The deputy mayor of Mildura, Jason Modica, will become the second independent candidate to challenge the National party in the seat of Mallee – running on the issues of water, climate change and people power.
Known as “Jake the Tradie”, Modica served on Mildura council with Ali Cupper, who unexpectedly won the state seat of Mildura last year as an independent, a seat held by the Nationals on a 8% margin.
Modica enters the field after the sitting Nationals MP, Andrew Broad, a vocal supporter of traditional marriage, announced his retirement following New Idea allegations he met up with a younger woman in Hong Kong via a sugar daddy dating website.
Modica is an Australian Conservation Fund river fellow, a program aimed at providing advocacy on behalf of the Murray Darling communities.
Last year he was one of several councillors who wrote to Broad asking him to “speak up about Queensland and NSW’s refusal to acknowledge natural and historic flows” through the Darling and clarify his stance on alleged theft and over-allocation in the Barwon Darling system.
Broad wrote back, telling councillors to stick to issues at their own level of government and noted that the Barwon-Darling was not within the Mallee electorate. He pointed to $103m of government funding for the Sunraysia irrigation upgrade.
Modica enters the fray alongside the former Yarriambiack mayor and Wimmera farmer Ray Kingston, who is running on climate change, federal funding for local councils and roads as well as attracting more people to the Mallee through immigration.
While there has been speculation that Tony Abbott’s former chief of staff Peta Credlin may run as a Liberal candidate, the Victorian Liberal party did not return Guardian Australia’s calls or emails.
The son of an Italian migrant market gardener, Modica grew up at Gol Gol just outside Mildura and owns a local ceramic tile business. Modica said the river was the catalyst to run federally on “people, power and water”.
“Even people in smaller towns outside Mildura, who might be reliant on ground water and not directly effected by the Murray, see [the rivers] as on ongoing issue and that [ground water and river water] is all connected,” Modica said.
“Our region is also ripe for energy generation because we are the link between South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. Yet the Coalition have looked away from grid upgrades and securing future energy generation because of the power of the coal lobby.
“After the last 10 years, people have disengaged and they are very concerned that politicians represent parties more than voters.”
But independents face an uphill battle in the western Victorian seat, which covers 82,000 square kilometres and elected Broad with a margin of 19.8%.
Last month, the National party chose sociologist Anne Webster, who founded the Zoe Support not-for-profit group in Mildura – an organisation that helps young mothers find services and return to education.
But one of the biggest debates in the 2019 election, following the entrance of high-profile centre-right independents, is climate change.
Rural independent candidates in Mallee as well as Indi’s Helen Haines are mirroring the climate concerns of city-based independent candidates including former Liberal MP Julia Banks in Flinders, the former Liberal member and banker Oliver Yates in Kooyong, Wentworth MP Kerryn Phelps and Warringah candidate Zali Steggall.
Their stance is in marked contrast in rural areas to the Coalition, which has pushed taxpayer funding for new coal fired plants. The Nationals leader and deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, rejected the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report’s call to phase out coal power by 2050.
Webster told Guardian Australia that climate issues needed to be addressed and resolved, saying she did not want to “warm the seat” and wanted her grandchildren to look up to her.
“Regardless of what anyone in politics says, the reality is climate issues have to be resolved, international covenants have to be followed through and I would like to see that we are more open to all kinds of energy,” Webster said.
“There has been a polarisation around coal, which has a finite end date, and the fact is everyone wants affordable and reliable energy. If we don’t have economic prosperity, we will all be lighting our own candles.”
Webster said she would also personally welcome a proper investigation into uranium, given Finland has five nuclear power stations.
“Obviously there are lots of questions which need to be answered about waste and other issues but, if you don’t ask, the same debate keeps kicking around.”
Webster told Guardian Australia that her sociology background gave her an interest in people living at the fringes of society, whether they were in small towns or larger regional centres.
“Health and aged care are absolute priorities and inequity in healthcare,” she said. “[Current] funding models don’t allow for regional population ratios. Just because there are less people living in [a community] doesn’t mean they need less services.”
Webster urged voters not to support independents “because they can make a lot of promises but they can’t deliver”.
“Parties have the best capacity to bring change,” she said.
But Kingston, who has been campaigning in Mallee since December, said the benefit of an independent was that both Labor and the Coalition would deal with the electorate.
“This election there could easily be enough independents to form united independent voice on some issues,” Kingston said. “They may not be aligned on every issue but there will be a good chance of getting numbers of independents, particularly country ones, and that has potential for rural seats.”
Kingston said small towns and regional centres were working hard on their own issues, such as targeting migrants to join communities and fill employment gaps. He cited the town of Pyramid Hill where the Filipino community had reversed population decline and filled jobs at the local piggery.
“For example, my own home town of Rupanyup is now teaming up with Edenhope and Charlton to find skilled migrants while making sure there is good housing and support to ensure integration,” he said.