Liberal MP Michael Sukkar’s support for Peter Dutton’s bid to become Prime Minister may well come back to haunt him this federal election, with victory in eastern-suburban Deakin far from certain.
If Sukkar – who enjoys a 6.4 per cent margin – loses the seat, lingering voter dismay at his support for removing Malcolm Turnbull is almost certain to be a factor.
While the 37-year-old former taxation lawyer has maintained the same percentage lead with which he sailed into office in 2013, this time around the wind of popularity is not blowing his party’s way.
Sukkar, who is married with two children, asserted in his maiden speech that his family and Catholic faith were “the two most significant influences on my life”.
Perhaps a more salient comment was his proclamation that it was the “duty of conservatives to protect those from the so-called ‘progressive’ elements of our society” which he claimed “doggedly seek to undermine” Western values.
This comment foreshadowed his later involvement in the Liberal Party’s conservative faction. A Fairfax poll of Deakin voters in the aftermath of Dutton’s failed coup attempt showed that Sukkar’s involvement in leadership destabilisation dismayed many of them, with 53 per cent favouring Labor.
Many Deakin voters did not look kindly on his choice to follow Tony Abbott out of the parliamentary chamber during the final vote on the Marriage Amendment Act.
Many claimed his actions were irresponsible, particularly as 65.7 per cent of the electorate had voted for marriage equality, significantly above the national average.
Even fellow Christians – including the ministry development worker at Ringwood Uniting Church, Rev. Peter Rivett – said Sukkar’s stance might prove his undoing.
“He didn’t engage in a dialogue with a cross-section of the Christian community and made assumptions about more people opposing same-gender marriage, which is definitely not the case,” Rivett said.
Nearly a year later, many voters again looked on with distaste as Sukkar aided Dutton in his bid to usurp Turnbull.
Last November The Australian reported that many saw the Liberal spill as an effort to pull the party further to the right.
Amid the upheaval, Sukkar resigned as Assistant Treasurer, telling the press he was doing so “as a matter of integrity”.
In a recent Inside Story article, former Age economics editor Tim Colebatch contended: “Victoria alone could tip the Liberal Party out of office.”
Deakin’s status as a ‘bellwether seat’ – the party that wins it also tends to win government – means that a win for him would cement his position on the party’s conservative wing.
Fast-forward to this year’s election and Sukkar faces a particular problem in persuading voters troubled by climate change that he’s the right candidate for these times.
Last month he failed to attend a forum on environmental policy held specifically for the Deakin, and neighbouring Chisholm, community.
In 2016 Sukkar voted against increasing investment in renewable energy.
A Greenpeace poll published in March indicated global warming and the environment will be the most important issues for voters at this year’s federal election, rating just ahead of the economy.
More than half of respondents said they would be less likely to vote for a party that uses taxpayer money to subsidise coal projects.
Sydney Morning Herald polling published in March found that 57.5 per cent of voters said they would be swayed by a candidate’s stance on climate change and environmental protection when casting their vote.
Liz Sanzaro, president of Croydon Conservation Society, said residents were very worried about extreme weather accompanying climate change.
She said locals were “concerned about wanting to cease [using] coal energy and fossil fuels and go with alternatives” but felt “extremely let down by [Sukkar’s] lack of action”.
The Liberal Party’s failure to do more to combat climate change has already proved contentious in the March 23 NSW state election.
In a February article, Guardian Australia’s political editor, Katharine Murphy, wrote, “Independents such as Zali Steggall and Oliver Yates are thumping the Government on climate change, both as a thing in itself and as a proxy for dysfunction within the Liberal Party which is imposing costs on the citizenry.”
For all that, Sukkar still has a rump of rusted-on supporters who praise his performance as their local member. In February he committed $240,000 over two years to fund perinatal support group The Babes Project, which has an office in Croydon.
CEO and founder Helen Parker OAM spoke of Sukkar’s passion for aiding young families, saying, “He’s always been really mindful of the work that we’re doing.”
Sukkar’s advocacy has also benefited community sporting groups. He secured $2 million of federal funds to build a pavilion for the Heathmont Jets Junior Football Club at Heatherdale Reserve, Mitcham.
Jets secretary John O’Conner believes Sukkar’s work has helped the sector, importantly at a time when girls’ participation in sport is on the increase.
“The fact that [Sukkar] grew up in the local area, you know … you want to see your own area develop,” O’Conner said. “I’m a Labor person but I think he’s doing good things for the community.”
At this election Sukkar will focus heavily on infrastructure.
A vocal supporter of the East West Link, he has often been dismissive of Labor policies on reducing road congestion.
According to him, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten doesn’t “care about commuters in the eastern suburbs who sit for hours in traffic”.
The Coalition has already ramped up infrastructure spending: Deakin electorate will soon gain multi-level car parks at Croydon, Mitcham and Ringwood railway stations, for a total outlay of $45 million and safety upgrades along Canterbury Road costing $1.2 million.