Here’s to the battle between Mr and Mrs Robertson
One day last week Climate Change Minister Penny Wong found herself in a rather awkward position during a visit to the highly marginal seat of Robertson on the NSW Central Coast.
The minister made a whirlwind stop at a Million Women lunch at the Gosford RSL where she found herself on the top table, two seats from deposed ALP MP Belinda Neal.
The new ALP candidate, Deb O’Neill, was relegated to another table, out of the reflected glow of the visiting Cabinet inhabitant. Thus is the excellent weirdness of Robertson, one of the most hotly contested seats in the country come August 21.
The competition here, in the geographically stunning lower Central Coast, is incredibly fierce for a range of complicated reasons.
This election campaign, nationally derided as a huge bore, is anything but in Robertson.
The day after tomorrow, if not before, we’ll find out if Neal, who’s held the seat since the NSW ALP parachuted her in as its candidate in 2007, is going to run as an independent.
She lost Labor backing in a grass roots pre-selection back in March.
Her presence in a Gosford electorate office hangs heavy over the media coverage of the campaign, but during a few days on the ground there last week The Punch found the real ding dong battle looms between the two highly effective, and highly personable major party candidates.
Deb O’Neill for Labor and Darren Jameson for the Liberal Party are both the kind of people who seem to thrive on walking up and knocking on a stranger’s front door and asking for their vote.
They both possess that rare commodity in politics, experience in the real world (Jameson quit the NSW Police Force at the rank of Detective Sergeant last Thursday, O’Neill has taught teaching at a satellite campus of the University of Newcastle for years).
And neither of them is going down without a fight.
Back to them later.
Labor won Robertson by just 185 votes when Kevin ’07 swept to power. To call the margin paper thin is a political truism.
The demographics of the seat, and how it’s changed in the past two decades, go some of the way to explaining why it’s so hard to win.
While Sydneysiders like to think of the Central Coast as “God’s waiting room”, full of retirees, a huge influx of young families over the last 20 years have created a sort of two-speed seat.
Some parts of it are incredibly flash. Deep water frontage, triple garages, the lot. Other parts appear very run down, with little patches of renewal as families take advantage of more affordable land within walking distance of the beach and do a knock-down, rebuild.
Approximately 35,000 people commute to Sydney for work daily, the majority of them on the train.
Neal might have lost the faith of her party (and the electorate, judging by the voters who spoke to The Punch), but she does know the seat like the back of her hand.
During an interview, in which she was understandably reluctant to go over old ground, Neal provided an overview of the key issues which proved to be dead on when we then spoke to voters.
Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott might be banging on about industrial relations and boat people, but in Robertson health services is the absolute number one issue.
Quality of life considerations such as education, infrastructure and cost of living are also high on the list.
Neal says of the population barney dominating the national media: “It’s out there, but it’s a second order issue here” as growth in Robertson “peaked 10 years ago.”
“Health is a constant and it has been for years, and they also want to ensure that their kids are well educated.”
On climate change: “The people of Robertson want a solution. It’s a practical issue here. We don’t just have the coast, we also have Brisbane Water. If the sea level went up even half a metre there’d be thousands of people left homeless.”
It must be hard for Neal. She wouldn’t be drawn on the matter of if she would run this time around (the cut off for nomination is Thursday), but if I was a betting woman I’d put $10 on her declining to put herself through it.
So to Erina Fair. It’s no wonder politicians love the enormous shopping centre plonked between Gosford and Terrigal. Not only is it clean and light and airy, it’s a honey pot for friendly swinging voters from all over the electorate.
The two I’d like to introduce you to are Sarah Moore and Maree Caruna. The school friends are now both 36, and in a beautiful piece of synchronicity both have three children aged 4 to 10 (Sarah has all girls, Maree boys).
The pair both started out saying they had “no idea” about politics, then surprised themselves and each other with just how well informed they were.
Both of them were quite moved by the fact that for the first time Australia has a female Prime Minister, and both were quite pragmatic about the demise of her predecessor Kevin Rudd.
