Saturday, December 2

‘There’s lots of anger still’: locals in key NSW seat of Gilmore remain split on Morrison | Sarah Martin Chief political correspondent

At the Heads Hotel, where the Shoalhaven River meets the sea, the locals are arguing about a strange grey object in the middle of the water.

“It’s a bloody bandicoot,” one says.

“Nah, it’s wrapped in plastic.”

“Why would you wrap a bandicoot up in bloody plastic?” another says with a chuckle.

The guessing game is the latest banter at what the locals reverently call “the table of knowledge” – or sometimes the “table of bullshit” – at the front bar of the Heads, sitting at knock-off time with a round of frothies under the watchful eye of two shiny stuffed marlins.

Locals (quiet Australians) sit around the ‘table of knowledge’ at the Heads Hotel. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Politics is usually off the agenda. But there are plenty of opinions for the group who live in “this paradise” on the New South Wales south coast. They need to build a wall at the river mouth. Fix the boat ramp. We need to wake up to China. Order the steak.

And Scott Morrison? Is he in trouble?

“Morrison? Oh, shit yeah. He is in big trouble,” Grant McLaurin says, happily calling him the “liar from the Shire” to rile up his drinking mates.

“Let me put it this way – Labor is not putting up anything against him and I still think he is in trouble.”

“I don’t think he should be,” Colin Mullholland counters from the other end of the table.

“It’s a very hard job ScoMo has got. He’s walked in at a bloody bad time: bushfires, Covid, two floods.”

“Who would want to be in charge?” Jan Dolden agrees. “I think he has done a good job and it hasn’t been easy.”

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Grant McLaurin at the Shoalhaven Heads Hotel
Grant McLaurin says Scott Morrison is ‘in big trouble’, calling him the ‘liar from the Shire’ to rile up his drinking mates. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian
Colin Mullholland and Jan Dolden at the Shoalhaven Heads Hotel
Colin Mullholland and Jan Dolden. ‘It’s a very hard job ScoMo has got,’ Mulholland says. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Grant is a Labor voter. Jan and Colin say they are “sticking with ScoMo”.

But perched on the corner of the table is Greg Gay, sitting quietly. He voted for Morrison last time, but is thinking of changing his vote.

“I voted Liberal last time but I’ll most probably go back to Labor,” Gay says.

“It’s just Scott Morrison. His decision making is a bit slow. By the time he decides to make something happen, he could have done it two weeks earlier. Just very slow off the mark.”

But Gay says he is waiting to see what the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, comes up with, describing both parties as “very similar”.

“That’s the part I am holding back on. Maybe you stay with the devil you know. But he really needs to come up with some positive decisions.”

Greg Gay at the Shoalhaven Heads Hotel
Greg Gay voted for the Liberals at the last federal election but is thinking of changing his vote. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Morrison put Shoalhaven Heads – population 3,059 – on Australia’s political map soon after becoming leader, spending Christmas holidays there in 2018 and visiting again last year. Ahead of the May 2019 election he wrote an opinion piece about the “fellow travellers” he found at this modest waterfront watering hole, the so-called quiet Australians “who actually think Australia is a pretty great place and we don’t really have too much time to be angry”.

Shoalhaven Heads is in the northern part of the marginal seat of Gilmore, a seat that hugs the Pacific coastline from Kiama in the north to Tuross Head in the south. It is held by Labor’s Fiona Phillips on a 2.6% margin. She won Gilmore at the last election after it had been in Liberal hands for the previous 23 years.

A lot has happened in Gilmore since the last federal election. A pandemic. Floods. And, most crushingly, bushfires, which burned through an estimated 80% of the electorate during the Black Summer of 2019-20.

An aerial image of Shoalhaven Heads on the NSW South Coast, Australia
Ahead of the May 2019 election, Morrison wrote an opinion piece about the so-called quiet Australians of Shoalhaven Heads. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

There has been a lot to get angry about. And up and down the length of the seat, the memory of the fires – and Morrison’s decision to go to Hawaii at the time – is still raw.

“There’s lots of anger still and sadness as well,” Maloneys Beach resident Nina Poulton says in Mogo, further south, which was mostly destroyed in the bushfires.

“They say no one ever listens. There is still anger, hurt, a lot of tears still, a lot of hidden emotions, a lot of trauma still sitting there that surfaces. It’s been difficult since 2019. It wasn’t easy before that, but now all of these crises have happened.”

Morrison is “not a leader”, Poulton says, comparing him unfavourably to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

“We had the bushfires here, we were all impacted, the floods, and for any decision he’s been away, he’s not been present. He’s not what I call a good prime minister. He’s not a leader in my books.

“He has just got nothing to offer.”

Poulton is a Labor voter. No change this time around. Mogo business owner Vicki Pamount-Reid is a swinging voter and hasn’t made up her mind yet.

Speaking to Guardian Australia on the front veranda of her business, just off Mogo’s main drag, she is still disappointed about Morrison’s infamous Hawaii trip.

“He could have stayed here instead of going away when the bushfires were on, that was a dire emergency,” she says.

