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The man, elderly and wincing at each step, shuffles painfully up to Troy Bell as the Mount Gambier MP leaves a meeting with constituents in a Commercial Street café, launching eagerly into his tale of woe.
“Before Christmas, I got bitten by a white-tailed spider,” he laments.
“I rang the ambulance service and got this young lad in Adelaide. He asked me ‘Have you seen a doctor?’ and told me to go back and see one. I said ‘I’m 27 kilometres out of town, I need an ambulance’. He said ‘you ring a family member or get a mate to take you to the hospital’.
“So I rang my brother, who you know.”
Troy Bell knows a lot of people in Mount Gambier.
“Three weeks later,” the constituent continues, “the infection went to my heart.”
He needed another blood transplant and two heart operations.
He says at one point he actually died at Flinders Medical Centre.
“I said my last goodbyes,” he spits.
“And all through the fucking idiot not accepting my call.”
He’s been out of hospital two weeks now in respite care, although, he says, he’s not eligible for a concession because he’s not 75.
Today’s the first day he’s been able to drive.
He was on the way to Bell’s electorate office when he spied him in the street.
Bell and he exchange details to follow up.
“I just want to go back and live in my home in Glencoe,” he tells the MP, and then adds: “Don’t worry – I’ll be voting for you.”
Taking in the birds-eye view as you circle Mount Gambier airport, one thing quickly dawns on you: this is not a Labor town.
The sight you look down on is pine trees. Acres of them, as far as the eye can see.
These are the forests that the Weatherill Government sold off for a $670 million fiscal sugar hit back in 2012, amid a storm of local protest. The state retains ownership of the land, but forestry company One Forty One bought the plantation rights for the next three rotations – roughly 35 years each.
The company, which recently burnished its South-East assets with the buy-out of Carter Holt Harvey’s Jubilee Highway timber mill, makes an annual profit of well over $100 million.
“It was such a good deal that One Forty One, as of June next year, will have paid the $670 million back to their bank – and they’ve got the forests for another 105 years,” Bell says, shaking his head.
“They’re going to make squillions.”
He says they’ve dramatically downsized the Forestry SA workforce, from 130 employees to just 48.
But, he adds, “they’re not exporting new log any more [and] they’re starting to make the right moves in the right direction”.
“They’re here for the next 100 years – they’ll outlive me,” he shrugs.
“One Forty One will be fine.”
A car horn blares a friendly greeting as Bell strides down Bay Road to Commercial Street.
“Morning, Dave!” the MP shouts with a jovial wave, before explaining to me conspiratorially: “His best mate is the local Holden dealer and he’s driving an Audi!”
As we pass a garage a few metres on, a mechanic working out the front offers a broad wave.
“Hey John!” Bell waves back.
It’s the same story for pretty much every person we pass, as they variously offer either greetings, sympathies or well wishes.
“All the best, mate,” enthuses one, although it’s unclear whether he’s referring to the upcoming election or the subsequent court battle.
“Max, out for the morning walk mate?” Bell fires back.
In Mount Gambier, it seems, almost everybody knows Troy Bell. And Troy Bell knows almost everybody.
Or perhaps it is just that in Mount Gambier, almost everybody knows almost everybody.
I’d normally not need to go where the Liberal strongholds are – because I’m normally the Liberal candidate
The well-wishes are conspicuous because Bell is in a unique situation for an incumbent independent MP.
He is the favourite to win back the seat he first snared as a Liberal MP in 2014, finally snapping a sequence of independents holding the South-East seat that dated back to 1997 – first Rory McEwen and then Don Pegler.
And yet, even if he wins, he still faces a string of criminal charges after an ICAC investigation saw him arrested for the alleged misuse of public funds totalling more than $2 million.
The alleged theft dates back to between 2009 and 2013, when the former teacher was overseeing an independent learning centre in Mount Gambier.
Bell has strongly denied the charges and if the looming court battle is weighing on him, he’s not showing it.
But the issue is the proverbial elephant in the room on the campaign trail.
And it could loom as a significant factor in the future of SA politics.
If Bell is re-elected, there’s every chance his could be the vote that puts the next government into power.
He hopes that will be a Liberal Government.
But even more fervently, he hopes that he will be able to see out his term.
Even with his impending court proceedings, the matter that forced him out of the Liberal Party, there is a Liberal connection – and a reminder of the one degree of separation in the small South-East town.
