Mike Kelly talks with the NSW member for Bega Andrew Constance. Photo: Penny Bradfield
It's lunchtime on a Friday and the winter sun bathes the sleepy south coast town of Moruya, making it the perfect time and place to meet Defence Materiel Minister Mike Kelly, campaigning for re-election in Eden-Monaro.
An electorate the size of Belgium, as Kelly likes to inform people, Eden-Monaro spans an area from Queanbeyan out to the NSW south coast, all the way down to the Victorian border, then across part of the Snowy Mountains and up through Cooma.
It has had bellwether status since 1972 because the seat has always been held by the candidate whose party has won government. Kelly first won the seat in 2007 and was re-elected in 2010 with a 4.2 per cent margin.
Digging in: Mike Kelly turns the first sof on Moruya's federally-funded $11.8 million aub-acute unit. Photo: Penny Bradfield
His biggest threat this election comes from high-profile Liberal candidate Peter Hendy, a senior adviser to former Howard government minister Peter Reith and serving Deputy Leader of the Opposition Julie Bishop, and led the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
But Kelly was given a public nod from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who named him the ideal replacement for retiring Defence Minister Stephen Smith should Labor win the election.
''That was very nice to get that kind of confidence displayed from the Prime Minister, but there are a few hurdles to jump over first,'' Kelly says.
''First, I've got to get re-elected; second, the government needs to get re-elected; and thirdly, it would have to get the approval of cabinet. But it was nice of the Prime Minister to say those things about me and also to give some assurances to voters that he has a transition plan for the defence portfolio.''
Kelly is the obvious pick. Well liked in Defence circles and a capable junior minister with defence responsibilities, he is a former army officer with legal expertise and a doctorate.
Yet he is quite unassuming. Walking along Moruya's main street Kelly isn't thrusting pamphlets into the hands of passers-by or even standing in their way to introduce himself. But plenty of people are stopping to say hello or give a gentle slap on the back as they walk by.
''I didn't come from a political machine background,'' Kelly insists.
''I had people thrown at me from the start who were giving me advice and telling me what to do. Telling me to shave off my mo and to only wear certain coloured ties and all this pollie stuff.
''After 10 minutes of that I just said 'Thanks very much, goodbye.' I've got to do this my way and I've got to feel comfortable with what I'm doing. I've always followed the principle that if you do the work, everything else will take care of itself.''
Another pat on the back from a local and then a yobbo screams out the window of a car cruising past. Kelly gives a wave anyway. A couple of women stop him for a chat and a laugh. One fellow stands up from the street-side bench he is sitting on just to say ''Thanks mate''. Could this all be a set up? Hardly. The decision to follow Kelly on the campaign was last minute and he had flown into Canberra the night before from Darwin, where he was campaigning with Rudd. Then it was a drive out to Batemans Bay, where he held a private function with members of the United Services Union. His minders wouldn't let us in but Kelly emerged saying: ''You should have been there, it was a good event.''
Later that night, Kelly would be a little further south to take part in a meet-the-candidates function and small business debate hosted by the local chamber of commerce.
Hendy has flooded the electorate with billboards and campaign posters. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and other senior Coalition figures have made frequent visits, particularly to Queanbeyan, so close to Parliament House and the most densely populated locale in the electorate.
There is no doubting Kelly is a recognisable figure, especially in Moruya. ''People here give you credit for your hard yakka and I don't think anyone can say I haven't worked hard and haven't delivered in my promises,'' Kelly says. ''I'm really proud of what we've achieved.''
He lists initiatives, complete with dollar amounts, that he helped get established in the region. It all sounds like a political script as he mentions the health services and educational facilities the government has funded.
He drops into the Queen Street Medical Centre where he is greeted with enthusiasm. Administrative staff and doctors take the time to update him on their work.
Eden-Monaro could lose its bellwether status if Kelly keeps his seat but Labor loses government. Until the return of Rudd, it looked like the electorate and the government would both fall to the Coalition.
''The bellwether thing is a bit mythical anyway,'' he says. ''It's been with the government since '72, but we had federation in 1901.
''It's a challenge to get around this electorate. It's nothing for us to spend 600 kilometres in the car in a day. Did I tell you it's the size of Belgium?''