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STREETVIEW: One last lap of the roundabout

Politics

A conversation with Frances Bedford seems to go at a million miles per hour without pause, which is more than can be said for her car.

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The veteran MP – first elected to Florey in 1997 – drives a distinctive canary-yellow ‘mobile office’, a somewhat ancient and weathered Hyundai Getz that clunks around the streets of Adelaide’s north-east, stalling occasionally when it tries to reverse – its licence plate emblazoned with the name of the seat in which she is seeking re-election.

That seat though, is not Florey – but neighbouring Newland.

The state’s most marginal seat, and a key battleground in Saturday’s poll that has now become a veritable three-cornered contest, with Bedford hoping the sail through the middle of the two major parties.

Bedford contested Florey for the sixth time in 2018, but for the first as an independent – having quit the Labor Party, of which she had long been an outlier, a lonely remnant of the defunct Duncan Left.

But her departure came after then-Health Minister and Right faction mainstay Jack Snelling muscled in on her Florey preselection.

Ironically, he cited the fact that much of his safe Playford seat had been shifted there in the previous boundary redraw – the same rationale by which Bedford has now turned her attention to Newland.

“I was supposed to say, ‘Of course Jack, come take my seat’,” she recalls with bitter humour.

“Then he went and doorknocked and found out no-one would vote for him.”

Whatever the spur, Snelling – having easily won the divisive preselection – opted instead to leave politics altogether; Bedford retained the seat, but not for Labor.

Now, as is the way of things in SA politics, the bitter histories have resurfaced: Snelling is back, overseeing the rebirth of Family First, along with fellow ex-ALP minister Tom Kenyon – the last Labor MP for Newland.

Bedford is contesting the state’s most marginal seat after much of Modbury – including its hospital, for which she has long campaigned – was shifted within its borders.

And Family First will hope to play a major part in who takes the north-eastern bellwether, directing preferences to Labor hopeful Olivia Savvas ahead of Bedford and Liberal incumbent Richard Harvey.

The stated rationale is the respective candidates’ stance on SA’s recently-passed abortion legislation.

“Kenyon has got a cheek because I helped him win,” Bedford jokes, recalling her efforts on Newland campaigns in years gone by.

This, then, is a ride on what is known as the ‘Newland-mobile’: behind the wheel, Bedford is a heady mix of tour guide and gossip, armed with a political lifetime of anecdotes and enough local knowledge to put any rival in the shade.

“It’s folksy,” she says of the campaign-decorated car, “but it’s me.”

As we drive – the old car occasionally coughing to an unexpected halt – she points out relics of Newland trivia.

“That’s the old Pioneer Medical Centre,” she enthuses as we clunk along North East Road.

“Peter Ford, who used to be the head of the AMA, that was his old practice… he’s retired now.”

Frances Bedford with her ‘Newland-mobile’. Photo: Tom Richardson / InDaily

Bedford has long had a bit to do with the health sector.

Her battles for better services at Modbury teased out pledges from both sides of politics – not that she’s overly pleased with the current state of things.

We meet outside Woodleigh House, a 20-bed mental health unit adjacent the hospital, which has been earmarked as a new dementia ward, replacing the disgraced Oakden facility.

Bedford says while the current site’s 20 beds will be shifted to the Lyell McEwin, “I’m without older persons’ acute and dementia beds for three to six years” during the transition.

According to a release from her Liberal opponent, Richard Harvey, after last year’s budget, Woodleigh House “was built in the 1970s and does not meet contemporary standards for mental health care”, with its replacement to provide “a 16-bed, 24/7 crisis stabilisation centre in Adelaide’s northern suburbs for mental health consumers”.

It is this latter point that seems to irk Bedford.

“The Libs are only giving me 16 beds,” she says.

“I’ve lost four beds.”

She has a way of taking a perceived slight against her electorate personally.

But that personal fervour is returned from the people for whom she advocates.

She introduces me to Gwyneth Britt, whose son has struggled with schizophrenia and bipolar since finishing Year 12 – 28 years ago.

“The mental health system has just failed him big time,” she laments.

“It’s been 28 years of continual nightmare.”

