The on-the-ground reality of how stuffed Labor is
Welcome to the main strip of the small town of Wyong, in New South Wales’ Central Coast region. The strip straddles the Pacific Highway - a couple of pubs, a butcher and a few fish ‘n’ chip shops on one side; the train station on the other.
It’s 11am and there’s barely anyone walking the streets. “Look how dead it is out there,” says Danielle Suarez, who works at the printing store opposite Wyong station. Choked by traffic but not people, the quiet town is a key centre in the federal electorate of Dobell.
Local MP Craig Thomson’s office is wedged between Ecco Shoes and Express Noodles at Tuggerah’s Westfield shopping centre, just ten minutes down the road. Since 2009 Thomson has been beset by scandal over his use of a business credit card while he was at the Health Services Union. But it’s just one part of his relationship with his electorate.
A relationship that, as The Punch found out talking to Dobell voters over the past two days, is emblematic of some of the Labor Government’s fundamental issues: scandal, and an inability to communicate why policies are being implemented effectively to voters.
Broaching the topic of Craig Thomson to locals on Wednesday morning caused a mass out-break of face-pulling. A worker at the bookstore sneered: “Pah! I don’t want to talk to you about him.”
One indication of local antipathy: Suarez, the printer, handed The Punch a copy of cartoon from the Daily Telegraph that she said someone had come in to get multiple duplicates of recently. The cartoon featured Julia Gillard hanging onto the side of a building, Thomson plummeting into the abyss below her. In the cartoon Gillard says: “Poor Mr Thomson. He had a good hold on my shoe…. but I guess he forgot how silly ol’ me is always losing shoes and slippers”.
Thomson seems to have been unable to fully engage with the local community due to the scandal. “The media pack follow him pretty much everywhere and that has a pretty negative impact on him being able to do his job,” says Wyong Chamber of Commerce head and local businessman Peter Miller. Indeed, it’s difficult to find people in Dobell who’ve had extensive dealings with him.
Miller says in his role he’s only met the bloke a couple of times and he’s spoken well at Chamber events. Rod Dever, of the Gosford City Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says Thomson is quite an active local member and points to his involvement with local unemployment-fighting groups - important in an area perpetually plagued by it.
But he says Thomson’s no where near as active as neighbouring Roberston Labor MP Deborah O’Neill. “She’s an absolutely fantastic local member. She follows through, she’s out talking to people.”
Most voters The Punch spoke to haven’t had much to do with Thomson these past few years. Printer Danielle Suarez has only seen him once: handing out leaflets at the train station across the road at the last election. (Trust a printer to notice who’s in the market for leaflets.) Grand Hotel publican Rob Willmott says nobody at his pub sees him around.
The local community is pretty apathetic, Willmott says. “There’s always the sense here that nothing’s going to change, nothing’s getting done.”
Speaking to voters, The Punch also got the sense that voters here don’t understand how the federal government’s priorities align with their own. There are visible signs this has been stoked by opponents of Labor policies. Take this Clubs Australia poster at the Royal Hotel. We’re not sure who drew the devil’s horns.
Below the poster: a list of local groups anti-pokies legislation would affect that includes sports clubs and primary schools. It’s doubtful Thomson has been able to push back on those claims effectively considering everything else on his plate.
The thing is, despite being embroiled in scandal, Thomson has actually achieved things for his electorate. The Coast needs the National Broadband Network in order to encourage people to stay and work near home, rather than commute to Sydney everyday. Thomson was successful in lobbying for the NBN to come to Dobell in its earlier phases of deployment, Miller of the Wyong Chamber of Commerce says. The local mayor, Bob Graham (who refused to talk to The Punch) also told the town rag Thomson has been extremely generous to his electorate, giving credit to him for delivering a new pipeline and two new surf clubs.
In the latter case the local council, headed by Bob Graham, set up a $3 million plan to build two new surf life saving centres at Soldiers and Shelly Beach and to renovate old Wyong Shire clubs, hoping for dollar-for-dollar federal government investment to get it done. But when the public works component of the Rudd Government’s economic stimulus package came about Thomson was able to steer a huge $5 million into the surf lifesaving project.
“He did a fantastic job,” the CEO of Central Coast Surf Life Saving, Chad Griffith, told The Punch. Thomson had opened his doors to the plan to expand life-saving services before he was even elected, Griffith said. Wyong Shire had been lagging behind Gosford Council’s life-saving infrastructure until that point.
“He was a big player and he really supported the program,” Griffith says. A program that has and will save lives and bring more tourist dollars to the area.
But these successes have been overshadowed by Thomson’s scandal and the national anti-Labor mood. Dobell is known to be a bellweather seat. Thomson won the seat at the last election 55 to 45 per cent two party preferred but there’s no way it’s going to look anything like that next time. Thomson himself is unlikely to be preselected for the seat at the next election. The NSW ALP general secretary Sam Dastyari told The Sydney Morning Herald this week that he didn’t expect Thomson to be on the ticket.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and only a light breeze as two lifeguards watched swimmers from their tower at Shelly Beach on Wednesday. The beach has a known rip. Meanwhile, it’s clear the government’s out to sea and near certain to hit the rocks.
The voters of Dobell won’t be throwing a life raft to Labor, not when all they know are scandals and confusing policies. Most wouldn’t know it was Labor who gave them the raft in the first place.
The only thing that might save Labor here is a bad Liberal candidate.
The Liberals are aware of that. Opposition Leader Abbott and the Liberal Party’s national executive have provoked some antipathy in local branches by going over their heads to choose new candidates directly, the Central Coast Express-Advocate reported.
“We wanted to make sure there were more resources from Canberra for the Central Coast to ensure we got the right result this time,” NSW Liberal Party president Arthur Sinodonos said.
Doubt they’re going to have to try too hard then.
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