It’s school pickup hour in Melbourne’s Point Cook and cars are bumper to bumper along the state electorate’s namesake road.
It’s emblematic of infrastructure problems in this fast-growing part of the city. Wherever you turn in the west, roads, transport, schools and hospitals are pressing issues for voters. This is usually safe territory for Labor – but there is rumbling discontent.
Liberal and independent candidates are united in accusing the government of neglecting the region and failing to deliver.
Angela Newhouse, who is contesting the newly created electorate of Point Cook for the Liberals, calls Point Cook Road a major local flashpoint. “For four-and-a-half years I have been battling my way up and down it at a snail’s pace along with tens of thousands of other angry commuters,” she says.
Within Labor, there are fears that the western fringe could record significant swings against the party. These heartland seats were disproportionately impacted by Covid and at the federal election in May, Labor suffered sizeable swings against it in outer suburban Victorian seats.
The party’s candidate for Point Cook, Mat Hilakari – a convener of the socialist left faction – says Labor has a positive story to tell on road upgrades in the west but concedes there is more work to do.
“It’s about making sure there’s the infrastructure that people need,” he says. “One of the important things is being able to get around – to get to work, to get home – quickly.”
Hilakari focuses on Labor’s track record of being a party of government that will be able to deliver promises such as $109.6m to double the capacity of Werribee Mercy hospital’s emergency department, and upgrading one of the most dangerous intersections on Point Cook Road.
The opposition, meanwhile, is pledging $146m to duplicate a section of the road as part of a $1.5bn funding commitment for roads in Melbourne’s west.
While the Liberals have high hopes, pundits say Labor voters are more likely to switch to independent candidates hoping to ride the “teal wave” of the federal election.
Election analyst Ben Raue says the Liberals’ two-party preferred results increased in May in the outer north and western suburban federal electorates of Gorton, Fraser and Hawke, due to preference flows from minor parties. Despite this the party winning seats this month in Labor’s western strongholds would be a “real stretch”, he says. “It’s much more of a long-term strategy.”
The state’s new donation laws – capping financial contributions at $4,320 per organisation or person for each campaign – could hinder the independents’ efforts as they prevent hefty donations from financiers like Simon Holmes à Court, who backed teal candidates federally.
A high-profile independent, the GP and former obstetrician Joe Garra, won almost 20% of the primary vote when he ran against the treasurer, Tim Pallas, in Werribee in 2018.
After a redistribution of electoral boundaries, he is now running in Point Cook, which replaced the seat of Altona. Based on the two-party preferred 2018 results, Labor notionally holds Point Cook on a 12.8% margin.
Garra wants more specialised health services, including cardiology, and expanded maternity healthcare at the Werribee Mercy hospital.
Sign up for our free morning and afternoon email newsletters from Guardian Australia for your daily news roundup
Questioning Labor candidate’s local credentials
In neighbouring Tarneit – a seat held by Labor since its inception in 2002 – the party is pinning its hopes on Dylan Wight, a former Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union organiser who also hails from the party’s left faction.
Wight says he’s yet to detect a “seismic shift” away from Labor as he promotes the party’s credentials on delivering on schools and transport in an electorate that’s home to the state’s second busiest V/Line station after Southern Cross. Last month, as part of a $200m transport package, Labor committed to building a new Tarneit West train station.
“It’s going to go a really long way to both making sure that people in this community can jump on a train, can commute to work easier but can also jump on a train and experience everything that Victoria has to offer,” he says.
The ALP will be hoping to avoid a repeat of the Fowler result in Sydney’s west in the May federal poll. The former mayor and independent candidate Dai Le defeated the former shadow frontbencher Kristina Keneally, who had been parachuted in from the city’s affluent northern beaches.
Wight’s Liberal opponent, Preet Singh, says 17 years living in the electorate gives him a deep understanding of the problems facing the area. He says Labor putting up Wight, who moved to Tarneit this year, proves the party is “not taking us seriously”.
But Wight, who grew up in Geelong, dismisses such criticism, saying that as an AMWU organiser during the closure of Toyota’s Altona factory in 2017 he stood shoulder to shoulder with many workers from Tarneit who lost their jobs.
Singh also took aim at Labor’s train station announcement. “It’s not a coincidence the government is making the announcement now … people are not that naive,” he says.
His party pledged $100m towards a new train station in Tarneit and a multi-use sports precinct but there is no timeline and it is unclear how the funding would be divided.
Win or lose, Singh, who runs a solar installation business, wants to make sure Tarneit is no longer “a safe Labor seat”.
“People need a fair go … we need the investment, we need the infrastructure, we need the schools, we need a better hospital system,” he says. “If you go around Tarneit, the roads still look like country roads … and all the schools are overcrowded.”
In the marginal seat of Melton – Australia’s third-fastest growing local government area, according to the latest census, and earmarked a high-priority “target” seat by Labor’s campaign headquarters – the incumbent MP, Steve McGhie, faces the former state Liberal MP Graham Watt.
The challenger points to the need for a hospital, road repairs and strategies to ease congestion as the main flashpoints.
“People have been waiting for a generation or more for a hospital,” Watt says. “Why do we have to wait so long for hospitals when in the eastern suburbs you can get a hospital in three years?”
The opposition has pledged $900m for a new hospital to serve the western growth corridor and vowed construction would begin within a year. Labor, after committing to building a Melton hospital in the lead-up to the 2018 election, has also pledged $900m, saying the hospital will open by 2029.
A Melton voter, Christine Steel, tells Guardian Australia roads and the hospital will be the biggest issues for her at the polling booth. She says she believes the Andrews government has “definitely not looked after this area”.
McGhie is pushing for greater access to vocational training. “I would love to see Tafe back in Melton within the next few years,” he says.
The government has pledged $650m to improve V/Line train services but there is no timeline for when electrified Metro trains will come to Melton – despite Labor promises before its 2018 landslide win.
Dr Ian Birchall, a scientist at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience who won 10.5% of the primary vote in Melton at the 2018 election after campaigning for a hospital, is again running for the seat. He jokes that he could recycle his campaign because “nothing’s changed”.
He calls the government’s plan to build a 240-bed hospital insufficient, saying it will need to accommodate up to 500 patients. He’s also campaigning for a private-public partnership hospital complex, integrating teaching and a Tafe in the one precinct.
Birchall acknowledges that as an independent he would not be in a party of government but says he could still “bring attention to the fact we’re missing out on so much”.
Both Wight and McGhie – a former head of the Ambulance Employee union – reject assertions that Labor has neglected Melbourne’s west. “Tarneit has received, dollars and cents-wise, comparable to any marginal electorate in Victoria,” Wight says.
No matter the outcome of this election, Labor’s rivals are determined to deliver the party a wake-up call.
Garra, the Point Cook independent, says his aim, short of being elected, is to reduce Labor’s margin in Point Cook.
“I want the government’s vote to fall so they go, ‘Oh my god, we almost lost the seat, we need to look after them better,’” he says. “It’s sad that that’s what politics has come down to the last few years. But that’s the reality.”