The Electorate of Higgins


Julius Dennis

A high percentage of residents regularly use public transport

The electorate of Higgins, in Melbourne’s wealthy inner South-East, is a local lens through which to view broader federal issues that will play a role in the upcoming election, according to PhD student James Murphy.

It’s an electorate of educated professionals: almost half of its population has at least a bachelor’s degree, and individual median incomes soar 30 per cent above the national average. Historically, Higgins has been a safe Liberal seat. The Liberals’ reign began at the seat’s inception, with eventual Prime Minister Harold Holt winning the race at a canter and establishing Higgins’ reputation as a “leadership seat”.

Subsequent members included John Gorton, who became the seat’s second Prime Minister in lieu of Robert Menzies; and Peter Costello, Howard’s notorious treasurer, who held the seat for 19 years. The most recent sitting member, Kelly O’Dwyer, held a range of portfolios but is now retiring from federal politics.  Last election, the race became tighter than usual but ended with the Liberals securing a 52 per cent primary result, still doubling their closest rival, the Greens. This time around, Dr. Katie Allen, a children’s health specialist and long time local, is taking up the reins—and the pressure—of Higgins.

Some suburbs—Toorak, Malvern and Armadale—have thicker wallets than others. In 2016, these suburbs formed the stronghold for O’Dwyer, with booths ranging from 61 to 74 per cent two party preferred. Statistically, these suburbs are defined by a higher personal income, average age and level of education than other suburbs in the electorate, and the rest of the state.  It’s hard to imagine the quiet, oak lined streets or the enormous houses with manicured gardens looking any different decades ago. Toorak is the most exclusive of these suburbs, boasting a median property price of $3.4 million.

Oscar Perri
Property prices are even worrying the good folk of Higgins

For most Melbournians, Prahran’s Chapel Street is the more familiar area of the electorate; the abundant bars and nightclubs make it the nightlife hotspot for students and other youth on the south side of the Yarra river. The suburb has a younger population than others in the electorate and over 60 per cent of dwellings are apartments or flats, but Prahran still has the trademarks of its surrounding suburbs: it has a very high average personal income, and 40 per cent of employed people are professionals. Prahran is the home of the young, trendy new face of Higgins, but some of it is still wrapped up in the long-standing conservative traditions of the area.

It is here in the western area of the electorate that trouble is afoot for the forever-incumbent Liberals.  In 2016, Prahran went completely and decisively Green, as it did in November last year, bringing back Sam Hibbins for a second turn in the state’s lower house. The candidate that faced Hibbins was none other than Dr. Katie Allen. The election proved to be a statewide move away from the Liberals, but the 10 per cent swing against Allen in a seat that was once Liberal heartland couldn’t have been expected.

Allen never fully left campaign mode: she’s already out on the streets, in churches and at festivals making her presence felt, something that hasn’t always been necessary for Liberal candidates—but these are different times. The rise of modern issues such as climate change and gender equality are poking holes in a Liberal Party that appears stuck in the mud, and voters seem less concerned with tradition. In short, the Greens smell an upset. Former Young Victorian of the Year, Jason Ball, is having another go at the seat and is looking confident. He has been primed from 2016, when he lost out but made an eight per cent stride for the party. He represents the younger section of the community, especially in Prahran—where his base will be—and hopes to make small but consequential gains in the blue belt of Toorak, Malvern and Armadale.

The way the contest is shaping up, it’s easy to say that this is a rare blue vs green race, but when you look at the 2016 statistics, the Greens relied on the preferences from a nine per cent Labor primary to make it even seem close to marginal. There is even some dramatic Labor-funded polling that suggests Labor could win the seat, but it failed to account for the Greens. Labor’s belief that they can win Higgins is likely to be reason why they made a late candidate change, ditching the relatively unknown Josh Spiegel for the former leader of the Law Council of Australia and the Australian Bar Association, Fiona McLeod SC. She is a true heavyweight, showing evidence the party believes they can ride the Victorian wave to victory.

Glen Huntly and Carnegie, in the seat’s south-east, have a younger, more diverse population, and it shows in the streets. Where in Malvern you find cafés that serve burgers on brioche buns and organic clothing stores where you can pick up a sweater and some moisturizer for a clean 200 bucks, in Glen Huntly it’s pots full of curry and discount shoe stores—though a banh mi will still set you back eight dollars. In 2016 this area’s booths were a confusing mix of blue and green, but it was in the far south-east corner, in a booth that was technically outside of the electoral border, that Labor saw some love. These suburbs with statistically the youngest, most diverse and least wealthy populations in the electorate could be unpredictable this election, but are tipped to swing Labor’s way. The Greens will be happy with any vote in Higgins that does not go to Katie Allen.

The suburb of Hughesdale was in Hotham in 2016, but due to redistribution has been brought into Higgins (on the Western tip, the electorate lost the Windsor end of Chapel Street).  The highest Labor booth was only 40 per cent in 2016, but the party will be hoping to build on that. As will Jason Ball and the Greens if they are to ride the preference wave to victory.

James Murphy believes that Higgins may now be a marginal seat, especially in light of Labor’s recent change of candidate. “If I were really pressed I’d say I think the Greens will come second again rather than Labor. But at end of the day I think Higgins has enough of a Liberal buffer to absorb the likely swing against the government this May.”