As gas fields continue to be drilled and the most recent flares are fresh in collective memory, the candidates standing for MacKillop felt the heat from the Limestone Coast Protection Alliance at a Naracoorte forum last week.
Environmental issues dominated the forum, as the crowd demanded answers from Tracy Hill (SA Best), Jon Ey (Independent), Richard Bateman (Australian Conservatives) and Nick McBride (Liberal).
The Labor candidate for MacKillop, Hilary Wigg, declined her invitation to the forum, and the Greens candidate, Donella Peters, had a proxy answer the initial questions from the Alliance.
These 10 mandatory questions were primarily centred around the controversial practice of fracking, which many in the region fear could happen here.
All the candidates answered that they were against the practice of fracking, but things became more tense when they were queried about their stance on gas mining as a whole.
For the record, Mr Ey and the Greens are against all forms of gas mining; Mr McBride supports a 10-year moratorium on unconventional gas exploration; Mr Bateman wants a ban on unconventional gas mining enshrined into law; and Ms Hill is also against unconventional gas mining.
“Just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should,” she said towards the end of the night about the issue, which earned her a round of applause.
The other candidates also held their own. Mr McBride was at his most animated, showing off some sharp debate skills as he defended his party and positions.
Meanwhile, Mr Bateman and Mr Ey showed they shouldn’t be underestimated, as they faced down their critics with dogged determination.
Labor and The Greens were targeted by the candidates, but they also got in some swipes at each other, the stress of a looming Saturday election showing.
Most of these digs were in the form of needling each other over policies, with some tension brewing between Mr Ey and Mr Bateman over their differences regarding renewables versus other forms of energy.
Sometimes the slights were visual, with candidates smirking if their opponent made a gaffe.
After missing out on the last forum at Bordertown, Ms Hill showed herself to be an impressive speaker, remaining stoic through the proceedings or getting in some shots, by nicking the ‘Make MacKillop Matter’ slogan from the Australian Conservatives in her opener, and taking Mr McBride to task over a metaphor about risk.
Ms Hill and SA Best showed that they were committed to a clean and green MacKillop, and got a mild reception from the Alliance bloc of audience members.
Mr McBride meanwhile had a fight on his hands, as he was questioned about the Liberals’ support for fossil fuels, Federal support for fracking, and their state renewable energy targets, by both the audience and the moderator.
But Mr McBride held fast, repeatedly assuring the audience that he was committed to having the region be fracking-free due to the moratorium and social licence, and vowing (with other state Liberals) to uphold that commitment even against Federal ideology.
At one point he was asked about gas market prices, and before answering, questioned the time keeper if he still had a minute and a half to answer.
When assured that he did, Mr McBride relayed a multitude of information about how the market is affected by international exports with plenty of time before the bell, and his confidence and smooth delivery earned him a smattering of applause.
His knowledge of water systems gave him another opportunity to showcase his debate skills, as he offered a solid rebuttal against gas wells using up large amounts of water from the region’s aquifers.
Whilst all of the candidates supported renewable energy, Ms Hill, Mr Ey and The Greens were the most in favour of having SA more reliant on renewable energy in a short time period.
Mr McBride and Mr Bateman are concerned about the current energy crisis under the state government, and have taken a more cautioned approach, with a gradual transition to renewables that matched or exceeded Labor’s target, with other forms of energy utilised in the meantime.
Whilst Mr Ey’s policies found support with many Alliance members, he was grilled at one point by a Kimberly-Clark worker over his stance on renewables, with the audience member pointing out that there were some people who were pro-gas.
Mr Ey kept his cool and replied that Geoff Brock, an independent, had transformed Whyalla through renewable energy, and there was no reason why he couldn’t do the same.
He also pointed out that he has been fighting for local businesses such as Blue Lake Milling in their push for renewables.
Mr Bateman was also tested by the audience on his policies regarding renewables and mining, but Mr Bateman stood by his statements that there was little interest in the country for things such as hybrid cars, and also provided policy talking points about how the Australian Conservatives would benefit the region.
Mr Bateman reiterated that the Australian Conservatives would have a mining ombudsman, Royalties for Regions, Right to Farm legislation, and a Mining Act.
He also stated that the Australian Conservatives wouldn’t allow ‘tin pot operations’ to mine in South Australia.
The Greens’ statements were pro-renewables and anti-gas, but their preference deals resulted in some scorn from the other candidates such as Mr Ey and Mr Bateman.
These two candidates pointed out that they are also committed to sound environmental policies, and yet are preferenced below the pro-gas Labor Party.
The continual absence of the Labor candidate to engage with MacKillop voters was also not lost on the ballot hopefuls, or the audience.
The night wrapped up, with the candidates thanked for their time, and for standing for the region.