When the Victorian state Liberal MP John Pesutto lost the seat of Hawthorn to Labor in 2018, live on television, few at the time would have expected it was a harbinger for the party’s federal fate four years later.
Hawthorn, in Melbourne’s inner-east, sits entirely within the federal seat of Kooyong, where the independent Monique Ryan toppled the then treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, in May. As the electorate of the Liberal party founder, Robert Menzies, Kooyong’s loss prompted intense soul-searching within the party.
Had it veered “too far to the right”, as the leading New South Wales moderate, Matt Kean, suggested? Or, as Tim Smith, the MP for the state seat of Kew, which also sits within Kooyong, wrote, did the party need to forgo “loud, entitled and privileged” voters of the inner-city and focus on the “true forgotten people” in the outer suburbs?
Pesutto, who is vying to reclaim Hawthorn at November’s state election, is firmly in the first camp.
“I’m convinced we can win these seats. I’m not of that school of thought that says you pack up and leave,” he told Guardian Australia.
Hawthorn and Kew, where Jess Wilson is running for the party after Smith was forced to resign following a drunken car crash, are considered vital to the Victorian Liberals, still reeling from their federal election rout.
Pesutto and Wilson, both self-described “small-l Liberals”, are considered potential future leaders and there are fears that without them in the parliament the party will continue to narrow its base, hindering its ability to win elections.
Like Frydenberg in Kooyong, they are competing against well-resourced and energised independent campaigns, endorsed by Simon Holmes à Court’s Climate 200 group, which also provided financial backing to Ryan in May.
The seats will go a long way to determining if the teal revolution at the federal poll represents a fundamental reimagining of the nation’s political landscape, or was a one-off event caused by short-term factors.
Teals and changing demographics
Melissa Lowe, a Swinburne University manager, is running as an independent in Hawthorn, her campaign based out of the same former bank as Ryan’s Kooyong headquarters. Once dubbed Mon HQ, it’s been rebranded Mel HQ.
Like Ryan, Lowe cites climate action, integrity and gender equality as her priorities ahead of the election, as well as more state-specific issues such as health, education and ending native logging.
“Independents have helped invigorate democracy and that’s fantastic for the communities they represent. But also, because I’ve spent years working with young people, I believe we owe a lot to the future, we can do a lot better for them,” Lowe says of her motivation to contest the seat.
The former Labor strategist and pollster Kos Samaras, whose RedBridge Group has performed work for Climate 200 and teal candidates both at a state and federal level, says Lowe will benefit from the changing demographics in the area.
According to the 2021 census, the proportion of Hawthorn voters living in apartments had grown to 40.3% – well above the national average of 12.1%, while 36.1% of the electorate rents.
“We know that young people are more likely to live in apartments, they’re more likely to rent, and they’re more likely to vote progressive,” Samaras says.
He says the demographics in the suburbs of Hawthorn and Hawthorn East resemble the neighbouring electorate of Richmond, which has been a historically safe seat for Labor, though is increasingly marginal against the Greens.
It means Pesutto will need to rely on the support of older homeowners in Camberwell, Canterbury, Glen Iris and Surrey Hills to take hold of the seat.
“This seat is going to continue to be a challenge for the party though until it finds something to attract younger voters. You can’t be a conservative when you have nothing to conserve,” Samaras says.
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In Kew, Sophie Torney, a project manager, is running against Wilson. Her father, Ian Hancock, is considered to be the pre-eminent historian of the Liberal party but she describes herself as a swinging voter.
“He and I don’t have the same political views but he wants me to do well. I love that within families there are different viewpoints and democracies are better for robust debate,” Torney says.
Kew covers the eastern parts of Kooyong, where support for Frydenberg remained strong at polling booths.
Its residents are slightly more established than their Hawthorn neighbours and are more diverse – about a quarter have Chinese ancestry. Many newer residents have moved to the area to send their children to one of the 32 schools in the electorate, including the high-performing Balwyn and Kew high schools.
Samaras says he expects to see a swing against the Liberals in the electorate, both due to the unpopularity of the current MP, Tim Smith, and their federal counterparts’ hardline rhetoric against China, which also cost the party votes in May.
“Smith’s negative satisfaction ratings are well into the 20s,” Samaras says.
But there are also significant differences between the state and federal elections that could hinder the independents’ chances, including laws in Victoria that cap political donations at $4,320 over a four-year period for a single donor.
