Crowded trams and public safety key in Victoria's most diverse electorate

words and pictures by Andy Hazel

September 19, 2014

Sydney Road is Brunswick’s main artery, and it embodies the electorate – a melting pot of old and new. Family-run shops have signs in Italian, Arabic, Greek, English and Mandarin. Many have hardly changed since the 1970s, their nondescript shop windows showing a reliance on regulars rather than enticing the passer-by. Familiarity is important in Brunswick.

Yet change is happening everywhere. Modern multi-story apartment blocks loom over the old shops, and more are being built all the time. Brunswick, home to mortgage-saddled young couples, sprawling long-established migrant families and student sharehouses, is a complex and rapidly-changing battleground.

“I’ve seen a massive demographic shift,” says incumbent Labor MP Jane Garrett. “There are a lot of changes in the electorate, not just multiculturally. There are a lot of young families now and one of the big issues that the community is facing is the scale of change.”

From its working class roots in the pre-war years to its current status as one of Victoria’s most ethnically diverse electorates, Brunswick has spent almost all of its 110-years solidly Labor, but the Greens have been growing their vote since they contested the 2002 election. In 2010 they lost by just 1,200 votes.

At the last election Labor and Liberal parties swapped preferences to keep the Greens at bay. Independent Phil Cleary also got a significant minority vote, largely at the expense of Labor.

Despite only the Labor, Green and Save The Planet candidates having been announced thus far, the battleground is set for a repeat of Labor and Green going head to head, with preferences deciding the victor. Whatever happens, the fate of this seat will be decided by a fascinatingly diverse body of voters.

Reaching out will present a challenge to all candidates. The 2011 census found just 60.9% of residents were born in Australia. Italian, Greek, Mandarin, Arabic, Urdu, Spanish, Lebanese and Nepali are the most common non-English languages spoken. Religions include Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, Anglican, Buddhism and Greek Orthodox.

One of the electorate’s largest schools, Brunswick Secondary College, has students from over 50 nationalities, indicating a marked shift from the strong Italian and Greek communities that shaped the suburb.

Away from Sydney Road, quiet streets are lined with the sort of comfortably-sized houses around which the Australian dream of a barbecue in the backyard of a quarter-acre lot was built. New cafes and old grocery stores dot the corners of secondary roads, light industrial estates line the wide streets around the Upfield train line.

Compared to surrounding electorates, Brunswick is young and educated. The 2011 census found one quarter of residents are couples without children, and over 15 per cent live in shared accommodation. Many young couples choose to forgo a car, another factor contribute to making public transport a key issue.

The state government’s key infrastructure project, the East-West Link, will cut through Royal Park, at the southern tip of the electorate. The government claims it will make it easier for Brunswick residents to access other parts of the city, increase ‘liveability’ and increase property prices in areas nearby areas.

“We will not be building the East West Link,” Garrett told UniPollWatch. “Every part of that money will be going into public transport which I think has been a very significant announcement from us.”

A staunch objector to the East West Link, Greens candidate Dr Tim Read says its construction is one of the biggest issues facing the electorate. Describing it as a ‘looming financial burden that will suck the funding out of the public transport budget for decades,’ he also dismissed Jane Garrett’s recent $9 million investment in new trams as insufficient. ‘It’s just enough to replace those that are falling to bits. Trams are often so crowded you can’t get onto them.’

The head of the Public Transport Users’ Association, Mr Tony Morton, agrees. He told UniPollWatch the public transport system was already plagued by inefficiency and a lack of coordination between buses, trams and trains.

‘While north-south transport is effective, Upfield trains are infrequent and the Sydney Road tram is slowed by heavy traffic,’ said Mr Morton. ‘Generally, the basis for a good service is there in the north-south direction, but what you get in the east-west direction is entirely different. There’s no central coordination.’

Another key issue cited by all candidates is domestic violence and public safety. Both Read and Garrett are critical of the state and federal government’s focus on street violence at the expense on what Garrett calls Labor leader Daniel Andrews’ ‘centrepiece of his campaign’ – Labor’s announcement of a Royal Commission into domestic violence, if elected.

“When you look at the state, most people assaulted in our community are in the home and for too long we’ve not dealt with it as a community properly,” Garret says.

The Liberal Party has promised greatly increased funding to domestic violence support services.

“I’ve seen evidence of that throughout my medical career,” says Dr Read, who nominates domestic violence as “far and away the leading form of crime in the electorate. Even from when I was an intern I remember struggling to find emergency accommodation for women after midnight.”

Long home to many manufacturing and light-industrial businesses, sections of the suburb remain without street lighting. Several locals, including long-time resident Mr Chris Dite, cited this to UniPollWatch as being the biggest issue, especially in the wake of the murder of Jill Meagher in September 2012.

In Brunswick, local domestic violence support services are limited to the Salvation Army and religious programs with a Women’s Domestic Violence Crisis Service of Victoria in the adjacent electorate of Melbourne.

Primarily staffed by volunteers, the Asylum Seeker Welcome Centre and Foundation House are both institutions catering to migrants and offering support services for some of Brunswick’s newer residents. Many services are offered in conjunction with local religious and community organisations such as Moreland Council, Brunswick Uniting Church and CERES Environment Park.

The services might lead one to think that this electorate is particularly politically engaged – and so it is. But perhaps not as much as some candidates might wish.

Mr Read said the biggest obstacle to a Greens victory was not Jane Garrett, but political disengagement. ‘A large percentage of the electorate don’t know the election’s on,’ he told UniPollWatch.

Meanwhile, the crowded trams rattle down Sydney Road. ( @AndyRickie)