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The Eden-Monaro project: Voters tired of leadership circus

As Labor caucus members return to Canberra uncertain who will be PM at the end of this final fortnight parliamentary sitting, voters in the bellwether seat of Eden-Monaro are saying to them: just sort…

The focus group results deliver Mike Kelly a mixed report card. AAP/Alan Porritt

As Labor caucus members return to Canberra uncertain who will be PM at the end of this final fortnight parliamentary sitting, voters in the bellwether seat of Eden-Monaro are saying to them: just sort your situation out – we are over it.

In a discussion last week, most in the University of Canberra-The Conversation focus group thought that Kevin Rudd should lead Labor into the election, because he was more popular than Julia Gillard.

In general however, people were exhausted by Labor’s internal struggle. Across the political spectrum they were tired of the “circus”, fueled by the media, and the way the leadership rumblings distract from what they see as more important things.

“It’s a joke”, said a younger soft Greens supporter. “It’s like a high school popularity competition. I think Rudd would do a better job however; he seems more level headed, if that’s possible”.

These leadership antics trigger schoolyard references. “I think they carry on worse than school kids. Kevin Rudd should be there, as we the people put him there”, said a soft Labor voter from coastal Merimbula. In contrast, a Liberal from the same area, also a middle aged woman, believed Gillard “should be forced to face the election – but the Labor party look very silly, like school children bickering, and will lose.”

An older Liberal supporter said that if children acted like this “we would send them to the naughty corner”.

Liberal voters just want the election to happen to end all the carry on. There is a feeling the ongoing leadership struggle diminishes Australia’s international standing.

One Liberal said: “Kevin Rudd was kicked out because he could not get along with his own party. Now desperation times as Gillard self destructs. Why would it be better with Rudd, as the same thing will happen again? Bring on an early election! We are becoming the laughing stock of the world.” A soft Liberal voter just had the plea, “Make the noise go away. I’m sick of the noise”.

ALP voters are disheartened, confused and want resolution. Soft independent and hard Labor and Green voters are very concerned about the prospect of Tony Abbott becoming PM. But even if the leadership changed to Rudd, they expect Labor to lose the election.

A Greens supporter from Berridale said that neither Gillard nor Rudd seemed to have Labor’s best interests at heart - they appeared “more interested in their own personal war.”

The main thing Labor voters wanted was certainty and an end to the bickering, so there could be a focus on what Labor had done.

Regardless of how they vote or who they prefer as Labor leader, participants saw the leadership battle as very damaging to the ALP. A Cooma woman said: “Keep Julia Gillard - stuffing around with leadership speculation just destabilises things”.

As the “hung parliament” of the last three years nears its end, people’s retrospective on it strongly reflects partisanship.

Labor and Greens backers were generally supportive. A Queanbeyan Labor supporter pointed to achievements: raising of the tax free threshold, and other measures to help the low paid and pensioners, as well as the carbon tax.

But a Queanbeyan Liberal argued that “being ‘hung’ has been disruptive - it all seems ‘up in the air’”; another Liberal said the parliament was an embarrassment – the government having to make deals with the independents to pass legislation “holds the country to ransom”.

One Liberal supporter didn’t see any impact (“everything seems to be running the same as it always does, plenty of arguing and not enough action in the best interests of the people”), but an unaligned male believed it has “caused too much bitterness”.

Liberals thought the independents and Greens had excessive power and felt another election should have been held immediately.

“The Greens and the independents got just a very tiny portion of the vote, yet they have managed to inflict their wacky views on the whole country – to its detriment,” said an older man from Narooma. A male from Sunshine Bay thought “this hung parliament is one of the worst things to happen to any Australian government ever!”

Those identifying as Labor, Green or independent voters were more positive, while recognising the complications of the situation. One saw it as “a great wake up call to the major parties”; another said “I wish we had more independents because I feel that they add a voice that is more representative of their electorate”, though it made it more difficult to get policies through. An ALP supporter thought that “the lack of any significant majority has probably made Labor a little too conservative in their policy on issues such as environment”.