Bell’s lawyer is local practitioner Bill de Garis, whose father Ren was the party’s Legislative Council leader whose split with former Premier Steele Hall helped usher in an era of Liberal internecine warfare that has never really ended.
Better off if they cut us off at the river and put us in Victoria
As far as rural seats go, Mount Gambier is a dream gig. Far from the sprawling expanse of the likes of Stuart or Giles, it’s a compact enclave, stretching from Tarpeena down to Port Macdonnell. But its heart – and hub – is the city of Mount Gambier itself.
The population of the town roughly equates to the 25,000 electors that must under law be shoehorned into any given seat. So, to all intents and purposes, the electorate of Mount Gambier is the city of Mount Gambier.
Both culturally and geographically, the Limestone Coast community is torn between two worlds.
It sits around 450 kilometres from Adelaide, but just 17 from the Victorian border. As many people read the Herald Sun as they do The Advertiser, but far more read the local Border Watch.
They do things their own way here.
It’s one of those ironies of life – you spend three years fundraising and it all goes to your opposition
We stop in to greet a pair of elderly ladies taking their regular 8am tea at Sorrentos Café.
“If there’s anything you want to know going on in town, these are the ladies,” he tells me.
They discuss the latest hurdles facing the community RSL; Bell is keen to show them his new election pamphlet, which outlines his policy platform.
For one of the two, Lorraine, election day on March 17 will take a back seat to her 62 year wedding anniversary.
They ask how Bell is holding up.
“Three weeks to go and things will turn back to normal – somewhat,” he responds.
“I’ll be right, you know.”
His pamphlet talks up his 10-year moratorium on fracking in the South-East – a policy he pushed onto the Liberal agenda and one he’s declared a major sticking point if he ends up holding the balance of power. Labor has already ruled out dealing with him.
He also lists an upgrade to the airport, extending a bike-track to Penola, building a roof over the public swimming pool (“it’s the coldest place in SA and we haven’t got a covered pool”), appointing an independent auditor to monitor One Forty One’s adherence to its forestry sale conditions, reinstatement of mental health beds and establishing a local health board as priorities.
He had to send the pamphlet back to the printers after the original run omitted the “written and authorised by” disclaimer on the bottom of the page.
“It was our mistake,” he admits.
“Usually the Liberal Party takes care of that stuff.”
Bell is constantly reminded of the electoral muscle he lost when he left the Liberal tent.
“It’s an interesting campaign for me, because I’d normally not go where the Liberal strongholds are – because I’m normally the Liberal candidate. However, now I need to canvass all the electors.”
He also lost access to the Libs’ valuable voter database, the Feedback platform, recently enhanced by a lucrative investment in the i360 software pioneered by controversial Republican-backing US moguls the Koch Brothers.
“Three and a half years of contacts and information just disappeared when the Libs took Feedback back,” Bell laments.
“It’s one of those ironies of life – you spend three years fundraising and it all goes to your opposition.
“But there’s no point getting too bitter about things…”
Nonetheless, it appears a friendly rivalry with his former party.
At a chance meeting in a local café, Bell introduces me to Liberal Craig Marsh’s campaign manager, a high-profile local surgeon named Barney McCusker who, as fate would have it, has sent me regular letters over the years lamenting various aspects of the state’s governance.
Bell and Marsh have given each other their preferences (Bell is behind the Australian Conservatives candidate on the Liberal how-to-vote card, while the incumbent has placed Marsh second on his own). In all likelihood though, Bell and Marsh will finish the contest in first and second place, so their preferences are a moot point.
“I’ll openly say that if it’s not me, I hope it’s the Liberal candidate that’s elected… I think we do need a change of Government, and just a different direction for SA – particularly regional SA,” Bell says.
As we walk, the MP puts a call in to Marsh’s campaign office to tell them “one of Craig’s posters has been pulled down near de Garis lawyers – just thought I’d let you know”.
“We keep an eye out for each other,” he tells me, “because that kind of thing just looks pretty ordinary around town.”
As he speaks, he pointedly bends down to pick up a wheelie bin that has fallen on its side in the main street.
“It’s one of those things,” he says of no longer being the endorsed candidate of the party he supports.
“The branch members have known me probably a lot longer than they’ve known the Liberal candidate.”
But, he insists, “even though we co-operate we also have pretty clear lines”.
“They’re loyal to the preselected candidate and I fully respect that,” he says.