Her boy was an aspiring concert violinist at school; “now he’s derelict, he’s got drug addiction, alcohol addiction, pokies addiction”.

At 71, Britt says she is “worn out after years navigating government departments”, including regular visits from police.

Then there is Rebecca Spalding, 45, whose brother has been enduring similar issues for two decades.

“From the time he was 16, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and just handed from place to place to place,” she recounts.

“Every time we were seeing progress, it was just ‘he’s better now’, and back into the community – he was left on his own.

“But he doesn’t take his medication, because there’s no-one there to enforce that… he turns to drugs, he’s basically homeless [but] it’s not a big deal to anybody.”

As we speak, a man ambles past at a distance, and calls out to Bedford: “Thank-you for saving the hospital!”

“We’re doing our best,” she waves back.

“I know,” he beams.

The friendly passer-by, Bedford tells me, is a nurse at the facility.

He wanders over to say hello, and when he sees my notebook tells me to listen to “everything she says – bloody oath!”

“I say this apolitically,” he adds, “but one of the central principles of standards of care is that people are treated near their homes.”

Which is why, Bedford insists, Woodleigh House is “a really big sleeper issue in the community… even though we’re not talking about it yet”.

Photo: Tom Richardson / InDaily

What they are talking about in Newland is the new Park ‘n’ Ride, and the fact that many of the new spaces will be for the exclusive use of the nearby private company Datacom.

“And it’s miles from the O-Bahn,” Bedford sighs.

“It’s a good walk from here – that might sound like I’m being namby-pamby about it, but it’s still a way to go.”

She laments that a neighbouring “really busy childcare centre” now “has to have all these cars whizzing past it all day”.

Then there’s the issue of safety at the Modbury’s O-Bahn interchange.

“I don’t know whether you heard there was a stabbing here on the concourse a while back,” Bedford says, somewhat conspiratorially.

“We’d like to see a concierge there – someone who’s on the platform helping people in the mornings.”

At peak times, she insists, “it’s like Heathrow – buses pulling out every five minutes… bus, bus, bus.”

She punches the air, punctuating the egress of imaginary buses, then says wistfully: “It doesn’t have to be less than the best – and that’s what we’re going to end up with, less than the best unfortunately.”

A few days after my visit, police are called to the same location after a 62-year-old was hit several times, with his assailant also allegedly shoving a woman who attempted to intervene.

Bedford making an appearance with Nick Xenophon at Modbury Hospital before the last election. Photo: Sam Wundke / AAP

“This is the second-worst roundabout in Adelaide, after the Britannia roundabout,” I’m told as the Newland-mobile navigates the intersection of Reservoir and Smart Roads with all the grace of a shopping trolley.

“People don’t understand how to use a double roundabout,” Bedford tuts, recalling the former Weatherill government’s low-key solution to one of Adelaide’s enduring traffic follies.

I note that an afternoon with Bedford provides the distinct impression that her seat is hard done-by.

“Well, it is hard done-by,” she agrees.

But she’s hoping that will change now that her neck of the woods is not merely marginal, but “super-marginal”.

We arrive at the next destination, the local pre-poll booth – a “corflute shanty town”, the MP describes it: a hub for voters of three different north-eastern seats to cast their votes early, cramped alongside a temporary PCR testing station, creating frequent traffic logjams.

Bedford doesn’t care for the much-debated corflutes, which she says are “mostly just political pap” – although “I don’t think you should abolish them”, instead merely allowing placards with the candidates’ name and the electorate they’re hoping to win.

The site is, indeed, a mess of competing propaganda, staffed by party foot-soldiers and powerbrokers alike.

When we stop past, Liberal candidate Richard Harvey is manning the booths, with high-profile support from Education Minister John Gardner.

“I come down every day for a couple of hours,” Bedford tells me.

“But I can do other things like make phone calls.”

She seems to resent the nature of political campaigning.

“It’s like when you used to stand with the wobble-board at the side of the road,” she says of the jumble of corflutes.

“Is that really what you’re drawn to?

“Couldn’t we have some substance in what we’re talking about?

