The Eden-Monaro project: the first report

Eden Monaro is currently held by Mike Kelly, Minister for Defence Materiel. AAP/Alan Porritt

In David Williamson’s satirical play “Don’s Party” based around the 1969 federal election night, Eden-Monaro gets a mention, among the early signs of a big swing to Labor.

At that poll, the seat returned to ALP hands and to its former MP Allan Fraser, who had held it from 1943 to 1966. But the national swing fell short of installing a Whitlam government. The victory in Eden-Monaro (a seat that dates from federation) turned out to be one of the portents of the national result three years on.

This seat, which the University of Canberra’s ANZSOG Institute for Governance and The Conversation will track from now to the election, is regarded as a “bellwether” because it has been held by the government of the day at every election since 1972.

For forty years, as the country has gone so has this electorate in south-east NSW, which stretches from the border of the ACT to the south coast, where many Canberrans holiday and quite a few spend their retirement.

Strikingly, the winning two party-preferred vote in Eden-Monaro and nationally have not differed by more than 4.4% in any of these last 16 elections.

Electorally, Eden-Monaro has a taste of many things. Big and small towns (including Cooma, centre for the construction of the Snowy Mountains Hydro scheme), grazing and dairying country, snow regions as well as coastal areas.

The diversity does not, however, make the seat a microcosm for the nation. Most Australians live in major cities but this electorate does not contain one. It is lower than average in ethnic diversity, with few residents speaking languages other than English (particularly Asian languages).

The fast-growing town of Queanbeyan (almost 38,000 in 2011) represents 28% of the electorate, compared with 22.5% a decade earlier.

In Politics in Eden-Monaro (1958) D.W. Rawson and Susan M. Holtzinger described Queanbeyan (population 7500) as filling “the role of general maid-of-all-work to Canberra”. These days, it is sometimes referred to as “Struggletown”, in comparison with its more lavishly-resourced big neighbour.

But while it may feel put down by the political class, in recent times Queanbeyan has enjoyed a special limelight. As out-and-about political campaigning has continued throughout this hung parliament Queanbeyan has become a backdrop for many appearances, especially by opposition leader Tony Abbott, who when in Canberra regularly nips over the border to appear at this or that small business establishment.

Click here to open in new window or republish. The interactive map provides a snapshot of Eden Monaro using data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2011 Census. The electorate is shown here broken into small statistical regions defined by the ABS. This fine-grained spatial data reveals variations in age, income, employment and other measures across the electorate. Income here is gross income per household per week; participation is defined as the percentage of the population either in work, or seeking work. Visualisation by Mitchell Whitelaw, University of Canberra. Built using d3.

Queanbeyan consistently records the strongest Labor vote of the major towns in Eden-Monaro; since 1996 Labor’s two-party preferred vote in its booths has never dipped below 54%. The town’s growth has implications for Eden-Monaro’s “bellwether” status; if the pattern continues it could transform into a Labor-leaning seat.

The most common source of employment in the Eden-Monaro electorate is “public administration and safety” (almost 15.2 % compared with the national average of nearly 6.9%). Most of Eden-Monaro’s public administration and safety workers live in Queanbeyan (62.4%) where the closeness to Canberra encourages access to public service jobs.

The electorate contains a high proportion of older people and retirees. Among those of working age, nearly a quarter are aged over 55 and not in the labour force, compared with only about one fifth nationally. Eden-Monaro also has a higher percentage of people than the nation in each age category over 45 years and considerably lower percentages aged 20 to 39 years.

The seat has been represented since 2007 by Mike Kelly, a former army officer and legal specialist who had a number of deployments including to Iraq. Kelly served in several parliamentary secretary roles (defence support; water; agriculture, fisheries and forestry; and defence) before being appointed in February as Minister for Defence Materiel.

In the 2010 election he defeated a high profile former Liberal staffer, David Gazard. This time his opponent will be Peter Hendy, currently on the staff of deputy opposition leader Julie Bishop, who worked for Peter Reith in the Howard government. Hendy has lived in Queanbeyan for more than a decade. He started as a cadet economist with Treasury, and ran the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry for six years.

Both Kelly and Hendy have PhDs.

The Greens candidate is Catherine Moore, a serial candidate: she stood for this seat in 2010 and previously several times for the NSW parliament. An artist, she lives in Braidwood and has served on the Palerang council.

In that election, in which there were eight candidates, Labor scored a primary vote of 43.6%; the Liberals 41.8% and the Greens 9.7%. Kelly defeated his Liberal opponent on a two-party vote of 54.2% to 45.8%. The electorate is on a margin of 4.2%.

Over coming months we will bring you reports and interviews from the campaign. Essential Research will also track the mood and opinion of a group of 50 Eden-Monaro voters selected from the Your Source panel: this will be done through a series of online discussions between now and the September 14 election. The group will discuss local and national issues, the candidates, political parties, policies and the campaign.

The first discussion, reported here, was held last week, with 22 participants.

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