The Eden-Monaro project: voters disappointed with the national leaders and debate

Minister for Defence Materiel and Eden-Monaro MP Mike Kelly casts his vote in the 2010 federal election. AAP/Stefan Postles

With the election just four months away but the campaigning seeming endless, the view of politics from the marginal Labor seat of Eden-Monaro is one of disillusionment.

Regardless of gender, age or voting intention, a common theme in qualitative research conducted last week for the University of Canberra’s Eden-Monaro Project, being done in conjunction with The Conversation, found disappointment among voters with the quality of leadership and the nature of political discussion.

There was a lack of engagement with politics - despite strong levels of concern with employment and access to public services. With a few exceptions – those with an interest in particular policy areas – most had only minimal interest in following the current activities of the leaders and their parties. What they saw and heard from the news media just reinforced their disappointment.

One “soft Liberal” voter in his early 30s from Queanbeyan put it this way: “I guess I follow politics the way most people follow the weather. On any given day I’ll take a look to check that it is not ‘raining’ (that something big is not going on that I’d like to be, or should be, interested in).”

Confirming their low ratings in the numerous quantitative polls, the discussion reflected that neither leader is liked. Some women who identified with Labor or Greens respected Julia Gillard, seeing her as intelligent and sincere and concerned about the country’s future. But some of these participants also thought she looked aloof and did not communicate with the public effectively.

A middle aged Labor voter from Tuross Heads said Gillard was a good leader but was playing the “female” card too often, adding that she should make up with Kevin Rudd to outwit the opposition. An older female Labor voter from Queanbeyan believed she had done some great things, such as the national disability scheme, but “she comes across as cold”.

Liberal voters thought her bullying and said she broke promises. An older female from Eden described her as a “walking disaster” while a middle aged woman said “she has not done anything well except go against what she has said”.

Regardless of party, people tended mostly to be very critical of Tony Abbott, seeing him as incapable of leading the country, a poor communicator, too negative and without policies. There was concern about the country’s future under him.

A soft Liberal voter said he had “squandered the opportunities afforded to him. Rather than stand up for something he just tries to drag down the government all the time”, while another voter who identified with the Liberals said: “Tony Abbott has only done a fair job. He needs to be more positive”.

But some who identified as Liberal thought that despite failings Abbott was a good opposition leader, consulted with his party and the public well, and would be a good PM. A middle aged woman admired “Tony’s style but he has had some moments where his mouth engages before he thinks through what he is saying. I like his honesty” but “I think he also will be on the defensive between now and the election and not progressing issues like he should be”. One Liberal praised his making the disability scheme “a non-election issue” by forcing Gillard to pass the legislation before parliament rises.

In terms of their vote, some saw leadership as more important than party in influencing them; for others, it was the reverse. Certain people felt they didn’t have an effective choice – there were really only two parties to select from and they disliked both leaders.

A Green voter from near Braidwood lamented that “unfortunately our federal voting laws mean we ultimately have to vote for one of the two major parties … It comes down to deciding which major party will do the least damage”. A soft Liberal voter complained: “A vote for Julia is a vote for a puppet. A vote for Tony is a vote for Tony… Personally voting for Tony puts a bad taste in my mouth but I don’t want to vote Labor either.”

Critical of Labor but totally turned off by Abbott, an undecided woman in her 30s confessed: “At this stage I’m thinking about handing in a blank ballot form.”

Talking about the best and worst things both sides had done over the last three years, people were generally more negative in their responses about what the Liberals had done and more positive about some of Labor’s policies, although they divided on party lines.

“Labor’s best” included the NBN, the disability scheme, Gonski, paid parental leave; its worst were the carbon tax and “party politics”.

The opposition’s best were support for the NDIS and promising to repeal the carbon tax; its worst were Tony Abbott, its NBN performance and the fact it “stands for nothing”.

Most thought the Liberals would win the election, although there concern about the prospect of an Abbott government. A soft Liberal speculated: “I don’t know that the [Coalition] government will then know who they are or what they stand for and we will be left with a bunch of chickens scratching in the dirt trying to figure out what it is they are trying to achieve”.

But people with a clear intention to vote Liberal thought there would be minimal cuts to good government programs, and wanted the Greens to lose their Senate balance of power.

Local MP Mike Kelly was well regarded by people, irrespective of their party leanings; he was seen as understanding local issues. People did not know much about the Liberals’ Peter Hendy; when they were aware of him, they tended to believe he came across as abrasive.

A soft Liberal voter said: “Mike Kelly is very well known whereas Peter Hendy seems to have a lower profile. Whilst I lean to the Liberals, Mike Kelly is such a good speaker he could sway my vote”.

Locally, people had so far seen little political advertising in their area; if they had got anything it tended to go in the bin.

There was general agreement what people thought the most important issues to them – cost of living, employment, health, education and public transport.

As the group facilitator reported: “These issues were seen to be applicable nationally but in a very localised way. Simply put, access to services and coping with increased cost of living while dealing with less job security, availability of hours or employment opportunity. The lack of services and employment opportunities was seen as part of the disadvantage of living in a rural and regional area”.

“Wages are lower and full time work is difficult to find, yet it’s quite expensive to live around here”, said a female undecided voter from Millingandi, while a Liberal from Eden said that “health care is a big issue … we have to travel for any major treatment”. From another area a soft Liberal voter said that “health care locally is an issue with not enough beds and an abysmal mental health service”.

Looking towards Tuesday’s budget, voters sent the strong message that spending should be cut to find savings. They don’t want the government to spend money that it doesn’t have.

They are not anticipating much good news. As an undecided voter put it: “They made their bed, now they’re gonna make us all lie in it. I’m not expecting it to be terribly comfortable”.