Neglect plagues one of Victoria’s safest seats


Aitken Boulevard, Craigieburn

Former Labor leader Arthur Calwell, one of the staunchest supporters of the White Australia Policy, wouldn’t recognise the electorate that bears his name today.

Located in Melbourne’s north-west and encompassing Craigieburn, Broadmeadows and Tullamarine, Calwell has one of the largest Arabic-speaking communities in Australia. The 2016 census data showed that nearly half the district’s population was born overseas with Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, India and Italy the top five places of origin.

As opposition leader, from 1960 to 1967, Arthur Calwell resisted the migration of non-European people to Australia. During the 1966 election campaign, he declared that Labor’s immigration policy was committed to preventing any attempt to “create a multi-racial society in our midst”.

Calwell has been a safe Labor seat since the electorate was created in 1984, held by Maria Vamvakinou since 2001.

Pandemic stigma

Over the past two years, this area found itself at the epicentre of Melbourne’s COVID-19 outbreak. Residents of Calwell were vilified for flouting restrictions, prompting Andrew Bolt to write in The Herald Sunin 2020 that “the virus thrives in multiculturalism”. In reality, the blue-collar workforce concentrated in this area was disproportionately exposed to the virus due to high numbers of residents working in essential roles.

Hume Mayor Councillor Carly Moore said that the community was hit hard by the pandemic as many residents did not have the capacity to work from home.

“Whether it’s logistics, manufacturing or warehousing, our residents, who broadly come from significantly lower socio-economic backgrounds, worked during the height of the pandemic to ensure Victorians had continued access to essential services throughout,” Moore said.

Now, despite millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine having been manufactured in the heart of the electorate at the CSL factory in Broadmeadows, Calwell has fallen behind in third-shot booster doses. The disparity between hardest hit areas and the rest of the state is borne out in Victorian government data which shows that just 45-50 per cent of eligible adults in Calwell have received their booster vaccine, compared to the state average of 67.5 per cent.

“A lot of our community remains confused about when to get their next vaccine after they contract COVID-19,” Moore said.

“Our Hume residents come from more than 160 different countries and speak approximately 140 languages – meaning state-wide English communications can easily get missed.”

Public housing neglect

Paul Atkinson is the community development manager at Banksia Gardens, a service located in one of Broadmeadows’ public housing estates.

“Broadmeadows has some stigma, and a lot of that is a function of being a low socio-economic area with high rates of public housing and low employment,” Atkinson said.

“We have an ageing public housing block that has been quite neglected in terms of maintenance, it’s been left to a state of disrepair. All of those things are compounding, you don’t repair things, things get broken, things then become more expensive to fix,” he said.

The Victorian government has pledged $5.3 billion for the Big Housing Build program to improve public and social housing across the state, yet despite being a priority area for social housing, Broadmeadows has so far been neglected by the funding.

Housing affordability is a key concern for Labor leader Anthony Albanese, who was raised in public housing by a single mother on a disability pension. Federal Labor has committed to establishing the Housing Australia Future Fund which aims to build 30,000 new social housing properties in its first five years, as well as 10,000 affordable homes for frontline workers like nurses and cleaners, who kept the public safe throughout the pandemic.

With the population of Hume forecast to grow by nearly 100,000 people by 2035 according to the Hume City Council, the area is facing increased pressure on resources to support a diverse and changing community. The council says it will need an extra 21 state primary and secondary schools to support the educational demands of this growing community and improve the liveability of the area.

“Schools struggle for resources”

Project Real is one of the key services offered by Banksia Gardens, working with children who have disengaged from mainstream education to develop skills that foster positive school engagement.

Atkinson said that robust educational pathways were an essential response to the challenges facing young people in lower socio-economic areas.

“We have a reasonably challenging cohort and so these schools struggle for resources and they’re always on the back foot, and then the experiences aren’t always good for the kids who don’t fit into the mainstream,” he said.

“We need different ways of doing teaching and pathways to doing different types of jobs that are meaningful and pay reasonably well.”

Held with a safe margin of 19.6 per cent, Maria Vamvakinou will face little competition to represent Calwell at the ballot box in May. Atkinson said the area lacked meaningful alternatives for political representation

“The Liberal Party doesn’t speak to anyone in the district, and the Greens also reek of inner-city latte sippers,” he said.

While Arthur Calwell could not have foreseen the vibrant multiculturalism thriving in the electorate that carries his name, as an area facing unprecedented and complicated challenges, Calwell demands a renewed political focus.