July 2022


The edge of their seats

By Rebecca Huntley
Image of the Kiama Blowhole, New South Wales

The Kiama Blowhole, New South Wales. © Yann Guichaoua-Photos / Getty Images

Lessons from Gilmore, Australia’s most marginal electorate

In the picturesque town of Kiama on the south coast of New South Wales you can find the Kiama Blowhole, arguably the town’s most notable tourist attraction. Approximately 260 million years ago, basalt lava flows formed both the hole and the underground chamber beneath it. Pressure builds up in the chamber and then, when the waves subside, it pushes water up through the blowhole. If the waves are big enough, that can amount to 50 litres of water shooting 25 metres in the air. Depending on the size of the seas, once the water starts moving you need to move too. Moving too late is the difference between being delightfully spritzed or drenched from head to toe. It has also been known to kill people.

Kiama is one of the largest towns in the federal seat of Gilmore, now the nation’s most marginal seat after an election that people like me will be analysing for decades to come. In searching for an apt metaphor for what happened in May generally and in the seat of Gilmore specifically, I fastened onto the blowhole. Perhaps the metaphor is somewhat strained, but it’s a better basis for comparison than Gilmore’s other notable water-related tourist attraction, the Jamberoo Action Park. Certainly, when transformative elections occur, it’s because frustrations in the electorate build up until they have no recourse but our most important, albeit imperfect, opportunity for venting: the ballot box. Some people get spritzed, others drenched, some are swept into the sea.

This was our first post-COVID federal election, one that was supposed to be defined by issues such as low wage growth, the cost of living and the war in Ukraine (it was suggested by some pundits that it was going to be “the khaki election” rather than the teal one). It was, as campaigns go, an unedifying spectacle. And yet voters turned a hot mess into something meaningful, a clear directive to our federal politicians to address issues that have been coming up in my research for years. Stop arguing and act on climate change. Do something real about integrity in politics. And let’s put the “local” back in “local member”.

Much of the focus in the lead-up to the election was on the community independents, the goings-on in so-called resource seats such as Flynn and Hunter, and the usual clutch of red/blue contests that Labor needed if it were to win government, seats such as Boothby, Reid and Chisholm. There was some attention paid to the seat of Macquarie, in regional New South Wales: flood and fire affected, and held with a margin of only 371 votes by a smart, warm and hardworking Labor woman, Susan Templeman. In 2022, she increased her margin. Now it is Fiona Phillips, the MP for Gilmore, who has the honour of being the member of the most marginal seat in the country – and by almost exactly the same number of votes. Phillips is a smart, warm and hardworking Labor woman who has lived in her fire- and flood-impacted regional seat in New South Wales all her life.

But Gilmore bucked the trend at the election, at least in terms of the national swing to Labor. Instead, there was a 2.4 per cent swing towards the Liberal candidate, former state transport minister Andrew Constance. Of course, Gilmore bucked the trend in 2019 as well: the Liberal candidate, Warren Mundine, was dropped into the seat to unpopular acclaim and received a 16 per cent swing against him, making Gilmore the only seat Labor picked up in that election, an incident to which those responsible for the Labor Party’s decision to preselect Kristina Keneally in the seat of Fowler in 2022 should have paid more attention.

In 2022, the Gilmore contest was between two well-known and well-liked locals. The local part of all this is important: it was the main reason for the swing towards Constance but also one of the reasons why Phillips managed to hold on. All politics is local. We forget that from time to time. This dynamic may have been heightened by the long tail of COVID, and the memory of being confined to our homes or only allowed to travel a few kilometres. Voters tend to like leaders who are prepared to experience crisis with them, shoulder to shoulder, whether from fires, floods or pandemic. Indeed, this seeming reluctance to “hold a hose” was at the heart of the antipathy towards Scott Morrison, which was as acute in Gilmore as it was elsewhere.

Constance is a much-admired individual in Gilmore, and is described spontaneously in focus groups I’ve conducted as “outspoken”, “genuine” and “one of us”. He stayed to defend his home during the Black Summer bushfires and famously said of then prime minister Morrison, “I didn’t know that he was coming, and he is in my own patch” and “the locals probably gave him the welcome that was to be expected”. There is something else significant that Constance had going for him in 2022: his position on climate change. When he was in state politics, he was highly critical of some of his federal colleagues and their attitudes to climate. “You know, I get highly agitated when I hear federal politicians not understanding how serious this is for our country and our children,” he said. He would have been a welcome addition to a Coalition caucus whose members still seem to be struggling their way through the traditional cycles of grief, albeit stuck on the denial bit.

Whether Phillips or Constance won the seat, it was to be a step forward for climate in our national politics. And indeed, two pieces of public opinion research show that in Gilmore concern about climate drove the outcome. In January of this year, in its “biggest ever climate poll”, the Australian Conservation Foundation canvassed every single federal electorate. It found in Gilmore that the number-one priority for greater action on climate change this decade was to “replace gas and coal-fired power stations with renewable energy and battery storage”. This is a significant result for a regional seat, given the ACF poll found that the regionals tend to opt for other climate solutions over replacement, such as ensuring that government buildings install renewable energy. The poll also showed that a good majority of people in the seat – 66 per cent – believe benefits from greater action on climate change outweigh any costs involved. Another good majority – 67 per cent – believe greater action on climate change would strengthen the economy. Even more compelling was an exit poll of 267 Gilmore voters conducted by phone and commissioned for the community group Farmers for Climate Action, which found that “climate change and the environment” was the most important issue for the voters of Gilmore, along with economic management and integrity in politics. Nearly three-quarters – 72 per cent of those polled – said it was important their candidate had good policies on climate. It was particularly important to those who voted for the Labor candidate.

The 2022 election has now been dubbed “the climate election”. It would be a mistake to think this concern only played out in historic wins for community independents and the Greens in both houses. Concern for climate influenced all contests, if not as the main issue then as an important top-tier one that reinforced negative feelings about the mendacity and inaction of Morrison and his government. In fire- and flood-impacted seats such as Gilmore and Macquarie this was particularly the case. Indeed, analysis by the Climate Council showed that voters in most electorates hit by climate-fuelled disasters, such as the Black Summer bushfires and the 2022 floods, swung away from the Coalition and towards those championing stronger climate action.

When the Labor caucus met for the first time in Canberra after their victory, Fiona Phillips sat at the back of the room. Although her seat hadn’t been called yet by the Australian Electoral Commission, all were confident she’d retain it. The new prime minister gave her a shout-out, with reference to the number of Labor seats won: “If she gets across the line, no one is allowed to call her Fiona anymore. They have to call her ‘77’.” I can imagine there was an audible sigh of relief across Labor ranks when the seat was finally declared and majority government was theirs. A slim majority, yes, but slim majorities are what the electorate has delivered at most federal elections since 2007. And I see this continuing. It reflects the tentative trust we have in our politicians that they will really listen and act on the issues we say matter to us. Move, we are saying to our political leaders. Move or be swept into the sea in three years’ time.

Rebecca Huntley

Rebecca Huntley is one of Australia’s foremost researchers on social trends. She is the author of numerous books, including How To Talk About Climate Change in a Way that Makes a Difference.

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