NSW election - the buzz around the ACT

NSW election - the buzz around the ACT

Issues around the border between the ACT and NSW are of prime concern to Queanbeyan voters.

Queanbeyanites should be rejoicing because living in a marginal electorate means being showered with attention and promises at election time.

Buying votes by promising to give the voters' money back via projects at election time is business as usual for political parties.

Queanbeyan Mayor Tim Overall.

Queanbeyan Mayor Tim Overall.

And this NSW election is no different, with $15 million plucked from the Premier's basket of goodies this week to replace the 30-year-old police station, and $60,000 for the Queanbeyan Basketball Centre

That makes mayor Tim Overall happy because any construction work will be welcome to counteract the current economic slowdown.

Monaro MP John Barilaro says he is going into the election as an underdog.

Monaro MP John Barilaro says he is going into the election as an underdog.Credit:Katherine Griffiths

Health and roads are perennial issues for Queanbeyan – the new hospital was a long time coming and the ring road has been discussed for decades.

As a dormitory suburb for Canberra, Queanbeyan's fortunes ride on the whim of whichever party is governing the nation from the ACT.

Many of the NSW city's residents drive across the border every day – to work in the federal public service or in the national capital's construction industry.

However, both those sectors are sluggish, affecting business confidence and the retail trade.

"Public service cutbacks and the accompanying uncertainty is affecting local businesses, given approximately 25 per cent of Queanbeyan's workforce is employed in the Commonwealth public sector," the mayor says.

"While this is considered somewhat cyclical, the growth of the retail activity at the airport has had a compounding effect. Continuing revitalisation of our city centre is both a high priority of the community and council. I look forward to working with the elected member in delivering on this."

Canberra's denizens could be forgiven for not caring there's an election battle happening just outside the territory's borders.

They might take more notice if there was a good chance of the state government being a one-term administration, but even the Coalition's determination to sell electricity assets seems unlikely to be its downfall.

Offsetting that, the stench left by the outgoing Labor administration is still sufficiently acrid to be used in the campaign, even four years after Labor's swingeing defeat.

On Canberra's north, the state seat of Goulburn is not considered marginal but the Liberals predict a correction from the party's massive support in the last election.

The boundary redistribution has shifted the seat west of Goulburn to take in traditional National Party territory.

The National Party was talked out of contesting the seat and Labor is trying to unseat Liberal MP Pru Goward, the Planning Minister, by nominating former Labor senator, Ursula Stephens.

The promises are pouring in - $120 million to redevelop the hospital in Goulburn and $15 million to begin the duplication of the Barton Highway linking Yass to the ACT.

Labor says the funding for both electorates reflects bad polling for the Coalition.

Yass Valley Council mayor Rowena Abbey says the area is one of the fastest growing in NSW.

"So infrastructure such as water, sewerage, roads and schools - relating to our increased population, with a large number of young families - are on top of our list of important issues," she says.

"Our relationship with the ACT is very important and we need the NSW government to recognise and help work with us in relation to the cross-border issues that face us in areas such as schooling, future water and provision of other services as the communities grow across on both sides of the border".

The mayor says the Barton Highway is a big issue for the community.

"The recent announcement of $15 million of funding for road improvements and overtaking lanes is great news," she says.

"We will continue to work with both the state and federal governments on the strategy for the long-term improvement and duplication of the Barton Highway and we are looking forward to receiving the strategic rollout plan from Roads and Maritime Services ... this [funding] is a good starting point [towards full duplication]".

Queanbeyan dominates Monaro but the electorate extends down to the coast, and south to the Victorian border.

The state seat is considered a bellwether, usually going with the government of the day, like the federal seat of Eden-Monaro, also based on Queanbeyan.

But could Abbott's shadow over Queanbeyan mean the Coalition might retain government but lose Monaro?

That is one scenario that is worrying the Coalition, dragged down by "captain's picks" and the cuts to the public service.

This week the federal Coalition signalled the worst of the cuts might be over. In any case, Abbott's task had been made easier by the quiet but ruthless cuts by the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd administration.

In Monaro, the key election issues identified by the major parties are health, Tony Abbott, roads, antisocial behaviour and electricity privatisation.

The Nationals' John Barilaro has been the member for Monaro since the Coalition's landslide win in 2011, when he replaced Labor's Steve Whan who had been the member since 2003.

Previously, Whan had unsuccessfully twice contested the federal seat of Eden-Monaro.

Barilaro has been promoted, in his first term, to become Minister for Small Business and Minister for Regional Tourism.

"There is no question, with my margin of 2 per cent, that I am going into this race as an underdog," he says.

He has spoken out against the privatisation of wires and poles in rural areas. Being a successful local hero can't hurt his re-election chances.

