EACH day Calvin Muller heads from his farm 25km out of Warracknabeal into town for lunch with his mates.
When the conversation turns to politics, increasingly the tone bounces between frustration and bewilderment.
Some in the group wonder if they should submit donkey votes at next month’s federal election.
In Mr Muller’s case, he finds himself “fed up”.
So much so, the semi-retired farmer of 70 years wrote a letter to the editor, published last week by the Hopetoun Courier.
“We used to attend the polling booth with a more positive attitude, knowing that our leaders represented us,” he wrote.
“There was an honesty and integrity in how they conducted themselves and leadership we respected.
“Now all we see is bickering delaying outcomes, lack of integrity and unethical behaviour, and the last-minute dash spending taxpayer dollars in populated areas to try to win back the bulk of voters.”
Mr Muller said he used to wear his “political party team colours with pride” but would this year be voting for an independent.
The announcement this week of a May 18 election sounded the official start of the campaign.
But in Mallee, Victoria’s biggest electorate, posturing has been under way for some time.
Andrew Broad, the sitting Nationals MP, is retiring after a scandal involving a “sugar daddy” website.
So far, 10 candidates have put their hand up to replace him – the largest field among the nation’s 151 electorates.
Despite this curiosity, it’s worth noting how little attention national media, no doubt briefed by internal polling and strategy thinking, is giving Mallee.
The Australian this week ran a list of seats considered to be “in play” for the major parties, without mention of Mallee.
One Australian Financial Review story listed “supposed safe seats” where the Coalition faced “spirited challenges from independents” – mentioned were inner-city Kooyong and Warringah, and Flinders on the Mornington Peninsula.
In The Age, Mallee was not among “seats to watch”.
This, no doubt, has something to do with how much of a stronghold the electorate has been for The Nationals, the only party to have ever held the 70-year-old seat.
At the last election, even allowing for an adjustment that this year brings Maryborough into the electorate, their margin was 19 per cent.
Such margins in ordinary times would warrant the “safe seat” tag, more or less ending any discussion about whether it’s “in play”.
But are these ordinary times?
That’s the question to be pondered when assessing how much of a fight the new face of The Nationals, Anne Webster, has on her hands.
The presence of so many candidates, whose credentials run as high as one of the nation’s most important board rooms, would indicate something is afoot.
So, too, would last November’s Victorian election results, in which independent Ali Cupper seized the only electorate that fully lies inside Mallee, Mildura.
(Ripon, largely inside Mallee, earned the title of the most marginal seat in the state, however The Nationals improved their hold on the seats around Horsham and Swan Hill.)
The final giveaway is all the funding in the electorate announced by the government before it went into caretaker mode this week.
“By me going and there being a tougher contest in Mallee, it’s actually going to result in a whole lot more money coming into the Mallee than if I stayed,” Mr Broad told Sunraysia Daily last month.
It remains to be seen how these measures will factor in the minds of voters on election day.
There are plenty of questions hanging over the independent candidates, too.
The Nationals’ brand is clearly well entrenched in just about every pocket of the electorate – although newcomer Maryborough is certainly more accustomed to Liberal-Labor stoushes.
But in an area bigger than Tasmania, appealing to different population bases, each with its own concerns, the fight is an almighty task without being bolstered by party affiliation.
Former Yarriambiack Shire Mayor Ray Kingston has a firm support base in the south-west of the electorate, and Mildura Deputy Mayor Jason Modica in Sunraysia, but each is unfamiliar to most in the electorate.
It’s for this reason that preferences loom over the Mallee contest like a long cloud.
Mr Kingston may record a decent primary vote in and around Horsham, Mr Modica may in Mildura, Labor’s Carole Hart may in Maryborough and former Telstra board member Cecilia Moar may in areas she’s lived in, including Swan Hill.
What those same voters then do with the second, third and fourth preferences is another matter.
Dr Webster, meanwhile, will undoubtedly receive help from the preferences of Liberal voters.
Expect all this to cause some chaos. Number-crunchers on election night might not even know which candidates to put into their “two-candidate preferred” counting.
Earlier that day, in Warracknabeal, Mr Muller expects he’ll cast his vote for Ms Moar, drawn by her down-to-earth manner and her upbringing in Watchem and Birchip.
“We don’t get equal money spent in the area like we should, compared to the cities,” he told Sunraysia Daily.
“We’ve got to try another way and that’s the only way I can see that we can get anywhere.”
The next Member for Mallee may well be determined by how many voters share similar views to Mr Muller’s.
This story appeared in Saturday's Sunraysia Daily, 13/04/2019. To subscribe to our Digital Edition Click here