“I know it’s the way it is, but I just wish people were more focussed not on party but on candidate.

“All this presidential stuff – I get it, but really… to have someone with experience who will stand up to these people…”

When InDaily began this series, a brief insight into some of the state’s most compelling seats through following their incumbents on the hustings, it was at the urging of Newland’s former MP Kenyon, who explained that “there’s an air war and a ground war in every campaign”.

“The air war is pamphlets, advertising – it’s a B-52 that flies in and bombs the crap out of everything… but the ground war is door-knocking, street to street, that kind of stuff.”

And that sort of stuff takes time.

After 25 years in parliament, time is on Bedford’s side.

“I’m a member of every club there is, I go to every school [in the area],” she tells me proudly.

“I know every person here who’s been alive for 25 years.”

Moreover, she says, “there are a lot of fundamentalist Christians” in Newland and “a lot of churches in the area”.

“We go to all of them,” she says.

“I went to one of the big Baptist Churches the other day… I was sitting waiting for the service to start and in walks the Premier, Harvey and four staffers.”

But when I mention that I’ve observed the Newland doorknocking effort before, she takes exception.

“We don’t doorknock,” she says of her campaign.

“I don’t like canvassing people in their homes, because if you go knock on someone’s door you’re pissing them off just by knocking.

“If you knock on their door, they know you know who they are.”

Bedford prefers the conviviality of a shopping centre meet and greet.

“We like shopping centres… in a shopping centre, they know they can say anything they like to you – because you don’t know who they are,” she explains.

“People are really direct with you, and tell you exactly what they think.”

People are either going to look for my name or they’re not… they’re either going to vote independent or they’re not

En route, then, to the Tea Tree Plaza shopping centre and Bedford seems preoccupied with her opponents’ preference arrangements.

Labor isn’t doing her any favours, but the one she seems genuinely miffed about is the Greens, which have placed her behind her former party.

“People are either going to look for my name or they’re not,” she says philosophically.

“They’re either going to vote independent or they’re not.”

She rejects the notion that as a former Labor independent, she’d be a lock to back a Malinauskas government should she be returned in a hung parliament.

“I’ve told Steven Marshall I’ll work with anyone, if I’m in the same position Geoff Brock found himself in,” she says.

“Geoff had to support Labor – he couldn’t force another election could he?” she argues, pointing to the fact that the Liberals didn’t have the numbers to form a secure government in 2014.

“So of course you’d support Labor in that position.”

But she seems to resent recent Labor overtures to ex-Liberals in Mount Gambier and the Adelaide Hills.

“Everyone decided they’re going to schmooze Dan Cregan and Troy Bell, and not worry about anybody else,” she fumes.

Kenyon’s Family First – perhaps unsurprisingly given her voting record on social policy including the abortion debate – has preferenced her below even Harvey, who has earned the wrath of the various religious conservatives contesting the seat.

But another of those, former Family First senator Bob Day’s Australian Family Party, has surprisingly placed her above the Liberals.

Photo: Tom Richardson / InDaily

The reason for this suggests itself as we stroll through the shopping precinct.

A woman hurtles over to the MP and flings her arms around her with genuine and unbridled affection.

“I’m just so pleased to see you,” her old friend tells her warmly.

“You’re dear to my heart.”

As they embrace, Bedford responds: “And give Bob a hug too.”

The woman is Bronte Day, the former Liberal candidate and Family First senator’s wife.

She is initially apprehensive about being identified mid-campaign, but tells me: “It’s nice for you to see the camaraderie.”

“Frances is the traditional local member who turns up to everything,” she says.

As Bedford continues to press the flesh in the mall, Bronte recalls the Day family’s dark period when Bob was forced to relinquish his seat after the collapse of this building empire; he later filed for bankruptcy.

Bedford, she recalls, was “probably one of the only people who kept in touch with us from the beginning – she just cared about how we were going”.

“Our philosophies in some ways are so different but you can tell there’s a great deal of care there.”

Her husband confirms to me later that the family are “very good friends” with the long-time Left-winger.

“It’s no secret that we know her through the [local] soccer club, she’s a great member,” he says, while conceding they have long been at political loggerheads in the north-east.

