AGRICULTURE strategic communicator Nigel Catchlove is hoping to give the Liberal party the grass roots focus and thrust it needs to win back voters to regain the bellwether seat of Eden-Monaro.
Mr Catchlove is putting his hand up for Liberal pre-selection and wants the internal audition held sooner rather than later to give him more time to raise his profile in the complex electorate, in what’s shaping up as a red hot contest in about two years’ time.
At last year’s federal poll, Labor’s Mike Kelly regained the seat that he lost in 2013 to former Liberal staffer Peter Hendy.
Mr Kelly’s win – after the seat’s boundary changed significantly in an electoral redistribution to include Yass, Tumut and Tumbarumba and expand in size by about 12,000 square kilometres – was also the first time since 1972 that the marginal electorate hadn’t been won by an MP from the elected government.
And with tensions rising between the rural Liberals and the Nationals in the current government, talk has also escalated that the junior Coalition partner is looking at contesting Eden-Monaro, to build on its effort of holding all of its seats at the last election and claiming an extra one in Victoria, while the Liberals lost 14 seats.
One name that has been linked to the Eden-Monaro in reports is Nationals deputy-leader and Regional Development and Communications Minister Fiona Nash in a move that would see her try and shift from the Senate to Lower House.
But in a statement, Senator Nash said she would not be running in Eden-Monaro.
Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce said Eden Monaro was a Labor held seat and the Coalition agreement “quite clearly states”, the Nationals were “quite rightly entitled” to run three cornered contests in non-Coalition held seats, if they choose to.
“We haven’t made that choice yet,” he said last week on Sky News.
“I’d look at both candidates and see which candidate is most likely to win and make a logical choice then.”
Mr Joyce also said the alternative to a Coalition government led by him and Malcolm Turnbull was one run by the Labor party, led by Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek.
Mr Catchlove said there was no agreed timetable for Liberal pre-selection to choose a candidate to contest the bellwether seat but he was committed to nominating to run for the party that he’s been a member of since 1985.
He said he was also looking to get started without unnecessary delay, given the electorate’s physical size and complexity; especially compared to metropolitan seats.
“Eden Monaro is the size of Switzerland and there are a number of communities within Eden Monaro,” he said.
“The people living in Eden have got nothing to do with the people living in Yass and the people living in Cooma are utterly different to the people living in Queanbeyan.
“The local member really needs to be across the issues in each of those communities within the electorate and it is so huge that you really cannot drive around it in a day and the inclusion now of Tumut and Tumbarumba makes it even more difficult to get round in a reasonable period of time.
“We need to make sure that a Liberal party candidate is able to gain a bit of profile around the electorate and start to be known around the electorate because that can’t happen in four or five months before an election.
“Running a pre-selection either later this year or early next year will give whoever is the successful Liberal candidate, maybe 12 to 15 months on the ground.”
Eden Monaro is winnable
Mr Catchlove said the longer the Liberals had a credible candidate on the ground campaigning in Eden-Monaro it increased their chances of winning.
“It is a winnable seat, there is no doubt about that, but if we put a candidate on the ground three of four months before an election, it’s just not going to happen,” he said.
Mr Catchlove said he hadn’t heard any specific mention of the Nationals running a candidate “but it would be silly to suggest they would just let this one slip”.
He said Eden Monaro, apart from being an inordinately large and diverse electorate, was one that also crossed the city-country divide.
“There is a huge rural representation in Eden Monaro, but there is also a very big population centre in Queanbeyan and the people who work in Queanbeyan have friends in Canberra and they socialise in Canberra,” he said.
“I have always lived on those fringes and I still am right now, living in Yass.
“I live close to Canberra but I live in a rural environment and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Mr Catchlove currently works as a communications and change management consultant and has spent the last six years working in the forestry industry, in public relations and communications.
Like Mr Kelly, he also has a military background having been an army officer for 20 years.
“I have a very good understanding of the forestry issues across the electorate and Eden Monaro has got the most diverse forestry interests of any electorate in Australia,” he said.
“From hard wood woodchip exports and hardwood sawlogs in Eden, to soft wood sawlogs in Bombala, Tumut and Tumbarumba and the Visy packaging plant and its Kraft manufacturing facility there too which is a huge export earner.”
Mr Catchlove said he also wanted to see a wood encouragement policy developed in Australia, at the federal level with ones already in place at local council level in Victoria and Queensland and one in Tasmania at state level.
“What we need to do at the federal level is making sure that we introduce a wood encouragement policy and what a wood encouragement policy does is it says to builders and architects, ‘if you are going to tender for a government facility or structure’, you need to look at the use of sustainably harvested timber, and wood products in the construction of that facility’,” he said.
“I don’t want an Orangutan on my coffee table.
“I’d rather have timber from a well-managed, sustainably harvested Australian forest.
“The wood encouragement policy means that basically they have to consider that option first.”
The importance of agriculture and trade
Mr Catchlove said he can’t claim to be a farmer but was married to a farmer’s daughter and understood the agriculture sector’s critical importance to rural communities; many of which are situated within Eden Monaro.
He said if the surrounding farmers are doing well economically, then that flows into the local communities and makes them “vibrant” in terms of the local commerce and quality of schools, education, health and other areas.
“What you have to ensure is that you set in place the right policies, at the federal government level, to allow those farmers to prosper and the biggest threat to that at the next election is the election of the Shorten government,” he said.
“One of the policy areas that’s helping our farmers prosper at the moment is our free trade agreements.
“An awful lot of work has been done by the Coalition already on trade deals and that’s continuing and we’ve also seen huge increases in dairy exports in Bega and woodchip exports from around Eden which is fantastic.
“There have also been increases across the board, especially in beef, but there is more and more work to be done.
“One of the things that I want to ensure is that the farmers and graziers in Eden Monaro are absolutely involved in the negotiations leading up to any free trade agreements to ensure they have visibility of the non-tariff barriers to trade, not just the tariff barriers, that are often the main focus of these free trade agreements.”
Mr Catchlove said it was still a long way off from any campaign trail and nominations for pre-selection hadn’t been called for yet.
But he said by putting his name forward now and doing it publicly, “I am saying to the liberal party, here is one candidate, who wants to have a crack at it”.
“Let’s see if we can bring a few more out of the woodwork and make a really good competition out of it,” he said.
“Let’s make sure we choose the right candidate and the best candidate, which obviously I hope is me.
“Marginal electorates tend to attract people who have real life experience outside of politics and we tend to get the real sort of ‘political animals’ in the safe or relatively safe seats.
“I think that I have been around politics for enough time to have some understanding as to how it works.
“Politics is often called the art of the possible and politicians have two main roles - one is obviously representing their electorate and the other is representing their party.
“But I think that sometimes they get the balance a bit wrong and they have been representing their party at the expense of their electorate.
“What I’ll be doing with the real life experience I’ve had in working as an army officer, working in the forestry industry and working in commonwealth fisheries management, is making sure that I absolutely represent the interests of the electorate, in parliament.”