The cynical, Liberal clique that has ruled Gilmore for 20 years…is its time up?

Fiona Phillips hopes to win the federal seat of Gilmore, but if incumbent Ann Sudmalis prevails, the beautiful south coast of New South Wales is unlikely to see Malcolm Turnbull’s jobs and growth. Henry Johnston reports from a holiday house in a deserted hamlet.

I travel by bus to Cudmirrah midway between Nowra and Ulladulla, to catch the train to Sydney. The scenery is majestic; the Princess Highway adorned with flowering native trees, but something goes awry during my 40-minute journey through this idyllic countryside.

An emaciated, pale youth asks the driver to pull over. When the bus stops, the man steps out and vomits. The driver asks, ‘are you all right?’ Once back aboard, 20 or so elderly pensioners cluck knowingly, but avoid making eye contact.

“Bad smack,” the youth says, smiling wanly. The driver agrees to drop him in front of his house in such and such a street in south Nowra.

The scenario is common. Drugs are a scourge. Some users, like the boy on the bus, seek the torpor of heroin, but others demand crack from their dealers, and after they smoke it, they go wild. No one can stop them. A call to the local police at Sussex Inlet is transferred to Nowra.

If I am lucky, an investigator will dust my house for fingerprints and issue an incident number for insurance. House break and enter, armed robbery, theft and vandalism are as regular as the booming surf crashing against the pristine shoreline.

“Gilmore remains stagnant; just how the Liberals like it.”

Mine was one of 26 houses robbed in a nightlong spree that encompassed the vandalism of a recently built fence surrounding the volunteer fire station.

I wrote an angry letter to the South Coast Register and copied it to Fiona Phillips who called me back. Fiona described a virtual siege scenario in a hamlet on the north shore of St George’s Basin.

Young men armed with pistols or other weapons, regularly rob the club she said. But no one sees it; no one does anything about it except Fiona, who condemns the Liberal state member Shelley Hancock on local radio.

From memory, Fiona scored a 10 per cent swing against Ms Hancock, the Speaker of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, when she stood for the state seat in the last NSW election. Now, after a brilliant grass roots campaign, Fiona triggered a tectonic shift back to Labor in Gilmore, and put the frighteners on the federal Member Ann Sudmalis.

The ALP last held the seat in 1993, and lost it in 1996. The incumbent was Peter Knott who died in 2015. So much has changed since those years of promise of Paul Keating and Bob Hawke, yet Gilmore remains stagnant; just how the Liberals like it.

Gilmore is bifurcated by the mighty Shoalhaven River. Poverty lurks south of its banks; wealth thrives on its northern shore. I think of the Eloi and the Morlocks from H.G. Wells’ Time Machine, and realise poverty is a scourge of both young and old.

“Violence and murder is commonplace, racism endemic.”

I board a little two-carriage diesel in Bombaderry and chug toward Berry, and Gerringong, thence Kiama. I am mesmerised by the lush slopes of Mount Cambewarra with its secluded multi-million dollar, architect-designed retreats in Kangaroo Valley.

A screaming child shatters the daydream.

The young, pregnant, mother threatens a belting. The language is unprintable. An Aboriginal boy, shifts uncomfortably in his seat. Violence and murder is commonplace, racism endemic, and Pauline Hanson popular.

I recall the story of a former mayor of the City of Shoalhaven taking an axe to a flagpole where fluttered the red, black and yellow Aboriginal flag.

We glide into enchanting Berry, the coastal point of the axis of wealth comprising Berry, Bowral and Mittagong at its three points. Many of Berry’s citizens live behind walled estates of hundreds of hectares of beautiful, productive agricultural land.

I suspect the tradies who regularly tailgate tourists along the length of the Princes Highway, work for or subcontract to Berrys’ demanding elite.

I wonder if the young people aboard the train will ever get a job, or experience real growth. I doubt it, and I have been dubious from the day in 1980 when I bought my house with my parents.

In 1996, Joanna Gash, the current mayor of the Shoalhaven and Liberal victor of Gilmore, decreed the status quo would remain undisturbed in this verdant federal seat.

During her tenure, Ms Gash refused to fund an upgrade of the Princes Highway, choosing instead to build the infamous road to nowhere.

Joanna Gash enlisted the support of Prime Minister John Howard who turned the first sod on the Main Road 92 project between Nowra and Nerriga on 24 April 2006. The 54-kilometre upgrade cost at least $80m.

While Howard glibly pledged this “road of national significance” would “improve links to Canberra and Queanbeyan” and points beyond, he and Jo Gash neglected to say the shiny new blacktopped tar, stopped a few kilometres outside of the hamlet of Nerriga.

Despite Howard’s adamant claim, Main Road 92 does not “provide improved (freight) access to Port Kembla,” and until it is sealed all the way to Braidwood, it never will.

“However hope glimmers in Gilmore in the form of a redoubtable TAFE teacher.”

In summer, the electorate of Gilmore hosts hundreds of thousands of tourists who flock to its pristine beaches and Arcadian nooks hidden in Moreton National Park. Beware. Do not get sick or have an accident, because the hospitals of Nowra and Milton, which can barely cope with the extant population, are under resourced, understaffed and under-estimated.

However hope glimmers in Gilmore in the form of a redoubtable TAFE teacher who loves her community, speaks up for the uneducated and fearlessly points out the innumerable shortfalls within the electorate.

If anyone can beat the cynical, Liberal clique that has ruled Gilmore for 20 years, it is Fiona Phillips.

If she misses out this time, Fiona will win Gilmore in a landslide at the next election.

This article originally appeared in the Labor Herald.

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