Bedford ran federal Labor MP Tony Zappia’s initial campaign bid in Makin before Day’s first parliamentary tilt, a failed attempt to replace the retiring Trish Draper in 2007. Day, meanwhile, has long railed against MPs pushing what he regards as an anti-life agenda on abortion.

But, he insists, “it’s not personal, it’s business – she’s a really nice person”.

“When we lost a grandchild she was first there to sew a nice little blanket for him…

“It’s a pity there aren’t more people like Frances in parliament.”

Bedford and Bronte Day after a chance meeting. Photo: Tom Richardson / InDaily

But Bedford’s time in parliament could soon be over.

Party insiders don’t expect her to seriously challenge for Newland – marginal seats tend to have high primary votes for both major parties.

“You talk to the people that talk to you,” she tells me as she hands out her ‘Australian goods’ shopping guide to prospective buyers.

One asks her: “How are you going?”, to which she replies: “On the starting line of a three-horse race.”

“They’re preferencing against me everywhere,” she laments.

“And that’s a bit tough – particularly losing Greens preferences.”

She’s also lost much of the electorate that returned her with a solid majority.

“The seat was cut in three,” she says, as she introduces me to a long-time – and now former – constituent who has wandered over to say hi.

“I’ve lost this man,” she jokes plaintively.

“I represented this man for 23 years and they’ve taken him away from me.”

Our whistlestop tour takes in Modbury Triangle where, I’m told, the primary tenant, Foodland, has “changed hands several times”.

“At one stage it had a very bad supermarket as anchor tenant, which wasn’t essentially bringing customers into the area,” she says.

The impact on the smaller shops prompted an attempt by Bedford to legislate to protect retailers who rent store space in shopping centres, but the Marshall Government didn’t back her.

“Without an anchor tenant people don’t come here to shop… it was let go and now he’s got to build it up again,” she says of the present operator.

“They’ve all had a really tough time hanging in there.”

She surveys the largely vacant mall.

“This is Thursday – not busy is it?” she observes.

Everywhere we go holds a piece of history for Bedford.

“I used to work here at Focus Video when the kids were little,” she says, pointing to a shuttered shopfront.

Later, her first electorate office was housed in the same precinct.

At the next shopping centre, she points out that the lady who runs the florist “is the woman who taught me to be a florist when I was 17”.

She takes me in to meet her former mentor’s now-adult daughter, but the reflection on the passage of time jogs another painful political barb.

“The Labor Party is putting out the terrible story that I’ll be 72 when I finish this term,” she says.

When her interlocutor assures her that the years aren’t showing she beams: “It’s Loreal – I’m worth it!”

“At least there’s plenty of laughs, isn’t there?” she smiles wryly as we depart.

They’re preferencing against me everywhere – and that’s a bit tough

“You’re an independent aren’t you?”

The elderly lady leans in at close range, and it;s unclear whether she’s about to offer her best wishes or unleash the mother of all tirades.

“What order are you doing?” she asks first.

“It’s an open ticket,” Bedford assures her of her How To Vote card.

“We don’t tell you – you can do anything you like.”

But the woman’s bugbear is the abortion bill.

The pair have a frank but civil exchange of views, and she departs – taking her prospective vote with her.

“She doesn’t want to have it at all,” Bedford explains.

“In fairness, I don’t want to have it at all either… no-one likes abortion – it’s a bad thing.”

But, she says, if a woman needs an abortion, she wants them to have safe access to appropriate healthcare and counselling.

“No-one ever comes to my office to see me about child protection – they come to see me about abortion… but they’re opposite sides of the same issue,” she insists.

“As a society, we’re not doing anything about it.

“But for every voter like that, I’m happy to talk to anyone – for 10, 15, 20 minutes if they need to.”

Bedford before leaving Labor. Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

Our next stop is what might be called the ‘Village Green Preservation Society’, a gaggle of retirement community residents who await our arrival with an array of outdoor chairs and a tea-laden table.

The Rotary Village is based around a central green that the private company running the facility wanted to develop as a nursing home – until the residents mobilised to stop it.