Instead, he has largely mobilised mates and family – along with a network of supporters – to help his campaign, including lining the streets with corflutes bearing his face.
“Living here all your life, playing sport and all the rest of it, you have a fair group of mates who help you out and put ‘em up – put ‘em up in the wrong locations, you know,” he laughs.
“And then you’ve got to go and fix ‘em.”
The sporting field seems to be the arena where Bell’s social and political worlds meet.
“That’s where you do most of your work over the four years here – in footy season,” he says.
“If you’re serious about campaigning you’d start six months out from the election, because sport – particularly football – that’s where you see all your farming communities. They get into the club, have a few beers and talk politics – they love it.”
But Bell’s love for the Libs has its limits.
At a morning ‘Coffee With the MP’ showpiece that he conducts weekly at a café a block from his electorate office, he hosts a handful of appropriately like-minded locals.
They are all older than him, all conservatives but with reservations about the state Liberal Party.
There is Kev, a somewhat jaded stock agent preoccupied with the price of beef.
“My father told me when I left school in ’58, ‘You know, son, if you’re going on the land most of your life will be spent producing cheap food for the masses,” he declares.
“But last year we were producing dear food for the masses – and now we’ve come back again…
“I’ve been in this game 41 years [and] it’s a completely new ball game.”
Pete is a retired farmer, while Jim is a long-serving local TV executive. His wife Deborah runs a local bed and breakfast.
“What’s the key to kick-start stuff?” Pete demands.
“We all know what’s wrong.”
“The airport would be a good place to start,” Bell assures them.
“But there’s got to be some other stuff happening.”
Bell has had a running battle with Regional Express, the only airline that services Mount Gambier.
He kicked up a public fuss over the way they dealt with a cancelled flight last year, and escalated the ruckus to the point that, he says, the airline banned him from all its services across Australia.
So now he has to drive the four-and-a-half hours each way to and from Adelaide to attend parliament.
Bell’s battle-weary façade still bears a heavy dent in his nose from the melanoma he had cut out a couple of years back.
“I had a surgeon flying down from Adelaide to do a final treatment on me,” Bell tells the group.
“I was scheduled from 1.30pm to 3.30, and he got in at 5pm – all because REX said ‘we’re not flying tomorrow morning’… you can’t have that.
“It could be life threatening – it wasn’t to me, but it could be to someone else.
“When you’ve only got one airline servicing a region, it’s all very well to cut services because they just don’t give a shit.”
Jim takes the spotlight: “Most people are just interested in things that affect them, but now that I’m retired and heading into my declining years the two things that concern me are health and lack of transport – basically, the airport and the hospital.”
Bell notes that a lot of the issues come under a federal purview but “we can show leadership on it as well from a state point of view”.
He’s “yet to be convinced a regional health board that stretches from Keith to Port Macdonnell is going to be any better than one that sits in Adelaide”.
“And that’s the Liberal policy,” he notes despairingly.
“Ours should [cover] Penola, Mount Gambier and Millicent Hospitals.”
A lack of access to health services is a recurring theme in political discourse in Mount Gambier.
Bell had to go to Warrnambool, on Victoria’s south-western coast, to get his melanoma removed.
“Better off if they cut us off at the river and put us in Victoria,” Kev laments.
The notion of Mount Gambier as a satellite of Melbourne that sadly ended up on the wrong side of the border appears a prevailing one, hardly aided by a sense of disconnection from both major parties.
The table finds consensus on the assertion that “we’ve got major problems with the Liberal Party”.
Kev declares this month will be “the first time in my life I’ve not voted Liberal”.
“Steve’s not going to make it,” volunteers one conspirator.
“He’s got no balls – they need an attack dog, that’s going to get stuck into ‘em.”
“I agree,” says Bell.
“I think he’ll be gone after the election – he won’t be Premier,” Jim suggests, but Bell shakes his head.
“I don’t know… I wouldn’t write him off just yet.”
The MP declares he wants to “make Mount Gambier the hub of country championships and country sports, both in Victoria and SA”.
“We’ve got to think a little bit bigger than we have,” he says.
He floats the notion of a 1500-seat conference centre.
“At the moment we’ve got nowhere to hold major conferences [and] we’re in an ideal position between Melbourne and Adelaide – we’re the link.”
Finally, the conversation shifts to the local RSL menu, and the enduring popularity of the crumbed brains and lambs’ fry.
“You’re a woman after my own heart,” Bell tells Deborah.
