Low milk prices is a major threat to the dairy industry in the seat of Murray. Photo courtesy of Kyra Evanochko.
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The Goulburn-Murray Valley is strikingly sparse and flat. A few trees and tufts of withered, scorched grass dot the landscape. Trains trundle across the country fields at an easy pace. It’s quiet in the Murray.
But a storm is brewing over the Great Northern Plains.
“It’s probably very much a 50-50 race,” says Damien Drum, the first Nationals Party candidate to run in the federal seat of Murray in 20 years.
Liberal MP Dr Sharman Stone has controlled the region since 1996, but at 65 she won’t contest her seat on July 2.
Seizing the opportunity, the Nationals have fielded Drum. But he knows he faces an uphill battle: “I’m fighting against the incumbent (party).” In the third safest federal seat, the former AFL coach will need to find the sticks.
Before Dr Stone, Nationals MP Bruce Lloyd held Murray for 25 years, coming to power in a by-election after Country Party MP Sir John McEwen was elected Prime Minister. Sir McEwen, the inaugural minister, lead the Great Plains for 36 years.
“The opportunity only comes around once [a sitting member] steps down in Murray,” says Drum.
Dr Stone’s parting word was “it’s time to pass the torch” – intending it for Liberal candidate Duncan McGauchie, 30 years her junior.
Dr Stone is heavily endorsing McGauchie. But his campaign may not be such an easy ride. “The support for my campaign – it’s actually tremendous,” boasts Drum.
Both candidates seemingly appear to sing from the same hymn sheet. They’re born and bred in Murray: Drum to the east, outside Shepparton and McGauchie to the west, in Prairie.
However, Drum has the political advantage. Since 2002, he has been state MP for Northern Victorian, stepping down only to pursue the federal seat.
McGauchie has the financial edge, with posters, adverts, a Shepparton office and a media adviser to pick up his phone, although he didn’t want to comment for this profile.
Drum is campaigning from the back of the shed to the front line. “It’s a very grassroots campaign,” he says from the back of a car, driving through farmland.
Dr Stone describes her former electorate as the “heartland of Australian agriculture”. Acres of fields surrounding large properties, filled with sheep, are a common sight.
In the last census, sheep outnumbered the Shepparton region population four to one. Dairy cattle came a close second, numbering well over 300,000.
It’s unsurprising the election in Murray will be fought on the issue of farming. “The cost of water [for irrigation], agriculture, support for diary famers, horticulture –constituents will look at who is best on these issues,” says Drum.
The region faces two crises. The low price of milk has hit dairy farmers hard and some are at risk of leaving the land.
It’s been dry the last 24 months and many irrigators received less than half of their water entitlements. During low availability, the price of water becomes expensive, pricing some irrigators out of the market. Next year, Goulburn-Murray Water is predicting another low availability season, a double blow for dairy farmers.
On his Facebook page, McGauchie says: “I am calling on all government and processors to work together and act now to minimise costs to diary farmers and ensure we can get through the next couple of seasons to position ourselves to grow in line with rising demand around the world.”
Drum says: “The Nationals decided to run in Murray because there is a real need to improve the region.
“Water ranging up to 450 gigalitres is leaving for South Australia, we need to retain some of that water.”
Both candidates know the problems the Murray electorate faces and both are equally committed to a solution.
They even agree on the controversial backpacker tax.
“I am upset about [the backpacker tax] as well, so we’ll continue to fight to be able to make employing people easy for local businesses,” McGauchie told the ABC.
But they differ on how to reach the same goals. “Basically the competition is not about issues it’s about the constituents deciding who is the best candidate,” says Drum.
McGauchie toes the party line. He believes in the Liberal rhetoric of “jobs and growth”. Speaking to the ABC, he said: “We are uniquely positioned to increase our exports to the world, to say we can grow our exports, grow revenue for the national economy and drive growth.”
Drum says the Nationals are more qualified to manage the region. “[The Nationals] have key ministers in areas important to this electorate: agriculture, transport, regional and rural communities, indigenous affairs. We will be able to deliver for Murray.”
In her inaugural speech, Dr Stone said: “The people of the Murray electorate are accustomed to long hard roads.”
History suggests whoever is elected on July 2 better be prepared to endure and settle in, too.