Winning a seat in parliament is no mean feat; winning a marginal seat is so much more challenging. But these are the seats to win to form government, and equally important, to hold and stay in government. I was fortunate enough to win in a marginal regional seat in Tasmania; a seat that has changed party hands at every election since 2004, which is the home of Jacqui Lambie, the fighting ground for Bob Brown, and where the Greens are detested.
The contradictions of Braddon make it an interesting place to campaign. What voters want in rural and regional communities is not always the same as in the cities, so policies cannot be a one-size-fits-all proposition. But what is consistent across all communities is the need for decent, secure jobs and access to good quality health care and schools. And what about swinging voters? The national narrative of who is best to lead the country and who will look after me and my family is most influential. I cannot tell you the number of times I heard from voters in the 2019 federal election, “Justine, I really want to vote for you, but I can’t because of “x” or “y”. The repetition was concerning.
Regional and rural voters are foremost concerned with their capacity to live in relative comfort, to support their families, to aspire to leave something behind and to have security of their situation. We can talk about complex tax reform, but it will only resonate with these voters if it means a hit to their back pocket; the “what’s in it for me” response.
The contrast between the by-election I fought and the 2019 federal election shows how marginal seats respond to complex campaigns. In the by-election, the message was clear; hospitals not banks, schools not banks. We fought the Turnbull government on their neo-liberal policies and gave people in regional areas the choice. Labor clearly and concisely showed it cared about what directly mattered to these voters. In contrast, it was hard for voters to keep up with the volume of policy announcements in 2019 and key messages just got lost. It allowed the LNP to cut through with their short key messages, whether based on fact or fiction it just didn’t matter.
Losing an election is one of the most crushing experiences and is sadly shared with supporters and volunteers who give their all to see a win. The volunteers on these campaigns are true champions and the true heroes in our movement. The loss is felt across the electorate and the burden of that on a candidate is hard to grapple with. I never went into politics or an election with the view that this was all about me. The 2018 by-election was demonstrative of that. Both leaders made the elections about leadership. I knew the stakes were that high, the future prospect of federal Labor was on the line. The pressure to perform was significant. If I said one word incorrectly, stuffed up just a little, the Liberals and media would have a field day. No pressure, right! It was an experience of such intense national public pressure that took me way outside my comfort zone, yet I found myself relishing it, enjoying it, and thankfully performing well, surrounded by an amazing team and a troop of equally amazing volunteers. But 11 weeks if campaigning is so very long for everyone involved and three elections in three years takes its toll.
Labor’s policies are about putting people at the centre of what we all want to implement in government. The impact is powerful. It wasn’t until experiencing Opposition life that I truly appreciated the power of being in government. I will never forget listening to Tanya Plibersek, sharing a story with the manager of a local community house in my electorate, and hearing how a program she implemented as a government minister impacted people. She told the story of meeting a couple in regional NSW who had gone through this program a few years prior. They had been long-term unemployed and had small children. The program enabled them to gain work and, for the first time, were able to take a family holiday, which for them was so significant. As Tanya told this story, her eyes welled, and I could see the power of Labor in action. Sadly, the program was discontinued with the change of government and without a proper review conducted into its effectiveness.
We cannot implement such powerful policies and programs without winning marginal seats and campaigning on the things that matter the most to people in regional communities. With the rise of independents in these electorates, thanks to the ineptitude of successive LNP governments, it is a difficult challenge but one we must all take seriously with policies and messaging that must resonate with regional and rural communities.
Justine Keay was the MP for Braddon between 2016 to 2019