“You vote me in and we’ll make it mandatory – we’ll reintroduce lambs’ fry back into schools!”
On the day I visit, Bell attends the lottery draw to determine the order of the ballot.
Most of the candidates for the seat attend, including the recently-confirmed SA Best hopeful Kate Amoroso, a one-time model who has transformed herself into an anti-drug campaigner after her own battle with ice addiction – a widespread issue in the region.
Labor’s freshly-announced candidate is Isabel Scriven, the Adelaide-based daughter of ALP upper house hopeful Clare. Her nomination continues a long line of family members being brought in to contest the seat – never a happy hunting ground for Labor. In 2014, it was Legislative Council leader and former local lad Kyam Maher’s dad Jim; in 2010 it was his late mum Viv.
The main subject of conversation at the ballot draw, though, is the surprise nomination of Grant mayor Richard Sage – at one point discussed as a prospective Xenophon candidate – as an independent.
“These candidates who nominate very late in the piece, with three or four weeks to go, they don’t realise the importance of doorknocking,” Bell insists.
The key to the ballot draw is to end up first on the ballot – or last. Either way is better than anywhere in between, especially with eight candidates contesting the seat.
“If you get pulled out first you get all the donkey votes as well,” Bell says. He reckons it could account for anything up to four per cent.
Amoroso grins broadly as her name is called first. Sage is drawn last. Bell will be placed third on the ballot paper.
“It’s still in the upper part of the ticket,” he muses, “so there’s no disadvantage there, I don’t think.”
“Between eight candidates, you can’t all be number one.”
People get pretty gutted when they see the inequality between Adelaide and here
“Health would be the number one topic of conversation,” Bell avows as we alight from his car near Mulga Street Primary School to door-knock prospective voters.
“It affects everybody, either directly or indirectly.”
Sure enough, the subject provokes a strong response among the residents of Mount Gambier’s west end, one of the lower socio-economic enclaves of the city.
Tomorrow, he will venture into the more affluent Conroe Heights, more fertile ground perhaps for an aspiring Liberal independent: “Double income, a couple of kids – that type of demography…”
“Don’t get me started on everything,” says the lady at the screen door of a red-brick house perched behind a modest but well-manicured lawn.
“Are you doing anything for the hospital? We need some decent doctors and some decent bloody staff up there!”
Bell tells her the State Government has been underfunding the emergency department by “$537,000 per year”.
“If we hadn’t have done a review, they wouldn’t have known what the problems were,” he tells her.
“There’s great staff, they just haven’t got the facilities to carry everything through.”
“It’s ridiculous,” she declares, “when you’ve got to go to Portland or Hamilton to get things done.”
“You fill in a form and they ask you why you didn’t see the doctor here… well, he works in Victoria!”
Bell seizes the opening to outline his proposal: “What we’re going to do with the hospital is go back to having a board, instead of this hospital being managed out of Adelaide – it’s going to be managed locally.”
“We’ve just been starved of resources,” he tells me as we leave.
“You see $2 billion hospitals being built in Adelaide while our facilities here are screaming out for funding… you’d be disgusted at what our community has to go through.”
He says the current renal dialysis unit is so cramped “it’s really just a storage room”.
“People get pretty gutted when they see the inequality between Adelaide and here.”
“G’day, how are you?” the MP asks the man at the door.
But the potential voter is more interested in the MP’s welfare.
“I heard about that,” he says, without mentioning the court case directly.
“How you been keeping?”
“I take it day by day,” Bell replies, shrugging amiably.
As it turns out, the man is a long-time cab driver, weeks from retirement, who frequently drives the MP to and from appointments.
“You still driving?” Bell asks.
“One month to go,” comes the reply.
Mount Gambier is the last place in SA where the taxi industry is still regulated; it appears to be going through the same soul-searching period Adelaide did a year or two back ahead of Uber’s green light.
“The cost of plates will go to zero,” Bell tells me.
His interlocutor complains to him: “This street’s full of bloody dogs – the one next door barks 99 per cent of the time.”
“But I’ve been here for 20 years – I bought this bloody thing, so I’m not shifting now.”
A few doors on, he finds fallow ground with a lady, perhaps late middle age, in a cream brick house.
“I’m Troy,” he grins.
“We’ve got a state election coming up in three weeks time.”
But most constituents are wont to bring up council issues.
“They’re wasting bloody money and everything else, with all those footpaths – you can trip over the bloody pavers,” the lady mutters.