“He shouldn’t have gone away. He should have been more empathetic. And when he visited Cobargo, nobody had anything. Nobody had fresh drinking water or petrol or anything, and he expected to be served by a cafe down there and it was just he really didn’t grasp what it was like for people.”

Mogo business owner Vicki Pamount-Reid hasn’t made up her mind yet on whom to vote for.
Mogo business owner Vicki Pamount-Reid hasn’t made up her mind yet on whom to vote for. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian
The Roman Leathergoods store in Mogo is now operating out of a demountable following the bushfires of 2019-20.
The Roman Leathergoods store in Mogo is now operating out of a demountable following the bushfires of 2019-20. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

But the anger doesn’t define her political outlook either, saying she believes Morrison has had a “really difficult time” with the pandemic, along with having to manage the natural disasters.

“I think it wouldn’t matter what he did, people would say that he’s done the wrong thing. So you know, he’s a victim of the political machine in a way, I think.”

This mix of sentiments is common – people are angry and disappointed with Morrison, but also sympathetic for the times he has found himself in.

It’s also clear that many voters are still disengaged with the contest, and Albanese is yet to make much of an impression.

“I really don’t know much about him. I haven’t heard much. I’ve seen him on the telly a couple of times,” Georgia Harmer in Batemans Bay says.

Georgia Harmer with Thomas Hyde.
Georgia Harmer with Thomas Hyde in Batemans Bay. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

She says she thinks Morrison, whom she voted for last time, has “done the best he could”, but is “sitting on the fence” for this election, listing childcare as a priority.

In Vincentia, hospitality worker and artist Olivia Cooke says she doesn’t follow politics, but knows Morrison “is not the greatest guy”. And Albanese? Never heard of him. She might vote Greens or Labor, but is unsure.

It’s easy to find people unhappy with Morrison, but harder to find the voters who have switched firmly into the Labor camp, with most still undecided.

“I think he’s a bit of an opportunist,” says Barbara Doughty, an Ulladulla retiree, of Morrison.

“In the beginning, I did like him, I thought he was doing really well, but he just seems to have got a bit too big for his boots.”

But she is yet to decide for the forthcoming election, saying she intends to talk to the Liberal candidate, Andrew Constance, about transport issues in the seat.

Olivia Cooke at Aggies Cafe in Vincentia.
Olivia Cooke at Aggies Cafe in Vincentia. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian
Barbara Doherty in Nowra, NSW, Australia.
Ulludulla retiree Barbara Doherty. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Cathy Davey, 57, of Terara, says she feels Morrison “has lost touch”, but says of Albanese: “I don’t like him.” Another for the undecided column.

Kory Edwards, a 32-year-old small business owner, says it’s too early to write Morrison off.

“I think, as a person and what he’s doing for the country has been all right. I just think people put a lot of pressure on him and everything that’s going on in the world. In Australia everyone’s put the blame on him in general. But I think ScoMo is doing all right.”

With the Coalition lagging badly in the polls and needing to win seats to form a majority government, Gilmore is mentioned as one of the few seats the Liberals could win from Labor.

Kory Edwards.
Kory Edwards. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

The party is hoping Constance, whose former state seat of Bega overlaps Gilmore, can cancel out the anti-Morrison sentiment. He was a prominent critic himself of the prime minister as he advocated for his south coast community during the fires.

Constance says the community was “100%” justified in its anger towards the government, saying he felt the same.

“Channeling that anger into change is what’s important. And I feel that if we don’t as Australians learn from the last few years and make the change and our governments don’t make the changes, then it’s a disservice to our ongoing humanity.”

He is promising to be “a fiercely independent voice” for Gilmore, but says the last thing the exhausted community needs is an adversarial political contest.

“The big thing for me is making sure that this is a positive experience for the community,” he says, listing roads, housing and climate change as priorities.

‘A fiercely independent voice’: Gilmore Liberal candidate Andrew Constance.
‘We can get a lot done’: Gilmore Liberal candidate Andrew Constance. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

“We have some who have been left with lifelong trauma, me included, and I think to be able to see the community unified in survival, and then incredibly unified in recovery, there’s a lot that can be achieved working together. So if we put ourselves first as a community and park the politics, we can get a lot done.”

But Phillips, who has spent the past term forging her links in the community, is blunt about the Coalition’s prospects in Gilmore: “Not a chance.”

“I have been out there every single day with people in this community, right across the community,” she says in a leafy cafe garden opposite the Nowra church where she was married.

Gilmore Labor MP Fiona Phillips outside the church where she got married.
‘People have just totally lost faith with the Morison government’: Gilmore Labor MP Fiona Phillips outside the church where she got married. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

“I am very well known around this local area. I’ve got very strong roots in this particular main population area. I’ve been there right through the floods, right through the bushfires, Covid, you name it.

“I am definitely confident I have been doing everything possible to support people, and I think that’s the main thing that people want – to see you actually fighting for them.”

She says the people of Gilmore have endured “one disaster after another” and were repeatedly let down by the government. She says disaster mitigation, housing and health will be the key focus of her campaign.

“I think the people have just totally lost faith with the Morison government. It doesn’t matter whether it’s drought, bushfires, flood or Covid,” she says, pointing to business owners who couldn’t source Rat tests as an example.

“They don’t forget those sorts of things.”

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