Rain, rain, rain, all the way from Albury across to Bendigo. It’s pouring, the northern Victorian landscape is a verdant green and the locals are delighted. I stick Jesus and Mary Chain’s Happy When It Rains to match their mood and hope that if I aquaplane on the Midland Highway it won’t be into the path of anyone. Especially not those fully-laden semis powering the other way on the two-lane road, each accompanied by their own personal monsoon.
I’m joining Steve Gibbons, Labor MP for Bendigo since 1998. He took the seat after Liberal Bruce Reid — no relation, that I’m aware, to the cricketer — retired. It’s been marginal ever since, and Gibbons got a scare in 2004, when the inconveniently-named Kevin Gibbins picked up a 6% swing and nearly knocked him off. The Ruddslide reversed that in 2007, although Gibbons says then-opponent Peter Kennedy was a tough opponent.
Labor breathed a sigh of relief in March after former Howard and Kennett government Michael Gillies-Smith lost out in the Liberal preselection to local businessman Craig Hunter. Hunter has been troubled by former business problems and has run a low-profile campaign, albeit with a social media flavour. Gillies-Smith, Labor reckons, would’ve been a much more formidable opponent. There’s talk of Tony Abbott visiting Bendigo — Abbott says he will visit “if not before the election, then after” — but on current Victorian polling he might be wasting his time.
Hunter has pleaded a prior engagement and fails to show up to a candidates’ forum half an hour down the road at Castlemaine. Castlemaine is close enough by train to Melbourne to almost be commuter-belt territory, and there are complaints the town has faced an influx of lifestyle-changers AKA ‘trendies’. Judging by the cheers for the Greens candidate Kymberlie Dimozantos, that may not be far wrong.
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The forum feels charmingly like something from an earlier, better age of politics, with locals, all rugged up against the elements, crowding into the church hall, and the local bishop Jeremy Ashton rather briskly moderating the debate.The Family First candidate, who says many asylum seekers aren’t genuine and that he doesn’t believe in climate change, doesn’t go down well.
The questions revolve around homelessness, preventative health, education, asylum seekers and climate change. As Ashton notes at the end, there have been no questions about the economy. Unemployment in the electorate is 6.7%, but worst down the road in Maryborough. Until the last decade, Bendigo was a traditional home of low-income industries, particularly manufacturing. The rise in mining industry wages, and the development of more complex manufacturing industries, and increases in high-paid services jobs in health and education has been driving incomes up, but Bendigo still remains the poorest electorate in Victoria by weekly family income.
On the way back from Castlemaine, Gibbons suggests Bendigo might be the “regional development” capital of Australia, being headquarters of Bendigo Bank, which is now looking to translate the community bank model into utilities, a diverse economic base, and even the headquarters of the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal, a federally-funded relic of John Anderson’s efforts to stave off One Nation.
Back in Anderson’s time, the Howard government racked its collective brain trying to find ways to encourage regional development while not spending any money, in order to neuter the appeal of Pauline Hanson. Bendigo quickly became a preferred model for regional policy back then, because of the proliferation of call centres here. Despite being little more than Mcjobs, call centres could be portrayed as faintly “smart”.
But Bendigo’s call centre success was driven as much by good luck as good management — the town straddles Telstra’s cross-country communications backbone — and instead of turning the Mcjobs into high-tech innovation, as was suggested at the time, the Bendigo economy has diversified. Well, diversified in an old direction, partly — rising gold prices have seen an expansion in mining in the local goldfields, which provided an extended boom, and some glorious local architecture, in the 19th century.
More complex, export-oriented manufacturing — Thales manufactures the Bushmaster defence vehicle here, Australian Defence Apparel makes body armour — has supplemented more locally-focussed industries servicing the agricultural sector. Given the long-term decline of the manufacturing sector — it recently fell below 1 million workers for the first time — the growth of manufacturing in Bendigo is a significant reversal of a long-term national trend. Gibbons also points to growth in the local Monash and La Trobe University campuses and the expansion of health services.
Gibbons is a long-time Julia Gillard supporter, and when he’s asked at Castlemaine about Kevin Rudd, doesn’t hold back. He’s critical of claims that the removal of Rudd reflected the re-establishment of factional control of the Labor Party. In fact, he says, the collapse in support of Kevin Rudd was driven by Rudd’s own “mannerisms” and non-consultative style, and that he started losing support right from the start of his prime ministership.
“He finished up not consulting Caucus, not consulting his Cabinet and eventually not even talking to his head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet,” he says. Replacing Rudd, he says later, was very much the right decision.
Today he’s launching a “fifth-term agenda”, carefully aimed for maximum exposure in the local media, focused on infrastructure investment, ahead of another candidates’ debate, hosted by the local chamber of commerce, tonight. Infrastructure spending is a staple of regional election campaigns — Gibbons says he was booed out of the equivalent Castlemaine event in 2007 when he refused to commit to connecting the town to the main Melbourne-Sydney rail line.
In the car we discuss how Bob Hawke “broke the drought” after his 1983 election when a cyclone crossed the Queensland coast and turned into a low that deluged southern Queensland, NSW and Victoria. Julia Gillard hasn’t managed exactly the same feat, but good rains and low unemployment can’t be dismissed lightly around this sort of electorate, which should be winnable if there’s an Abbott government in the offing. But it’s hard to spot the mood for change.