“One of the reasons a lot of people come to this particular village to live is that the hospital was very close and handy,” Bedford explains.

“There’s a lot of convenience.”

But, as explained by resident Carmel Fuller – who with husband Rex runs the village’s social calendar – “the trouble is, planes keep coming through”.

“They opened up the borders you see,” she chuckles – announcing a novel complaint about last year’s much-maligned easing of border restrictions.

“It was nice and quiet when the border was shut – we didn’t have to put up with it.”

The group ponder the issues of the day over tea, including care and food standards in aged care facilities.

Maggie Beer’s ‘Appetite For Life’ program, designed to “improve the food experiences for older Australians” in care, is noted, although “there’s only so much pureed pumpkin you can handle – with or without verjuice”.

“You can’t live on pumpkin soup,” an elderly gentleman agrees.

Carmel is outspoken on the health crisis, recalling her time on a school council many years early.

“The AMA – the doctors’ union, as I’d call them – used to tell unis what scores they wanted for people to come out and be doctors,” she grumbles.

“And now we need doctors everywhere… that’s a big thing for me.”

She argues the union was behaving akin to “wharfies on the docks”.

The irony of the village’s proximity to Modbury Hospital is not lost on Carmel.

She has macular degeneration, and every six weeks has to commute to the QEH “to have injections in my eyes”.

She says Modbury didn’t have an eye centre when the treatment began.

“The hospital down there has asked for a transfer for me to come up to Modbury now, but because I’m getting treated already I’m at the bottom of the list,” she says.

“It’s just difficult – there’ll be a time when I can’t drive… and I can’t drive anyway when I have the injections.

“I shouldn’t have to rely on friends [to get there].”

She casually notes that with her condition “eventually you lose your sight – and we’ve got a couple of people in here that’s already happened to”.

The members all agree that theirs is “a really good village”.

“No-one dies in here and is left alone for five days do they?” Bedford agrees gaily.

“Oh no,” they all nod.

“It’s a really close-knit little community,” says Carmel.

“Apart from the airplanes it’s really quite idyllic.”

A lady called Hazel Wilkinson – “as in the razor blades” – asks Bedford: “Can you do anything about the O-Bahn?”

“What do you want me to do about it?” she replies.

“Well, the pavers are absolutely putrid – they’re disgusting.”

Bedford reiterates her insistence that “we want a concierge there during the day”.

Wilkinson – “she’s sharp – write that down,” she tells me – adds that the area is “a wind tunnel”.

“We think some engineering brain could stick a couple of things there to move the wind up or something,” she argues, and also notes that the “invalid sign has completely disappeared”.

These are the issues that matter in a marginal seat.

Bedford tells the group of a historical success on the concourse: “We got a 24-hour toilet there.”

“And everyone laughed when I called for it,” she says ruefully.

“Kevin Foley thought it was a hoot.

“But the drivers use it more than anybody else… and a lot of older people use it.”

The residents all nod their agreement.

“It’s a really lovely little community – and they do look after each other,” Bedford reiterates as we depart to take in more local sights.

We’re having a huge party – because we’re not doing this again

“Have you ever heard of the Fox and Firkin? It’s up here, it’s great,” the MP says proudly of the local watering hole.

She points out an old Aboriginal canoe tree as the Newland-mobile struggles further up the hill; if re-elected she wants to help instigate public gatherings for performances nearby.

“Florey didn’t have a lot of history – this place is dripping with it,” she observes.

“Really, it’s got everything happening.”

She notes the coalescence of foothills with a metropolitan hub.

“It’s not like Florey, which is this whole domestic dormitory suburb.”

Bedford insists that after election day – win or lose – “we’re having a huge party… because we’re not doing this again”.

Then, she adds: “I know I say that every time.”

As we reverse to head back down the hill, the struggling Hyundai Getz stalls one more time.

Bedford will be hoping it’s not a portent for her long political career.

She eyes off a particularly tight parking space and declares: “I can do anything – I’m in the Newland-mobile.”

Like parking a car, for Bedford elections are all part of the process.

“I’m a contract worker,” she describes herself unglamorously.

“And every four years I go to renew my contract.”

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