Labor’s John Kennedy defends Hawthorn “miracle” seat


Anthony M Leong

Labor’s John Kennedy. Image supplied.

John Kennedy is relying on his record in office and the popularity of the Andrews government as he looks to defend his Hawthorn seat against independent ‘teal’ and Liberal challengers.

Kennedy won Hawthorn in the 2018 election from Liberal incumbent John Pesutto despite what Kennedy describes as “lottery odds” against him in the previously safe Liberal seat.

Before Pesutto’s defeat, the Liberals had held Hawthorn since 1955. Mr Pesutto did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article.

This time around, Kennedy faces a challenge not only from Pesutto but from independent teal candidate Melissa Lowe. Lowe was previously a Labor member but left the party more than 20 years ago, disillusioned by what she describes as Labor’s “party machine”.

Lowe says that she was inspired to get back into politics by Monique Ryan, who defeated then-treasurer Josh Frydenberg in the 2022 federal election as a teal candidate for Kooyong. The state electorate of Hawthorn is in the federal electorate of Kooyong.

John Kennedy says that, although he could be proved “horribly wrong,” he doesn’t anticipate the teals having a huge impact in the state election. Kennedy says that, in his opinion, the teal success in the federal election was largely down to the unpopularity of the Morrison government.

Teal candidate Melissa Lowe with a campaign volunteer. Image supplied.

Kennedy thinks Daniel Andrews’ Victorian Labor government is still enjoying relatively high popularity levels in Hawthorn. As a result, Kennedy does not expect a teal candidate to have the same impact in the state election as Monique Ryan did in the federal election.

Paul Strangio, Professor of Politics and International Relations at Monash University, disagrees. He expects Lowe to “comfortably outpoll” Kennedy on primary votes. The eventual winner of the seat could then once again come down to preferences.

In 2018, Kennedy finished with nearly five thousand fewer first preference votes than Pesutto but won after second preferences from other candidates were distributed in his favour.

Strangio says a similar phenomenon could occur this year in favour of Melissa Lowe; if Kennedy finishes third, most of his preferences will flow to Lowe. If Kennedy finishes second ahead of Lowe, he will receive most of Lowe’s preferences.

Strangio sees Pesutto as the favourite to win the seat, but that he will need a primary vote “in the high forties” if that is to occur.

In 2018 Kennedy, a retired educator, campaigned on improving local schools and providing better funding for social housing.

The Andrews effect

Kennedy says that he won’t “try to do too much different” in this election. He points to the tens of millions of dollars local schools have received under his representation, along with more than a hundred million for social housing, as evidence that he can deliver on his promises. The Herald Sun reported in May 2022 that Hawthorn West Primary School was due to receive $5.7 million as part of an “education funding blitz”.

Kennedy also says that he expects local voters to vote based on how well each party is performing on a state-wide level. He says that hyperlocal issues only account for around 5 – 10 per cent of people’s decision making at election time.

Kennedy says that he will win votes based on the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, with lockdowns he describes as tough but necessary. Kennedy also thinks that the state government’s commitment to improving road and rail links is popular with voters.

In a video launching his campaign to reclaim the seat he lost in 2018, John Pesutto disputes Kennedy’s claims that he has improved the electorate. Pesutto says the area has been neglected and many local schools are still in need of urgent repair.

Pesutto also says that the Andrews’ government cannot be relied upon to act with integrity or to provide sufficient funding for the state’s healthcare system.

Melissa Lowe is looking to form a government that works for the people, rather than being tied up in party politics. “John Kennedy’s a nice guy,” says Lowe, “but when it comes down to it, he is always going to vote according to the Labor party line”.

Focus on climate

Lowe agrees that there is a need to improve the state’s healthcare system but says that rather than “throwing money” at hospitals, she would prefer to provide training to boost the number of doctors and nurses working in the state.

Like other teals, Lowe’s main policy focus is climate change. She believes the incumbent Labor government has severe shortcomings in this area, citing the example of continued logging in Victorian state forests as a policy that “makes no sense, environmentally or economically”.

The election could have high stakes for John Pesutto. Paul Strangio says that if Pesutto wins he will be “a very strong candidate” for succeeding Matthew Guy as the head of the Liberal Party in Victoria in the “highly likely” event of an overall election defeat for the Liberals.

Conversely, Strangio says it’s difficult to see a path forward in politics for Pesutto if he loses.