Eden-Monaro is the classic Australian bellwether seat, held by the government of the day since 1972. It is a rural farming region and is geographically diverse. The electorate includes fishing, holiday and retirement towns, agricultural and forestry districts and the NSW snowfields. It is one of the few remaining original electorates from the first federal election.
Every member Eden-Monaro has elected since 1972 has come from the party that formed government. However, a recent redistribution could challenge its famous bellwether status. Gabrielle Kneipp reports.
A redistribution announced by the Australian Electoral Commission has seen the seat significantly increase in size. Eden-Monaro has lost coastal areas from Batemans Bay to Tuross Head but it has picked up the shires of Yass, Tumut and Tumbarumba. This is a large increase: the electorate is now one-third larger and covers over 41,000 sq km. Surrounding the Australian Capital Territory, it is comparable to the size of small countries like Switzerland, Denmark and Holland.
The Eden-Monaro electorate is one of the original seventy-five divisions contested in the first Federal election. It hosts a diverse range of industries including timber, sheep, cattle, dairy farming and products. The snowfields and south coast bring important tourism to the division and it is also home to the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme.
The redistribution has prompted speculation that new voters introduced to the electorate will change its makeup. In gaining 25,000 constituents from the Hume and Riverina electorates, Eden-Monaro looks to be a safer Liberal seat, with an estimated margin of 2.6 per cent, compared to 0.6 under the old boundaries. Despite this boost in the Liberal Party’s favour, sitting MP Dr. Peter Hendy believes every election is different and that, to some degree, the electorate’s bellwether status has been a bit of a coincidence. Any election, he says, would be fought on policy.
Dr. Hendy will face former member and fellow PhD holder Mike Kelly, who lost his Lower House seat by fewer than 1,000 votes in 2013. Newcomer Tamara Ryan is the Australian Greens candidate.
With such a significant increase in size comes the tyranny of distance all too common in regional and rural electorates. As such, improved road infrastructure is an ever-present issue facing rural residents as many country roads are in disrepair.
Yass Valley is 45 minutes from Canberra and has a proud heritage connection to early rural Australia. For Lincoln Farnsworth, a Yass resident, it is the Barton Highway that needs attention. Farnsworth is a staffer in the Department of Defence and he, along with nearly 4,000 others, commutes from Yass to Canberra each day. To make the return journey quicker and safer, he feels that the Barton Highway requires duplication, something that has been considered but has not received a solid commitment from government. “Numerous studies have shown it would be beneficial but the funds just haven’t been allocated,” he says.
A similar problem has been identified around the Queanbeyan overflow and one step to improve this is a $25 million pledge by the federal government to construct a 4.6 kilometre two-lane carriageway. This will link the end of Ellerton Drive to the new Edwin land Parkway intersection at Old Cooma Road. It is a major infrastructure investment made in an effort to accommodate population growth. “Ensuring Queanbeyan’s road network continues to adequately function for the next 50 years [is important] given the expected population growth of Queanbeyan going from 40,000 to 70,000 over that period,” Queanbeyan mayor Tim Overall, says.
However, the new carriageway is opposed by Queanbeyan residents whose concerns are threefold: it will impose an unreasonable financial burden on the community, it could damage the environment and the area's wildlife, and in the long term it could damage the health and comfort of many residents .
Communication technology is another issue concerning voters in the Eden-Monaro. Ross Fraser, a Cooma farmer, seeks reliable and fast internet and better phone and television coverage. Communication infrastructure is underway to deliver fast broadband by rolling out the National Broadband Network (NBN) in Queanbeyan and Jerrabomberra. Farnsworth, who currently uses ADSL in Yass, hopes to see the NBN installed by the end of this year or early in the next.
Fraser would also like to see small business grow. The stagnancy of businesses in country towns is a concern, as is declining population. Growing small business would increase employment and increase the population of this small town, which is a gateway to New South Wales' alpine area.
An example of such a project is Queanbeyan City Council’s CBD revitalisation program. A community hub is planned for the riverfront, where Queen Elizabeth Park is already an important recreational space. With the improvements being made it will be a place for the whole community to enjoy and an important tourist destination. Cr Overall feels such a development project will help bring the town to life and provide the community with more opportunities. “Linking an activated riverfront to the city centre will be of significant benefit to CBD businesses,” he says.
It is all these community-specific issues. as much as national concerns such as defence, that will shape the result in an electorate long tagged with the adjective bellwether.