If the mood of an old-style public meeting at Narooma on Sunday 14 November is any guide, John Howard and the Coalition will face annihilation on November 24.
This south-coast New South Wales town which hosted a public meeting organised by GetUp! (quite fortuitously) on the day this year’s Federal election was called, is less dependant than it once was on its timber, fishing and farming industries. Narooma, which is now also a tourist town and a retirement village for Canberra public servants reflects the very mixed nature of the Eden-Monaro electorate.
Critically, Narooma is in the Eden-Monaro electorate, which has been held by the Party in government, without exception, since 1972 and is among the 16 seats that Labor must win, if Kevin Rudd is to replace John Howard, as Australia’s Prime Minister.
Garry Nairn has held the seat for the Liberal Party since 1996, and at the meeting on Sunday, predictably declared that he is quite ‘determined’ to keep it. A redistribution, since the last election in 2004, could help him.
Equally predictably, Nairn’s Labor opponent, former military lawyer, Mike Kelly, believes that the 3.3 per cent swing he needs to capture the seat, is well within reach. ‘I don’t think 3.3 per cent is a difficult ask,’ Kelly told the ABC after the meeting.
Nairn and Kelly attended Sunday’s meeting along with Independent candidate, the writer Acacia Rose who fiercely opposes sale of the Snowy Hydro and the Greens candidate, Keith Hughes, who had more reason than the others to be delighted with questions from the floor of the meeting, which, amazingly, attracted some 1000 people.
Many in the audience were deeply green and their questions, overwhelmingly, reflected fears for the future, if global warming is not tackled immediately. There were, however, the usual skeptics including one local, in his 60s, who entertained a group of friends by complaining about ‘all that green bullshit.’
George Negus, who moderated the event, told the audience that, while still in the Australian Army, Kelly had helped to expose the AWB scandal, arising from the $300 million in bribes paid to Saddam Hussein before the allied invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Kelly said that while attending to a blood-stained comrade in Iraq, he had decided that he must do something to tackle the government’s ‘mishandling’ of foreign affairs. He said it was this which had impelled him to stand as a Labor candidate in the upcoming elections.
Once again, though, not everyone in the audience was convinced. ‘When I was in the army, I loaded magazines. I didn’t bloody read them,’ one cynic declared, to all who would listen.
Nairn was clearly uncomfortable at times, during the meeting, which he believed had been stacked against him. ‘I think most of the people who were there had decided beforehand how they would vote,’ he told NewMatilda.com afterwards.
Nairn also challenged the organisers, who had described GetUp! as a-political. In fact, Nairn said, the organisation had been founded by the Victorian Labor power broker, Bill Shorten. So why had he agreed to attend? NewMatilda.com asked. ‘Because some people will criticise you if you don’t,’ Nairn replied.
His discomfort probably peaked, when he tried to defend Australia’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq, which Nairn insisted had not been illegal. He was then challenged over the number of Iraqis who had died, as a result of that invasion. ‘A whole lot less than would have died if Saddam Hussein was still in power,’ he retorted. That drew hoots of derision from the crowd.
Although the meeting was held upstairs at the Narooma Golf Club, which also houses a hugely profitable pokie palace, it might well be the closest thing Australia will see, in this election, to an old-style town hall political meeting. It was certainly successful, on its stated aims, at least in Narooma.
What, then, is to be made of the audience? Was it really stacked, as Nairn suspected? Acacia Rose probably had the best observation noting that the young people had apparently ‘gone surfing’ instead. There were young and middle-aged faces in the crowd, but retired political junkies from Canberra made up the majority. And one of the hottest issues discussed at the meeting was the losses suffered by retired Commonwealth Public Servants and military personnel, because their pensions are tied to inflation, not wage movements. That reduced them to self-funded welfare recipients, one protestor argued.
How reliable is the Narooma meeting as a predictor of the 24 November election result?
Clearly, the ‘It’s Time’ message is out in force, again. And Nairn did not appear to be getting much traction with the presentation of his impressive record of achievement in the electorate over the past 11 years (including doubling the number of doctors in rural towns, like Narooma).
Some caution, though, would still be wise. Eden-Monaro is a very disparate electorate. It contains Tumut, for example, where the Visy cardboard plant is to be doubled in size. There are many people in the electorate whose uneven incomes might well make them unpredictable voters. And the biggest town in the electorate, Queanbeyan, is now, more than ever, a dormitory suburb for nearby Canberra, where rents and house prices have made life for young families an evermore frightening nightmare over the past three years.
The same can be said for Bungendore and Captains Flat, two other important centres in the electorate.
Despite this, Eden-Monaro is still being seen as a litmus test for the overall result on 24 November.
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