Asked what was happening locally in Eden-Monaro, where Labor sits on a 4.2% margin, few felt the campaign there was in full swing and no one had been inundated with information – to the relief of many. But there have been signs of activity.

A Queanbeyan Liberal voter reported: “Certain candidates somehow seem to have got my email address and I have been getting regular emails”, while Liberal candidate Pater Hendy’s street stall had been spotted, and his mail outs noticed.

Voters across the political divide saw local member Mike Kelly as a reasonably effective local member, although there some cynicism too. “He’s mastered the ability to tell people what they want to hear and then do nothing about it whilst telling people he’s doing everything he can”, said one non-aligned voter.

Criticisms went to his relationship with industries and towns - he is viewed as an urban rather than a rural member. A Liberal supporter from Eden said Kelly has worked to get funding for a new Bega Hospital but “in my local area of far, far south coast he has angered many with his complete misunderstanding of relevant issues. We are struggling with cut backs in the timber and fishing industries. Come visit us and see all the empty shop fronts and our local Catholic primary school which is sitting shut and forlorn”.

Hendy, running for the first time in the seat, is not well known to those in the group. The couple that did appear to know him or had met him were not favourable to him.

One male described him as “a policy wonk more suited to being a political staffer which he was for many years, than an elected representative”. A Greens voter who had met him at the Cooma show and asked some questions left with a negative impression. “His attitude was condescending and as soon as he realised I was not there to praise him he turned quite nasty.”

Greens candidate Catherine Moore has made little impact, although she’s stood previously. A Liberal from Crestwood. a suburb of Queanbeyan, said: “Catherine Moore standing AGAIN: Never hear from her, and when one is at the polling booth, her how-to-vote cards are usually under a brick for the people to pick up”.

Since the the group’s previous discussion in May, a new candidate has come onto the scene. Mayor of Cooma Dean Lynch is standing for billionaire Clive Palmer’s Palmer United Party. Most hadn’t heard of his announcement; only a couple of people who live in the Cooma area knew of it.

A Greens supporter who lives there said “town opinion seems divided about him. He was elected mayor by the councillors not the voters. He owns a lot of property in Cooma. I think Lynch will generate some votes in Cooma – at least he’s a candidate people know – but hopefully not anywhere else. It’s good to have another candidate. Adds variety”.

A non-aligned voter from Moruya was “not happy that he is staying on as mayor – he should do one thing, not both,” but a soft Green supporter from Berridale thought he’s “a great candidate as he is a fantastic mayor who always has time for locals.”

As for the Palmer exercise generally: one Liberal’s judgement was that “Clive Palmer’s a bit of a goose. Another candidate may offer something to those who are sick of Labor/Liberal fighting. But I would think preferences would go to the Liberals. Our experience of independents in the sitting parliament should warn us off voting for one this time around”.

Overall, the Palmer party’s arrival wasn’t seen as something that would improve politics or outcomes in the local electorate. It was another entrant into the “show” and so inclined to reinforce many voters' disillusionment, which in general continues to be as strong as in the May discussion.

When people were asked about their seat’s “bellwether” status – it has been aligned with the government of the day for four decades - having a member who was in government was felt to be more important than having a good local member. This reflected voters' perceptions that their issues were national rather than local.

But there were differences between those in urban centres and rural towns, with those in the smaller places feeling overlooked and wanting preference for their local needs.

“I vote nationally on the party’s policies and performance. The local member could be bugs bunny, if they represent the party I want”, said a Queanbeyan Liberal voter.

Others felt it was important their local MP was in government so decisions made would reflect local as well as national interests. A Family First supporter from Cooma said: “You can have a good local candidate but if he is not in government he is pretty powerless.”

A Liberal-supporting woman injected a touch of cynicism into her assessment that being a bellwether seat was better than not.

“I think it keeps Eden-Monaro from being forgotten by having a member of the government of the day. But it doesn’t appear to do much other than keep us remembered, as far as I can tell.”

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.