Fiona Scott and Julie Bishop on the campaign trail in Sydney
Fiona Scott and Julie Bishop on the campaign trail in Sydney

I almost feel sorry for Fiona Scott. In 2013, she won the federal seat of Lindsay on the coattails of her political mentor, Tony Abbott. Only 36, she crashed her way into office by shouting slogans about the carbon tax, stopping the boats and “debt and deficit disasters”. Three years later, the voters are angry, and this time it’s directed towards her.

The electors of Lindsay have every reason to be cross. The electorate is perched out on the western border of Sydney, and with a median income of $70,000, most have to leave to find work, commuting up to two hours each way. So sensitive is the electorate to economic indicators like interest rates, unemployment and petrol prices, it is a true bellwether seat, going with the party that forms government at every election.

In a Four Corners program in 2013, when asked about traffic congestion on the main highway, Scott blamed it on refugees, earning herself a torrent of ridicule. Abbott didn’t help her case by saying people should vote for her because she had “sex appeal”. Now, with a margin of only 3%, she is fighting for her political life.

Labor thinks it is in with a chance, and on Monday Bill Shorten visited the electorate to announce that Labor would revamp the NBN, rolling out high-speed cable to the electorate.

Last time around, Scott defeated Labor assistant treasurer David Bradbury, who was so bruised by the ugly campaign that he packed up his family and decamped to Paris, where he works as a tax adviser to the OECD. Last night it was her turn to face the music at the Lindsay candidates’ debate in Penrith, where seven of the 11 candidates turned up.  There, she was on the defensive, fielding question after question about where the promised “jobs and growth” would come from.

One of the best things about these forums is hearing from the fringe candidates, some of whom are good arguments against democracy. Jim Saleam from Australia First warned us that we were seeing a “two-stream economy” in which we were building jobs and infrastructure for people who hadn’t even arrived here yet. “Up and down the Nepean and Hawkesbury [Rivers] will be Dragon Boat City,” he said. Stephen Roddick from the Australian Liberty Alliance, which has an anti-Islamic platform, warned us that “recently, sharia law was brought in through the budget”. Really? Could it be that taxing ciggies is part of a sharia-led war on sin? Has he been been talking to Cory?

The usual single-issue groups were also out. I wanted to point out to the man from Plain Unfair, the group protesting against Sydney’s second airport, that he was a noisy, irritating bundle of contradictions. You can’t endlessly complain about the lack of jobs and infrastructure in the area and then lobby against one of the few things that will actually help. To all the residents of Badgerys Creek who are currently plotting against the airport: the rest of us live with aircraft and road noise and have simply learned to live with it. If you want to live somewhere quiet, move to Tassie.

Asked about negative gearing, Scott said that mooted changes would “push house prices down and rents up”, but Emma Husar, the Labor candidate, gave a more realistic answer: “If two-thirds of the electorate doesn’t earn over $80,000 … how many people here are using negative gearing?”

Star of the evening was Dr Ronald Chin, a head and neck surgeon at Nepean Hospital, who asked the candidates why Nepean was the most under-funded hospital in the state. Last year the hospital came into focus when a drug-affected patient shot and wounded two people, leading to demands for more funding.

Chin, who operates mainly on cancer patients, told the panel that “the hospital and the staff are crumbling under the pressure of decreased funding”. He wanted to know how to change the way money was allocated in the system. “Healthcare is so important, it should be bipartisan,” he said.

According to projections by activist group GetUp, Nepean Hospital could lose up to $457.3 million in federal funding over the next decade.

These cuts are the outcome of changes to federal-state funding arrangements made in the 2014 budget, which slashes $57 billion from the budget for local hospitals over the next decade.

Husar, a disability advocate, said that Labor would restore funding to the hospital over the next four years, including an upgrade to its mental health facilities.

Scott said that while she had “jumped up and down” about Nepean Hospital, funding was a state issue. “We have given $30 billion to the NSW state government and they determine where it is going to be spent,” she said.

The Greens candidate, Kingsley Liu, said that it was totally unacceptable that the youth mental health service, Headspace, would have its funding cut one day before the election.

But in the end, it was up to the two women of the major parties to have the final world.

Husar said that at the last election, Tony Abbott came to Penrith Football Stadium and promised  “no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS”.

Well, Malcolm Turnbull has continued with Tony Abbott’s cuts, “cutting the tax rate for big business by $50 billion and telling Dr Chin that there is no money for Nepean Hospital,” she said.

“Well, that’s how you run a scare campaign,” Scott snapped. The audience booed.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey