Rural cities up for grabs

IN HIS HANDS: Premier Denis Napthine at Bendigo Town Hall last week, the first of many visits in the coming months. Picture: BRENDAN McCARTHY

IN HIS HANDS: Premier Denis Napthine at Bendigo Town Hall last week, the first of many visits in the coming months. Picture: BRENDAN McCARTHY

THE night of September 18, 1999, the Kennett government was on its knees.

The Labor Party had won seven rural seats after one of the most nail biting Victorian elections in history.

Three hostile independents booted the Coalition from power from Mildura, Gippsland East and Gippsland West.

Bendigo and Ballarat were at the centre of a new Labor heartland in central Victoria. The party now held all seven seats in the region.

"There were changes in Bendigo, Ballarat and Geelong. We even saw a change in Gisborne after a popular local member retired," then deputy premier Pat McNamara said in Bendigo on Wednesday.

"The swing was in rural seats."

Just months out from the election, the Kennett government was cruising to an expected comfortable win.

Yet rural voters soon punished the government for a perceived Melbourne-centric focus.

Fast forward to 2014, and neither the Coalition or Labor are prepared to take regional voters for granted.

Boundary redistributions, volatile electorates and infrastructure needs have made central Victoria, and Bendigo in particular, vital to both parties' ambitions at the November election.

ELECTORAL DESTINY: Bendigo is at the heart of four hotly-contested seats, including Labor's Ripon.

ELECTORAL DESTINY: Bendigo is at the heart of four hotly-contested seats, including Labor's Ripon.

Rough start

A major funding announcement for Epsom Primary School was expected to be the big news of Daniel Andrews' visit to Bendigo last week.

A $5.7 million announcement to rebuild an ailing school in the Bendigo West electorate - it was all positive.

No sooner had the Labor leader set foot in Bendigo was he confronted with the front page of The Age - his staff was not only complicit in the leaking of a private recording, they were held responsible.

Andrews fended off pointed questions, but the issue lingered. It became the focus of not only his visit to Bendigo, but the coming weeks and possibly months.

Just minutes after Denis Napthine had sung "happy birthday" to a horse with White Hills Primary School students last Friday, he was confronted with questions over a candidate's social media comments.

Standing next to him at the time was then Bendigo West candidate Jack Lyons.

The election was still four months away, but in the space of a week Bendigo had already had a taste of what could be a bruising campaign in central Victoria.

Golden seats

For the current Victorian government to get re-elected, they need to win new seats. - Ian Tulloch, La Trobe University

The reason for Bendigo's importance? The Coalition toppled Labor by two seats in 2010, later reduced to a one seat majority.

Overall, last year's boundary redistribution removed two safe Coalition seats and created two new safe Labor seats in Melbourne's west.

Add to that the likelihood of the Liberal Party losing seats along the Frankston line and they already have ground to make up.

Those red Labor seats in central Victoria stand out like a beacon in the regions.

Jacinta Allan's margin in Bendigo East dropped to 3.2 per cent - the seat she won in 1999.

Ripon, which shifted north to include more rural voters, is now notionally a Liberal Party seat, as well as a target for the Nationals.

Bendigo West had a strong Nationals candidate in 2010, but with the party not running this time and the Liberals having to reboot their campaign this week, it remains unpredictable.

Since the Labor Party strengthened its grip on the region in 2002, the general trend has been moving slowly in the other direction.

Party strategists will target these seats to either defend or exacerbate Liberal Party losses in inner Melbourne.

Cashing in

Ask both parties and they will tell you - the new $630 million Bendigo hospital is a lifesaver for the city.

They will also both take credit for the establishment, delivery and scale of the project.

The Liberal Party will highlight its support of the hospital, infrastructure funding and continue to establish itself as the party for "regional cities", the focus of the Premier's speech in Bendigo last week.

The Labor Party will question education and health spending, and expect to hear a lot more about Abbott and Hockey.

The promises have started early too, with Kangaroo Flat aquatic centre to expect $15 million from the latest budget, while Labor has announced a rebuild of Epsom Primary School.

Despite early results and a renewed focus on the city, are people engaged with the electoral process?

The Bendigo Advertiser asked more than 30 people in Hargreaves Mall their opinion regarding the upcoming election, and aside from general cynicism, there was no interest.

La Trobe University honorary associate in politics Ian Tulloch said the disconnect with politics was only growing wider.

He said the importance of central Victorian seats is also increasing.

"For the current Victorian government to get re-elected, they need to win new seats," Mr Tulloch said.

"Bendigo West is particularly marginal so that will be a focus.

"It's hard to see them recovering from the recent events in that seat, but a lot can happen in four months."

Angles of attack

The Nationals look certainties in the newly-created seat of Euroa, covering Benalla, Heathcote and Seymour.

A challenge from the Liberals in the seat could do little more than create a rift within the Coalition.

They are also angling heavily for a shot at Ripon with former Richmond player Scott Turner.

Nationals state director Jenny Hammett said the party would not contest the two Bendigo seats, and its central Victoria focus would be on Ripon and Euroa.

Winning both seats would push the party's base even further south.

With no chance of winning a lower house seat, the Greens have their sights set on the upper house.

Northern Victoria has two Liberal, two Labor and a Nationals member.

Victorian Greens leader Greg Barber said a balance of power situation had almost become the norm in Victorian politics, and 2014 was unlikely to be any different.

"Since the reforms to the upper house system, everyone in Victoria now lives in a marginal seat," he said.

"How that changes the political dynamic is that the election no longer comes down to lots of small issues in small marginal seats.

"Now everyone's issues are considered."

Add into that a Country Alliance looking to be a genuine rural alternative, and it becomes a fascinating mix of party politics.

112 days to go

Ballarat already has a golden nugget of an election promise - a Coalition commitment to relocate the VicRoads headquarters from Melbourne to Ballarat, creating an estimated 400 jobs in the city and $40 million in benefits.

Can Bendigo land the big one as well?

The Victorian Employers' Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VECCI) chief executive officer Mark Stone thought so during a recent visit to the city.

"Something like the CFA has a lot of links to regional Victoria," he told the Bendigo Advertiser last month.

"You've got to have the right location and in the infrastructure in place. Bendigo has all of that and has a proven capability to house large organisations."

The City of Greater Bendigo also has a long wish-list of priorities.

Is something more than a new hospital too much to ask? It waits to be seen.

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