Maree: “I like Julia. I was a little bit sad for Rudd, I don’t necessarily think he did a bad job. In fact I think he did a good job during the GFC. But (his end) is just politics. I feel a bit sad for him, but I don’t feel bad for him.”
On Abbott she’s not so keen.
“The man is just sexist. A big turning point for me when he went on TV with his daughters and talked about their virginity being a special gift.”
Sarah said she voted for Rudd, but since then “financially we’re much worse off. The cost of living in general has gone up. Yes we had lots of little cash injections but they were short term.”
Both women named health services and the cost of living as big issues in their day to day existence. Sarah said dental costs were a big problem, and both found the price of groceries, with both of them having children with allergies, were getting out of hand.
But both said they would back Gillard.
Maree, like just about everyone else The Punch spoke to, said she knew Deb O’Neill personally (for a non-incumbent candidate O’Neill has astonishing name recognition) and was definitely a fan.
There were no signs O’Neill would pay for the bad rap her predecessor has had in the seat.
The only time the conversation turned in a troublesome direction was when I asked the ladies about boat people. Sarah’s bothered by the cost of processing and supporting refugees and wants the boats stopped, while Maree takes a far softer line, saying: “If people sell up their whole lives to get here we should let them in.” She then pointed out: “We haven’t talked about this before.” I hope The Punch hasn’t started an argument.
So back to the Gosford RSL club and Penny Wong’s lunch.
Braving a particularly cold day to make his point outside the function was roof insulator Mark Delany of Stimulus Insulation (geddit?).
Encouraged by the Rudd Government in April 2009 Mark spent $25,000 to set up his aptly-named operation to install insulation. He put on 10 staff, but by the time the controversial scheme was scrapped in February he was left with 4,500 bags of imported insulation, worth $190,000, which he ended up giving away to local businesses for free.
He’s now in limbo. Out of work and part of a class action against the Government.
His assessment of the Rudd/Gillard Government: “I don’t think they qualify to run a third world country.”
Now doorknocking with the candidates.
The Punch has been doorknocking with Deb O’Neill before, back in the days when Kevin Rudd was still the Prime Minister and she was pretty much a one-woman operation.
She’s a natural, but so is Darren Jameson.
The Punch spent time with both of them last Friday and tried to stay above cynicism that both of them took me to suburbs where they were very well received.
O’Neill, in a spectacular piece of political savvy, was signing up people to a petition to her own side to get a GP super clinic in the southern part of the seat. It takes cheek to pull off a move like that with a straight face, and the people of Robertson should expect a visit from Health Minister Nicola Roxon some time before August 21.
Jameson was campaigning that day about a stoush over reports of gas drilling just off the coast of Robertson.
The Liberal candidate, who has so far knocked on at least 4000 doors and blown one pair of shoes, took me to Kincumber.
Alfred and Lorraine Arnold recognised him immediately as he walked up their drive way and made their feelings about “helmet head” (Gillard) very clear very quickly.
Alfred, a retired engineer, described the Government as a “useless pack of jerks”.
They were concerned about Labor’s “dirty tactics”, referring to Gillard’s attempts to pin Tony Abbott with the Workchoices hoodoo.
The man next door, who had recently moved to the seat from the Gold Coast, said his lot in life was a good one and the only thing he was worried about were boat people. His view was the East Timor solution was ridiculous and they should continue to be processed on Christmas Island.
With O’Neill, who’s also clocked up thousands of doors, we trudged the streets of Umina, where Roger Boland, retired and at home with his daughter and granddaughters, was most pleased to see the ALP candidate.
He was pretty contented too, but said he would definitely vote for O’Neill.
The very polite gentleman a few doors down said he was a Liberal voter but wished her all the best anyway.
Both of the candidates had things to say about their other. But both of them are incredibly up-beat and energetic.
Even if Neal decides to run – the result in this seat will absolutely come down to how many people each of these two major-party candidates can get to and work their charms.
It’s highly likely both Gillard and Abbott will venture to Robertson in coming weeks (probably to Erina Fair).
Both of them will find their representatives on the ground are working their guts out.
It’s almost a shame one of them has to lose.
Don’t miss: Get The Punch in your inbox every day
Get The Punch on Facebook
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…