By late 2001, farmers on the NSW-Victoria border were dreading the worst. Patchy rainfall during the late 1990s had given way to an awful season and the irrigation canals that tracked parched outback roads either side of the Murray River were drying up. The millennium drought, said to be the worst since European settlement, was setting in.
That’s what Sussan Ley saw through the window of her Millard caravan as she drove from Albury to Deniliquin and beyond in her dogged chase for a seat in the House of Representatives. She was averaging 2000 kilometres on the road a week in her fight for Farrer, an electorate that had been held by the Nationals, and its much-loved leader Tim Fischer, for 17 years.
But Fischer was retiring and a drought was coming. So Ley talked about water incessantly — and won. Building her support base steadily since, she now sits on a nearly insurmountable 20-point margin.
Nearly insurmountable. Eighteen years later, with her electorate again in drought and a new candidate in town, the same circumstances that turbocharged Ley’s 2001 campaign could help end her tenure. Her challenger, charming two-term Albury mayor Kevin Mack, recognises that and he isn’t shutting up about water: with deep community roots and deeper pockets (thanks to backing from the grassroots Voices for Farrer) Mack has managed to tighten opinion polls dramatically in the lead-up to next month’s poll.
Often described as Australia’s food bowl, Farrer is a sprawling electorate tracking NSW’s border with Victoria that has voted for the Coalition without fail since it was created in 1949. But political discontent has been building on all sides. In its west, the overlapping state seat of Murray recently fell to Shooters, Fishers and Farmers via a 26-point swing. In some irrigation heartland booths, the swing was more than 50 points. To the south, the federal electorate of Indi abandoned the Liberals in favour of trailblazing independent Cathy McGowan. And to its north-west, the state seat of Wagga Wagga turned independent in 2018 after over 60 years with the Liberal Party.
Amid a once-in-a-generation drought that has the communities of Australia’s food bowl hurting and angry, Farrer has emerged as a litmus test on the government’s water woes: could one of the Liberal Party’s safest seats fall to an independent candidate who’s driving a ferocious campaign hinged on attacking the Coalition’s water policies?
When I meet Ley in her electorate office, off the main road of Albury and around the corner from Mack’s home base, she stresses two points in dispute: first and foremost, that no one’s done more for water than her.
«I fight the fight on water every day of my political life. And I’ve faced people angry about water before. In 2010, we had a water-based independent. I remember using the words ‘Let’s not use the Murray River as a political football’ myself in 2001 — I think that shows for my entire representation of this seat water has been front and centre,» she says.
Ley is careful not to wholly blame the drought for angry voter sentiment and concedes more could have been done. For example, she says she should have worked harder on her recent, failed push to let farmers borrow water set aside for the environment during stretches of drought.
Ley’s second point is mathematical. In a vast electorate like Farrer — it is larger than South Korea — the breadth of communities is so great that a wide range of local issues can come into play during an election. It’s telling that while the Nationals lost Murray with a 26-point swing, the adjoining seat of Albury, whose namesake town makes up 27 per cent of Farrer’s voting population, delivered a small swing towards its Liberal member.
I’m a Liberal voter but I’m definitely going to change my vote. There are just a couple of things about Sussan and I just don’t think she’s strong enough.
In 2001, Ley lost every «water booth», as she calls them — the polling stations in isolated towns like Deniliquin, Tooleybuc and Hay with voters on the drought frontline. Since that 2001 election she’s gradually built a formidable vote buffer in those irrigation communities: in the Blighty polling booth at the last election she received 90 per cent of the vote. In March’s NSW state election, the equivalent Coalition incumbent earned 11 per cent of the vote. Both Ley and Mack know if that anger spreads, she could be utterly decimated in some of those irrigation communities.
But both recognise that is only half the fight. To win in the face of a 20 point margin, Mack needs to build an unlikely coalition between angry farmers in NSW’s south-west corner and rusted-on Liberal voters in Albury.
His challenge is to persuade Albury that their small businesses will feel the economic effects of the drought any day now — and to do so, he needs water to be a big booth issue.
«If you make a cake, or make anything in the kitchen, water is the pivotal ingredient. Without water, you don’t have productivity. Without productivity, you don’t have an economy. Without an economy, you don’t have a town. And without a town you don’t have a bigger town like Albury.»
His theory may be sound. With the fourth-highest unemployment rate of any council in NSW, Albury is not exactly booming but to many lifelong Coalition voters in the town, it’s a long bow to draw.
Louise Jones, who is walking her dog along Kiewa Street on Tuesday morning, knows Mack as the mayor and thinks of him as a «family man» but won’t vote for him come May 18. Most locals approached shared a similar sentiment, yet the number of life-long Liberal voters who at this early stage of the campaign said they plan to switch shows the Ley camp has cause for concern.
«He’s well-respected around the area,» Bianca McGibbon says. «My family has always been Liberal voters. I’m a Liberal voter but I’m definitely going to change my vote. There are just a couple of things about Sussan and I just don’t think she’s strong enough.»
Several voters singled out the 2017 expenses scandal that saw Ley lose her position in cabinet as a deal-breaker. While the saga hasn’t featured strongly in Mack’s campaign, this election will be the first since Ley resigned her roles as minister for health, aged care and sport over her purchase of a Gold Coast investment property while on a taxpayer-funded trip.
Others are not able to look past water when saying who they would vote for.
«Water’s everything,» says solicitor Mike Eden. «And we need some sort of change. I’m very happy if we become a marginal seat.»
Mack has given it his best shot but hasn’t quite built the same grassroots support network as Voices for Indi, which propelled Cathy McGowan to two terms.
Mack has 300 volunteers (compared to McGowan’s 1000), has been in the race for eight weeks (McGowan campaigned for six months in the run up to her shock win) and has a much larger margin to overcome (McGowan’s initial margin was half what Mack’s is).
The independent candidate stands for a royal commission into water, halting the Murray Darling Basin Plan and openly flirts with stopping the water buybacks program entirely following recent reports that a company once directed by Energy Minister Angus Taylor received $80 million in taxpayer funds in what experts say was a raw deal for the government.
Mack sees energy as his other main policy area. He views mining and farming as two duelling entities — he says more «due diligence» must be done on Adani before it is approved — and gets excited when talking about recycling and solar panels. Like most other high-profile independents, he supports a national integrity commission.
In what some could take as a sign of how close the race is, there have already been several dirty plays. Ley’s campaign team found one corflute defaced with a swastika and a false rumour of drunken behaviour has spread in some corners of the electorate.
Mack’s campaign grumbles that Ley rented the office next to theirs only to fill it with corflutes and little else, and both sides have been going to local paper The Border Mail every second day with potshots at the other on local issues, or deliberately leaked internal polling.
As in 2001, Farrer is in pain. The drought is severe and voters have an alternative candidate.
Last time, they didn’t think twice.
Max is a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.