Though the date is now in flux, then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s decision to announce the election months in advance has meant the campaigning in Eden-Monaro began some time ago.
There are already six announced candidates. While only a major party candidate will win the seat, preferences from minor parties or high profile independents can play a large part in determining the outcome, and possibly government. Among the candidates whose preferences could be crucial are the Greens’ Catherine Moore, a former Palerang Councillor who has stood for both the state and federal seat in previous elections, and Cooma-Monaro Mayor, Dean Lynch, who is standing for Clive Palmer’s Palmer United Party.
The incumbent, Labor’s Mike Kelly, is standing for his third term. Kelly is a former colonel in the Australian army with a PhD in military law and who, as a military lawyer in Iraq during the 2003 invasion, inspected US-allied detention facilities and blew the whistle on the torture of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib. Kelly retired from the army in 2007 to contest the seat of Eden-Monaro at the request of then Opposition Leader, Kevin Rudd. He has made no secret of his support for Rudd in the leadership spills.
As Minister for Defence Materiel, Kelly has a large, well-staffed office in Queanbeyan. The street front is fitted out in official Australian government livery with only a single photo of Kelly, his name, appointment and the coat-of-arms logo of the Australian Government. There is no party ID or election material evident from the street or in the waiting room inside the office.
The Liberal candidate, Peter Hendy, worked closely with the Howard government as advisor to Industrial Relations Minister Peter Reith and then CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. In opposition he was Chief of Staff to former Leader, Brendan Nelson and advisor to Deputy Leader Julie Bishop. He believes that his party’s decision not to select their candidate in 2010 until eight weeks out from the election was a major campaign mistake. The party learned its lesson and Hendy, who holds a PhD in economics, was pre-selected a year ago.
Hendy’s campaign office is at the opposite end of Queanbeyan’s main street from Kelly’s office. It is spacious on the inside and impossible to miss from the outside, decked out with posters and stacked with campaign material. He says that the party sees Eden-Monaro as a key to victory in this election and is putting a lot of resources into the Eden-Monaro campaign.
Kelly’s approach to the 2013 election is targeted directly at his constituency. He is taking government policy to the relevant sections of the electorate and tailoring it to suit local communities. The three main issues on which he is basing his claim for reelection, are renewable energy, the NBN, and the promotion of tourism in the region. He has a particular enthusiasm for the first of these, pointing out that the government has already invested over $1 billion in renewable energy in the region through the Clean Energy Future policy, creating 2300 new jobs in the process. He believes the NBN, currently being rolled out in the northern end of the electorate, is a “real gamechanger” and has a long-term vision of creating an Australian Silicon Valley in the region with growing opportunities for e-commerce.
Hendy’s top issues are those on which the Liberal Party is campaigning at national level. He says the issues raised with him “all the time” in the electorate are cost of living, specifically higher energy prices because of the carbon tax, economic mismanagement and border security. Hendy does not believe that the NBN is relevant and points out that the Howard government telecommunications program to eliminate mobile phone blackspots would have been delivered by 2009, had it not been cancelled by the incoming Rudd government in 2007. In contrast to Kelly’s optimistic outlook for the region based on NBN opportunities, Hendy is concerned that many small businesses in the region are under pressure due to increasing internet trading and online purchasing.
In communicating their campaign message both candidates agree that the most effective way is direct contact with constituents. Both Kelly and Hendy travel long distances in getting around the electorate but believe that the face-to-face approach is appreciated by people in the more remote areas of the region and allows them to keep in touch with local issues. Kelly has a family history in the region going back four generations and says he enjoys driving around the electorate and seeing various landmarks named after his forebears.
Kelly singles out radio as his preferred medium for campaigning. In an electorate as large as Eden-Monaro, he points out that there are “a lot of people who spend a lot of time in cars” and that in some of the rural areas radio is a primary source of information for many people. He uses new media, is an active Twitter user and has a Facebook page but he says that this forms only a very small part of his overall campaigning. He does not and will not, despite requests from the ALP campaign office, do “robo-calls” nor will he resort to negative campaigning about the other side. He is quite sceptical when it comes to taking advice from PR experts who advised him to shave off his moustache and wear certain coloured ties.
Hendy’s campaign is solidly based on traditional media. With a well-resourced campaign fund, he is already airing advertising on TV and in the local print media. He has a Facebook page but does not use Twitter due to a Liberal Party ban on the use of that medium by new candidates. He says that while Twitter is fine for shadow ministers who are experienced in its use, the party believes that it is “fraught with danger”.
Hendy admits that the change in the Prime Ministership has meant a change in campaign focus, as much of his message has been based on linking Kelly with the unpopularity of former Prime Minister Gillard. Kelly reflects this, commenting that Prime Minister Rudd is “overwhelmingly preferred” in this electorate and the change has made his campaign a lot easier. While Kelly, however, is able to cite polling data as an indication of how the campaign is moving, Hendy says he takes no notice of any polls, because, regardless of what they indicate, his job is still to run a strong campaign for the Liberal Party.
Both candidates commend the local branches of their respective parties for maintaining high profiles within their local communities. Hendy says that while party membership is falling, the support base of the party is growing and he has no problem in attracting people to assist in his campaigning. Interestingly, both candidates are quick to dismiss the local branch significance of the opposing party. Both Hendy and Kelly believe that most of the local presence of his opponent’s party is, in fact, comprised of ACT and not local branch members.