In the battle for Melbourne’s Bayside, can fired-up independents snatch seats?

Razor-thin margins put Brighton, Caulfield and Sandringham within striking distance this Victorian election – but the major parties remain quietly confident

There was a moment during the 2018 Victorian state election count when pundits thought a 19-year-old Labor candidate, Declan Martin, was going to snatch the seat of Brighton, held by the conservative side of politics since it was created in 1856.

The university student – who spent just $1,750 on his six-week campaign – told reporters that if he was successful, he was going to have to sort out a lift to parliament because he was still on his L-plates.

But by the end of the night, Martin didn’t need to worry about carpooling . It was clear the Liberal candidate, James Newbury, would win the Melbourne seat despite a double-digit swing away from the party that shrank its margin from 9.8% to 1.12%.

A view of a beach and a waterfront in Sangdringham
A Sandringham waterfront. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

In the adjacent seats of Caulfield and Sandringham, once-comfortable Liberal margins became razor-thin – 0.27% and 0.65%, respectively.

It’s given hope to Bayside independents that at this month’s state election they can succeed where Martin failed and replicate the teals’ triumphs in the federal poll. Brighton, Caulfield and Sandringham all share suburbs with the federal electorate of Goldstein, which the independent Zoe Daniel won convincingly in May.

‘I lost faith with the party’

The Caulfield hopeful Nomi Kaltmann is one of four independent candidates in this election endorsed by Simon Holmes à Court’s Climate 200 outfit and proudly calls herself a teal.

“People are really unhappy with the status quo in politics,” she says. “I get a lot of people saying the major parties have a certain level of disdain for common folk, they ignore them, they don’t give them attention, they’ve forgotten who their voters are.

Nomi Kaltmann smiling as she canvasses in Elsternwick
Independent Nomi Kaltmann used to be a Labor party member but says she lost faith with the party ‘a long time ago’. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

“People are thrilled there’s a really strong third option.”

Kaltmann left the Victorian Labor branch just weeks before announcing her candidacy: “I could have run for Labor if I wanted to, but I didn’t.

“I wanted to run as an independent because the Labor party is scandal-ridden, with branch stacking, corruption and internal problems. I lost faith with the party a long time ago.”

The three electorates are wealthier and more educated than the Victorian average, and Caulfield is home to the state’s largest Jewish population.

All three Caulfield candidates are of Jewish faith and are gearing up for an earlier campaign, given that voters are more likely to cast their ballots early. At the 2014 and 2018 elections, these votes heavily favoured the Caulfield incumbent and deputy Liberal leader, David Southwick.

Clarke Martin smiling on the beach
Clarke Martin is setting out on his third electoral campaign as an independent. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

In Brighton and Sandringham, the independents Felicity Frederico and Clarke Martin are running without Climate 200’s backing.

Martin, a Bayside councillor who ran at the 2014 and 2018 elections, will be able to access some public funds to run his campaign under the state’s new donation laws.

“We’re intending to run a very community, grassroots, lean-and-mean campaign,” he says.

Frederico has opened a shopfront and has distributed about 250 corflutes. She is running as an independent, having failed to be preselected as a Liberal candidate.

“I really felt politically homeless,” she says of her decision to leave the party. “Speaking to a lot of people in the community, I wasn’t unique in my thoughts – the Liberal party have just stopped listening to the community and the Brighton electorate has just been neglected.”

Martin and Frederico have campaigned together, particularly in seeking greater protections for Port Phillip Bay, and have both supported a Brighton beachside hotel’s decision to reopen as an upmarket drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre.

Felicity Frederico posing with a paddle and board
The former Liberal member Felicity Frederico, who is running as an independent in Brighton, says the party had ‘just stopped listening to the community’. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

But unlike independents supported by Monique Ryan in Kew and Hawthorn, they have not benefited from the support of their federal member, with Daniel noticeably absent from the state campaign.

Climate 200 says as a small organisation it needs to be targeted in its efforts in Victoria and decided to “draw the line” under the candidates it is supporting.

Labor’s candidate for Brighton, Louise Crawford, is watching her independent rivals but says she hopes she can make as much of an impression on voters as Martin did last time around.

“Everyone remembers Declan from 2018, they ask me about ‘that lovely young man who nearly won the seat and how he’s doing’,” she says . “I know the independent rise has happened but I think in this seat, the soil was being tilled way back then.”

The ABC’s election analyst, Antony Green, credits the 2018 result to the state-wide swing towards the Labor government and away from the Coalition, whose campaign focused heavily on law and order and youth gang crime.

“The swing was on,” he says. “It didn’t matter who the Labor candidate was or their campaign; as we saw in Brighton, the result was entirely based on the state trend and the Liberals rather upsetting their own voters.

“If they don’t hold on to their seats at this election, then the Liberals [are] in a lot of trouble. You may as well call the election for Labor.”

A tram on a gloomy street amid cars
Carlisle Street, Balaclava. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Liberals aiming local

Liberals are also quietly confident there won’t be a repeat of 2018 or the federal poll, citing efforts in the past four years by each of the sitting MPs to better reflect community concerns.

“We’ve changed,” Southwick says. “We’re a different party than last time around and that’s because we’ve listened.”

He says the Coalition’s 2018 campaign failed to resonate with his electorate, which takes in the cosmopolitan suburbs of Balaclava, Elsternwick and Ripponlea and the more diverse Glen Huntly.

