With speculation reaching fever pitch about election timing, voters from the bellwether seat of Eden-Monaro are strongly urging Kevin Rudd to call the poll quickly.
The University of Canberra, in conjunction with The Conversation, has been tracking a diverse group of Eden-Monaro voters over the last three months. In an online discussion last week, 70% said the election should be held “as soon as possible”; only 30% said the PM should wait until later in the year. The overwhelming preference on timing ran across party lines.
The discussion came just after Rudd announced the earlier introduction of the emissions trading scheme but before he unveiled his tough “Papua New Guinea solution” on boat arrivals.
Since the group’s session last month, Rudd has become PM and the political landscape has transformed. Participants had previously advocated the leadership switch; they weren’t surprised by it, but were strongly divided along party lines about it.
Labor supporters believed it was better for the country and that the ALP now had a chance of winning.
A middle aged female Labor voter from Bodalla said: “I always felt that Kevin Rudd should never have been ousted in favour of Julia Gillard … Even though we vote for a party and what it can offer, it certainly helps that the leader of that party is more charismatic. I wish the Libs would do the same with Malcolm Turnbull”.
But those who identified as Liberal, independent or Green believed Rudd was worse for the country. They talked about the perceived failure of policies (insulation, boat arrivals) and the dysfunction of the previous government.
“Labor supporters are in a honeymoon period where they are glassy-eyed to have him back but his true colours will come through after a period”, said a Queanbeyan Liberal supporter.
A Braidwood Greens voters said the leadership change “had to happen” although she felt sorry for Julia Gillard. “Labor now has a remote chance of being elected” but Rudd “better hold the elections soon, before people remember how bad he was!”
Looking back on Gillard, voters believed she had paved the way for other women. They identified the carbon tax as a major shortcoming of her prime ministership, saying she had damaged her reputation by going back on her word.
Labor supporters identified her achievements (disability reform, NBN, education, managing minority government); Liberals were scathing. An older male Liberal supporter from Bendoura said: “She was the wrong person to be the first female PM. There are plenty of female prime ministers around the world all doing a better job than she had done”.
People were split on the impact that gender had had on Gillard’s role as PM. Many women, regardless of party allegiance, thought gender was an issue and that politicians and media had treated her differently because of it. But this was disputed by hard Liberal males and some women; there were criticisms of her “playing the gender card”.
Although expectations of a Labor victory were typically along party lines, most people believed Tony Abbott was now on the back foot and needed to stop the negativity and provide policies.
Rudd’s and Abbott’s personalities were criticised (along party lines); there was a sense that both leaders were less than ideal, and frustration there was lack of choice in a two-party system.
A Liberal voter from Eden said: “With Rudd as leader a certain defeat has changed to a very close probable election result. Abbott has not stepped up with party policies for the public to consider as yet so Rudd has all the limelight. Rudd is acting like a pop star”.
At the electorate level, just over half the group predicted local member Mike Kelly would win over Liberal Peter Hendy (52-48%). The prediction went mostly along party lines with Kelly attracting support from those who identified as Green, Independent or non-partisan voters.
Few felt the local campaign was yet in full swing. People had seen some activity from Kelly and Hendy, although this seemed to be determined by location (there were mentions of appearances at markets, letterbox drops and media advertising).
Unprompted criticism came from Liberal voters about the recently-reported cost of more than $500,000 for Kelly’s office upgrade.
Some voters thought it better to have their local MP in the government, believing they would be able to represent the electorate’s interests more effectively that way; others thought having an active local member was more important than whether they were in government.
People were asked whether the three key issues that were put forward by the two main candidates (in interviews done for the project which are reported here) were priorities for the electorate.
Hendy’s issues were
Cost of living, with electricity prices a main contributor rising as a result of the carbon tax.
Economic management and mishandling of the budget, resulting in the closure of many small businesses in the electorate and the regional impact of national debt.
Border security, boat arrivals and the disproportionate amount of expenditure on this that could otherwise be used to support regional policies and communities.
Cost of living was seen as a key issue across the spectrum, though while some voters equated the carbon tax with an increased cost of living, many did not make strong links between them and some thought it naive to make that link. One older male, with no voting identification, asked rhetorically: “Does anyone really think the cost of electricity will go down if the carbon tax is removed?”
The cost of living was a priority generally, but Hendy’s policies were predictably more popular with Liberal voters.
Kelly’s priorities were
Tourism – promoting Eden-Monaro as a multi-seasonal tourist destination with a focus on developing the deep-water cruise ship port at Eden.
NBN – with its proximity to Canberra Eden-Monaro can be developed into a “Silicon Valley” to put it at the communications and economic forefront of national development.
Renewable energy - the electorate already has major developments and Kelly has held 18 public forums on clean energy; $1 billion of federal funding has been invested in the region in renewable energy leading to 2300 new jobs.
There was a broader level of backing for Kelly’s policies from most participants, regardless of which party they identified with. They generally agreed that tourism, NBN and renewable energy were key priorities for the electorate; the policies produced a more positive, forward-looking response, although some hardline Liberal voters disagreed.
Some scepticism was tossed in from non-supporters. A Liberal-voting male said: “Yes, these are priorities, but I am not sure I would want Kelly to become involved in anything that is important”, while a Green voter remarked “These are good things, but I can’t help but giggle a bit on the inside when I read that Mike imagines Eden-Monaro as some kind of ‘Silicon Valley’”.
People were also asked, in an open-ended question, to nominate their three most important issues for Eden-Monaro and (separately) for them personally.
Heath (nominated by 11 participants) ranked as their most important issue for Eden-Monaro, followed by renewable energy (8), jobs (7), and the economy (7).
For participants personally, health (15) again came first, then education (7), cost of living (7) and jobs (5).
There were no strong differences along partisan lines on health.
Although education was an issue for some, participants who identified as Liberal were more likely to nominate the economy, job creation and cost of living as their most important issues for Eden-Monaro and them personally.
In contrast, while cost of living and jobs were issues, those who identified as Labor and Green were more likely to nominate renewable energy, education, the environment and NBN as the most important issues for the electorate and them personally.
THE RESEARCH: The Eden-Monaro online focus group is conducted by Essential Research (with recruitment by Your Source) for the University of Canberra’s ANZSOG Institute for Governance in conjunction with The Conversation.
The group’s views will be tracked up to the election.
Thirty participants took part in the discussion last Wednesday and Thursday. This was the third of six planned discussions.