In the new Victorian seat of Euroa the gloves are off between conservative parties, with the Liberals and Nationals fighting hard for the seat. And with the amount of money spent on campaigning, the National Party’s candidate Stephanie Ryan, 28, a former rural journalist and spinner for ousted premier Ted Baillieu, is feeling the pressure to perform.
With Nationals MP Bill Sykes retiring, the deal between the Liberals and the Nationals not to contest seats held by sitting members is off, so the Nats are depending on Ryan.
“I guess there is a lot riding on it. I suppose I have been focused on what I need to do day to day,” she said.
If Labor wins the election, as many poll watchers think it will, the Nationals have a very strong incentive to win Euroa. The Nationals currently hold 12 Victorian seats, but if Euroa falls to Liberal opponent Tony Schneider, a Benalla physiotherapist and director of a benevolent fund, the Nats could be dangerously close to losing their third-party status — with an accompanying pay cut for sitting members. Holding on to third party status means in opposition the Nationals would hold onto benefits worth an estimated $750,000, including increased pay for different roles such as leader or whip. Without party status those roles would be paid the same as backbenchers.
“We wish they weren’t there, but they are. We just have to get out there and beat them,” said Oxley resident and National Party board member Martin Corboy, who ran against Ryan for preselection.
Enter the third candidate, Clare Malcolm, who says she can win the seat for Labor. It would be tough — most psephologists predict a swing to the Liberals.
Euroa is an amalgam of the abolished seats of Seymour (held by the Liberals) and Benalla (held by Sykes) and part of Rodney, small parts of Shepparton and Bendigo East. In 2010 Sykes ruled Benalla with a 63.28% primary vote, but Seymour took a bet each way with primary votes of about 35% with Labor behind the Libs, and less than 4% for the Nats. Labor held Seymour in 2006, which gives Malcolm some hope that she can take home the chocolates.
The region has been carpet-bombed with Ryan’s campaign ads.
“There’s lots. Lots and lots,” said a Benalla florist when asked about the political plumage in shop windows, and they are mostly for Ryan, some for Schneider and barely any for Malcolm.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
It has been estimated Ryan has spent about $40,000 on the campaign; Corboy said “that’s a normal campaign spend”.
Eyebrows have been raised at the bounty of campaign material being splashed over the seat. Corflutes, billboards, mailouts and free Stephanie Ryan shopping list notepads have been spotted throughout the electorate. Her campaign sponsored a Seymour horse race and will sponsor another one early November, where 2500 racegoers are expected. Sponsorship costs about $1000 a pop and goes towards the club’s upkeep. Ryan told Crikey she had driven about 50,000 kilometres since beginning campaigning in February, and rumours of a new round of TV advertising in the area are spreading.
“They have spent mega-bucks,” said fine foods business owner Mark Dossor, who is also the acting secretary of Seymour Business and Tourism. But he says his customers report that the mass of material has not been received as intended. “It’s like mocking someone who drives a Merc,” he said.
The strategy appears to be working. Those Euroa voters Crikey managed to speak to barely mentioned the other candidates. On Clare Malcolm, politically engaged Dossor said he “wouldn’t be able to recall the name” had he not been asked, due to her perceived absence from the campaign.
Malcolm estimates Ryan’s campaign has outspent Schneider’s “five-to-one” and casts doubt on Ryan’s esteem in the electorate. “The quality of the National Party candidate and concerns about her ability to represent the electorate is coming up across the electorate.”
But in Benalla, where city councillor Peter Davis said the election will be won or lost, Ryan’s credibility gap could pull her back. At one point during his tenure Sykes was better recognised as the region’s representative than the Premier, but doubt has been cast over Ryan’s power in the Nationals party room. Residents fear her youth and relative inexperience would mean she would lack the clout to put Euroa’s issues on the agenda in Spring Street.
The other hurdle for Ryan is “she’s not really Benalla flavoured,” Davis said. “From a Nationals point of view, this girl is not seen as a local girl.” Ryan’s time spent in Melbourne at RMIT and working in Spring Street has been met with suspicion. Despite her upbringing on a dairy farm in the Murchison area, between Shepparton and Seymour, she left after high school and only returned to the country for a year to work as a journalist and again to campaign for the election.
“Like a lot of country kids who went to university in Melbourne I stayed there for a period of time because that’s where the job opportunities are. And that’s an issue that is facing the electorate more broadly,” Ryan said.
“I fell into politics, even though I had been in it a long time,” she said. Ryan acknowledges a “whispering campaign” against her but she says she is trying to keep above it all.
Corboy backed his former rival. “I’m fairly confident the Nationals will win it, and it will be from Steph’s efforts,” he said.