David Southwick speaking with a constituent
David Southwick says this time around the Liberals are running a ‘much more local’ campaign to better reflect the community. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

“We had [policies] on crime, cost of living, congestion and corruption and people would ask me, ‘Well, what’s your message on health?’ And I’d have to say, ‘Don’t worry about that. Let me tell you about this.

“It’s no different to being a shop, if you haven’t got what people want they’re going to walk straight past.”

This time, he says, he’s running a “much more local” campaign. The majority of his corflutes feature the party’s $550m pledge to rebuild Caulfield hospital, while others spruik commitments to improve local shopping strips, create more green space and introduce mandatory height limits for new developments. (Most of the corflutes fail to mention he is representing the Liberal party.)

A similar strategy is playing out in Sandringham, held by the Liberal’s Brad Rowswell. He has pledged to increase funding for Sandringham hospital and to keep a level crossing in Mentone open, the latter of which he committed to only after consulting with 300 residents and surveying a further 700.

Brad Rowswell smiling near a train crossing
Brad Rowswell, the Liberal incumbent in Sangdrigham, is also emphasising listening to the community as a pillar of his re-election campaign. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

“From day one in this job I’ve listened to the community before announcing any commitment,” he says as he doorknocks in La Trobe Street.

In Brighton, Newbury says he will deliver a new police station shopfront on Church Street to boost visibility after an increase in home invasions and car break-ins. Law and order is already a hot topic in Brighton, after the influencer Rebecca Judd alleged in June there was a gang problem.

Newbury has accused Daniel Andrews of “victim blaming” after the premier said the crime rate in the area did not match Judd’s views. “Anyone who says crime isn’t an issue in this area hasn’t had a close look at the stats, which confirm an increase,” Newbury says.

James Newbury speaking with citizens
The Liberal member for Brighton, James Newbury, listens to concerns from opponents of a proposed rehabilition facility to be built in the electorate. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

The MP also joined community events protesting against the hotel rehab.

But Crawford says neither the rehab nor crime have been raised with her at weekly street stalls and in door knocking. “Not one person has raised it with me or any of the volunteers,” Crawford says. “Climate change is the No 1 issue in this area, without a doubt.”

A stop sign at a railway crossing as a metro train passes across the tracks
Middle Brighton station. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Labor’s confidence

Newbury says the 2018 state and 2022 federal polls “sent a clear message” to the Coalition on the issue.

Immediately after taking on the role of opposition spokesperson for environment and climate change, he announced a plan to legislate an emissions reduction target of 50% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.

Southwick, as spokesperson for energy and renewables, pledged to pause the state’s electric vehicle tax and spend $50m to boost the uptake of low-emission cars.

Southwick says the issue has been “close to this heart for 25-plus years” – at 23 he founded a cosmetics company which donated 10% of its profits to environmental causes and social issues.

Close up on Lior Harel
The Labor candidate for Caulfield, Lior Harel, says he is in it to ‘affect real change in the community’. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

His Labor opponent, Lior Harel, disagrees. “We’ve seen a real effort from David to reposition himself as moderate … talking about doing more climate change, public health, public education,” he says.

“It shows me that the Labor party policies are around about the mark, because everyone’s trying to imitate them.”

Harel, a commercial lawyer, joined the party the day before he submitted his nomination. It’s something his opponents are quick to highlight but he characterises as a strength.

“I’m not a career politician,” he says. “I’m not looking to do this for the money – I’ve had pretty high-level success in the corporate sector. I’m coming in to do this to affect real change in the community.”

Those within Labor are increasingly confident it will be able to secure Caulfield, with the premier making several visits to the seat during the first week of the campaign.

The view from the streets

But the majority of voters Guardian Australia approaches in the electorates are yet to make up their mind as to who they will vote for.

Guy Maroney in Sandringham praises the premier’s “long-term vision for Victoria”. “It’s funny though, because I don’t rate his politics that much,” he says.

He’s considering voting for an independent but says he will do more research first. “I haven’t seen him around in the way I saw Zoe Daniel’s campaign,” Maroney says of Martin.

Linda, shopping on Church Street in Brighton, says she will support Frederico – the pair have played tennis together – but has reservations about her ability to enact change from the crossbench.

“She’s a very strong female, she’s come from a very good family and has a very good background, so I believe she would fight for Brighton,” she says. “However, once they get in … can they do anything as an independent?”

Jessy and Liam, who live in Balaclava, cite housing affordability as their main concern, followed by health – they were forced to fly interstate in August for a medical procedure due to delays in the state.

Despite this, they are likely to vote for Labor or the Greens, and say they backed the premier during the pandemic. “He did what had to be done,” Liam says. “There was a time we call him daddy Andrews – he’d be like, ‘Go to your room and stay there,’ which I loved.”

Jessy and Liam interviewed at the shops
Jessy and Liam from Balaclava say they back the Andrews government generally but want to know his plans for the future. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Jessy says: “We need to see what he does now – he did a great job then, but what is he offering as a path forward?”

Bernie Marshall, a Brighton voter, says he’s also likely to back Labor or the Greens.

“We’ve had governments for decades that have done nothing about any public infrastructure, so I really like the fact that there’s a lot of public infrastructure going on,” he says, though he is cautious about new commitments to remove level crossings.

“Doing it at a time when we’re going into a world recession may not be the best thing.”


Benita Kolovos

The GuardianTramp

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