The Victorian Greens know what it’s like to be within arm’s reach of seizing the inner-Melbourne state electorate of Richmond.
It’s a seat the Labor strategist turned pollster Kos Samaras believes the Andrews government “probably should have lost” when the Greens claimed the neighbouring seats of Melbourne, in 2014, and Brunswick, in 2018, given the electorate’s high proportion of young and renting voters.
But it bucked the trend, largely due, Samaras says, to the popularity of the former Labor minister Richard Wynne.
Greens insiders believe that Richmond – held by Labor since 1958 – is winnable this month. Wynne is retiring, the federal success of the Greens is fresh in voters’ minds and more under-30s have moved to the electorate.
Gabrielle de Vietri, a former mayor of the City of Yarra, has based her campaign to seize the seat for the Greens on the statewide issues of housing affordability and bold climate action – which she describes as the No 1 consideration for voters there.
“Voters are seeing major flooding events … we’ve already got fire warnings for summer,” de Vietri says. “They are seeing that and that the major parties aren’t doing anything about it.
“When we have really tight contests, that’s when we get Labor. Looking at what they’re doing and saying, we can’t get away with this kind of stuff any more. We can’t get away with drilling for gas near the Twelve Apostles in the middle of a climate crisis.”
Richmond takes in its namesake suburb alongside Fitzroy, Collingwood, Clifton Hill, Abbotsford, Burnley and Cremorne. Despite being a high-priority “target” seat for Labor, confidence that the party can retain it has wavered. One senior Labor source said the electorate was “all but guaranteed” to turn Green unless “something catastrophic” happened in de Vietri’s campaign before 26 November.
It is also one of the seats where the Liberals decision to preference the Greens above Labor is expected to have the biggest impact, along with the neighbouring electorate of Northcote.
Already, the state leader of the Greens, Samantha Ratnam, has issued a list of priorities for the party if Labor needs it to form a minority government, including a ban on gas exploration and production, a cap on rent rises, more public and affordable housing and an end to native title logging.
The Greens also hoped to seize the balance of power at the 2018 election, but instead lost half of their eight seats across the lower and upper houses. Their campaign was marred by scandal, with one candidate forced to withdraw after a complaint of serious sexual misconduct and the party forced to defend another for rapping sexist and homophobic lyrics.
The latest census data puts the median age in Richmond at 34, with 54.6% of voters renting their homes, compared with the state average of 28.5%. Alongside the Greens’ climate agenda – which includes transitioning to 100% renewable energy by 2030 – the party hopes to appeal to tenants with its policy to cap rent increases.
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It is voters like Abby Reeves, 24 – a renter who says housing affordability is her biggest concern – whom all parties will be aiming to win over.
“It feels like it’s really hard to be able to live and do anything else but live,” she says. “It feels like all of our work is just going towards paying our rent and food. I’m really worried about climate change.”
Samaras says Richmond’s young demographic poses a challenge for the Labor party. “You’ve got young people moving in, more young people on the electoral roll and more of that traditional Labor base moving out, so Labor is pushing against some pretty sturdy demographic headwinds,” he says.
“But there is still a good-sized portion of under-30s who support the Labor brand that Dan Andrews represents – very socially progressive, fairly progressive on climate … so it ticks enough boxes for them.”
Alongside Richmond, the Greens are also considering the neighbouring seat of Northcote – held by Labor on a margin of 1.7% – and are hoping to boost their vote farther north in Preston. Across the Yarra, the party is confident it can win Albert Park, where the long-term Labor MP, Martin Foley, is retiring. The seat, which takes in Port Melbourne, South Melbourne and St Kilda, overlaps with the federal electorate of Macnamara, where in May Labor’s Josh Burns narrowly fought off the Greens.
The Greens candidate for Northcote, schoolteacher Campbell Gome, says voters are disappointed there is “no plan for making the rapid transition that we need to 100% renewable by 2030”.
“It’s part of the Greens’ plans but it’s not something we’re hearing about from Labor,” he says. “This is something that people here really, really care a great deal about.”
But the Greens’ climate narrative will be tested by Labor’s boosted energy targets – 95% renewable energy by 2035 – and its plan to revitalise public ownership of the State Electricity Commission.
Labor candidates in the inner-city seats frame the Greens as a party of idealists who campaign from the sidelines but have never faced the realities of governing. When Wynne delivered his valedictory statement in September, he labelled the Greens as a party that sought to be “two steps to the left of Labor” while simultaneously claiming credit for its progressive policy achievements and criticising it.
“What a sad way to practise politics, to be always in the grandstand, never on the field of play, where the real work is done,” he told the chamber.
Kat Theophanous, the first-term Northcote MP who won the seat by just 800 votes from the Greens’ Lidia Thorpe in 2018 – says she is proud of Labor’s “strong” climate policies and calls its targets and the SEC announcement “phenomenal”.
“That level of reform is really brave,” she says. “It’s really innovative.
“It’s always easy to offer simple solutions to complex problems. My experience of public policy is that it doesn’t work like that. It is a very labour-intensive process.”
Labor’s Richmond candidate, Lauren O’Dwyer – a former Andrews government staffer and associate director of First Nations programs at Arts Centre Melbourne – is spruiking the party’s climate credentials and “practical changes” while out door knocking.
“What’s amazing is how many people still don’t know what the current Labour government’s record has been on climate action,” she says.
“If you say to someone on the doors, ‘Did you know that we’re now the home of the largest battery in the southern hemisphere to hold on to all the new renewables we’re creating?,’ you can almost see the relief on people’s faces of, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe you’re doing that.’
“The amount of actual delivery of climate action is the point of difference between us and the Greens.”
On the government’s proposed social housing levy – dumped in February after five days amid heavy backlash from the property industry – O’Dwyer says there is “no reason we can’t try that again”.
While the parties do battle on the key issues of climate and housing, there are also local flashpoints. In Richmond the Liberal candidate, Lucas Moon – a former soldier and veterans’ rights advocate – is campaigning heavily for the medically supervised injecting room in North Richmond to be moved away from an adjacent school.
Despite the site managing almost 6,000 overdoses and connecting people to services including opioid replacement therapy, the opposition points to an increase in heroin-related deaths within 1km of the site and to antisocial behaviour, particularly on nearby Victoria Street.
“You’ve got to look at treatment for addiction holistically,” Moon says.
He points to the Liberals’ commitment to create 180 treatment beds for addiction within the state’s medical precincts. A report by former Victoria police chief commissioner Ken Lay into the location of a second safe injecting room in Melbourne’s city centre will not be released until next year, a decision the opposition says is politically motivated.
In Preston, Gaetano Greco is running as an independent focused on the future of the privately owned Preston market. Under a draft plan, the site’s market stalls, with the exception of the fruit and vegetable shed, would be moved to make way for new housing.
Greco is fighting for the market to be maintained as it is and protected via public acquisition, describing it as a barrier to gentrification. “If you come, you see a real mix of people because of the market’s prices,” he says.
The Greens candidate, Patchouli Paterson, also wants the market to stay put. But Labor’s Preston candidate, Nathan Lambert, stresses that the government is yet to make a decision on the matter.
“It’s it’s certainly not a contest of ideas between demolishing the market or not,” he says.