“If you put bitumen down, if a tree grows it lifts it up a little bit, but with a paver you’ve got an actual trip point.”
Another young man wants to talk about Bell’s plan for the forestry sector.
The MP explains his plan for an independent audit “to make sure One Forty One are doing the right thing”, at which point the man tells him he works for One Forty One.
“Ah, ‘Stick’ is a great mate of mine,” Bell offers ingratiatingly.
“I’ll say g’day to Stick for you next time I see him.”
If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to worry about
“I’m very well, and so’s she,” says the old lady at the door, pointing to her small yapping pooch.
“I’ve got a golden retriever, so a bit bigger than that one,” Bell assures her.
When asked if she has any issues she wants to discuss, the lady says: “Just a moment, I’ll ask hubby.”
Several minutes pass, and a man’s voice calls out: “Coming.”
At length, Jeff hobbles out, a walking stick propping him up as he walks.
“How are you?” Bell greets him.
“Well, very good – in a sense,” replies Jeff.
“I’m a bit slow, sort of caper… I had a knee replacement three-year ago, and it was a failure.”
Like so many things, the knee replacement had to be done in Warrnambool.
“I can’t grumble about the bloke in Warrnambool, he did an operation for the sister about 15 months after and she was perfect,” muses Jeff.
“I was reviewed by another bloke, and this other bloke said ‘there’s 80 per cent of them that turn out perfect, 10 per cent have trouble and another 10 per cent are like you – we don’t know why’. The X-rays all showed it perfect.”
Bell ponders whether he could undergo the procedure again.
“I asked about that, and he said ‘no, just put up with it’,” Jeff explains.
“Still, I’m nearly 92 so I can’t complain.”
A travel-worn caravan sits out the front of the house, which provokes a conversation about recreation.
“I still get out on the boat, trying to chase a few crays, but they’re getting a bit few and far between,” says Jeff.
“I have more trouble getting out of the boat than getting in – but I have a damn job getting out.
“Up until the operation I was fairly independent –most of the time I was on my own but now it’s …well you know.” He nods towards the house.
Bell gives him a pamphlet: “My details are on there too, so if you need me…”
Jeff peers at him with a knowing glint of the eye.
“Well, I suppose you’ve got your problems… we read about it in the paper,” he smiles. “I was surprised, in a sense… but you must be backing yourself fairly well.”
“Bloody oath,” Bell enthuses. “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to worry about.”
Jeff agrees, then chuckles: “Christ almighty, people will talk though. It doesn’t matter a damn, of course, but that’s what this community’s good at.
“No, I say good on ya,” he adds approvingly.
“I voted for [Pegler] the time before, and I voted McEwen the time before that, because I thought ‘well, independents get stuff done’.”
“Good, well now I’m an independent, so you might have to keep that up,” Bell laughs.
“Well,” Jeff responds mysteriously, “I didn’t say I would or I wouldn’t.”
“If you turn round and get in and go with another mob later on I’ll be crook on ya.”
“You come and see me, and I’ll accept that,” the MP assures him. “I’m a Liberal who has to sit on the sidelines for a little bit there.
“I think if a person votes you in as a Liberal, Labor or independent, or whatever you are, that’s where you’ve got to stay for the term. So I give you my word I’ll stand as an independent, and I’ll be staying independent for the four years.”
Jeff says he was “always a little bit crooked on McEwen with the way things went with the pines and so on”.
McEwen has publicly declared he opposed the sell-off, and left the ministry in 2009.
“Your opposition was round here about a fortnight ago,” Jeff tells Bell conspiratorially.
“But I’m not going to tell him ‘yes’ and I’m not going to tell you ‘yes’…”
“How you vote is between you and God, that’s the policy I have,” Bell assures him.
“Well…I hope you do alright,” says Jeff.
“Best of luck.”
And he hobbles slowly back indoors.
Sometimes you just got to stand up and face these things head on
As we walk down Willow Avenue back to the car, I ask Bell how often the legal issue comes up on the campaign trail.
“To a degree,” he concedes.
“But all I really said about it is that I wouldn’t stand if I thought I’d done anything wrong.
“Nobody really talks about it – they just say ‘good on ya’.
“But sometimes you just got to stand up and face these things head on… to be honest, it’s something I don’t really think about.
“I’ll deal with it. I have faith in the judicial system and processes that are put in place, and once we go through that process… I’m confident.”
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