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The Guardian - AU

Bitter battle for every vote: can million-dollar promises bring a sea change to Corangamite?

The Point Lonsdale lighthouse on the Bellarine peninsula.
The Point Lonsdale lighthouse on the Bellarine peninsula in the seat of Corangamite in Victoria. The electorate takes in tourist haunts, historic towns and rural areas. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

Gayle Anderson shuffles behind the counter of the Moriac general store, which her grandparents opened in the small town south-west of Melbourne almost a century ago.

She comes back with a stack of glossy political flyers that locals have left behind in their postboxes.

“Nobody wants them,” Anderson says, thrusting the red, blue, yellow and green pile of shiny faces towards me.

But candidates certainly want the voters of Corangamite, one of the most marginal seats in the country.

The electorate takes in the west of Geelong, the Bellarine peninsula and the boom surf town of Torquay, as well as more rural areas to the north, including Inverleigh and Bannockburn.

Moriac general store owner Gayle Anderson.
Gayle Anderson outside her general store in Moriac. She has lost faith with the federal Liberal party and plans to vote Liberal Democrat. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

It has been subject to a significant redistribution since the 2019 election, cut from more than 5,400 sq km to 1,500 sq km to counteract a huge increase in population.

The margin remains 1.1% in favour of the sitting member, Labor’s Libby Coker. Her main challenger is Stephanie Asher, one of the only Liberal candidates in Victoria with a realistic chance of winning a seat from Labor.

‘I’m just sick of the lies’

When Guardian Australia visits the electorate, there is only one prepolling centre open, at a new $13.5m stadium built for the thousands of families moving to housing estates north of Torquay.

Asher is there first, doing step-ups on a wooden box near the door of the stadium, in between speaking with voters.

Then Coker arrives, politely but firmly displacing a Liberal party volunteer to make sure she is within arms’ reach of Asher.

Coker can now get in the ear of early voters first. Asher has to make do with being the last person they see before they go inside.

It is a skirmish that illuminates the battle for the seat: every vote bitterly contested, often in hand-to-hand combat.

The Labor member Libby Coker (on left in denim jacket) ) and Liberal Candidate Stephanie Asher (R) at the pre polling place at the Wurdi Baierr Stadium in Torquay
Labor member Libby Coker (L) and Liberal candidate Stephanie Asher work hard to persuade voters at the prepolling place at the Wurdi Baierr stadium in Torquay. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

Coker has the vote of Alana Beeson, an associate in a consulting firm who lives in Charlemont, in Geelong’s south-west.

Beeson, who cast an early ballot at the stadium, says Coker is a strong local member, and she backs Labor’s commitments to upgrading Barwon Heads Road and the Armstrong Creek town redevelopment, which would improve her young family’s access to sporting facilities.

Beeson is less complimentary of the Morrison government. In mismanaging the pandemic response, it failed to follow business management principles she learned in high school, she says. And she does not trust the prime minister.

“I’m just sick of the lies coming out of Scott Morrison’s mouth,” Beeson says.

Alana Beeson at the Torquay pre poll.
Alana Beeson from Geelong says the Morrison government failed to follow basic business management principles in its pandemic response. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian
Taylor Ibrahim with all of the how to vote cards given to her at the Torquey pre polling centre.
Taylor Ibrahim leaves the Torquay poll booth with a stack of how-to-vote leaflets – which helped guide her decision. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

Taylor Ibrahim leaves the stadium soon after Beeson. She is still clutching a fistful of how-to-vote cards.

She had to navigate about a dozen volunteers on the way in, including one handing out cardboard ukuleles plastered with anti-Morrison messages and urging voters to put Asher last, authorised by Victorian trades hall.

Ibrahim, 21, really did not know who to back. The Barwon Heads resident had a few clear priorities though, which she says are common to her and her friends: action on climate change, policy to address student debt, and opposition to vaccination mandates.

“Once I’d looked through everything [in the how to vote cards] it was pretty clear,” she said.

Coker and Asher continue touting away behind Ibrahim. Sometimes, a voter looks shocked to see them, as if a headshot on a how-to-vote card has magically come to life.

In a conversation with Coker punctuated by breaks while she speaks to voters, including some with curly questions such as where, exactly, Labor will get all the nurses it plans to put into aged care, and to volunteers taking her coffee order (white with half a sugar), she says the campaign has gone well, but she is taking nothing for granted.

In the eight elections prior to 2019, Corangamite was won by the party that formed government.

Labor has only won the seat five times, but three of those victories have occurred since 2007. That is to say that Corangamite was, until recently, a fairly safe bet for the Coalition, and the party would love to take it back: it has poured tens of millions of dollars into election promises, and the prime minister has visited multiple times during the campaign.

“There is pressure, because you know it’s a marginal seat, but I do this because I love what I do,” Coker said.

The former journalist, teacher and mayor of the Surf Coast shire council says young families who have moved to the region are interested in Labor’s childcare policy, and climate change, while retirees who have made a sea change are concerned about the aged care sector.

The pandemic has shown people why the federal government matters, Coker said, and the people she has spoken to care about the things Labor are campaigning on, including the health and disability sector.

