REX MARTINICH

Vice president of the Rural Press Club of Victoria and journalist at The Hamilton Spectator. 

Independent Shepparton MP Suzanna Sheed has given her explanation as to how she, as the locals say, was able to “knock off the Nationals” at last year’s State election.

Shepparton had been held by the National Party since 1967, but Ms Sheed won with a 32 per cent swing after a campaign lasting just 29 days.

Ms Sheed outlined her personal history and the background for her unlikely win at a Rural Press Club of Victoria function in Shepparton on March 25.

Along with independent MP Cathy McGowan, who won the federal seat of Indi from the Liberals in 2013, Ms Sheed has triggered a debate over whether more surprise victories can be won in so-called ‘safe seats’.

Ms Sheed was asked if her type of campaign could be replicated in other seats around Victoria.

“It’s only going to be in some electorates with that high level of discontent,” she said.

“Why would Ballarat or Bendigo or Geelong? They are seen as having the best of both worlds because they are marginal.

“There’s really general acceptance, although people don’t like to articulate it, that being a marginal seat is what gets you the attention.”

Shepparton was one of Victoria’s safest seats until late last year, so what made that regional seat a hotbed of rebellion against the political status quo?

One answer may be the local economy: like other regional centres it is a town of haves and have-nots.

Some shops appear to be thriving, others are just empty.

One of the local hotels had a cardboard box marked ‘resumes’, clearly half full with paper and in plain view from the front counter.

Apart from a constant theme of Government underinvestment compared to similar electorates, Ms Sheed also nominated high youth unemployment as an issue that energised Shepparton voters.

However, Ms Sheed’s personal motivation for putting her hand up to run was investment in local infrastructure.

“I’ve privately lamented the fact that our public transport, our roads, our hospitals, social services and education systems have, for years, not got the investment they needed,” she said.

“I knew there was deep discontent in the community and that people felt disillusioned with political party.

“People felt that the loyalty they had shown the National Party for years was not being repaid.”

Ms Sheed nominated Gippsland as a region that could have seen a strong independent stand a chance of victory.

The surge of media attention after the Shepparton win contained much speculation as to what external factors could have pushed the locals to change their voting patterns.

Ms Sheed believed that the biggest factor was wholly local.

“To get people who were Liberals to vote for me, to get people who were Labor to vote for me, and to get rusted-on Nationals to vote for me, meant that it was about us, about our electorate,” she said.

As a former family lawyer and a life-long Shepparton area local, Ms Sheed said that communities were sick of being offered candidates with little real world experience.

“There are a lot of people in Parliament now who are almost professional politicians who’ve come up through the unions or the party,” she said.

“People are starting to think that maybe that’s not a good thing.”

After the heady days of the campaign, Ms Sheed still wants to focus on the big picture.

“I can’t help but offend people by saying this, but I’m not interested in getting a few thousand dollars for the local hall or the small things,” she said.

“I want to spend my time focusing on the things that will make the big difference: good rail and health services.”

However, the mundane tasks involved in being a local MP, especially one without a party system for support, appear to be creeping up on Ms Sheed.

One question from the audience suggested that she had struggled to get coverage from the local media organisations, which Ms Sheed then attributed to a lack of resources and experience in media management on her part.

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