Douglas Fry is a Fairfax Media writer.
Eden-Monaro is the federal bellwether seat with an impeccable 40-year streak of electing the party that wins the election. It's a geographically diverse electorate, stretching from the southern NSW coastline through the capital country highlands to the Snowy Mountains. As one of the first regions in the country to roll out the NBN, most areas are projected to have a fibre optic connection by 2016. Accordingly, industries range from agriculture to ICT to tourism and a quiet-but-impressive defence technology sector.
Dr Mike Kelly MP has represented Labor in the seat since 2007, holding a safe margin through the 2010 election and earning a promotion to Minister for Defence Materiel in February this year; a spot as Defence Minister is assured should Labor retain government. Dr Kelly, a former Australian Army lawyer who deployed to Somalia, East Timor and Iraq (among others) has rapidly ascended to cabinet, though his family's local political heritage keeps him grounded in Eden-Monaro, he says: 'My blood and bone is in this region.'
The Liberals have placed economist and businessman Peter Hendy in charge of a potential takeover on 7 September. As Chief of Staff to then-Defence Minister Peter Reith during the 'children overboard' saga of 2001, Mr Hendy has first-hand experience in border security, though it is job security he has stressed to the undecided voters of Eden-Monaro. How far this extends to the region's strong public service and defence demographic is an ongoing debate between the candidates.
Eden-Monaro's effective capital is Queanbeyan, nestled into the eastern armpit of the ACT. The city's proximity to key Canberra defence establishments – Russell Offices, Headquarters Joint Operations Command (pictured), HMAS Harman – has led many cross-border commuters to seek out Queanbeyan's vastly more affordable accommodation, or settle in its dedicated Defence Housing. The city continues to grow partly as a result of these commuters, with in-development suburbs like Googong set to offer thousands more homes to keep up with the demand.
Dr Kelly is concerned that public service cuts flagged by the Liberal Party would extend to Defence – primarily civilian positions but also uniformed personnel. These cuts would be devastating for the projected growth of Queanbeyan and satellite towns like Bungendore, Dr Kelly has argued.
At a candidate debate in Queanbeyan on Tuesday evening, Dr Kelly cited recent comments made by Shadow Defence Minister, Senator David Johnston:
He talked about the 23,000 civilians in Defence, and how they were effectively wasted space. We know (Coalition) policy is to axe completely the 7000 personnel in the Defence Materiel Organisation, which sits under me. So many people in this town are working for the Defence Materiel Organisation. We know what happened in ’96 – obviously that threat is here again.
The following day, Mr Hendy dismissed Dr Kelly's claim as 'just another one of his apocalyptic statements'. 'DMO will not be abolished by the Coalition government', Mr Hendy said. 'The Coalition policy is to quarantine defence from cuts, and that is just a classic Labor Party scare campaign. They are the people who, in the last six years, have cut $25 billion out of Defence.'
Coalition government policy was to boost defence spending, Mr Hendy said. 'We have a long term plan, when the budget gets back in surplus, and when it is affordable, we will return to 3% real growth in defence spending', he said. 'But it will depend on us getting the budget back into order.'
One of his proudest achievements for the region, Dr Kelly said, was establishing the Australian Civil-Military Centre in Queanbeyan in 2008. The Centre, which promotes whole-of-government approaches to everything from natural disasters to peacekeeping operations, began as a $5 million project, Dr Kelly said, but grew well beyond its original scope.
'One of the things that's thrilled me most is to go to places like Addis Ababa, to the UN in New York, and hear the name "Queanbeyan" on people's lips', he said. 'This has become a player on the world stage, we have done great things because of the Centre.'
ACMC had played a key factor in Australia's bid for the UN Security Council, Dr Kelly said, while also making diplomatic inroads with non-traditional partners. 'We have been improving the situation in the African Union and building our relations with Africa through the Australian Civil-Military Centre,' he said. '(And also) refining our strategies on complex, multidimensional operations such as Afghanistan, which has enabled us to map an exit strategy out of that war for our sons and daughters to safely and successfully come home.'
Eden-Monaro seems to incubate innovation in defence, though part of this must be attributed to the private sector, with Queanbeyan home to multiple defence technology companies. Two of these were awarded federal grants under the Priority Industry Capability Innovation Program in July: Electro Optic Systems received $3.7 million to develop remote weapons systems for the Australian Light Armoured Vehicle, while Lintek picked up another $1.4 million to develop specialised circuit boards for radars destined for ANZAC frigates and the over-the-horizon radar network.
A third company, Codarra Advanced Systems, handled much of the ICT infrastructure during HQJOC's construction, and is developing a robotic sniper rifle based around the Blaser R93. Codarra's managing director, Warren Williams, believes there is scope to make Queanbeyan 'a really nice, neat little defence hub' by attracting fellow tech companies. Dr Kelly agrees, noting Northrop Grumman's recent expansion into the region after its acquisition of M5 Network Security in Canberra.
'There are large companies looking to set up Australian operations to engage the skills base here and use it as a platform into the Asian market,' Dr Kelly said. Dr Kelly said he had entered talks with Northrop Grumman about establishing a permanent headquarters in Tralee, another in-development suburb of Queanbeyan.
Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.