If the bushfires brought Kristy McBain to prominence, it was also the bushfires that made the Bega Valley mayor’s mind up about standing for Federal Parliament.
It’s a big call to go from the mayor of the predominantly rural shire to a by-election that is grabbing national attention in a famed bellwether seat. And it’s likely to be a tight race, because although redistribution has changed the nature of the seat somewhat, there are still major demographic differences between a big town like Queanbeyan, coastal communities, inland dairy country and the traditional farming country around Yass.
But when massive fires ripped through much of the South East, McBain says she was dismayed by the lack of clear leadership and direction at a national level.
“For me definitely there was a lack of any pre-emptive planning and leadership on the ground with a lot of people in real danger. In the aftermath that recovery could have been done a lot better. I’d like to be involved in making sure that the planning and response process is done much better, not only for now but the future,” she says.
McBain has not been elected to anywhere bigger than the Bega Valley Council chambers but was receptive when ALP leader Anthony Albanese called to sound her out. The conversation picked up again when Mike Kelly’s retirement was announced last week.
She says there’s a big debt to Dr Kelly, who came to politics as a second career and brought a range of life experiences with him.
“Mike did an amazing job of being a local voice and local member, not a career politician,” she says.
But surely if elected, McBain will become exactly that?
“Local council is a lot different to national politics because you are there purely for your community. I’ve enjoyed being a community advocate for people and I am now at an age where there is potentially a career in politics,” she says. “I’ll have a crack and see what happens.
“Obviously if I’m elected it will be a huge job because of the sheer size of the seat, with very different types of communities as well. I come with some insight as the deputy chair of the Canberra Region Joint Organisation, so I have a broad knowledge of the issues in those local communities.”
But, she says, there’s a regrettable tendency not to rely on elected local government to find out what matters to the community.
“Mike Kelly was very good at that. I’ve certainly seen politicians fly-in and out without even advising the local council they’re coming. I think we do need better connections between politicians and local government.”
Among those local issues, McBain lists the perennial call to duplicate the Barton Highway and the fact that further south neither the Princes Highway nor the Snowy Mountain Highway are roads of strategic importance and therefore don’t attract Federal funding.
She says drought and bushfire recovery issues are still urgent for many people and the business impact of COVID-19 on small regional businesses has also been profound.
“Communities already impacted by these disasters will be significantly harder hit than other communities. There needs to be attention drawn to those who are already suffering.
“The other big thing we talk about is genuine regional development. We need to walk that walk.”
The unwieldy size and shape of Eden-Monaro is a further challenge for McBain, who concedes she’s much less well known on the other side of the Great Dividing Range.
There will also be an adjustment for her family life. In making his own decision not to run, John Barilaro cited the conversations he’d had with his family over the weekend about the sizeable move to Federal Parliament.
“I’ve taken on this role with the complete confidence and support of husband and family,” she says. “For us, it’s one step at a time. Yes, I’ve made the decision but the rest is ‘what-ifs’ at this stage.
“I want to make sure there’s a really good representation of the Australian community in the House. Not everybody in there should be the same age or walk of life, or from the same background.”
Meanwhile, an extraordinary Council meeting will be held at 10:00 am on Wednesday, 6 May for the purposes of electing a mayor for the period to September 2020. The meeting will be live-streamed on the Council’s website.
Deputy Mayor Sharon Tapscott will take on the responsibilities of mayor in the short term. While Cr McBain has stepped aside as mayor, she will continue to serve as a councillor.