THE economy, skills shortages and health were hot topics as six of the eight candidates for New England took to the stage at Tamworth town hall in a bid to win votes on Monday night.
One of the key talking points was also among the most divisive as candidates shared very different opinions on how to increase wage growth to ease the cost of living.
Labor candidate Laura Hughes said the party is very concerned wages have gone backwards in the past few years, and it's a key area they want to address.
"Labor is the party that looks after workers," she said.
"Everyone who earns a wage or salary would like a bit more money in their pay packets. We have a number of initiatives to do that which are simple."
However, incumbent Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce said the Coalition is providing real cost of living relief by driving unemployment down, and providing low income tax offsets.
"As more people enter the workforce wages will rise. It's supply and demand," he said.
Independent Matt Sharpham said when it comes to wage growth, the government needed to get back to basics. He suggested taking the issue back to the people and setting up think tanks in local communities.
Fellow Independent Natasha Ledger said increasing the minimum wage, pension and abolishing payroll tax were all long overdue.
Greens candidate Carol Sparks had a simple solution: tax billionaires and large corporations and use the money to subsidise tertiary education to solve the current skills shortage.
"Our aged care nurses need to get a basic wage," she added.
"Our teachers are leaving the profession by the droves because they're not being paid accordingly."
United Australia Party's Cindy Anne Duncan said the federal government's focus should be on lowering the debt ceiling, and taking the burden away from taxpayers.
"Why should my grandchildren have to pay for what the government has done incorrectly?" she asked.
The forum, hosted by the Tamworth Business Chamber and moderated by the Leader journalist Andrew Messenger drew a crowd of a few hundred with the issue of rising rates of youth crime drawing passionate responses.
Ms Ledger was quick to draw on her experiences serving as a Uralla councillor and the town's "very good" track record on crime.
"We made sure communities always had something to do, and youth didn't stay idle," she said.
Candidates were in agreement that when it comes to prevention, education is key.
"There are three parts to this - what happens to the child beforehand, during and afterwards," Mr Joyce said.
"That formative process sets them up so much - teachers and childcare are terribly important.
"Making sure that people understand how society works. Making sure we have support for families so if they need help they can get help.
"Everywhere I go one of the premier issues is youth crime."
Mr Joyce congratulated the work of organisations such as the BackTrack program, The Clontarf Foundation, Black Rock in the Hunter Valley and the PCYC in the youth space.
However, Independent Matt Sharpham was quick to point out while these programs are excellent, they're underfunded.
"We need to work out what needs are there and what grants are available," he said.
"Tamworth Family Support Services are grossly underfunded unfortunately, but the people there have really good programs, but they only have nine spots, I believe, available for high risk young people."
UAP's Cindy Anne Duncan was heavily critical of any government intervention, and with an anti-vax focus this election, asked "who could blame youth for acting out?"
"Maybe we should take it back to ourselves - we're the parents," she said.
"We have to reverse what we did, we should be held accountable because we made our children suffer for our fears," she said, referencing COVID.
Labor's Laura Hughes said youth crime is the responsibility of the state with police services, but from a federal point of view, her mind turns to education.
"The federal government also provides a number of grants in this space," she added.
All of the candidates in attendance, apart from Mr Joyce, were critical of the Australian government's handling of the COVID-19 crisis and united in their support for a royal commission into the matter.
But before anything, there needs to be a Royal Commission into Integrity, according to the Labor and The Greens candidates.
"A Royal Commission into Integrity would cover it all," Ms Sparks said.
"It is needed, the majority of Australians want it," Ms Hughes added.
"It's one of the first things a Labor government will do. Some of our public money may be spent irresponsibly.
"The [royal commission] will look at all the people who work for the federal government. It will not be run by the government."
Water security, Tamworth Regional Council's Blueprint 100 strategy, and ensuring the region has enough water for 100,000 people in years to come was also a key focus on the night. All of the candidates were critical of Barnaby Joyce and the $1.28 billion Dungowan Dam project.
"I've fought for Dungowan Dam by tooth and nail to get it built because when we build it we secure the future of this great city," Mr Joyce said.
Of the eight candidates, United Australia Party's Cindy Anne Duncan, Independents Natasha Ledger and Matt Sharpham, National Party of Australia's Barnaby Joyce, The Greens' Carol Sparks and Australian Labor Party's Laura Hughes were all in attendance.
Mr Joyce left the forum early due to a prior engagement.
Liberal Democrats candidate Pavlo Samio, and PHON candidate Richard Thomas were not in attendance.
Pre-polling is now open, with voters heading to the polls for election day on May 21.
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