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Eden-Monaro: bellwether no more

By early on election night it was evident that Labor’s Mike Kelly was on track to regain the seat he lost to Peter Hendy in 2013. The national trend showed a swing towards Labor but no one was calling the election for either side and indeed, a hung parliament was looking likely. Eight days later and the Liberal-National coalition scraped over the line with 76 seats.

Eden-Monaro is not one of them.

What made the difference this time?

Different styles

The personality factor cannot be underestimated. As the former MP, Kelly was already well known and respected as a hard-working representative.

Hendy won the seat in 2013 on the coattails of the Abbott landslide but in three years failed to get a handle on his vast electorate and became known as “Mr Invisible”. Some cheeky folk down Bermagui way went so far as to turn some of his 2013 election posters in wild west-style “Wanted” posters.

During the eight-week election campaign, Kelly attended every candidate forum and his campaign team was active across the electorate.

Hendy did not attend a single candidate forum, failing even to show at the final one, three days before the election in his home town of Queanbeyan. When questioned about his no-show at a forum organised by an environmental group on the coast, his response was that the group had not engaged with him in three years so why should he go out of his way to attend their meeting?

It seems he missed the whole point of local representation.

Former Eden-Monaro MP, Gary Nairn, worked on Hendy’s campaign but said the loss was “no surprise”. Nairn was quoted in the Canberra Times as saying that Hendy hadn’t connected with his constituents: “It’s a big electorate, it’s a diverse electorate so you’ve got to be constantly getting from town to town and meeting with the right people and talking with the right people in those towns [particularly in your first term] to build up that connection and I think that’s the aspect that was missing.”

The big issues

Mike Kelly during the electoral campaign.
Mike Kelly during the electoral campaign.

The second factor in the swing was the issues on which the campaign was fought. In the eastern part of the electorate telecommunications loomed as a major battlefield. Kelly has long been an advocate of innovation in telecommunications and as the local member during the Rudd and Gillard governments he believed that the region could become an Australian version of Silicon Valley, with the NBN providing opportunities for e-commerce. Hendy, on the other hand, promised only to provide coverage for the region’s mobile blackspots.

While Hendy’s team focused on pushing the national agenda of “jobs and growth”, Labor took a more grassroots approach, talking small business in Queanbeyan, tourism in the Snowy Mountains and on the coast, and farming in the rural districts. The coalition’s failure to address climate change in any meaningful way was also a factor. Kelly is a champion of renewable energy while Hendy skirted around the issue.

State issues matter too

While the NSW government’s forced council amalgamations were a state issue, it appears that the Liberal Party may have paid a high price federally. Labor won the two-party preferred count in Braidwood, Bungendore and Captains Flat, where the Palerang amalgamation with Queanbeyan has been unpopular. In Tumabarumba a large sign appeared reading: “If Tumba Council falls, Goodbye Peter Hendy”. Tumbarumba and Tumut Councils were amalgamated in May and Labor won Tumbarumba and Tumut East booths.

An expanded electorate

The final factor was the readjustment of the electorate boundary to incorporate parts of the Hume electorate to the north and west of the ACT. The inclusion of Yass, Tumut and Tumbarumba was expected to increase Liberal’s margin. However, rural areas like Murrumbateman are effectively satellites of the ACT. Many residents of the Yass region are commuters to the ACT or have retired from Canberra and are more likely to lean towards Labor.

This trend was reflected in the vote count at individual booths. Kelly won the two party preferred count at Murrumbateman and in two of the three Yass polling places.

Where the preferences went

Of the other seven candidates, the Greens’ Tamara Ryan seemed to be everywhere. The Greens’ ran a professional campaign and their progressive policies on equal marriage and climate action, and their support for the Gonski education reforms were winners for them. Excellent candidate notwithstanding, the Greens’ final result of 7.3%, a very slight decrease from 2013, shows that the party’s national strategy of ‘mainstreaming’ towards a more centrist position has not resonated with voters looking for alternatives to mainstream politics.

The Animal Justice Party’s candidate, Frankie Seymour, took 2.1% of the vote and consistently polled in fourth position behind the Greens. It is likely that the AJP raided the Greens’ support base, but both AJP and Greens preferences were instrumental in Labor’s win, with Kelly gaining around twice as many votes in preferences as Hendy.

Despite the fact that Eden-Monaro no longer enjoys its bellwether status, it remains a marginal seat. The local member may be in opposition, but with Kelly’s record as a pro-active representative it is unlikely that a knife-edge government will forget this electorate.

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