In federal elections, with national attention squarely focused on which party will form government, it is all too easy to forget former US Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neill’s aphorism, “all politics is local”.
The need for parliamentary candidates to make a case for representing their constituents is especially obvious in marginal seats, such as the much reported, but little studied, Eden-Monaro. The difficulty for the candidates in Eden-Monaro is that in a seat that covers 29,500 sq km, there are several different “locals”, each with their own political concerns. Furthermore, the difficulty of even being noticed as a challenger, such as the Coalition’s Peter Hendy in such a large seat is substantial.
An analysis of news reports in local newspapers from Batemans Bay (Bay Post), Bega (Bega District News), Braidwood (Braidwood Times), Cooma (Cooma-Monaro Express and Monaro Post), Eden (Eden Magnet), Jindabyne (Jindabyne Summit Sun), Merimbula (Merimbula News Weekly), and Queanbeyan (Queanbeyan Age), suggest that in terms of local reporting, the incumbent, Labor’s Mike Kelly is at a significant advantage.
Over the past three months, it has been far easier for Kelly to gain stories reporting “good news” for his campaign than it has for Hendy and other challengers. This is not a result of a press bias towards Kelly or Labor, but a reflection of both the way news works, and Kelly and Hendy’s differing strategies.
Recently, Kelly has announced a stream of separate funding decisions with benefits to different parts of his electorate. Kelly has carefully drip-fed good news in small pieces to almost every part of the electorate. In Queanbeyan, Kelly announced a federal grant for the Googong water recycling plant, in Jindabyne he announced several projects including funding for a GP superclinic, and funding to fix black spots on Snowy River Shire roads. He announced funding for the Bega Valley Shire Council for community infrastructure and also received positive coverage over progress on the creation of a Bega Hospital. In most of these stories, Kelly is presented positively, but Hendy and other candidates are not mentioned. Of course, Kelly has the advantage of incumbency, which allows him to highlight his achievements, but he is using it to good effect.
In Eden, political reporting has focused on the plans for a $10 million grant to upgrade its wharf and port facilities, which would provide a boost to the local economy. Kelly gained several positive reports from the Eden Magnet when he announced the deal’s approval, but this news was diminished when Rudd’s election announcement came before funding had officially been approved. Under caretaker rules the project could not be implemented. Hendy has not been able to capitalise on this apparent blunder as Kelly has guaranteed that if Labor is returned to government the project will go ahead, while Hendy has been unable to make a similar guarantee.
When Hendy has received local press coverage it has often come on roughly equal terms with his opponent. For example, in covering the Budget and Kevin Rudd’s return to the prime ministership, most local papers included statements from both major candidates about the way these events affect the people of Eden-Monaro.
Similarly, forum events which allow candidates to debate issues, such as a forum on climate policy held at Bermagui in early August, provide Hendy and minor party candidates with a chance to have their views reported on relatively equal terms with the incumbent.
As yet, articles reporting Hendy in a positive light, or even as the main focus of the article have been scarce. Hendy’s best reporting has come when senior members of his party such as Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Bronwyn Bishop have arrived at various parts of the electorate to campaign with him. Such events have provided positive news for Hendy’s campaign, although often the national figure has overshadowed Hendy. Most notably the Jindabyne Summit Sun reported that Turnbull was “mobbed”, while the Cooma-Monaro Express noted that Hendy was attempting to “catch some of [Turnbull’s] reflected sunlight”.
To a significant extent, Hendy’s failure to gain major support in local Eden-Monaro newspapers comes from a relative lack of significant policy announcements. In policy terms he has mostly focused on arguing that national matters such as the repeal of the carbon tax can benefit his potential constituents. Of course, competing against a popular local member from a less popular party, Hendy may well have decided that his best chance was to make the Eden-Monaro election a contest on national issues. However, with the narrower national polls since Rudd’s return to the prime ministership, this strategy is more dangerous.
In order to turn the local reporting around, Hendy must say more about his positive vision for the many local areas within Eden-Monaro. If not, he risks being trumped by Kelly’s more local strategy.