In Box Hill, in Melbourne’s east, Liberal MP Gladys Liu’s federal election campaign billboards cover Telstra phone booths outside the main central plaza, but many locals have tuned out of politics.
“We see some of them [the billboards] but I feel like people here just enjoying eating and they’re don’t really talk about politics much,” says 18-year-old Joyce Kwan, who works at local Korean restaurant DooBoo and lives in the area.
“Here has … a bit of an older demographic and some students who are unable to vote.”
“The older citizens – it’s not that they’re not interested but they’re not really invested in voting. I really don’t hear much about [talk of the election].”
But what voters here decide could change the outcome of who wins the federal election on 21 May.
Box Hill is in the seat of Chisholm, one of the most marginal seats in the country, held by the Liberals by just half a per cent.
About 20 kilometres away, in Gardenvale, in the blue-ribbon seat of Goldstein, voters are also somewhat apathetic and echo similar sentiments.
“Politics is almost a dirty word to a lot of people,” says Andrew Gelman who runs cafe and coffee roaster Omar and the Marvellous Coffee Bird.
“I think a lot of people get into politics with really great visions or ideas, and they kind of get lost by the amount of fighting and arguing that they have to go through to get anything across.
“I guess [I’m looking for] someone that just stays true to their goals that they had in the first place.”
In Victoria’s Liberal heartland of Kooyong, which has been held by the conservative side of politics since federation, owner of Auburn Beauty Therapy in Hawthorn, Maria Vlahos, says voters are switching off what political candidates say and are focused on core economic issues.
Ms Vlahos, who has lived in the area for 25 years, says voters are “very annoyed with the politicians” on all sides.
“I hear a lot of that, whereas before I never did,” she says.
Coalition may face backlash from Chinese voters
In Chisholm, one of the country’s most diverse electorates, more than 50 per cent of its residents were born overseas, with about 15 per cent born in China (or Hong Kong or Taiwan), according to 2016 Census data.
The government won the seat in 2016 when Julia Banks was the Liberal candidate.
Ms Banks quit the party in late 2018 and the Liberals appointed Hong Kong-born Ms Liu, who took Chisholm at the 2019 election by just under 1,100 votes.
Ms Liu is up against Labor’s Carina Garland, a union official with a PhD in gender and cultural studies.
Ms Garland, who is of Italian background, is also campaigning as someone who understands multicultural issues.
Erin Chew, of the Asian Australian Alliance, says following recent tensions between Australia and China, the Morrison government faces potential backlash.
She notes that Chinese-Australian voters are prominent in this crucial Melbourne seat, as well as hotly contested seats in Sydney such as Bennelong, Reid and Banks.
Ms Chew says some of the older generation, who lived through the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre, may view the Chinese government negatively, but that the younger generation doesn’t necessarily share that view.
She says the younger generation are well read and understand the rhetoric coming out of the Australian government about China and Solomon Islands.
“There is an element of … China bashing and racism and that can, that has, impacted on the Chinese/Asian-Australian community,” Ms Chew says.
“So that younger generation … will think a lot more critically. Government rhetoric will impact on the vote of a younger generation of Chinese Australians, particularly in Chisholm.”
But university student Ms Kwan, who was born in Hong Kong, says while she’s aware of recent tensions between Australia and China and it’s impacted emotionally, it’s not something that will change her vote.
“Since I’m from Hong Kong, I really try not to engage in that much … because I feel like it negatively affects my mental and social health.”
Cost-of-living pressures weigh heavily in marginal seats
More important to Ms Kwan are government policies that help make costs like fuel and housing more affordable.
In Box Hill, where she lives and works, the median house price is above $1.6 million.
“I know that in the future it’s probably a little bit harder for me to even think about purchasing somewhere around the area or even close to Melbourne,” Ms Kwan says.
“So definitely [we need] cheaper houses in the future.”
Being younger, Ms Kwan also cares deeply about climate change.
“[I’d like to see] more climate change policies regarding cutting down fossil fuels. There’s only so much you can do as an individual to stop it.”
Cost-of-living issues also feature heavily in the seat of Higgins, in the inner south-east of Melbourne, which houses the city’s most expensive homes.
It is currently held by Liberal Katie Allen (previously held by former federal treasurer Peter Costello, and former Liberal prime ministers John Gorton and Harold Holt).