Faced with relentless negative publicity on the issue, NSW Treasurer Andrew Constance this week gave a guarantee that electricity prices will fall if the partial privatisation of the state's poles and wires proceeds.

The Coalition says the proceeds from leasing state electricity assets will contribute to the construction of $20 billion worth of infrastructure.

However, Essential Energy, which operates poles and wires in rural NSW, will remain in full public ownership.

The Nationals MP says health remains at the top of voters' minds, despite the new hospital, the installation of a $740,000 CT scanner and removing barriers to allow ACT surgeons to perform operations there.

Now there is pressure on the maternity wing as young families move into greenfield housing estates and, at the other end of the spectrum, increasing demand for care for the ageing sector of the city's population.

Barilaro says Queanbeyan needs to find its niche. For the foreseeable future, however, the city's economy is dependent on the construction industry in the ACT and the federal public service.

"A lot of people in Queanbeyan work, shop and play in the ACT and that is just part of the cross-border anomaly that we need to deal with," he says.

"Queanbeyan needs to find itself ... and I think Queanbeyan is transforming right now."

The Nationals MP doesn't hide from the fallout from the federal government's current unpopularity.

"People are saying they just want a government that is focused on governing, a government focused on issues that Australian families are facing," he says.

"We know the storm clouds are coming over the top with a number of sectors of the economy falling over or declining so they want leadership and that's the message loud and clear.

"I think people are quite happy to judge Tony Abbott in 18 months but they want a government that's focused on the people, not on themselves, which is unfortunately what has been characterising federal politics for months, not just this term but over the past two terms of government.

"Both sides are guilty of it, they're been focused internally not externally.

"I think in this region people have what I call political fatigue because the commentary is always about issues federally and that's why I say I am the underdog in this campaign."

If Barilaro is re-elected, he is promising to leave politics at the end of his second term.

After Whan was defeated in 2011, he was subsequently picked by Labor to fill a vacancy in the Upper House.

He has resigned that position to contest the lower house spot and says he won't be going back if this bid is unsuccessful.

However, the Coalition is contesting that claim and painting him as a career politician.

Whan responds to that by saying the Coalition is switching to negative, personality-driven ads because it is worried about the strength of his campaign.

He has promised an ambulance station for Bungendore and a $5 million expansion of Cooma Hospital's emergency department.

The Labor candidate says Queanbeyan's CBD has more empty shopfronts now than he's seen since the more drastic cuts to the federal public service in 1996.

"There is a direct impact because the majority of Queanbeyan workers get on the road and drive to Canberra every day," he says.

Labor's telephone polling is showing the Prime Minister is a significant factor overshadowing the state election, he says.

"Tony Abbott is certainly the No. 1 mentioned issue and not in a positive way," he says.

"Privatisation [of electricity infrastructure] is quite a strong issue, people are very strongly opposed to it and they don't buy the government's line that it's only 49 per cent [being sold]."

Greens' candidate Peter Marshall who is on the Palerang Council, is concerned at forced local government amalgamations.

"Palerang Council and Queanbeyan Council are being forced to talk to each other about amalgamation even though they don't want to," he says.

"Amalgamations are supposed to be a solution to financial difficulties in local government but there is no good evidence that amalgamating councils actually fixes financial difficulties."

Palerang Council went through this in 2004 when it was created from parts of other council areas. "There were no economies of scale possible because there is legislation that requires the council to keep jobs in regional areas," Marshall says.

"So you end up not actually being able to get rid of any jobs, not that that will necessarily be a good thing anyhow, but that's what economies means, concentrating people in one place."

He says there are concerns that Queanbeyan with a population of about 40,000 would dominate the much smaller Palerang if the councils combined.

"Rural people's wishes will inevitably be swamped by the city focus," he says.

The Queanbeyan council says the proposed ring road – the 4.6-kilometre Ellerton Drive extension – will provide an alternative around the central business district and connect east and west Queanbeyan to the new southern population growth areas.

Marshall says there is no guarantee the route will take trucks off the main street because it is "quite circuitous" and will have roundabouts.

"It's my impression trucks don't like turning," he says.

"The council has taken a step backwards from where they were and they are having another round of public consultations.

"There isn't so much an opposition to the project as a general feeling that it hasn't been thought through properly."

The Nationals MP says he understands some residents have concerns about the project.

"It has been part of every election cycle that I can recall over 20 or 30 years," he says.

"The experts have come out and said this is the best road to meet the city's needs and of course it's going to cause grief because it does pass through some residential areas but it's been a corridor that's been identified and marked for over three decades."

He says he supports the project and fought for state government funding.

"At this stage unless something changes I can't see why this road wouldn't go ahead in the very near future."

Twitter: @rosspeakeCT

Ross Peake is a senior reporter for The Canberra Times

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