Two Victorian regional seats are looming as interesting contests despite the non-competitiveness of Labor.
A survey of two inter-connected contests in regional Victorian seats which have lately been added to the Poll Bludger election guide:
Indi (Liberal 9.0%)
Indi covers an area of northern Victoria including Wangaratta, Benalla and the border town of Wodonga, with the Murray River and New South Wales border serving as its northern boundary. The redistribution to take effect at the coming election sees it gain Murrindindi Shire and its 10,000 voters from McEwen in the south and lose Strathbogie Shire and its 7,500 voters to Murray in the west, which cuts the Liberal margin against Labor from 9.9% to 9.0%. Created at federation, the seat was won narrowly by Labor when they came to office in 1910, 1914 and 1929, shifting decisively to the conservatives thereafter. It then went back and forth between the Country Party and the Liberal Party (along with its predecessor the United Australia Party), the member from 1937 to 1949 being Country Party titan John “Black Jack” McEwen, who moved to the new seat of Murray with the expansion of parliament in 1949.
The Liberals have held the seat without interruption since 1977, when National Country Party incumbent Mac Holten was unseated by Ewen Cameron on Labor preferences. The Nationals contested the seat in 2001 when Cameron’s successor Lou Lieberman retired, but managed only 12.3% against 40.1% for Liberal candidate Sophie Panopoulos, a barrister and Australians for Constititutional Monarchy activist. Panopoulos married in 2006 and assumed her husband’s surname of Mirabella. Mirabella was promoted to parliamentary secretary following the 2007 election defeat, and rose again to the junior ministry when Malcolm Turnbull became leader in September 2008. She assumed the early childhood education and childcare portfolios before moving to innovation, industry, science and research when Tony Abbott became leader in December 2009.
Mirabella is reckoned to be under pressure from independent candidate Cathy McGowan, a rural consultant and former regional councillor for the Victorian Farmers Federation. McGowan’s challenge emerged out of a local activist group called Voice for Indi, and appears to be capitalising on sentiment that Mirabella is a Melbourne personality with insufficient connection to the electorate. Her profile was lifted when retiring New England independent Tony Windsor told the ABC’s Insiders program that Mirabella was the person he would least miss in politics, and that McGowan was an “excellent independent” whose campaign he might lend support. The Wangaratta Chronicle reported that Mirabella was sufficiently concerned to be planning on a “six figure” campaign to defend the seat, although she responded that the figure had been “plucked out of the air”. A ReachTEL poll published on the weekend had Mirabella leading McGowan 47% to 25% after exclusion of the undecided, remembering that McGowan can expect to benefit heavily from preferences.
Mallee (Nationals 23.3%)
Mallee is the scene of one of the election’s few substantial inter-Coalition contests following the retirement of Nationals veteran John Forrest. The electorate covers the north-western corner of Victoria, including the south bank of the Murray River from Mildura and Swan Hall and further territory south to Horsham. The electorate was created in 1949 from territory which had mostly been in Wimmera, which was then reoriented further to the south and eventually abolished in 1977. The present dimensions of Mallee closely resemble the combined area of Mallee and Wimmera as drawn in 1949, such has been the area’s relative population decline. The redistribution to take effect at the coming election has buttressed it with a further 6000 voters by adding Stawell in the south of the electorate, previously in Wannon.
Mallee has always been held by the National/Country Party, although their candidate John Forrest was pushed very hard by Liberal candidate Adrian Kidd when his predecessor Peter Fisher retired in 1993. Forrest led the primary vote 37.7% to 32.5%, but a 59-41 split of Labor preferences in Kidd’s favour reduced the margin to 0.5% at the final count. The seat has not been contested by the Liberals since, but the party has long had cause to fear them doing so on the occasion of Forrest’s retirement, having lost the neighbouring seats of Murray and Farrer (north of the New South Wales border) in similar circumstances in 1996 and 2001. Labor poses no threat in the seat, which has had the safest Coalition margin of any in the country at two successive elections.
The Nationals’ candidate is former Victorian Farmers Federation president Andrew Broad, who won preselection ahead of Swan Hill councillor Michael Adamson, Buloke mayor Reid Mather, Horsham farmer Russell McKenzie and Mildura resident Anne Webster. His Liberal opponent is Chris Crewther, a 29-year-old lawyer and adviser to Senator Michael Ronaldson. The Liberals’ determination to field a candidate was in defiance of the express wishes of Tony Abbott, and has caused considerable friction between the coalition parties. Andrew Broad stated that any opponent the Liberals fielded against him would be “another Liberal Party muppet run out of Melbourne”, causing Liberal state director Damien Mantach to accuse him of a “shrill outburst … unbecoming of someone who is aspiring to be a local leader and elected to high office”.
Perhaps explaining Abbott’s reluctance to see the Liberals enter the field, John Ferguson of The Australian reports that “rebel Nationals’ supporters” are seeking revenge by assisting Cathy McGowan in her run against his ally Sophie Mirabella in Indi. For their part, Labor is seeking to stir the pot by directing preferences to Crewther. Their candidate is Lydia Senior, chief executive of the Lower Murray Medicare Local.