In the Victorian bayside seat of Dunkley, some of society’s most vulnerable members – young welfare recipients and elderly nursing-home residents – are set to become among its most influential, if only for a weekend.
Welfare issues have been at the heart of campaigning in one of Australia’s most marginal electorates, held by a Liberal but, since the redistribution, a plum ripe for Labor’s picking.
The Australian Electoral Commission’s (AEC) 2018 redistribution shifted Dunkley’s boundaries, making the seat – Liberal since 1996 – a notional Labor one.
Centred on the city of Frankston, an outer-metropolitan hub for services, the electorate extends into the expanding suburban swath of the south-eastern sandbelt.
The Redistribution Committee removed Liberal-leaning Mornington from the south of the electorate and added Labor-leaning Carrum Downs, Sandhurst and Skye in the north.
Liberal MP for Dunkley Chris Crewther has some advantage as an incumbent, but may struggle to keep the seat, Monash University political researcher Dr Nick Economou has told The Junction.
“People who are defending marginal seats whose boundaries have been altered so that’s now notionally a seat for the other side, they’ve got very little chance of defending that seat,” Economou said.
Economou cited the 1994 redistribution that added Mornington, Langwarrin and Mount Eliza to Dunkley. Two years later, the Liberals won Dunkley from Labor and have held it ever since.
Newstart: Rethinking Support
Frankston experienced a 17 per cent rise in homelessness from 2011 to 2016, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Steve Phillips, the manager of Community Support Frankston (CSF), said: “[Housing has] become increasingly challenging for people – particularly on the Newstart Allowance who are living either on or below the poverty line – to even qualify for private rental.”
Newstart Allowance is a fortnightly federal payment that provides income support for jobseekers.
According to the Australian Council of Social Service, the Newstart Allowance rate hasn’t changed in 24 years.
CSF runs the Emergency Relief Program, which provides financial and material support for those in need. Last financial year, requests to the program for budgeting advice increased 20 per cent. Nearly half (44 per cent) of those who received financial assistance were on Newstart.
“The biggest instances of the emergency relief request we had as an agency [used to be] from people living on the Disability Support Pension: now it’s been completely turned around to people on Newstart Allowance,” said Phillips.
Emma Nanscawen, a 25-year-old Frankston resident and Newstart recipient, acknowledges that day-to-day costs are rising.
“Depending on bills and what I need to pay for at home, whatever you’re paying for — it can go quickly,” Nanscawen said.
With over 4700 Frankston residents reliant on Newstart in March last year, Frankston City Council has endorsed ACOSS’ Raise the Rate campaign, calling for an increase in federal government support payments.
On current Newstart rates, Phillips says he is troubled by the harm inadequate income and substandard accommodation was having.
“It has an increasingly horrific impact on people’s mental health, their ability to access employment, get kids to schools, run the family unit and do these sorts of things that might not have been as challenging with access to proper housing,” he said.
Age shall worry them, the years condemned
Welfare issues are not limited to Frankston’s young. The State Government’s 2016 Victoria in Future report projected that by 2031 Frankston’s population of those aged 65 and over will be growing four times faster than the total population.
Health care and social assistance – the region’s largest employing sector – has received significant government investment, including $562 million to expand Frankston’s Peninsula Hospital.
But this addresses only one segment of the ageing population.
Dr Ralph Hampson, a senior lecturer in ageing, health and human services at the University of Melbourne, said recent controversies generated by the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety had sparked concern.
“[Aged care has] changed in the public’s imagination because of all the negative publicity about it,” said Hampson. “The royal commission really brought into sharp relief everybody’s fears about growing older and what it means.”
For Hampson, the growth of residential aged care is concerning.
“The sector itself has come to believe that bigger is better from a financial point of view. I am not convinced that it’s better for the actual older people that live there,” he said.
Hampson wrote in The Conversation last September on the negative effects of nursing homes and retirement villages with over 30 residents. Based on the Aged Care Guide in 2019, the average number of beds at listed aged-care facilities in Dunkley was 83.
Only two facilities have 30 beds, and they are the smallest registered homes for the ageing and aged in the entire electorate.
The magnitude of the task in looking after more and more elderly people was foreseeable, said Hampson. “There is a question there of governments planning for the longer term versus the short term.
“In somewhere like Frankston, the question to ask would be: Has that community prepared the built environment to cope with an increasing ageing population?”
Seeing the future and its works
Dunkley’s marginal status can bring opportunities for funding and infrastructure.
Frankston City councillor Steve Toms said: “Because we are such a marginal seat here federally, we are cognisant as a council that we need to take every opportunity we can to leverage things for our community.”
It’s hard to miss the new infrastructure that’s popped up in Dunkley – the sleek redesigned Frankston train station, a fresh palm-lined Young Street in the heart of Frankston and the absence of level-crossings.
Yet, for some, this is only a start.
The Committee for Greater Frankston, a not-for-profit group of local businesspeople, is advocating for an extension of the Frankston line to the sprawling outer suburbs of Langwarrin and Karingal.
The pressures on Frankston Station and the booming population in the city are cited as justifications.
The station is “servicing a catchment population of 200,000 people,” said the committee’s CEO, Ginevra Hosking. “It’s very hard for businesses, shoppers; for anyone who wants to use the main core of the city as a source of jobs, they’re competing with commuters.”
While welcomed by the community, the new public works have taken an unexpected toll on local business owners.
Rebecca White, a small-business owner in Frankston’s CBD for almost 30 years, said recent back-to-back works on two of the city’s main commercial streets had affected businesses badly.
“If you look at it in total, we were really hit for a good three-and-a-half years,” she said. “In that time frame I actually moved premises. If I hadn’t, I would have gone broke.”
White said road closures were not the sole issue; businesses had been left in the dark on construction timing and delays.
She wants governments to consult the local business community in future so that people can plan around the disruptions.
Cr Toms agreed: “We have a unique community where small business is such a huge part of it.”