The battle for middle-Melbourne – Forest Hill election wrap up

November 27, 2014 – 7:45PM

By Daryl Holland

The contentious Healesville Freeway Reserve. PICTURE: DARYL HOLLAND

The contentious Healesville Freeway Reserve. PICTURE: DARYL HOLLAND

The next member for Forest Hill will be either the incumbent, Mr Neil Angus of the Liberal party, or Labor’s Ms Pauline Richards. Whoever wins, it is going to be close, which means the real winners will be the people of Forest Hill.

The latest Essential Research poll gives Labor a 53-47 per cent statewide advantage. This translates to a 4.6 percent swing to Labor, which would give Forest Hill to its candidate Ms Richards with a margin of 1.1 per cent. This, according to the ABC’s election analyst Antony Green’s election calculator, would make Forest Hill the most marginal Labor-held seat in the state.

The local candidates probably don’t have much say on statewide policies, so let’s put those aside. If this seat is going to be decided by a few hundred votes or less, what local issues might swing it one way or the other?

There are five local ingredients that are likely to sway the swinging voters of Forest Hill: spending on local schools; the fate of the Healesville Freeway Reserve; the Environment Victoria campaign targeting this electorate; how the main candidates engage with their constituents and finally, how good the minor party candidates are at funnelling votes to the main candidates.

Mr Angus and Ms Richards have been focusing on schools and the Healesville Freeway Reserve.

The Coalition started the battle for Forest Hill schools – and parents’ votes – in May, when it included $4.8 million dollars in the budget for upgrades to Vermont Secondary College and Forest Hill College. Labor stepped up in August with a promise of $5 million to rebuild part of Highvale Secondary College.

The Coalition recently trumped that, with a string of infrastructure spending promises for local primary schools, including $4.5 million for Vermont Primary School, $1.8 million for Orchard Grove Primary School and $434,000 for Highvale Primary School.

Labor produced a masterstroke in February when it announced it would ‘Preserve the Reserve’, promising to protect 100 percent of the 35 hectare Healesville Freeway Reserve as open space.

This announcement came after VicRoads had spent several years carefully producing plans to redevelop the land, which is no longer needed for a freeway, with a mix of open space and housing.

VicRoads had produced three ready-to-go plans for the reserve for community consultation, but in late August the Coalition tore these up and instead released a confusing plan to set aside 15.4 hectares, or 44 percent, of the land as Crown Land with the rest being offered for sale to other government departments or the local Whitehorse Council, and with an unknown amount then sold for housing developments.

The Labor plan, which the Greens and Whitehorse Council support, has been hugely popular with the local residents who care about this space.

Ms Richards has been riding this support for all it’s worth, while Mr Angus has been unconvincing in his insistence that his party’s plan is ‘a great outcome for the community’.

The last hope that Mr Angus could salvage something was dashed when Planning Minister Mr Matthew Guy released new residential zones for the City of Whitehorse in September, and the entire reserve was zoned residential, including the parts pledged as Crown Land.

While this zoning was simply a continuation of the previous zoning overlay, it was a bad look and Ms Richards pounced on it, sending a letter to all Forest Hill residents questioning the government’s true intentions for the land.

The environment has become an issue in the electorate thanks to the efforts of Environment Victoria and its army of volunteers, who have been doorknocking en masse, raising awareness and getting hundreds of residents to sign a pledge to ‘put the environment first’ when voting.

A small contingent of the Environment Victoria volunteer army. PICTURE: DARYL HOLLAND

A small contingent of the Environment Victoria volunteer army. PICTURE: DARYL HOLLAND

If pledge-signers are serious about putting the environment first, then their vote will end up with Labor. Environment Victoria has given the Liberals a resounding fail on its election scorecards.

Ms Richards threw her lot in with the group by signing the pledge and being a vocal supporter of the campaign, even though the Labor Party has been relatively subdued on environment policy this election.

Mr Angus has, perhaps wisely, been avoiding Environment Victoria.

VT4ME says this van, on behalf of Mr Neil Angus. PICTURE: DARYL HOLLAND

VT4ME says this van, on behalf of Mr Neil Angus. PICTURE: DARYL HOLLAND

Both major candidates have performed well. Mr Angus has been criss-crossing the electorate making regular appearances at schools, community and sporting groups, often with small or large funding announcements, and no doubt many have noticed the highly conspicuous fleet of Neil Angus cars that have been cruising the electorate.

He has diligently appeared at events where he was assured a frosty reception, such as an environment forum in September and a Healesville Freeway Reserve community forum in October.

He has rarely strayed from the party line, although at a Church forum in mid-November he reportedly expressed a desire to see abortion laws wound back, in opposition to Coalition policy.

Ms Pauline Richards talking to her loyal volunteers. PICTURE: DARYL HOLLAND

Ms Pauline Richards talking to her loyal volunteers. PICTURE: DARYL HOLLAND

Ms Richards and her small, loyal team of volunteers have been door knocking the electorate since January. According to her Facebook page they have knocked on 20,000 doors between them. She has run a largely positive, community-centric campaign. In person she is friendly and engaging, and a careful listener. She recently boasted on her Facebook page of surprising and delighting a local resident by remembering a conversation she had with him in April.

The Greens candidate, Mr Brewis Atkinson, cannot win the seat, but he is doing a fine job trying to both improve on his predecessor’s 7.6 per cent of the primary vote, and get his colleague in the upper house Eastern Metropolitan region, Ms Samantha Dunn, the few extra votes that might get her elected.

He has been campaigning almost entirely door-to-door and is said to be on track to personally knock on 6,000 doors. Ms Dunn calls him a ‘door-knocking machine’.

The minor parties easily partition into two blocks: the conservative block with Family First, the Australian Christians and the Australian Country Alliance, who are all preferencing Mr Angus; and the progressive block, with the Greens and the Animal Justice Party, who are preferencing Ms Richards.

If Mr Angus is relying on preferences from the conservative block, he has not been getting much help on the campaign trail. Ms Wendy Ross from Family First and Ms Melissa Trotter from the Country Alliance have not been seen, while Ms Lynne Maddison of the Australian Christians is, apart from an appearance at a meet the candidates forum organised by the Australian Christian Lobby, content to organise people to hand out how to vote cards.

Mr Kane Rogers from the Animal Justice Party has been quietly campaigning for three months, talking to people at train stations or while walking his dog. His party is pushing for Greens voters to vote Animal Justice one, and he may struggle to tempt conservative voters to join his block.

All of this points to a victory for Ms Richards, although if enough voters want specific upgrades to their local schools or if there is a minor panic on election day and they decide to stick with the safety of the incumbent, Mr Angus will retain his seat.

The outcome of this seat is unlikely to affect the overall election result, but come Saturday night, two very nervous candidates, five slightly less nervous candidates, their friends, families and volunteers, a couple of hundred Environment Victoria volunteers and one tired journalism student will be eagerly watching the election telecast as the results come in for this quiet and unassuming electorate in the heart of suburban Melbourne, and Antony Green says the magic words …

‘Forest Hill … is too close to call.’ ( @darylholland)


Daryl Holland is a Master of Journalism student at the University of Melbourne