Morwell: A marginal three-way contest


University of Melbourne, Sophie Simpson

The decaying remains of power stations in the once booming electorate of Morwell are hard to miss. The electorate was created in 1955 and includes the regional centres of Traralgon, Morwell, and Churchill, among smaller towns in the Latrobe Valley. The population of the electorate is 64,000, according to the 2016 census.

The seat, about two hours’ drive east of Melbourne, is marginal and is currently held by only 1.8%. The Liberal party held the seat until 1970, then the Labor Party until 2006. Russell Northe, the current MP, was elected in 2006, aligning with the Nationals before becoming an Independent in 2017.

The area is known for its brown coal mining, electricity generation, and paper production industries. The 2017 closure of the Hazelwood power station – one of Victoria’s largest producers of energy – continues to impact the community, according to resident Lorraine Bruce who said, “there seems to be a lot of unemployment around…shops closing, and I don’t think the situations very good”.

In the 2016 census, 14.5% of individuals in the township of Morwell were unemployed, an increase from 12.2% in 2012. The unemployment rate in Morwell is significantly higher than the Victorian average of 6.2%.

Resident Jessie Sharman said that unemployment was particularly affecting the youth, “Since the SEC [State Electricity Commission] has closed down it’s just absolutely nothing, nothing for the kids at all.”

The lack of employment in the region is key in the minds of voters. Of those who are employed in Morwell, the most common professions are tradesmen and labourers. Jessie’s son works as a labourer, but travels to Melbourne for work as there are limited opportunities in Morwell.

Gippsland Trade and Labour Council (GTLC) Secretary Steve Dodd trains over 1500 workers so that they earn industry cards. In conjunction with the Latrobe Valley authority and the Victorian Government, GTLC has provided training to former employees of Hazelwood, Carter Holt Harvey timber mill, and a number of other industrial companies where there have been redundancies.

GTLC also works in collaboration with a number of partners that provide resume assistance and career advice. Steve Dodd said of the work, “In the last 12 months I think we’ve trained about 800 and out of that 800 there’s something like 1400-1500 different qualifications…I don’t think anyone else has done that anywhere”.

The Victorian Labor Government recently announced the creation of the Mine Land Rehabilitation Authority in response to the need for clear legislative requirements for land management for mine closures. Rehabilitation of the mines will create new jobs in the Latrobe valley once it succeeds the current rehabilitation scheme and will come into effect in 2020. This rehabilitation scheme may sway residents to vote for Labor candidate Mark Richards. During the 2014 election, the number of Labor supporters rose from the previous election due to an electoral boundary change that introduced the Labor supporting community of Newborough.

It will be a close election with both Coalition parties are fielding candidates along with the Labor Party, making it a genuine three-way contest. The result will be difficult to predict because a relatively high proportion of voters could register their dissatisfaction with the major parties by voting for Independent candidates Tracie Lund, who received 10% of votes in the last election, or newsagent Ray Burgess, who worked at the State Electricity Commission for over 15 years.

Retired electricity worker Alan Jordan has lived in Morwell since 1979, and said that building a new power station could offer new employment opportunities for those in the district. “A hell of a lot of people who were employed in the valley were employed by the SEC…or in the power industry in one-way or another,” he said. “We put in another power station, we get work back,” Jordan said.