Bellwether seat in Aussie polls 'may not get it right this time'

Bookmakers tip Labor to win seat but ruling Coalition to take polls

For more than 40 years, the most reliable indicator of the outcome of Australian elections has been a scenic pocket of the country just outside Canberra.

This is the bellwether seat of Eden-Monaro, which has been won by the overall winner of every election  since 1972.

Roughly the size of Switzerland, the seat includes small villages, farmland, beachside holiday spots and areas that are effectively outer suburbs of the capital city. Its 100,000-odd voters include a mix of conservative rural residents and well-educated public servants who tend to be more left-leaning.

Analysts say the result is difficult to predict this year - national opinion polls show the ruling Coalition and opposition Labor are evenly split. Curiously, the betting agencies, which are often reliable guides to election outcomes, are tipping Labor to win the seat but the Coalition to win the election.

Election analyst Antony Green agreed. "I reckon Labor has a very good chance of winning it but I think the government will get back in," he told The Straits Times.

ASSURED

I'm quietly confident.

DR PETER HENDY, Liberal MP of Eden-Monaro.

"If that happens, maybe everybody will stop calling it a bellwether."

The seat is held by Liberal MP Peter Hendy,  a former economist and political adviser, who won narrowly in 2013 by just 0.6 per cent - or fewer than 1,000 votes.  

As early voting opened yesterday ahead of election day on July 2, Dr Hendy was out meeting voters in Queanbeyan, a regional centre adjacent to Canberra.

"I'm quietly confident," he said.

REACHING OUT

I've made well over 4,700 individual phone calls and a lot of door knocking, stalls, country shows.

DR MIKE KELLY, opposition Labor candidate, the seat's former MP.

Since the last election, the boundaries of the seat have been changed to take in additional rural voters, many of whom are likely to be pro-Liberal. The changes meant that Dr Hendy's margin is effectively about 2.9 per cent.

Dr Hendy, whose doctorate is in private sector and government relations, faces tough competition in Labor candidate Mike Kelly, who held the seat from 2007 to 2013.

The well-known former colonel in the Australian Defence Force has a doctorate in international law, and has been campaigning on Labor's plan to roll out high-speed broadband Internet nationally as well as to provide extra funding to schools and hospitals.

"I've made well over 4,700 individual phone calls, and a lot of door knocking, stalls, country shows," Dr Kelly told ABC News yesterday. "So I've got a very good feel for what people are concerned about, and I think we've done a good job of addressing those issues."

But neither side is leaving the outcome to chance.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has already campaigned in the area, as have several Cabinet ministers - a move seen by commentators as a sign of government nervousness.

Despite the seat's famous bellwether status, many experts believe its voter make-up is not actually representative of the nation. The seat is less urban than many other electorates and it has a high proportion of Canberra-based public servants.

Eden-Monaro is "less ethnically diverse than the rest of the nation, has fewer people employed as professionals and has more farmers, and thanks to recent changes, more public servants than the nation as a whole", Dr Brendan McCaffrie of the University of Canberra told The Canberra Times.

"The bellwether status relies on the fact that there is a stable balance between Liberal-voting rural areas... more Labor-voting areas, especially Queanbeyan, and a large stretch of coastal areas that tends to swing to the winning side."

Mr Green agreed, saying the seat is "completely unrepresentative of the rest of the country".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2016, with the headline 'Bellwether seat in Aussie polls 'may not get it right this time''. Print Edition | Subscribe