Chisholm’s Choice: Battle for key seat heats up


Box Hill Central in the marginal federal seat of Chisholm. Photo: Petra Stock

Exit the Monash – that eight lane behemoth ferrying commuters and cargo across the south-east Melbourne metropolis – anywhere from Warrigal Road to Wellington Road, and you’ve arrived in the federal seat of Chisholm.

Navigating the network of busy arterials, it’s a cacophony of billboards, utilitarian strip shopping and office blocks. But just another left or right and you’re deep in the suburbs of Victoria’s most marginal seat, the streets treed with oaks, planes and eucalyptus.

Alternatively, ride the Lilydale/Belgrave train line – you can even get a seat these days, thanks to Covid-19 – and the electorate’s rich contrasts come to the fore. In two stops go from Box Hill Central’s bustle, with its umami smells, bubble teas and Asian grocers, to the sleepy enclave of Blackburn village, with an organic fruit shop and barber complete with stripy pole and vintage chairs.

Box Hill Central with its umami smells, bubble teas and Asian grocers
Credit: Petra Stock

Among the most marginal electorates in the country – held by Hong Kong-born Liberal Gladys Liu on a wafer-thin 0.5 percent – Chisholm is squarely in the spotlight this election. Which perhaps explains why the Prime Minister dropped by twice in the weeks before the official campaign kicked off, announcing a manufacturing deal for next-generation vaccines, and plans for a whiz bang new medical research facility.

“If you’re thinking about the landscape of Victoria, it’s probably the key battleground seat,” says Paul Strangio, politics professor at Monash University.

From its inner boundary about 15 kilometres east of Melbourne’s CBD, Chisholm spreads from Warrigal Road to Dandenong Creek, and north-south from Whitehorse to Wellington Roads.

The electorate’s 77 square kilometres is proudly diverse – local leaders frequently boast about its cultural credentials. It’s home to a greater share of residents born in China, India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Greece than the national average, ABS data shows. It’s also an economic powerhouse taking in the health, education and industry cluster around Monash University, Victoria’s second largest employment hub after the CBD.

The Liberals narrowly held the seat at the past two elections. In 2016, Chisholm was the only electorate in the country to change from Labor to Liberal, under candidate Julia Banks. In 2019, the party held on by 1090 votes, after preferences.

Chisholm is an electorate Labor will be targeting hard, Strangio says. Labor’s candidate is Dr Carina Garland, previously assistant secretary at Victorian Trades Hall Council. Reportedly a surprise pick, the former academic – her PhD is in gender and cultural studies – is still low profile at this point.

Recent redistribution changes shunted Chisholm’s boundary southwards, making the seat more marginal, according to ABC election analyst Antony Green, adding in parts of Labor-leaning Clayton and Liberal-inclined Wheelers Hill.

While campaigning has been fierce in electorates like Kooyong and Goldstein, courtesy of challenges to high-profile Liberal members by well-resourced Climate 200 independents, in Chisholm there’s no sign of a teal-coloured disruptor as the campaign begins. Indeed, while signage has become a flashpoint elsewhere, as the campaign kicks off in Chisholm, there are few visual cues of the approaching election.

Cr Tina Liu, Mayor of Whitehorse, the local government covering Chisholm’s north, says the area’s diversity reflects waves of migration, initially from post-war Europe then from China, India, Vietnam and Malaysia. Monash and Deakin Universities bring high concentrations of international students.

It’s a real mix, says Cr Stuart James, Mayor of Monash, the council covering the seat’s southern suburbs, including Greek populations around Oakleigh, Chinese and Indian communities around Clayton.

“We always proudly say that 50 percent of our residents were born overseas – which is astronomical,” James says.

Census data shows half of Chisholm households speak a language other than English at home, the largest share – 15 percent – speak Mandarin. Compared to the national average, the electorate has more professionals, is slightly younger, less religious and more educated.

RSPCA customer service team leader Sophie Thomas with three-month-old kitten ‘Bee’ Credit: Petra Stock

At the RSPCA headquarters, a landmark on the Burwood Highway, team leader Sophie Thomas sees all kinds of locals coming in to adopt a pet – quite a lot of uni students, heaps of families. “I love working in this area… It’s quite a green area. People are always out with their pets, their dogs,” she says.

Gardiners Creek is popular with dog walkers, whose oodles and labs seem to enjoy dipping their toes in the water. It’s one of a handful of creekside trails that add to the electorate’s green, leafy feel along with parks, street trees and, of course, backyards.

Nonetheless there are concerns the suburban dream exemplified by TV show Neighbours – filmed just streets outside Chisholm’s boundary – that drew many to the area is eroding.

Gardiners Creek is a popular dog walking spot
Credit: Petra Stock

“It used to be the last bastion of homes with backyards. But that’s rapidly disappearing,” says Michael Crichton, a retired school teacher and long-time presenter on community radio station 3WBC, ‘The Voice of the Inner East’.

Outbreaks of high rise residential and commercial development, and the increasing density of dwellings, is an issue that “bugs most people”, he says.

Though suburbia is often synonymous with security and comfort, that’s not the case any longer, says Amaroo Neighbourhood House coordinator Janine Saligari. She sees many households struggling with the rising cost of living and the lack of affordable housing, especially homes with access to public transport. “Not everyone has a car, and people are struggling to afford to run their car,” she says.

Demand for emergency relief – free bread, fruit and vegetables – offered during lockdowns has unexpectedly continued, says Saligari.

Housing stress affects around 21 percent of households renting in Chisholm, ABC analysis found. Whitehorse mayor Liu says this is a key concern, particularly around Box Hill.

She’s observed growing anxiety on several fronts. The recovery from Covid-19 has pushed mental health and domestic violence services to the limits, and left local businesses struggling with staff shortages.

Ahead of the election, a concerted push for federal money for more mental health services and social housing formed part of a policy pitch from Melbourne’s eastern councils, including Monash and Whitehorse. Other ‘asks’ included employment programs, public and active transport initiatives and renewable energy to tackle climate change.

The advocacy effort has already gained bi-partisan commitment for a new Headspace youth mental health service in Box Hill.

Meanwhile, climate action, integrity and social respect are the top issues nominated by readers of a new mostly-online local paper, Eastsider News published every two months.

John Malvestuto and a group of locals launched the community newspaper in 2020 following News Corp’s decision to stop printing neighbourhood papers like the Whitehorse Leader.

“Something was missing, the whole sense of being able to share local stories,” he says.

The quiet enclave of Blackburn village, with an organic fruit shop and barber complete with stripy pole and vintage chairs
Credit: Petra Stock

With a few thousand subscribers so far, theEastsider editors are building local advertising with plans to print future editions.

Malvestuto will soon be putting a list of questions reflecting readers’ concerns to all candidates, and publishing their answers in the next edition.

Back at the RSPCA, the building capable of housing hundreds of animals is reaching capacity. Some pandemic pets are coming back to the shelter as people return to the office, and it’s ‘kitten season’ bringing an influx of cats, as many as 15 each day.

It’s election season too. Sure to bring an influx of politicians to the marginal seat of Chisholm.

This story kicks off a special 2022 Federal Election series Chisholm’s Choice, co-published with