Sitting Dunkley MP Chris Crewther was brutally frank on the impact of the 2018 electorate redistribution when he spoke to The Junction: “If I lose, Bill Shorten will be Prime Minister.”
The Liberal MP was first elected in 2016 and has been the subject of Section 44 scrutiny. More recently, Crewther has attracted adverse media attention for his large printing bill and reportedly premature awarding of environmental grants.
After a morning spent door knocking in his electorate, the MP was affable but understandably nervous as he hovered around his Frankston office.
The Division of Dunkley, which stretches across Frankston, Seaford and surrounding suburbs in Melbourne’s south-east, has been held by the Liberal Party since 1996.
But, according to political commentator Nick Economou, “The redistribution has ruined it for Mr Crewther [and] he will really struggle to hang on to his seat.”
Polls suggest removal of the Liberal-leaning suburb of Mornington and the addition of Labor stronghold Carrum Downs, along with Sandhurst and Skye, will severely damage the incumbent’s chances of re–election.
Economou said, “If you get bits of Carrum Downs into your electorate, that’s usually a pretty safe Labor–voting area … I expect Labor to win this seat.” But he admits, “there is some value in being a sitting member”.
Crewther hopes, even in light of the 2018 redistribution, that the legacy of his predecessor Bruce Billson, who held onto the seat for 20 years, and his own electoral work will be enough to get him and the Liberal Party over the line.
Crewther recalled the close margins that Billson had won on. “We’ve been behind in many polls before and we’ve been able to come back from that point … I’ll just do my best for my electorate and hope,” he said.
As he spoke, the MP blinked and his face twitched spontaneously. These are the very subtle symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome. He has become a patron of the Tourette Syndrome Association of Australia since entering Parliament.
Steve Toms, a Frankston City independent councillor, has said Frankston is lucky to have a “current federal member who is very consultative with the community”. Crewther, no doubt, hopes Dunkley voters feel the same way.
The MP’s loyalty to both his party and leader has remained steadfast. Crewther has always voted within party lines and cautiously navigated the factionalism that wracked the Government last August.
A supporter of Malcolm Turnbull right up until the announcement that he would not be contesting the leadership ballot, Crewther tweeted support for incoming PM Scott Morrison, making clear his allegiance to a more moderate Liberal Party by rejecting the alternative presented by Peter Dutton.
Of politics generally, Crewther has conceded, “Sometimes when you work within a group environment good intentions can be lost.”
Some of the MP’s good intentions have been evident in his passion for innovation through public works. He emphasised that despite a Frankston–to–Baxter line extension being proposed as far back as the 1920s he is the “first to have secured actual funding to build it”, with $228 million from the federal Coalition Government.
The State Labor Government is working on a business plan with $3 million of Crewther’s funding.
According to Crewther, development on the line is at a standstill because the Andrews Government has “played a bit of politics” with it.
Crewther had hoped to begin building later this year but said Labor was putting “community interest below political interest” by withholding its business plan in hopes of grabbing his seat at the upcoming poll.
Climate change is high on the election agenda. Community concern is rising and both the Coalition and Labor are relying on the persuasiveness of their respective pitches.
Crewther’s position on energy and climate policy is in keeping with his moderate Liberal ethos. And as a former CEO of not-for-profit Mildura Regional Development, he is disarmingly confident talking megawatts.
In response to criticism that Energy Minister Angus Taylor’s Energy Efficient Communities Program fails to do the “heavy lifting” needed to meet Australia’s 2030 Paris commitment, Crewther stressed that “everything that each individual does makes a difference in terms of emissions and the environment”.
The member for Dunkley can also talk at length about power infrastructure. For him, “[it’s] the number one issue that’s never talked about” and he’d like to see more investment in the area.
The $3.5 billion in funding from the federal government for the Emissions Reduction Fund as well as “other environmental issues” might be able to address this, the MP said.
Crewther noted that when he worked as an international lawyer in Kosovo, the elderly were looked after in homes by their family, and it’s a custom he would like to see more of in Australia.
He is proud of the 10,000 extra stay-at-home places funded by Canberra. Ideally, coordinated services would allow senior Australians to stay at home and would present an alternative to institutionalised care. Frankston’s Cr Steve Toms has acknowledged that Dunkley’s is an “ageing population”.
The MP has given the Government’s welfare overhaul his backing. He supports its controversial proposal to drug–test those receiving welfare benefits and dismisses concerns that the move is increasing stigma.
According to Crewther, there is a “need to intervene [as] these people are not going to voluntarily put themselves into rehab in many cases.
“If we are spending taxpayer funds, we should be trying to ensure it’s not being spent on alcohol and drugs,” Crewther said in support of a rumoured cashless benefit-card trial in Frankston. The MP recognised the speculation about its efficacy but stressed “a trial is a worthwhile thing”.
The Fair Work Commission’s decision to cut Sunday and holiday penalty rates for casual and part-time workers has his support as well.
Crewther stresses it’s not the government’s place to interfere with an independent body. He believes that higher penalty rates harm the ability of small businesses to compete with those that can afford to pay them.
Rob Bray, an ANU research fellow, dismissed these concerns as “essentially rubbish”, explaining: “If a small business chooses to operate during weekends and nights to maximise their profit, then that’s the equivalent to gaining the benefit from these penalty rates.”
On the impact of the decision to reduce rates across multiple industries in Australia, Bray said, “Unless there’s [opposing] power from organised labour … wages will just get driven down.”
Crewther opposes re-regulating penalty rates “because it means [big business] can get bigger at the expense of competition in the market”.
Bray said this would “depend entirely on the type of regulation governments want to introduce”.
Crewther, who is the father of a young daughter and a son, admits his party needs more diversity, particularly during pre-selections. But he disagrees with quotas, calling them “almost insulting” because they can overlook merit.
Asked to identify successful Liberal women, Crewther names Senator Jane Hume and, perhaps tactlessly, departing MP Julie Bishop.