Ultra-marginal Corangamite is a mirror of the nation

Labor MP Darren Cheeseman faces an uphill battle to retain Corangamite. The Victorian electorate is Australia’s most marginal seat. AAP/David Crosling

In 2013, the Victorian electorate of Corangamite is a mirror of the nation’s electoral allegiance and social composition. At the 2010 federal election, Labor’s Darren Cheeseman narrowly won on the back of Green preferences, but this year a Liberal victory seems likely.

The electorate includes the southern suburbs of Geelong, the towns of the Surf Coast such as Torquay and Lorne and extends westward to Colac on the fringe of the dairy belt. The settlements within Corangamite exemplify the rapid growth of Australia’s peri-urban coastal regions in recent decades. The southern suburbs of Geelong were once a Liberal enclave in a blue-collar city with a struggling football team.

However, now the football team are superstars, the factories have been converted into craft markets and the guitar rock of Magic Dirt has given way to the surf/roots Xavier Rudd as the local music of choice. The southern suburbs now extend beyond the hills to the much less scenic plain and have become classic mortgage belt country.

In 2007, Cheeseman secured substantial swings across the electorate to become the first Labor MP for Corangamite since 1929. At the 2010 election, Labor’s vote slipped somewhat in rural areas, but the party held or increased its vote slightly in growing suburban areas. This enabled Cheeseman to eke out a narrow victory over Liberal candidate Sarah Henderson. Corangamite can lay claim to having been the electorate that decided the result of the election.

Since 2010, Labor’s road has been hard in Corangamite. Local manufacturing enterprises such as Alcoa and Ford are under constant pressure. These businesses are much less significant employers than they were in the 1980s, but they retain a sentimental hold on public opinion. If Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott want a nation that “makes things”, Geelong voters will want their town to make things as well.

Morale is low in the local retail sector and empty shops are a common sight in Geelong’s CBD. The Coalition’s anti carbon-tax campaign probably has made more of an impact in Geelong than elsewhere, exacerbating the pain of the faltering retail sector. The recent changes to fringe benefits tax and salary packaging have also probably hurt Labor due to their impact on the motor industry. Cheeseman has been well aware of his perilous position, and perhaps as a result was an early advocate of Rudd’s return to the Labor leadership.

If Corangamite is a mirror of the nation, its election candidates are reflective of their parties. Cheeseman, who has a background in local government, an employment history with the Community and Public Sector Union and the Association for the Blind, is an archetypal Labor MP. Henderson is a former journalist, media consultant and daughter of a former Liberal state MP. She is a fluent speaker and an aggressive campaigner.

In 2010, Henderson ran an enormously expensive campaign and covered the electorate with billboards. However, that year she could not defy the Victorian trend to Labor, disunity in the local Liberal Party and the doubts some Liberal-inclined voters in Victoria felt about Tony Abbott.

In 2013, however, Labor are on the defensive. Henderson’s campaign has a more grassroots feel. There are fewer billboards, but plenty of posters in the front yards in Liberal suburbs. The Liberal base is enthused. Henderson’s campaign in 2013 has cleaved closely to national Liberal themes that - unlike in 2010 - are winners in Corangamite.

On potentially troublesome areas such as asylum seeker policy or 457 visas, Henderson has the ready argument that Labor had been in power for six years and has failed to solve these problems. It is an argument that voters - apart from committed Labor or Green partisans - seem likely to accept. Labor has relied heavily on incumbency and highlighted initiatives such as the National Broadband Network and support for manufacturing. Labor has won the pamphlet war to fill up letterboxes but this may be a sign of its overall weakness.

Liberal candidate Sarah Henderson is in a promising position to take the seat of Corangamite in her second campaign. AAP/Alan Porritt

Henderson’s campaign has received further support from Andrew Black, Corangamite’s first National Party candidate in decades. The young Catholic conservative has echoed Henderson in public appearances, although he has been a more vociferous defender of 457 visas than her. Greens candidate Lloyd Davies is also a modern representative of his party like Cheeseman and Henderson. Davies is an engineer and has emphasised the party’s commitment to improve social services, in particular Dentacare.

Victoria has rarely been a happy hunting ground for the populist right, but candidates from Country Alliance, the Australian Protectionists, Australian Christians, Family First and Palmer United have all nominated in Corangamite. Dairy farmers in the electorate feel under constant economic pressure and the Country Alliance and the Australian Protectionist candidates have echoed these concerns - in particular the supermarket duopoly.

This is also a theme that the local Greens, inspired by their leader Christine Milne’s appeal to farmers, have taken up. The Palmer United Party candidate Buddy Rojek made a run for ideologically ambivalent voters by supporting marriage equality whilst also declaring himself a climate change skeptic. However, Rojek was disendorsed by the party after he promised to supply “hot babes” at his election night party.

Funding for local ambulance and health services has been a particular flash point in Colac, with both the Liberal and Labor candidates blaming either the Commonwealth or the state government. In response, Country Alliance and the Protectionists have called for a reallocation of government expenditure to basic services but the Protectionist candidate has also advocated for lower immigration. The Sex Party and the Greens have argued that their taxation proposals, such as an improved mining tax or the taxation of religious organisation, could raise funds to support these government services.

Corangamite is a mirror of the nation. Public and private polls have both consistently pointed to a local Liberal victory. This would be as unsurprising as a national Coalition victory.