Baggage and backstabbing: The messy contest for Gilmore

It's an Australian version of a Forrest Gump scene. On a hot afternoon in what has been dubbed Politics Square in Nowra on the NSW South Coast, Dallas Simmons, 89, is sitting on a red bench in a home-made outfit and matching bag waiting for her 62-year-old daughter to get back from shopping so they can catch the bus home.

Asked what issue will determine how she votes in the ultra-marginal seat of Gilmore, Mrs Simmons does not hesitate for a moment. And, no, it's not superannuation, the cost of living, health care or tax cuts.

For Dallas Simmons, 89, the big issue is climate change. Photo: Louise Kennerley

For Dallas Simmons, 89, the big issue is climate change. Photo: Louise Kennerley

"Climate change," Mrs Simmons says sternly. "I can't understand the federal and state government attitude; it doesn't seem to exist for them."

A surprising number of voters young and old cite global warming as a key issue in the regional electorate. Others are struggling just to fathom one of the messiest contests of this federal election - with four main candidates, triggered when Liberal MP Ann Sudmalis quit politics citing "bullying, betrayal and backstabbing" by party colleagues.

More than one local describes Gilmore as "a shitfight" after Prime Minister Scott Morrison handpicked Warren Mundine as Liberal candidate, despite Mundine being a former Labor national president who had been discussing a Liberal Democrats Senate vacancy and lived hundreds of kilometres away on Sydney's north shore.

Another Nowra shopper, Danielle Dansey, 22, is worried about the cost of housing and finding a job. But raising children aged three, four and five, she has no idea who to vote for, who is standing or even the name of the prime minister who took over from Malcolm Turnbull. "I only vote because I have to," she says.

Big picture thinkers and socially disengaged voters are among those who will decide a seat that runs for a three-hour drive along the coast and an hour inland. The main centre is Nowra, but Gilmore includes farmers, surfers, Aboriginal communities, current and former defence force personnel, fishers, seachangers and retirees.

One urgent issue at least has support from both major parties: a commitment to spend $500 million to improve the Princes Highway south of Nowra after the horrific accident that killed the Falkholt family in late 2017. But every micro-community seems to have their own issues.

Mrs Simmons - she of the Forrest Gump park bench scene - says health care and education need more support.

Fiona Phillips, federal Labor candidate for the seat of Gilmore, at Terara at her brother's dairy farm. Photo: Louise Kennerley

Fiona Phillips, federal Labor candidate for the seat of Gilmore, at Terara at her brother's dairy farm. Photo: Louise Kennerley

"I was a nurse in the days of starch and carbolising beds, when we had matrons and hospitals where, if any infection ever occurred, it was such a disgrace," she says. "But now I would rather die in my own home that go anywhere near the dirty Shoalhaven Hospital."

Labor is favourite to win Gilmore given Mrs Phillips had been campaigning for two years since being endorsed and there is such disunity in the Liberal ranks that the dumped pre-selected candidate, Grant Schultz, quit the party to run as a disruptive Independent and former Liberal MP Joanna Gash is campaign coordinator for Nationals' candidate Katrina Hodgkinson.

A no-fuss mother of four teenagers who grew up on a dairy farm, Mrs Phillips came to politics with a successful campaign to save the Nowra pool, where she still swims in an early morning squad with her carpenter husband. She runs her campaign from their two-storey house in Callala Beach, where mobile phone reception is so poor that she has to head upstairs to make a call.

She believes the pivotal issues are support for health services, especially for the elderly facing long waiting lists for operations in overcrowded hospitals, and schools.

But she thinks it will be "very, very tight" in a seat held by the Liberal Party for more than two decades. "A lot of people are just over politics," she says. "The fact I'm a mum, I'm a real person, I have teenagers and I'm a local, they sort of like that."

The other side of politics has had all the drama since Ms Sudmalis revealed the division in Liberal ranks then Mr Morrison dumped Mr Schultz.

The Liberal candidate for the marginal NSW seat of Gilmore, Warren Mundine, hands out campaign flyers in Bomaderry.  Photo: Louise Kennerley

The Liberal candidate for the marginal NSW seat of Gilmore, Warren Mundine, hands out campaign flyers in Bomaderry. Photo: Louise Kennerley

But campaigning near his new home at Bomaderry after divesting his business interests, Mr Mundine is enjoying meeting voters. "I suppose you'd call me officially unemployed," he jokes. "I could be called a pimp too because I'm living off the earnings of my wife at the moment."

A Bundjalung man and a father of 10 whose third wife is a lawyer, Mr Mundine says concerns about him being parachuted into the seat died down once he started campaigning, but concedes there is still bad blood over the dumping of Mr Schultz.

"But at the end of the day, they are Liberal Party members and they need to be focussing on winning the seat because if they don't win this seat, then the government is definitely not going to be in government," he said.

Mr Mundine cites the Princes Highway improvements, more jobs and better health, especially to deal with the area's ice and alcohol problem, as key issues.

"I'm confident, but it's a tight battle," he says.

Grant Schultz walking the streets in Nowra ahead of the May 18 election. Photo: Louise Kennerley

Grant Schultz walking the streets in Nowra ahead of the May 18 election. Photo: Louise Kennerley

Mr Schultz is a former Australian Federal Police officer turned real estate agent who lives at Mollymook with his wife - also formerly with the police, now in retail - and their two children.

Mr Schultz compares politics with policing. "It gives you a similar mindset," he says. "It's fairly tough, it's fairly challenging. You get belted around a bit, sometimes literally. But ... you're stepping up for those that don't have a voice."

Mr Schultz admits to sadness and frustration about being bumped by the party as well as "an underlying anger that they so frivolously pushed aside the will of the branches".

Ms Hodgkinson, the Nationals federal vice president who is a former NSW minister, resigned from parliament in 2017. She is married to a stay-at-home dad with two teenage children. "One of the reasons for retiring from state parliament was the redistributions were taking me further and further from my family [in Berrima] so we needed to regroup," she says.

Katrina Hodgkinson is a former NSW MP who is attempting to switch to federal politics. Photo: Louise Kennerley

Katrina Hodgkinson is a former NSW MP who is attempting to switch to federal politics. Photo: Louise Kennerley

Ms Hodgkinson believes the big issues are roads, including the duplication of the Princes Highway, infrastructure, aged care, disability employment services and health needs, including mental health. "You've got PTSD with veterans, you've got young people with not enough to do and you've got issues with drug and alcohol abuse."

Despite the Nationals' reputational damage from the Barnaby Joyce and Andrew Broad shenanigans, Ms Hodgkinson says she is staying positive about her chances. "I've got 18-and-half years of parliamentary experience already," she says. "I can put up with the bear pit, I can give it to the best of them. I've had to cross the floor on difficult legislation before."

Alarmingly for voters, the picture could get messier with speculation of more possible candidates including former Shoalhaven mayor Paul Green, a Christian Democrat who lost his NSW upper house seat, and Mark Latham flagging One Nation's interest.

- SMH/The Age

This story Baggage and backstabbing: The messy contest for Gilmore first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

Comments