Asher, the current City of Greater Geelong mayor (she has taken leave to contest the election), is running a campaign that is unashamedly more local than Coker’s, as she feels the influx of people to the region means the most important issue to voters is “the lag in community infrastructure”. So she has pitched $20m for a pool here, $10m to remodel a couple of surf clubs there, and even a few tens of thousands of dollars to upgrade scoreboards at sporting grounds.

Housing estates at Torquay
The marginal electorate of Corangamite in Victoria’s south-east takes in Torquay, west Geelong, the Bellarine peninsula and more rural areas to the north, including Inverleigh and Bannockburn. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

Asher agrees with a suggestion that most of those responsibilities generally lie with local and state governments, but insists these are the issues people raise with her.

She denies a local campaign helps distance her from Morrison, who is not as popular in Victoria as in other states.

“He’s been down here four times now, I haven’t done any distancing,” she said.

“Whenever he comes down, we say that’s great.

“It’s a local campaign because that’s what people are concerned about. Ninety-five per cent of the issues are state and local responsibilities.”

Reckoning due on coalmining and fossil fuels

North-east of the stadium, above the sea of Colorbond and concrete pockmarking the outskirts of Torquay, and over the Barwon River, John Chisholm is walking down the main street of Ocean Grove, killing time before a haircut appointment.

He moved to the region five years ago having previously lived in Melbourne’s south-east in the seat of Goldstein, another electorate expected to be tight this election.

Chisholm says it is always a quandary considering whether to vote based on who is the best local member, or on who you would prefer as prime minister.

But after the second debate (“one-and-a-half hours of my life I won’t get back”) he felt that the performance of both prospective leaders could push more voters to the Greens or teal independents.

“If more independents get into the House of Representatives I certainly don’t see it as a bad thing, to be honest,” he said.

“The Liberal party has moved further to the right, the teals are more centrist.”

Chisholm, a semi-retired lawyer, says he supports a federal anti-corruption commission and strong action on climate change.

John Chisholm in Ocean Grove.
The state of the environment weighs heavily on John Chisholm: ‘I’m ashamed to say we didn’t do enough.’ Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

He says that although “short-termism” dominates politics, there are certain truths that had to be faced up to. In the same way as logging and fishing had diminished as industries because of the damage they caused to the environment, he said, so too must a reckoning come for coalmining and the use of fossil fuels.

“In the last few years I’ve started to think more about the state of the environment I am leaving behind for my children and grandchildren,” Chisholm said.

“I’m ashamed to say we didn’t do enough.”

‘We don’t need those tax cuts as much as others’

Climate change is also front of mind for Taylah Stolk, who is making coffees in a cafe along the main drag of Inverleigh.

Ocean Grove and other towns on the Bellarine peninsula are well-known tourist haunts with populations that have been growing since SeaChange hit TV screens in the late 1990s. Inverleigh, to the north and west, is a historic town largely supporting nearby farms, that has only recently seen a significant increase in population.

Unlike Chisholm, Stolk has not been closely following federal politics. At 20, it is also the first time she will vote, and while she is uncertain which party will have her support, the environment is her main focus.

“It’s hard to conceptualise how much your vote actually matters,” she said.

“I’m only young, and I don’t want to see [the planet] all decline before my kids get to my age.”

Sitting at a table outside, local Victoria Guthridge and her friend Terhi Meek, who lives just outside Corangamite in the nearby town of Shelford, have been discussing the election when we intervene.

Terhi Meek (L) with her baby Axel and Victoria Guthridge(R) in Inverleigh.
Terhi Meek (L) with her baby Axel and Victoria Guthridge(R). The government’s policies do not properly address important issues such as climate change, healthcare and gender inequality, Guthridge says. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

Meek is originally from Finland but recently became an Australian citizen, meaning she is about to vote in the country for the first time. She has been struck by the negativity of federal political campaigning, compared with her homeland.

Guthridge watched the final debate between Morrison and Labor leader Anthony Albanese the previous night, and said it was “typical” that the prime minister “could not help himself” to have a go at his opponent even when asked to say something nice.

The policies of the Morrison government do not address what Guthridge considers important: climate change, making the childcare system cheaper, strengthening the healthcare system, improving how women in politics are treated and broader gender inequality, and introducing a federal anti-corruption commission.

As a nurse, she said she had a clear interest in the labour movement as it had increased her wages, but that tax cuts proposed by the Coalition would leave her family better off.

“On the whole his government would probably personally benefit us, but we don’t need those tax cuts as much as others need them.”

‘The Greens get nothing’

Gayle Anderson’s general store sits at the junction of two major roads and a railway line, about halfway between Inverleigh and Torquay. Only two booths recorded a higher percentage of votes for the Liberal party than Moriac last election, and both of those polling places handled significantly fewer ballots.

There are nine candidates running for Corangamite, which could explain the surplus of mail clogging up the post boxes in Anderson’s store, including Greens, One Nation, United Australia party, Animal Justice party and Justice party candidates.

Anderson is selling the business, which had several owners after it was founded and before she took over, and her experience of the pandemic will shape her vote.

A longtime conservative voter, she had a “nightmare” dealing with what she called the “ludicrous” restrictions implemented by the state Labor government, but had also lost faith with the Liberal party nationally. She plans to vote Liberal Democrat.

“I’m not happy with the way [the Coalition] are running the country, but I’ll be putting them before Labor,” Anderson said.

“The Greens get nothing.”