It means independents cannot rely on large donations from the likes of Holmes à Court, even though Labor, the Liberals and the Nationals have “nominated entities” they can access funds from, which are exempted from the cap.
Lowe says despite the limitations, she has still amassed $115,000 in donations and has the support of more than 200 volunteers. Almost 450 corflutes have been distributed at the time of writing – roughly one for every 70 homes in the electorate. Torney has received $165,000 in donations.
Liberals focus on local matters
Both Pesutto and Wilson, meanwhile, were preselected in December and have been campaigning ever since.
The duo are pitching themselves very much as local candidates, who as members of a “party of government”, can deliver on the services state governments are meant to provide.
For Pesutto, this means platform upgrades at Canterbury railway station, shelter for the #70 tram stop outside the Woolworths on Riversdale Road and fixing the plaster falling off the walls and the stench in the toilet block at Camberwell primary school.
“You’d be shocked and horrified if you saw the state of some of these schools,” he says outside Glenferrie primary school in Hawthorn, which will benefit from a cash injection if he’s elected.
Wilson, a former director of energy and climate at the Business Council of Australia and an adviser to Frydenberg, has similar commitments: changing the speed zone at Balwyn North Village, installing female change rooms at Myrtle Park and upgrading local shopping strips and public schools.
She cites health, cost of living and climate change as the issues most commonly raised by voters, although the sentiment on the ground is “very different” to the federal election.
“Many people don’t think that the Labor government deserves another term and they understand that the only way to change that is a Liberal government,” Wilson says.
Liberal campaign headquarters is also busy painting the independents as a “political party with a centralised structure”, with support from Climate 200 and consistent policy positions. They have began distributing material headlined “a vote for a Teal Party candidate will help re-elect Daniel Andrews”.
A similar attempt to tie the independent candidates to Anthony Albanese and the Labor party was evidently not successful at the federal election.
Pesutto blames the federal loss on the Morrison government’s failure to act soon enough on climate change.
The situation “couldn’t be any more different in Victoria”, Pesutto is quick to add, with the Coalition committed to legislating an emissions reduction target of 50% by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050.
“It’s receiving a really good reception. People say to me, ‘that’s what we want from you, because now we can re-engage,’” he says.
Hawthorn’s sitting Labor MP, John Kennedy, was not available for an interview with Guardian Australia, which visited the seat over several days in October.
In a response to emailed questions, he said he had “secured vital investment for local schools, sport clubs, public housing and public transport infrastructure” since being elected in 2018.
The two seats are not considered a priority for Labor but the 20-year-old Kew candidate Lucy Skelton, the founder of national youth advocacy platform the Student Voice Network, is putting up a fight.
“I’ve taken six months off university to focus on the campaign, I don’t have a mortgage, I don’t have kids, I’ve got the biggest safety blanket of any other candidate running, and because of this I can really give it my all,” Skelton says, adding she has so far knocked on 10,000 doors.
Neither Torney nor Wilson are keen to comment on the shadow of the current member on the campaign. But Skelton is more than happy to talk of the “Tim Smith effect”.
“People just don’t want a member they are embarrassed about,” she says.
It’s a view shared among Kew voters approached by Guardian Australia, including Kevin Kourambas, who says he has tried contacting Smith on several occasions but didn’t get a response.
Kourambas will be voting for Torney as he believes both major parties are “corrupt”.
“I’m sick and tired of the Daniel Andrews government. Melbourne was the most liveable city in the world then we’ve got him come in and we can build stations, we can build overpasses but we can’t look after people, we can’t get ambulances on time,” he says.
“During Covid he was dictating what we should do, I had no control, no ability to use my own discretion about my safety.”
Dr Paul Coombe, who also lives in Kew, says he supports Andrews’ response to the pandemic.
“He did what he had to do. Would the Coalition have done any better? I don’t think so,” he says.
In Hawthorn, Macy Hullick, is also dissatisfied with the major parties.
“I don’t know anything about the candidates, I just know I don’t want Daniel Andrews. I’ll probably vote for the independent because the major parties don’t seem to know what they’re doing,” the 22-year-old says.
But the overarching theme among voters in both seats is election fatigue, after being bombarded by federal campaign material.
Anne Muirhead, of Hawthorn East, says she volunteered for the Ryan campaign in May but, following the win, stopped following politics closely.
“I’m a bit politics weary,” she says.
There’s no doubt the Liberals are hoping the revolutionary fervour has ended.