Politicians on the trail of electoral gold

Australian poll: Party leaders woo old Victoria mining town of Bendigo, seen as key constituency in campaign
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The Independent Online
ROBERT MILLIKEN

Bendigo, Victoria

The road to who governs Australia after next Saturday's general election may well stop in Bendigo. The city, in central Victoria, is a symbol of modern Australia. Once the hub of a 19th-century gold rush which helped to give the country the highest standard of living in the world, Bendigo is now struggling to find a new role and fending off youth unemployment of more than 20 per cent.

Bendigo is also the heart of one of the most marginal constituencies in Australia. That is why Paul Keating, the Prime Minister, and John Howard, the opposition leader, have visited the city twice since the election campaigns began last month, in both cases just long enough to make a few more promises, provide generous photo opportunities for the Bendigo Advertiser and attack each other on local radio.

Bendigo has been held since 1990 by Bruce Reid, a 60-year-old local businessman and member of the opposition Liberal Party, headed by Mr Howard. Mr Reid enjoys flattering support from the Advertiser, as a recent profile attests: "Bruce put in hours and hours of work on Bendigo community groups well before he ever thought of entering politics. And he says that is where he will direct his energies when (God forbid) he is not the member for Bendigo any more."

But the gods may not be smiling on Bruce at the poll on 2 March. Since the last general election in 1993, there has been a redistribution of electoral boundaries, increasing the number of seats in the House of Representatives in Canberra to 148, and pushing out Bendigo's borders to make it, in psephologists' terms, "notionally marginal Labor".

Mr Keating must turn that notional status into a victory on Saturday if he is to achieve his dream of winning a sixth successive term for the ruling Labor Party after 13 years in power. With his campaign strategists predicting losses for Labor in Queensland and New South Wales, Victoria is being counted on as the key to a Labor victory. Whoever wins Bendigo, they say, will win government.

When Mr Keating arrived in Bendigo, his first stop was View Street, a precinct of magnificent buildings from the 1860s when Bendigo's gold mines were among the richest and deepest in the world. He promised A$2m (pounds 1m) to remove the ugly 1960s brick facade built over the Bendigo Art Gallery and restore it to its old glory.

Mr Howard came to town a few days later, smiling his way through whistle- stop tours, and being guided clear of a street demonstration. The protesters were calling on Mr Howard to drop his pledge to sell one-third of Telstra, the state-owned telecommunications company, if he wins government. Telstra is the biggest local employer, and workers believe partial privatisation will mean job losses. "When Howard says sell Telstra he means sell Bendigo," said Frank Fenwick, president of the electro-communications union, and leader of the protest.

Mr Howard is also fighting the "Kennett factor". Jeff Kennett, the uncompromising Liberal premier of Victoria, has cut a swathe through public spending with policies which Baroness Thatcher praised on a visit last year. Bendigo has lost 1,300 jobs, which Labor blames on Mr Kennett's closure of schools and hospital wards; Mr Kennett blames the losses on federal Labor policies.

Mr Howard has avoided Mr Kennett, whose unpopularity in Victoria Labor hopes will rebound against the Liberals. The Labor candidate in Bendigo making his second bid to unseat Bruce Reid is Joe Helper, a former mechanic. Doug Ralph, a Green candidate, has guaranteed the distribution of his votes to Mr Helper under Australia's preferential voting system. But the outcome is likely to be so close that preference votes will also come into play from candidates from the Call to Australia Party, which stands for a return to "traditional" values, Australians Against Further Immigration and the Natural Law Party, which advocates "alternative" lifestyles.

As they walk past the city's elaborate Victorian buildings,voters are reminded daily ofBendigo's glorious past. But, like the rest of Australia, they are confused about which party is best equipped to lead them into an uncertain future.

John Mulcahy, proprietor of Marlborough House, a hotel built as a mansion in the 19th-century, said: "The campaign is really a waste of money. I'd be happy to vote today."

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