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The end of the bellwether seat?

Royce Gay of Queanbeyan discusses the election in Eden-Monaro. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Sitting at Royal Hotel Queanbeyan on a Friday afternoon, Royce Gay felt indifferent about election day.

But he was well aware his vote could make a big difference in one of the country's most marginal seats. Mr Gay, a plumber, had "no idea" who he would vote for locally at this stage but confirmed he would rather Scott Morrison as Prime Minister despite his no-show in the electorate since campaigning began.

"Better the devil you know, I think," he said with a nonchalant shrug.

Just a block away, a separate world of pre-polling booths were open at Riverside Plaza with a flurry of volunteers and voters for the tightly-contested seat.

The two major party candidates, current Labor MP Kristy McBain and Liberal hopeful Jerry Nockles, ignited few emotions for Mr Gay, who said he noticed corflute signs from Ms McBain but had never heard of Dr Nockles despite being likely to vote for him in the next week.

Mr Gay said it didn't matter whether Dr Nockles lived in the seat, after ACM earlier this week reported the candidate may live in Canberra, over the border.

"Doesn't really fuss me, I didn't even know who he was until you asked me," Mr Gay said. Views like Mr Gay's were prevalent around this broad seat covering over 41,000 square kilometres, from Queanbeyan on Canberra's doorstep to agricultural districts like Bega, coastal towns of Narooma and the snowfields of Thredbo.

The diversity in demographics once gave this seat the crown of the bellwether - a term used for an electorate that takes the lead, indicating political trends. The term comes from the bell a shepherd chooses to put on a sheep to hear where the flock had roamed.

The Eden-Monaro bell used to ring for the government of the day, as every victorious candidate since 1972 was a member of the winning party. Dr Jill Sheppard, a senior lecturer from the ANU School of Politics and International Relations, said it made sense historically. But since 2016 when Labor's Mike Kelly won with a 5.93 per cent swing but Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was re-elected, the bellwether title has faded.

"We used to use it to predicatively say, 'Oh Eden-Monaro, looks like it's falling one way or the other, so we may as well call the election now and all go to bed'," Dr Sheppard said. Government predictor or not, the seat has always mattered for political campaigns. But five weeks into the election, Mr Morrison has yet to step foot in the key region while appearing twice to the neighbouring seat of Gilmore.

A change in the wind

A recent Newspoll predicted Labor would win the seat with a two-party preferred vote of 57 per cent, sitting on a much more comfortable margin of 7 per cent.

Down in Bega, beef cattle farmer Rex Hergenhan had a few theories on why this may be the case. "I guess with the election that's coming up, I voted Liberal most of my life and I find that at this point in the last three years we've had drought, fires, floods, all problems in our local area," he said.

The 2020 summer bushfires remained firm in the minds of most Eden-Monaro residents, which Mr Hergenhan saw as a part of the shift away from the Coalition.

But faith in the system was falling. Mr Hergenhan said "irrespective of which party was in power ... there's always going to be people complaining" but thought politicians these days "seem to be in it for the power" and less effort was going towards helping communities.

The lifetime Liberal voter also pinned the changing demographics of the region as a key to why the electorate may be a more stable Labor seat this time around, recalling when he was in high school "the electorate was fairly small" and he originally knew of most people who lived in the seat.

"We're a minority now, who have been here for a long time. The majority now are people who have moved into the area. I'll use the word - more higher-educated people have moved into the area and they have different ideas," he said.

Mr Hergenhan thought Labor leader Anthony Albanese would win the election, which did little to phase him as "it's not going to make a lot of difference to me". He would likely still vote Liberal regardless of his admiration for Ms McBain and admission "I don't know this new man at all" - Dr Nockles.

"Kristy McBain, lovely lady, lives locally, worked in one of the lawyer's offices here locally and I think she's doing a good job. I've got no problems with her as a person and what she's doing but when you're coloured, you're coloured, aren't you? With the way you vote, I mean by that," he said.

A commitment to blue

Going inland to Bombala, there was a shared admiration for the work Ms McBain had done in the seat. Jan Farrell has been in the town most of her life working on a farm and votes Liberal every election, saying she felt tired by left-leaning politics.

"I like Scott Morrison," she said.

"Everybody's just pussyfooting around and nobody's speaking the truth and, just, I think it's disgraceful the way we have to kowtow to a particular group."

Once again, Dr Nockles was someone Ms Farrell admitted she did not even know. She thought Ms McBain would get back in, which made her "disappointed".

"I know she's doing the best she can. She's quite a nice woman ... but she's still Labor. I would like to say to her, 'You're such a nice woman, why don't you change camps," she said.

Covering more than 97,000 kilometres of driving since her byelection win in 2020, Ms McBain was well aware these types of voters existed, finding the electorate was "a microcosm of Australia".

"I think it shifts because people are engaged in political policy. They're the litmus test for the rest of the country," she said.

"Across the electorate, [I have been] making sure that I understood people and you are having conversations with a bunch of different people, because that's the heart of this job."

'Largely been forgotten'

No matter how diverse the opinions of Eden-Monaro were, almost every local across the region mentioned the bushfires.

  • Continued Page 16
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Dive Deeper:
Distrust rules in the marginal seat of Eden-Monaro as cash has an impact
Devastated by fire, drought, floods and the pandemic, residents of the south-east region of NSW are wary about the future.
Eden-Monaro faces rising cost-of-living pressures and worker shortages as it prepares for election
Businesses and support services in the NSW electorate of Eden-Monaro say they are struggling to cope with scarce, expensive housing…
Voters in marginal NSW seat Gilmore undecided a week out from election
The south coast NSW seat is crucial for the major parties, but with disaster recovery, mental health and the environment…
Social work as a political strategy: Greens aim to grow a grassroots campaign in a Brisbane seat
Party’s bid to build community campaign based on meaningful relationships may not result in victory, expert says
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Undecided, uninterested, unsure: major parties vie to flip long-held seats of Reid and Parramatta
Scott Morrison’s name may be a negative in the marginal seats of the inner west, but that doesn’t necessarily translate…
Coal not the only burning issue in Queensland’s blue collar seat of Flynn
With the LNP MP retiring and Labor reeling from its 2019 collapse, One Nation and the United Australia party will…
Get all your news in one place