Our man in the press gallery, Hugo Kelly, sends a postcard from Eden-Monaro, the election litmus test seat and read to the bottom for the brief exchange he had on with Iron Mark Latham on the streets of Queanbeyan just three days before polling day.

Vandals with a sense of humor have painted out an ‘o’ in the ‘Welcome to Cooma’ sign that greets visitors to this sleepy town on the foothills of the NSW Alps.

And Cooma on a Saturday afternoon has a coma feel to it. We’re here on a happy day – the first rain for ages is settling on the brown foothills, perhaps signalling an end to the drought that has hit the southern slab of Eden-Monaro very hard.

Many of the families gathering Cooma’s central park are visitors from Sydney for the long weekend. The locals are in the pub, enjoying the log fire and the cold beer, or out shopping.

It’s a place where the 4 Wheel Drives are dirty and the locals are genuinely divided over politics. Cooma is considered a 50/50 town by the Big Two parties. Go any further south, to Bega and beyond, and the Liberal vote rises sharply, and Labor falls correspondingly.

The posters out in the paddocks are for the sitting Liberal member Gary Nairn, and the sentiment is split on main street.

We find our voters in the local Woolies car park. The Crikey survey team spreads out and in the next couple of hours we soak up the views of Cooma on a Saturday afternoon.

We ask them three things:

  • Thinking about the federal election campaign, what are the most important issues for you and your family?
  • These, in ballot order, are the candidates standing for election on October 9:

Who are you MOST LIKELY to vote for?

WATT, Kel
(Country Labor)

DIGNAN, Cecily
(Greens)

BENNETT, Ursula
(Christian Democrats)

NAIRN, Gary
(Liberal)

TARLINGTON, Don
(One Nation)

QUILTY, Tim
(Outdoor Recreation Party)

AHMED, N
(Democrats)

  • And finally, on October 9, would you like to retain the Government, or see a change in Government?

This final query is a kind of control question – and we were surprised by the number of voters with contradictory intentions. Some favoured Gary Nairn, but wanted Howard out.

Others were Watt supporters but were content with the Howard Government.

Go figure.

The raw results of our survey are that if the election was held in the Cooma Woolies car park last Saturday afternoon, Labor would narrowly prevail.

This is how the people of Cooma voted:

Labor: 34
Liberal: 27
Greens: 2
Christian Democrat: 4
One Nation 2
Outdoor Recreation: 1
Democrats: Nil

We asked supporters of minor parties for their preferences. After distributing these, the two-party preferred vote narrowed:

Labor 35
Liberal 31

The anecdotal responses are as disparate as this sprawling electorate. Here are some of the car park views of Cooma:

A middle-aged woman: “I don’t like the idea of Costello coming to power. We know now that kids overboard didn’t happen. I’m peed off with Howard.”

A mum with kids: “I’m going to vote Labor – and Democrat in the Senate.” (This has been the only piece of good news during our travels in Eden-Monaro. No-one alse has mention their name to Crikey)

Family man with two kids: “I’m doing a donkey vote!” This is good news for Labor, while holds the coveted top position on the ballot paper. The donkey vote is good for up to 1%.

A bloke in 4 wheel drive: “I’m voting One nation: it’s a double edged sword with Labor. Look at Bob Carr: he said he’d reduce waiting lists, wrote it in blood. And what happened? Waiting lists went up?”

A young woman from a regional community group: “Gary Nairn does a lot for this area. Watt’s a career pollie. He’s too young. I can tell you a lot of local people don’t think he’s a 7th generation local.” (Watt’s TV ads have made a virtue of his family’s historical connection to the region).

Mum and dad in a 4WD: “Latham’s a thug. He’s not the kind of person we want representing us. It’s a character flaw.”

Another 4WD, this time carrying a public servant: “After working for this government for the past six years I’ll be glad to see the back of them. But I don’t have a lot of faith in mark Latham. He’s a bit of a wally. His team is the main selling point – people like Kim Beazley.”

A 30-something woman: “Kel Watt. Nothing against Nairn. I’ve met him, and he’s OK. We’ve discussed this with our friends. I’d tend to support Labor – I’m impressed with Latham.”

Middle aged lady: “The main issue: a lack of bulk-billing doctors in this area. I’d like to see Labor get in.”

A young man: “Gary’s doing all right. He’ll get my vote.”

But the fact is that it’s the people we haven’t spoken to who’ll decide this election. The ones who haven’t made their mind up, or can’t be bothered, or are still waking up to the news there’s an election on.

Bumping into Iron Mark on the streets of Queanbeyan

From the first October 6 sealed section

Crikey didn’t want to stump up $145 for a rubber chook and a glass of wine and the chance to throw a question at Mark Latham at today’s National Press Club luncheon. What to do, asks our man in Eden-Monaro, Hugo Kelly.

Sometimes, when the mountain won’t come to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain. So it was this morning when your man in the marginals sat down at the well-equipped Queanbeyan library to file a report on why he wouldn’t be forking out the Press Club’s usurious fee to quiz Iron Mark at Parliament’s Great Hall.

When, from outside, came a buzz of commotion and who should appear from nowhere but a large pack of travelling meeja. Now, these animals are quite uncommon in the wild – and they usually travel with a bunch of police, some minders in suits, and politician.

Sure enough, the police appeared, the minders turned up, and then out of a Comcar and into the Queanbeyan sunshine stepped Mark Latham. He shook hands with the fresh-faces local candidiate, Kel Watt, and marched into the municipal hall.

With frontbench advisor Steve Smith buzzing around in the background, and media advisor, Hawker-Britten blow-in Glen Byers, lurking behind the media pack, Latham checked out a 30 metre-long list of schools – presumably those favoured under the Labor Robin Hood policy’ – that had been scrolled down the length of the hall.

After a 30 second chat with a local headmaster, it was time to go. As a pic-fac, it was pretty flat, and a meet-and-greet, non-existent. But that wasn’t the point.

Eden-Monaro is the bellwether seat, and Labor needs a 1.7% swing to win it. Sitting member, Liberal Gary Nairn, is proving a tough cookie to crack and over the past week, Labor has been running a very tough attack ad, indicating they are nervous about their prospects.

And the money has come for the Liberals. Centrebet has eased Watt out from $2.20 to $3.50. Nairn is in from $1.50 to $1.20. So vision of Latham gladhandling Watt on local TV screens on election eve would be priceless for Labor.

But back to the pic-fac. With the travelling media presumably holding back their questions for the big Parliament lunch, it was left to Crikey to toss the only question at Iron Mark.

Which was lucky, because Crikey doesn’t have $145 to spare to rub shoulders with the glitterati at the Press Club:

CRIKEY: Labor’s been running some pretty harsh attack ads against Gary Nairn this week. And now you’ve turned up with three days to go. Does that indicate Labor’s losing the battle for this litmus test seat?

LATHAM: I’m here to support the local schools in this region and to demonstrate Labor’s commitment to the people here through our education policy…

CRIKEY: They’re pretty vicious ads against Gary Nairn. Did you authorise their use? Do you support them?

LATHAM: (beating a hasty retreat, cameras, media pack, besuited advisors and Crikey in tow) I’m here to support local schools…(etc etc).

On message and focused, Latham marched back into his car and on to the rubber chook and the big set piece of his day.

Our conclusion? Local Labor candidiate Kel Watt is an exhausted man. He lost his voice on a live radio debate with Gary Nairn this morning – his leader is looking strong, on message and ready to lead. But is it all just a bit too late?