The candidates’ event in a ‘too close to call’ electorate
Words by Sebastian Andrew
The Eastern-suburbs electorate of Sturt held its first community candidates’ event on Monday night. This seat recently made headlines when a comprehensive YouGov poll of all 151 federal electorates found that it was one of six electorates labelled as ‘too close to call’. The Labor and Liberal candidates for the electorate were tied with 50% of the two-party-preferred vote each. Incumbent Liberal MP James Stevens concedes he’s in the ‘fight for his life’ and reports have emerged that SA Liberals have sunk all their resources into the seat, as losing it would be disastrous.
Setting the Sturt Debate Scene
In contrast to the high stakes for both Labor and Liberal in this seat, the ‘meet the candidate’s event’ held in the St Peter’s Townhall was very lowkey. Sturt is not like the other marginal electorates. We don’t get big journos and a televised debate broadcasted nationwide. Our forum had a snacks table. Probably less than a hundred attendees. And candidates mingled freely with voters, to the point where it was hard to tell who some of them were before they took their seats. This is not a jab at the hosts — after all it was organised by the Kensington’s Residents’ Association. And the informal format made for a much greater community and candidate connection. It was just a reflection on how Sturt’s flown under the radar.
Seven out of the eleven candidates for Sturt were in attendance — James Stevens (Liberal, and sitting Sturt MP), Kathy Scarborough (Australian Federation), Inty Elham (Democratic Alliance), Katie McCusker (Greens), Angela Fulco (Australian Progressives), David Sherlock (Animal Justice Party), and Chris Schmidt (TNL, formerly The New Liberals). Stephen Grant (United Australia Party) had intended to attend but was not present due to COVID.
James Stevens’ Speech
The event opened with speeches. And in James Stevens’ it became evident his strategy for re-election; bring it back to the community. He knows that he’s in danger. He knows that Morrison’s unpopular and that the Liberal Party is being defeated left, right and centre on most issues debated. So instead of talking about national politics, instead of talking up the benefits of having Morrison and the Liberal Party in control, he played up his local credentials. Touched on issues such as climate change, but kept them restrained to local environmental projects. Perhaps understandable given that it’s a ‘community event’, Stevens’ discussion scarcely strayed beyond Sturt’s boundaries. For a man in danger of losing his seat, he kept his cool throughout — again, understandable given the informality of the debate, and from an objective standpoint he performed well. His opening speech was interrupted by two Extinction Rebellion protestors. Funnily, an unflattering Morrison mask over one of the protestors was about as much as the PM got mentioned throughout the night.
Seven questions were asked by members of the audience: impact of climate change on bushfires and homeowners, support for a federal ICAC, funding of renewables and energy transition, public transport funding, transgender kids as an election issue, the threat of China, and the privatisation of the ABC. Although cost of living and aged care were discussed in answers, they were not the direct subject of the attendees’ questions. Despite most of these issues being ones where the Liberal party nationally struggles against public sentiment, Stevens generally agreed with the audience on supporting an ICAC, opposing ABC privatisation, and supporting transgender kids (although his responses were a lot more restrained than the passion of minor party candidates). In fact, most candidates agreed with one another on all questions, aside from the threat of China, which emerged as a source of contention between the Greens and the Democratic Alliance.
As the second major party candidate in attendance, Greens candidate Katie McCusker had a mixed performance. Her opening championed a broad and ambitious policy agenda that sometimes lacked detail (and before you groan that I’m reciting Liberal-talking points, I’m a Greens supporter!) While Stevens kept talking up local projects, McCusker promised reform in all areas — from Medicare, to homes, to student debt (which were all well received). McCusker did promise community projects to tackle climate change, and funding for public transport in the electorate, but relied more on a national policy platform. It would be doing her a disservice, however if I did not note that many of these ideas were well-received by the audience. And really can one blame her for talking about the big picture instead of sporting projects? Despite the warm reception, McCusker did struggle in some areas. Energy transition was one, where although she promised a diverse range of alternate renewables, she sought quickly to pivot. She also found herself fending back criticisms of weakness on national security from a passionately anti-CCP Inty Elham (a view which received significant support from the crowd).
But wait…isn’t someone missing?
Now having read that you’re probably wondering, isn’t there a major party missing from the summary? Am I a blue-bleeding Liberal who’s decided to airbrush the Labor candidate’s remarks from history? (Absolutely not to both!) Along with Alexander Allwood of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, and Thomas McMahon of the Liberal Democrats, Sonja Baram from the Australian Labor Party declined the invitation to attend. I won’t speculate as to why, but given that it can’t be COVID (since she’d been quite active during prepolls) and no other reason was provided, I have to believe that it was a conscious decision to skip the event. And if it was, then that is just disappointing. As stated earlier, if polling is to be believed, this seat is on a knife-edge, and could be crucial in helping Labor win the federal government. Attending a community event is not a make-or-break moment, but why miss the chance to present herself to voters, to champion her agenda, and if all goes well to wipe the floor with Stevens, potentially even flipping a few votes (in a knife edge seat)… it just makes no sense. My impression is that it wasn’t a good look. And it allowed Stevens to perform well, free of major party competition.
Final thoughts on the other candidates, all of whom were impressive. David Sherlock (AJP) openly confronted perceptions around his party and presented a broad climate agenda relating to beef and agricultural land. Chris Smit (TNL) had a lukewarm start but linked his candidacy strongly to a life of disadvantage. Kathy Scarborough spoke passionately on matters of small business and the impact of COVID measures. In spite of stage fright, Angela Fulco (Australian Progressives) rallied hard against corruption and received a warm reception. And the passion from Inty Elham of the Democratic Alliance was off the charts as she delivered a fiery pitch drawing heavily on her experience as a persecuted minority.