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“I am telling people to consider voting for me and then other progressive candidates in Balmain.”

So says Máire Sheehan, the former Leichhardt mayor whose late entry into the election race has thrown a large degree of unpredictability into the mix. But psephologists are now wondering whether her run might bring about a late sting in the tail for progressives, with the threat of a come-from-behind win for Liberal James Falk – the political equivalent of Steven Bradbury’s last-gasp Olympic gold.

According to ABC election analyst Antony Green, Sheehan’s entry into the race makes Balmain a difficult seat to call.

“[By taking first-preference votes from The Greens,] the Liberals could lead on the first preferences and, if they do, a split-up of preferences between Labor, Greens and independents could lead to a surprise Liberal victory,” he said.

It’s not just professional poll-watchers who have marked Balmain as one to watch. It is understood the Liberals have felt gradually more confident about Balmain in recent weeks, with an increased volunteer presence in the seat making itself felt.

In such an environment, preferences have taken on even more importance than usual. Verity Firth’s decision to direct preferences to The Greens may prove vital, if the ALP is pushed down to an eventual third, behind both Falk and Parker.

Firth has already announced she is preferencing Parker third after Sheehan, as, if she cannot win, she wants the seat to remain “in progressive hands”.

The Greens, however, have elected not to preference Labor, instead running an open ticket in both Balmain and Marrickville.

Their parallel decision not to allocate preferences in the Upper House was slammed in February by Labor MLC Luke Foley, who said it reflected the party’s “hatred of Labor”.

But Greens MLC David Shoebridge rejected that criticism, saying that under an optional preferential-voting system, preference deals in the Upper House made little difference to the final outcome.

Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the decision, the decision could end up hurting The Greens badly. For her part, Sheehan said in a statement that her decision to run was partially influenced by speaking to rank-and-file Greens, who were unhappy about the party’s decision not to distribute preferences in the Upper House and risk a ‘conservative majority’. She defends her decision to run in the Lower House on this basis.

“Upper House votes are dependent on the message getting out about preferential voting,” she said. “My concern is that The Greens are gambling with the environment and socially progressive policies, by not advising voters to preference progressive candidates in the Upper House. Whoever wins Balmain will not make any difference to the fact that the Coalition forms government, but voters can make a difference in the Upper House, and The Greens should be informing and supporting voters to help them make a difference.”

Sheehan has tied her candidacy to the John Hatton Group for the Legislative Council, even though, like The Greens, they are not explicitly distributing preferences. (Instead, Sheehan is proposing a ‘form guide’ recommendation, with brief descriptions of candidates to help electors choose.)

For Parker, however, Sheehan’s argument about Upper House voting preferences cuts little ice.

“This decision will only benefit one party – the ALP. People can draw their own conclusions from that,” he said.

Certainly, there is no doubt that Sheehan will bleed some primary votes from The Greens – although the independent denies her candidature disproportionately harms Parker’s run, suggesting she will also draw votes from disaffected Labor supporters.

Either way, as The Greens and Labor fight it out, James Falk is happy to sit back and let the dust settle. Asked about his chances, he replies cautiously, in the manner of the entire Liberal campaign.

“I’m getting great feedback from Balmain voters who recognise I’m the only local candidate who is offering something truly different to what we’ve had for the last 16 years,” he said. “After 16 years of Labor they want a government which will fix NSW and a local member who can play a productive role in that process. I’ll leave the speculation to others – all I know is the more I get out and meet people, the better my chances of winning on Saturday.”