Gilmore election a litmus test for major parties' coastal appeal

Gilmore election a litmus test for major parties' coastal appeal

Dairy
Deputy PM and Nationals Leader Michael McCormack on the campaign trail with Nats Gilmore candidate Katrina Hodgkinson at Huskisson Wharf, in Jervis Bay.

Deputy PM and Nationals Leader Michael McCormack on the campaign trail with Nats Gilmore candidate Katrina Hodgkinson at Huskisson Wharf, in Jervis Bay.

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An unusual election campaign on the NSW South Coast may point the way for politicians to appeal to marginal coastal electorates for years to come.

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The election race for Gilmore on the NSW South Coast is a battle between for the hearts, minds and hip pockets of voters judging by the candidates of the three major parties.

It will provide a handy litmus test for a raft of regional coastal seats which represent hot political property as they become increasingly marginal - think of North Queensland electorates like Dawson, Flynn and Capricornia and Page and Cowper in NSW.

Gilmore candidate's pitches follow traditional party values, with Labor promising more local services and skills training, the Liberals appealing to aspirational values and business development and the Nationals weighing in on infrastructure spending and regional identity.

Gilmore is held by Liberal Anne Sudmalis, who's retiring at the election. She scraped home in the 2016 poll with just 1500 more votes than Labor's Fiona Phillips, who is favourite to win the poll this time around.

Gilmore is a haven for retirees, who tended to favour the Liberals. But with median incomes 20 per cent below the state average, and private industry increasingly reliant on tourism as traditional primary industries jobs in farming and forestry contract, the electorate could be fertile ground for Labor's pitch to boost wages and skills training.

The dairy industry remains an economic mainstay for the electorate, but farmers are warning politicians this election is the last chance to rectify the market failures which are driving producers off the land.

Labor candidate Fiona Phillips on her brother's dairy farm. She was beaten by just 1500 votes in 2016.

Labor candidate Fiona Phillips on her brother's dairy farm. She was beaten by just 1500 votes in 2016.

The seat is a blob of Liberal blue on the electoral map, wedged between Labor's red territory in Whitlam to the north and Eden-Mondaro to the south.

Gilmore has swung back and forth between the majors since it was created in 1984. The Nats' John Sharp was the inaugural MP. He was replaced by Labor's Peter Knott in 1993, who lost the seat to Liberal Joanna Gash. Ms Gash was MP until 2013, when current Ms Sudmalis replaced Ms Gash.

This time around, there's a large field of five candidates, including a rivalry between Coalition partners in Nationals Katrina Hodgkinson and Liberal Warren Mundine.

Ms Hodgkinson is a former NSW Primary Industries Minister, and she moved to Gilmore when she retired from state parliament in 2017.

A former Labor party national president, Mr Mundine ousted the incumbent Liberal candidate when he was parachuted into the seat by PM Scott Morrison earlier this year.

Ms Phillips is odds-on favourite to prise the seat away from the Liberals and run Labor's red line down the NSW coast from Wollongong to the Victorian border.

Dairy farmers Tim Cochrane and wife Alyssa have a yarn with Katrina Hodgkinson and Michael McCormack at the Sussex Inlet RSL Club.

Dairy farmers Tim Cochrane and wife Alyssa have a yarn with Katrina Hodgkinson and Michael McCormack at the Sussex Inlet RSL Club.

But hoping to head her off, Ms Hodgkinson working her name recognition and party connections to her advantage.

She's already drawn a visit from the Deputy PM Michael McCormack and a host of government ministers and nominated road upgrades and increased mental health services

"The Nationals have always represented towns and villages with different issues and identities, and that's what Gilmore is," Ms Hodgkinson said.

"One constant issue is upgrades to the Princes Highway, and next comes mental health, PTSD in veterans and depression among seniors. The retiree tax (Labor's plan to tax franking credits) because we have a lot of seniors living here."

The electorates major transport link, the Princes Highway, is a notoriously fatal road. The Coalition has pledged to invest over the next 10 years $500 million for upgrades, with $50m allocated in the coming four years.

Robert Miller on his Milton dairy farm with his cows enjoying the shade of a native red cedar tree. He plants 1000 trees a year on his property to improve bird habitat and enhance the landscape aesthetic.

Robert Miller on his Milton dairy farm with his cows enjoying the shade of a native red cedar tree. He plants 1000 trees a year on his property to improve bird habitat and enhance the landscape aesthetic.

Ms Phillips said if she is ahead in the campaign, Labor's investment in services was a major factor.

"The local hospital is pretty much in constant bed-lock. The state government has announced some funding but we are increasing growth in hospitals," she said.

"There is so much disadvantage here - the average wage is $45,000 to $50,000 dollars. We have elderly people waiting more than two years for elective surgery, people who can't get dentures.

"Local pre-apprenticeships were axed and we have money there for that now. If you wanted to do a trade couldn't get an apprenticeship, you could go to Tafe and the trade businesses would employ people from there."

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Mr Mundine sees a role for targeted public infrastructure investment, supported by private and public skills providers that train the workers.

These workers would fill the roles created by mandated local employment targets baked into infrastructure projects such as roads or bridges, Mr Mundine said.

He said many future job opportunities depended on how the tourism development was handled.

"We get that many people that come down here, but it's about how we build on that and market the coast," Mr Mundine said.

"And at the same time not making the mistakes of other places, and keep the pristine environment here."

A poster on Warren Mundine's campaign office in Nowra.

A poster on Warren Mundine's campaign office in Nowra.

Mr Mundine said the dairy industry's role in maintaining the Shoalhaven's tourist-attracting landscape was often overlooked.

"People think this is beautiful country. But they forget to ask why? It's because we've been able to have the dairy industry here.

"It's manicured and green and it works in with the forest and the open country, running down to the beautiful coastline."

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