Merlino Fights For Monbulk

As you venture among fern and rhododendron along the Mt Dandenong Tourist Road in the heart of Monbulk, the electorate seems a haven, far from the cut and thrust of Spring Street.

You’d think a high profile candidate, Deputy Opposition leader James Merlino, safe here and surely likely to retain a seat in which voters have favoured the incumbent since the 1990s.

Yet changes to electoral boundaries have undermined the shadow education minister’s hold on the outer eastern and Dandenong Ranges seat.

After 12 years as its MP, last year’s redistribution made the seat he held with a 1.9 per cent margin in 2010 a “notional” Liberal electorate with an expected 1.1 per cent margin.

However, a predicted statewide swing to Labor suggests the Shadow Education Minister and potential Deputy Premier may yet survive the November election.

The 265-square kilometre electorate has lost The Basin and parts of Boronia and Bayswater and gained areas such as Tecoma, Belgrave, Selby, and parts of Kilsyth, Montrose and Mooroolbark at the foot of the ranges.

The addition of outer east suburban Belgrave has increased concerns in some quarters about drug abuse and homelessness. Yarra Ranges Council has implemented a new by-law to make it illegal for people to sleep in their cars.

In Tecoma an unsuccessful campaign against the McDonald’s push for a 24-hour restaurant has left a bad taste over perceived state interference in local government after VCAT overruled a council decision to reject the fast food outlet.

Opponents presented a petition with 3775 signatures to Mr Merlino at State Parliament in late 2012. A former Yarra Ranges Shire Deputy Mayor, the MP strongly objected to the project. “My view is there should not be a Maccas in Tecoma,” he said at the time. “Thousands of people visit and live in the Dandenongs because it is different to the average suburb. Bringing a Maccas will change everything. The next thing we will see is a KFC in Belgrave, a Hungry Jacks in Monbulk and a Red Rooster in Olinda.”

Planning Minister Matthew Guy earlier this year approved a move by the Shire of Yarra Ranges to restrict drive-through restaurants.

The seat has only swung four times since it was formed in 1967, making the average term for each MP around 12 years. It has been held by high profile figures including the Liberals’ Bill Borthwick, a minister in the Bolte, Hamer and Thompson governments and the ALP’s Neil Pope, in the Kirner government.

Mr Merlino, who shifted from the shadow police portfolio to education in February 2012, has promised to make upgrades to school facilities, including sports halls and classrooms and recently promised to re-open the Swinburne Lilydale campus.

Yarra Ranges Shire Councillor Jason Callanan said Mr Merlino, its former deputy mayor, was “passionate about education which is also a major reason to why Labor is committing a large share of the budget to funding schools”.

The principal of Basin primary school, Graeme Russell, said its classrooms had been refurbished in recent years and there had been improvements in technology at the school.

Monbulk College principal Margaret Uren said Labor “always puts education as a priority when it looks at how it spends its budget”.

Police crime statistics show a relatively low (1.8 per cent) overall increase in crime in the Yarra Ranges local government area which covers part of the electorate, compared to 5.2 per cent in Knox in the 2011-2013, where there was a significant increase in drug manufacturing, distribution and trafficking by almost two thirds (59 per cent) in this period.

Liberal candidate Mark Verschuur, a high profile local medical products manufacturer, has said residents have told him of the importance of making sure the area has the infrastructure and services it needs. He has spoken of the need to reduce family violence in the area.

A Brumby government police minister who took on the shadow police portfolio after the last election, Mr Merlino has criticised the Coalition’s performance on law and order.

Residents have told UniPollWatch of their concern on issues such as education, the environment, urban development, health, crime and social issues.

With the rapid rise of Ice methamphetamine and lack of employment in the Monbulk electorate, specifically in Belgrave, the statistics of those homeless are rising, and funding is needed more urgently.

The manager of The Dandenong Ranges Emergency Relief Centre, Tania Bevan, said homelessness, drugs, mental health and unemployment were linked and called for a commitment by candidates to “do more about investing into mental health.”

Guy Stirling, a 45-year-old Belgrave resident, a recovering drug addict who had been homeless at one stage, cited factors including “boredom from lack of employment”.

By Jac Mason and Luke Mennuni with Emma Barry, Monique Kuzeff, Jade Lockwood, Natalie Moraghan Jessica Seignarack, Huijun Su and Te-Min Tu.