Corangamite is the most marginal seat in Australia and, in my opinion, it could be an interesting litmus test for the success of either major party come May 18.
Sarah Henderson, a Liberal, won the seat from Labor’s Darren Cheeseman in 2013, and retained it in 2016. However, a redrawing of the electorate, to accommodate the new 38th Victorian seat of Fraser, took voters from traditionally Liberal-voting areas such as Colac out of Corangamite. The result is that the Liberal hold of 3.1% in Corangamite has switched to a thin 0.03% margin Labor’s way.
I’m not from the area – my home electorate is Ballarat, comparatively boring as a safe Labor seat. But I was interested to see which issues mattered most to the people of Corangamite.
And so, local radio station The Pulse’s Q&A session with candidates on April 30 drew me in.
Featuring a panel of five Corangamite candidates – incumbent Liberal Sarah Henderson, the ALP’s Libby Coker, the Greens’ Simon Northeast, Animal Justice Party member Naomi Adams and independent Damien Cole – the event offered Corangamite voters the chance to post questions online and ask them in person. A plethora of questions were asked over the event’s almost two hours, from federal issues such as foreign ownership of property, tax cuts and refugee policy, to more local issues such as funding for local infrastructure and surf clubs. A question that surprised me, and no doubt surprised the five panel members judging by their reactions, was asked by a devout Christian man about abortion, and the perceived cruelty shown to terminated pregnancies. All five candidates played it safe, giving brief responses but asserting their pro-choice positions. However, there was one issue that took prominence, an issue that displayed arguably the most contrast in views between the candidates and elicited the strongest responses from the crowd.
That issue was climate change.
As an electorate comprising coastal towns and cities, it’s not surprising that the environment and climate change received multiple questions. Three of the five candidates – Northeast, Adams and Cole – placed their primary focus on the environment. Cole went so far as to say his sole reason for seeking office was to be a voice for the protection of the environment and wildlife, including opposition to Equinor’s plans to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight.
But while the crowd remained quiet for most of the candidates’ responses throughout the day, when it came to climate change there were impassioned calls, applause for the more environmentally-minded candidates, and annoyed groans after Sarah Henderson’s response.
Henderson toed the party line when asked about Liberal policy on climate change, arguing that record investment in renewables had taken place under Coalition governance, while pointing the finger at Labor’s climate change plans, calling them “reckless” and claiming that it is “shameful that you (the Labor Party) haven’t costed these policies”. Indeed, Labor was yet to release the costing on its plans to have Australia reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Henderson’s summary of Coalition policy on climate change was that transition to renewables, and thus reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, would be far more gradual and fiscally-minded than the Labor Party’s plans.
“If we shut down coal tomorrow our country would grind to a halt,” Henderson claimed.
“Fifty-five thousand people work in the coal industry. Labor has no plan for them”.
Judging by the groans from the crowd, this attitude was not one they appreciated.
Henderson continued her attack on Labor’s economics, presenting a figure of “$387 billion higher taxes under Labor”, including “$236 billion extra income tax”.
These are certainly large sums of money, but their mention didn’t seem to garner much support from the crowd for Henderson. On the other hand, Cole’s declaration of a climate emergency and claims that the big parties weren’t doing enough elicited considerable applause.
It’s hard to know whether the crowd of perhaps 30 people is truly reflective of the entire electorate of Corangamite, which contains about 112,000 people. However, similar to the national trend, there is clearly a growing concern in Corangamite surrounding climate change, and what policies are being implemented to lessen greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, with Newspoll and Ipsos suggesting a narrow Labor victory on May 18, and loyal Colac voters now unable to be relied on, Henderson faces her toughest battle yet.