming undeserved credit for projects.

"The courthouse is a prime example," Mr Donato said, referring to a recent upgrade.

LIGHT RELIEF: MP Phil Donato, Orange City Council's Ian Greenham, MLC Sam Farraway, councillor Jeff Whitton and mayor Reg Kidd admire new lights on Summer Street. Mr Donato accused Mr Farraway of taking credit for his work. Photo: CARLA FREEDMAN.

LIGHT RELIEF: MP Phil Donato, Orange City Council's Ian Greenham, MLC Sam Farraway, councillor Jeff Whitton and mayor Reg Kidd admire new lights on Summer Street. Mr Donato accused Mr Farraway of taking credit for his work. Photo: CARLA FREEDMAN.

"Let's not forget he was not elected by the local community, he was put there to replace a vacant seat; I'm not going to stand idly by and [let others] take credit for things when really, they've probably had nothing to do with the project."

In a 35-minute interview, the only times Mr Donato sounded irritated were when discussing Mr Farraway, and when asked why hunters posed for photos with dead animals.

At the invitation of Shooters, Farmers and Fishers leader Robert Borsak, Mr Donato had recently posted on his Facebook page an old photo of himself holding the antlers of a dead deer.

Given this, and the fact he represented hunters, it seemed a fair question, but the MP was having none of it: "I don't see what this has got to do with my four years, let's just focus on the issues here."

Mr Donato grew up in working class Chester Hill in Sydney's west. His family ran market gardens and, after his birth, a fruit shop.

The shop was closed on Sundays, and on some Saturday nights he'd go with family through the Blue Mountains to places such as Lithgow and Bathurst for a day of shooting rabbits or whatever else might be useful in a cooking pot.

"Both my families were avid hunters - for sustenance, that's what you did it for.

"You shot some rabbits or goats, pigs or deer or quail.

"I had a lot of one-on-one time with my dad, and my uncles and grandfathers and my dad's mates. You got to really bond."