In the complicated contest for NSW’s most marginal seat, voters have a simple message on climate change

SBS News travelled to the coastal town of Gerringong to hear what voters in NSW’s most marginal seat care about most this federal election.

At a surf and music festival in Gerringong, hotted-up combi vans are on display, second-hand surfboards are spread out on the hill and market stalls sell tie-dye attire in children and adult sizes.

It’s easy to guess the number one recreational activity in this tiny coastal community two hours drive south of Sydney.

And perhaps it should not come as a surprise either that the number one political issue on many festival goers minds is climate change.

The annual surf and music festival in Gerringong.
Source: SBS News

But for property developer turned surf instructor Rusty Moran, it’s not just an abstract debate about targets and carbon trading.

He changed his career and set up his surf school in Gerringong after experiencing depression or as he calls it, flat batteries.

“Surfing is the thing that brought me back to life, just being able to swim and surf in the salt water, it just energised my batteries and brought me back with more energy,” he tells an SBS News community forum at the festival.

Rusty Moran says protecting the coast is the most important issue.
Source: SBS News

He now teaches surfing to people suffering PTSD, refugees and children with autism.

“The whole Gilmore electorate runs down the coast and our candidates need to understand that we've chosen to live here in Gilmore because we've got an affinity with the ocean, affinity with the coastline.”

“So for me, the number one issue is protecting the surf, protecting the ocean.”

Gerringong has a population of 3492 according to the sign as you drive into the main street after turning off the Pacific Highway.

It’s one of a cluster of tiny communities dotted along the NSW south coast that makes up the federal electorate of Gilmore and in this ultra-marginal electorate every one of those votes counts.

Gerringong is home to 3492 people.
Source: SBS News

It’s a four-horse race in what has become one of the most complicated contests this federal election. The incumbent Liberal Ann Sudmalis, who holds it by a margin of 0.7 per cent, quit politics over infighting.

Warren Mundine, handpicked by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, displaced the candidate preselected by the local Liberal branch, Grant Schultz, who is now running as an independent.

In a sign the coalition regards this as a must-win, the prime minister was campaigning alongside Mr Mundine in Nowra, a major centre in the electorate, on Monday.   

"It's so important for the government to win this seat because if we're going to be returned we need to win seats like this," Mr Mundine told reporters. 

But two weeks out from the election, the messy preselection has done nothing to improve voters' perception of modern-day politics.  

Liberal candidate for Gilmore Warren Mundine was handpicked by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Source: AAP

“I think it says an awful lot about Warren Mundine around my area where I drive there is not one poster hanging up,” teacher Jenny Cork says. 

“The way it’s working now, it’s just not,” says dairy farmer Tim Cochrane, who wants reform of the entire representative system.

“Actually get people who are community-minded then they can have a better discussion within the government.”

There's a sense of frustration among these politically-engaged community members with their criticism directed at both major parties. 

“We need to stop the bi-partisan arguments and backwards and forwards, the cancelling of good policies. We need to move forward and it has to happen now,” Jane Riktor said.

Mr Cochrane is frustrated by what he says is a lack of policy detail from both major parties, particularly when it comes to Labor's tax changes and plans to tackle climate change.  

"I'd like to see all the detail on the death tax one, the pensioners super retirees tax, how's that going to affect my parents?"

Bill Shorten and Labor candidate for Gilmore Fiona Phillips in Nowra.
Source: AAP

"I don't want my children's future taxed by a climate change tax. That'll tax them out of existence, that'll push Australia into more poverty I believe."

After spending two years studying overseas Avalon Bourne returned to Gerringong, the town she grew up in, to start a social enterprise to build skills among young people.

“This country needs to set ambitious targets to tackle climate change,” the 24-year-old said.

Like surf instructor Rusty Moran, she sees a connection between climate change and mental health.

“If we're ignoring what young people are asking for around climate action, we're ignoring the effects of that which is a lot of widespread mental illness.”

While the causes are complicated, she points out it doesn’t help that young people feel their voice doesn’t matter.

Teacher Jenny Cork, a mother of two who teaches music at Nowra Public School, one of the bigger towns in this region, also names mental health as a big issue.

“We’re seeing mental health issues with really young children and we’re not being able to access the help that they need and their parents are not in a position where they can necessarily access the help either.”

She’s not the only one to list mental health as one of the key issues that will decide their vote.

Gilmore is home to a high number of serving and ex-servicemen and women in Australia.

Fred Campbell served in the navy for almost 36 years and has been lobbying for more mental health care for veterans.

“We can never have enough mental health practitioners in the area and we need more. I think it’s so important that we have dedicated wards to mental health.”

About a quarter of properties in Gilmore are holiday homes.
Source: SBS News

To an outsider, Gerringong appears to be a thriving community. 

Modern multi-tiered houses are gradually replacing large brick veneers, carefully positioned on steep hills to maximize views of Werri beach below. 

The main street’s cafes, bars and gift shops are busy. 

But locals like Sophie Ray see a different side. 

“There’s a significant part of the Gilmore population who are living day-to-day existences in caravan parks, single mums, all sorts of people, young people who wouldn’t be engaged with climate change at all because they don’t have time or energy to engage with that."

"They’re simply trying to put a roof over their head, find food, maybe get an education.”

Self-funded retiree Margie Jergins has noticed an “exponential growth” in inequality.

“That divide between rich and poor has got so much greater in my lifetime and that’s not the Australia of the fair go that I grew up with.”

She believes governments could do more to reduce that divide, particularly inter-generational inequality.

“When we bought a house the median house price was four times the average income. There’s no way that young people can get into the housing market unless they borrow from the bank of mum and dad.”

Reverend Geoff Thompson says more resources are needed for community groups at the coal face. 

“There’s a lot of hopelessness, whether that’s youth unemployment which is incredibly high, far too high in our area or generational poverty.

“We are in a poverty cycle and a poverty trap here. We really do need more attention paid to our hotspot.”

Just over 13 per cent of people living in the Gilmore electorate were born overseas. 

Tibetan community leader Phurbu Tsring has lived in Australia for 10 years and is concerned migrants are not receiving enough support. 

“The government is promoting regional settlements but there are not enough job opportunities for the people coming down here.”

Migrant advocate Jan Frikken agrees and hopes the next government sets the tone for a more respectful debate about immigration. 

“For the first time, I can see there is institutionalised racism happening in this country. It’s really sad when that’s happening at the government level.”

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Published 6 May 2019 at 11:23am, updated 7 May 2019 at 12:51pm
By Rosemary Bolger