A cacophony of discontent erupted in Box Hill one Monday evening in April when a 500-strong crowd of Deakin and Chisholm voters gathered to hear from their federal candidates on climate change policy.
Drizzle was falling outside as the crowd was told what organisers had known for weeks – that Liberal MP Michael Sukkar and Liberal candidate for Chisholm Gladys Liu had both declined to attend.
Event organiser Anne Makhijani, who had collaborated with the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), said they had moved the forum forward a week at the behest of Sukkar’s office. Up until the last minute the organisers had hoped both candidates would turn up.
ACF representative Phoebe Rountree said they “wanted to make it clear that they chose not to accept that invitation”.
On the night, in an act of political theatre, organisers delivered the announcement to a shocked crowd and then left two seats vacant on stage, and two more in the audience.
Whatever their motives, the spectacle of empty chairs on a climate change panel was a potent bit of staging, particularly on the very day that federal Environment Minister Melissa Price had given the final tick to Adani.
With climate change shaping up as perhaps the dominant issue of this federal campaign, outer-suburban seats such as Deakin will be closely watched.
After the announcement, forum attendee Kieran Simpson said, “There was quite audible anger, people groaning, yelling out ‘Disgraceful’ and general angry mutterings.”
He said the anger in the hall was palpable.
Ringwood East resident Carolyn Cooper said, “There was quite a lot of jeering and derision, particularly at Sukkar. There were lots of people calling out about him being cowardly, not wanting to face people, I suppose.”
Deakin, held by the Liberal Party on a margin of 6.4 per cent, is a key battleground, as Labor targets it with young progressive ex-lawyer Shireen Morris.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten chose a backyard in Mitcham, within Deakin, to make his first speech of the campaign.
ABC politics writer and commentator Annabel Crabb tweeted that this was “the campaign equivalent of walking into [Prime Minister] Scott Morrison’s house and grabbing a beer from the fridge”.
Climate change action will be crucial, as a Lowy Institute poll last year found Australians’ support for climate action is at its highest level in a decade. Polling published in March found that 57.5 per cent of respondents said they would be swayed by action on climate change when voting.
In Deakin, the growing concern for the environment may leave the government feeling exposed with Sukkar’s voting legacy on climate policy potentially coming back to bite him.
Polling in Deakin last year found that 62.7 per cent of residents supported the Paris agreement and its emissions reduction target. In 2016, Sukkar voted against a bill to increase financial investment in renewable energy.
Kieran Simpson believes Deakin voters are “more progressive on issues”, pointing out that 65.7 per cent of residents voted yes in the marriage equality survey, an outcome above the national average.
Liz Sanzaro, Deakin resident and president of Croydon Conservation Society, said residents were “extremely concerned about climate change and severe weather events as a consequence”.
She said most people wanted “to cease [using] coal energy and fossil fuels” and felt “extremely let down by [Sukkar’s] lack of action”.
Anne Makhijani said climate change should not be a partisan issue since “it is something that is going to have a huge impact on everybody whether we want to engage with it or not”.
On the question of leaving two empty seats on stage, she was not in the least defensive, describing the invitees’ absence as a message.
“The candidates from one particular party don’t want to engage with voters on this topic so that in itself is a huge concern”.