Eden-Monaro faces rising cost-of-living pressures and worker shortages as it prepares for election
Having been won by the party that formed government at every federal election from 1972, Eden-Monaro was considered a bellwether seat until Labor's Mike Kelly won it in 2016.
Mr Kelly resigned due to poor health in 2020, and Labor retained the seat in the by-election, with Kristy McBain being elected on a margin of just 0.9 per cent.
Since then, the region, like the rest of Australia. has endured the COVID-19 pandemic, but lockdowns and restrictions have also compounded economic and social issues in the area, brought about by years of drought and the Black Summer bushfires.
It has meant cost-of-living pressures are keenly felt by many residents in the electorate – with housing both scarce and expensive.
Meanwhile, worker shortages are also leaving businesses and support services struggling to cope.
Agricultural sector struggles to find workers
Electronic engineer Ian Chu and his wife Helen left their careers in Sydney and moved to Murrumbateman, just north of Canberra, to establish a mushroom-growing business in 2006.
"But it's also an interesting product where there's a big future for mushrooms mainly because mushrooms are grown vertically – so you're using less space, you're not so reliant on the conditions."
With row upon row of shelves inside climate-controlled containers at their warehouse, the business is largely immune to the effects of drought and bushfires that have wracked the region in recent years.
Demand for their products continued to grow during multiple COVID lockdowns but finding the workers to hand-pick the delicate mushrooms has become increasingly difficult.
As a former school teacher, Mrs Chu has taken on the role of training new staff – a process she said could take weeks.
"It's not just what you pick and put in the box, it's also what you put on the bed, because if you don't do that properly you end up with a whole bunch of damaged mushrooms for the next day," she said.
"It takes about a month to finally understand the size, the quality and then build up the speed.
"But once they get that ... they can be labelled as 'proficient pickers'."
Mr and Mrs Chu concede the job is not for everyone.
They said while they tried to offer a competitive wage on their slim profit margin, the high cost of living in and around Murrumbateman and Canberra, where many workers lived, meant keeping staff was a growing challenge.
"We'd love to pay our workers tons and tons of money but it's just not possible," Mr Chu said.
"Staff retention is really important to us and we do think we're paying the right amount – and they're getting well paid.
Mr Chu thinks the worker shortages that will be front of mind for many in the Eden-Monaro's agricultural sector when they head to ballot box this month
"And obviously tax – any increase in the tax will add to the bottom-line that we're so conscious about."
Queanbeyan has jobs too, but not enough housing
Less than an hour away from Murrumbateman, Queanbeyan is a growing regional city where businesses are also crying out for workers.
While much has been made of the soaring cost of housing in Canberra and other capital cities, support providers say high prices and huge demand do not stop at the ACT border.
Molonglo Support Services chief executive Janette Dale said many people moved to Queanbeyan and the wider Eden-Monaro region with the expectation that costs would be lower.
"That isn't necessarily true," Ms Dale said.
"We're also seeing a lot of people that we've never seen before and haven't been homeless before."
Ms Dale said the housing crunch was not just affecting lower-income earners, with some on moderate to high incomes also unable to find somewhere else to rent after losing their previous rental property.
Ms Dale said, like Mr and Mrs Chu at their property in Murrumbateman, frontline services were themselves struggling to find the staff to meet demand.
"When you're working in frontline services you really need to be face-to-face with people – it's a lot harder for them to do telehealth-type interviewing," she said.
Both major parties advocating for more public and affordable housing
The current member for Eden Monaro, Labor's Kristy McBain, sees the issues of worker shortages and the cost of housing in the electorate as being closely linked.
"There are jobs going in most of our regional communities but when we do fill them people can't actually take them up because there's nowhere to live," Ms McBain said.
Labor has announced a commitment to a $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund to build 30,000 new homes nationally in its first five years and Ms McBain said Eden-Monaro would be included in the scheme.
"We want to make sure we not only build more public and social — we need to maintain stock that we currently have," she said.
"We know there are empty homes right across this region because they need minor maintenance work done."
The Coalition has also promised to support tens of thousands of new dwellings across Australia by allowing the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation to make an additional $2 billion in low-cost loans available to community housing providers.
Liberal candidate for Eden-Monaro Jerry Nockles said he had a close personal interest in social housing.
"I grew up in public housing, I had an impoverished childhood and I know the benefit of that kind of assistance and it's something I'll push very hard for," he said.
"One thing that I learned from my childhood is that poverty is much more than a lack of money – it's a lack of hope."
Dr Nockles said any development of future public housing projects should be community-led.
"Decision making should lie as close to where the information is and in communities – that is the community," he said.
"I'd be responsive to the community's ideas and the community's needs because they have the best information of what's available to them and they have the best information about how their development should occur."