Liberal support in the blue-ribbon seat has been diminishing. And the redistribution of Victorian seats has also narrowed down Ms Allen’s slim margin from 3.7 per cent to an estimated 2.6 per cent.
If the party’s first preference vote declines further, Higgins could be lost to Labor candidate Michelle Ananda-Rajah, or the Greens’ Sonya Semmens.
Greens leader Adam Bandt has already indicated that the party is targeting the seat of Higgins, along with nine others, as part of his party’s plan to strike a power-sharing deal with Labor, should the next election deliver a hung parliament.
Goldstein a blue-ribbon seat being challenged by a climate-focused independent
A recent Australian Institute of Company Directors’ (AICD’s) survey of more than 1700 directors, compiled by Roy Morgan, found economic management and climate change are the issues most likely to influence directors’ votes this federal election.
These issues also feature heavily with Gardenvale cafe owner Andrew Gelman.
He says that policies to fight climate change and help businesses recover from the pandemic could switch his vote.
“The last two years of the pandemic has been really, really tough trade wise – a lot of small businesses really struggled,” Mr Gelman says.
His business is in the seat of Goldstein, currently held by Liberal MP Tim Wilson with a margin of 7.8 per cent.
It is one of several seats held by the Coalition being targeted by climate-focused independents.
Goldstein, which also covers many of Melbourne’s bayside suburbs, is being challenged by independent candidate, former ABC journalist Zoe Daniel.
She is campaigning on issues including climate change and the establishment of a national anti-corruption commission.
“It feels like, given how hard we’ve been working over the last few years, it [climate change] is kind of getting pushed in the too-hard basket, which I think is an awful thing,” Mr Gelman says.
“People want to see action. And I think people are also getting a bit tired of the effort being put on them … when the biggest difference is going to be made if the government enforces it.”
Mr Gelman also wants the government to crack down on businesses that underpay workers’ wages and superannuation.
“A lot of them [businesses] aren’t paying properly,” Mr Gelman says.
“There’s a very small barrier to entry to run a cafe. And I feel like there should be some type of business program maybe where people are taught how to run it effectively, and maybe see how hard it is to do it properly, and legally, before they even start.”
Another issue for Mr Gelman is finding experienced hospitality workers who want to do full-time work.
“It has been really, really hard,” he says.
“We want our staff to be invested in a personal relationship with our customers. So, full-time workers are a much more suitable candidate for that type of job.”
He wants to see skilled migrants brought under longer-term visas.
“I think migrant workers coming back in would definitely help cover casual shifts, it doesn’t really help me,” he says.
“Maybe if migrant workers didn’t have just a set amount of time, they would be looking at longer term work.”
‘The big problem is the economy, everybody’s scared’
Economic issues also feature heavily in the seat of Kooyong, an inner-Melbourne seat, which in recent weeks, has been the focus of intense campaigning and political controversy.
Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has held the seat since 2010.
But he’s being challenged by independent Monique Ryan.
She is giving up her job as the director of neurology at the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne to campaign on issues including climate action, political integrity and improved healthcare.
While many voters who live and work in Kooyong want climate change action, Hawthorn small business owner Maria Vlahos is more concerned about the post-pandemic recovery.
She says despite COVID lockdowns ending, foot traffic is still down, and shopkeepers are in financial pain.
She wants businesses to be given further support, suggesting they get cash grants of up to $5000 to help them get back on track.
“The big problem is the economy – everybody’s scared,” Ms Vlahos says.
“Everybody’s talking about [getting back to] normality, and that’s not happening fast enough. Businesses are struggling.”
Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) chief executive Andrew McKellar says the major parties have to present a longer-term vision if they want people to be engaged in the political process.
“What are the things that are going to really shift the needle, that are going to improve living standards, not just in the next two or three years, but really for the next generation?” he asks.
He says with the risk that interest rates will go up – perhaps even as soon as next Tuesday, in the midst of an election campaign – “ensuring that they [workers] have access to sustainable long term employment prospects – that’s fundamental”.
Mr McKellar says Australia is seeing some of the most severe skills and labour shortages in almost 50 years and is calling for another 400,000 places each year in vocational education and training.
He also wants to see policies that encourage greater participation in the labour force and increase migration, as well as ease the pressure on small business.
“If people see that there’s a long-term plan, that there’s real substance behind the policies, that’s something that will make it much easier for people to be engaged in the political process and take an interest in what the political parties have to offer.”
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