For an altogether different take on population and infrastructure issues, try coming out to regional Australia.

I’ve briefly joined Sussan Ley, the Liberal Member for Farrer since 2001, when she snatched the seat from the Nationals, to see what rural campaigning is like. Ley’s electorate, once held by Tim Fischer, has progressively expanded from southern NSW so that it now encompasses most of the western part of the state, right up to the Queensland border.

For Ley and her staff, it means long, long hours in the car, or extended periods waiting at airports for regional flights to and from centres like Broken Hill. Having an evening meeting in Deniliquin, two and a half hours’ drive from Ley’s base in Albury, and driving home the same night, is standard practice. Ley admits she used to have to stop and sleep in her car, but has long since gotten used to pulling epic stints behind the wheel.

During an election campaign the travel redoubles. Last week she visited Packsaddle, 175 kilometres north of Broken Hill in “Corner Country”. There aren’t many voters in such remote places, but Ley likes to be able to say she’s got to as many corners or her now-vast electorate as possible. The media task is also very different from metropolitan areas. There are 17 newspapers in the electorate, and five TV licence areas and God knows how many ABC local radio outlets; just keeping her name in print and on the airwaves is a big task.

This is a safe seat for Ley — she holds it by more than 10% — but she works it hard. In truth it’s not so much a rural seat as one with two major centres at either end. Broken Hill is a Labor town, and Ley wants to lift her vote there from the rather dire levels of 36% last time around. Water and the Murray-Darling Basin are huge issues, and there is genuine resentment toward South Australia and its demands for more water from the MDB. Over breakfast, Ley anxiously checks the Liberal water policy launched this morning to make sure it addresses the concerns of Broken Hill residents.

This time around, Ley is up against a young — very young — Labor candidate Christian Emery, and a Deniliquin independent with National Party links, Louise Burge, who is campaigning on water and threatens to attract the considerable National Party vote. Even some Ley volunteers, apparently, have defected to Burge.

Last night we drove half an hour out of Albury to the small community of Walla Walla for a meeting of local parents. It’s not a campaign event; funding for the local occasional childcare centre is being withdrawn and the local council wants to work out what to do, so Ley is attending to see if there are federal or state strings she can pull. The town’s military service honour boards look down on a 30-strong gathering of, mainly, young mums, rugged up against a cold, wet night. Walla Walla has a strong German Lutheran heritage (the “district residents who voluntarily enlisted to fight for the empire against Prussian militarism” have noticeably fewer German names than the WW2 honour board). But it’s the town’s future that preoccupies residents. Some have moved out there recently, driven by rising housing costs in Albury.

There’s a variety of industries in the town, including a prominent silo manufacturer, and a major employer, the local Lutheran boarding school, nearby, but Walla Walla has the same problems as most other smaller regional towns — declining services and the travel time required when parents have to balance work, often back in Albury, and managing childcare. Here the “double drop-off” can take half the morning.

There’s no suggestion of “sustainable population” here. There is much discussion of the need to attract more young families to the town, and the realisation that it can’t happen if there are no services such as childcare. Walla Walla wants to do what the smaller community of Burrumbuttock down the road did and get a proper childcare facility going. The local council is setting up a steering group to run the process.

Similar concerns are raised the next morning when Ley attends a “meet the candidates” breakfast at a Country Comfort hotel in southern Albury. Howard-era minister Peter Reith has come along — he will help Ley launch her campaign later in the morning. Party talent is scarce during campaigns, and deployed in marginal seats rather than safe ones, but a mutual acquaintance has asked Reith to help out (Julie Bishop will visit Deniliquin later in the week). After leaving politics, Reith spent six years in the UK but returned to Australia last year and since then he’s mainly been busy, he says, having bypass surgery and setting up a farm. In the car outside the venue, he and Ley mull what angles she should take in her brief presentation, then they head upstairs to what must pass for the Country Comfort ballroom — the dance floor is on the corner and has a splendid view of the passing traffic.  Reith still has the instincts of a politician — he starts working the room the moment he walks in.

Ley, Burge and Emery and the other candidates go through their paces before a small audience of local notables and voters with, to put it kindly, specific concerns. Burge talks vaguely about water and climate change, but also mentions empty houses in Deniliquin. The Christian Democrat candidate boasts he would be guided by Scripture first on every decision. The Secular Party wants complete separation of church and state and cuts to school funding. The Green — who hails from Wagga outside the electorate and appears to only be standing so the Greens can boost their Senate vote in Albury — agrees, and pleads that asylum seekers are not “illegals”. An independent, Jason Clancy, is so nervous that he can’t actually explain why he’s standing, and retreats to his seat, crestfallen, after a short speech.

Then to questions. The NBN gets a run — Ley plugs the Coalition policy but says she likes the regional back-haul component of the NBN that will provide competition with Telstra for communities such as Broken Hill. So does climate change. Labor’s Emery, who looks barely old enough to be in Young Labor let alone Country Labor, seems not to have got the memo that the CPRS is no longer party policy. He gets lost in his answer and starts winging it, saying Labor wants to introduce a carbon price gradually.  The citizen’s assembly doesn’t get a run (maybe Emery is smarter than he looks). Clancy, who actually appears quite bright, bobs up again a couple of times, trying to salvage things by answering questions, but stutters to a halt each time.

A wheat farmer wants a return to the single desk policy and complains that wheat farmers have been sold out by the Liberals. Ley strides to the lectern and coolly counterpunches. “Does anyone here have a policy to return to the single desk? Are you unhappy with the current wheat price?” Then she neatly segues into international price speculation in food, suggesting it needs to be regulated to stop big spikes in commodity prices. Another questioner challenges the Labor and Liberal candidates about “small population”. Emery insists the issue is about a sustainable population, and primarily about infrastructure.

Ley agrees, but then notes that she’d love to see a “big Australia west, of the divide”.

Which is the issue, I reckon. The dispute about whether population drives growth isn’t an arcane one for economic debate out here. The evidence is available in small regional communities that are crying out for more people to create a critical population mass for basic services such as childcare. Many of these are communities such as Walla Walla that suffer from the “satellite” effect of a regional centre such as Albury, which can grow strongly and soak up population but the ensuing housing pressure drives low-income families out into smaller communities.  The infrastructure issue is less about roads, rail and broadband — although there is strong interest in the NBN — and more about basic services of the kind that have been evaporating from smaller communities for years.

Later in the morning Ley and Reith do a street walk, Reith hail-follow-well-met to everyone he encounters, musing about whether it’s better to simply have a chat with people or come right out and ask for their vote. “The election’s not really a topic of conversation,” one store owner says, when asked what people are saying. Outside, the streets are empty — it’s raining and cold but there is universal agreement that the rain is fantastic. Things for the moment are good in Albury, but the small towns across Farrer have a different story to tell.