Unrest over living space the key in battle for Bentleigh

October 19, 2014 – 9:21AM

Robyn Morgan leftPrahran a decade ago in search of suburban serenity. Like others escaping the inner city, she wanted more: more time away from traffic congestion, more educational choice for her children, more peace of mind when she walked down the street.She didn’t have to travel far. About 20 minutes south-east, the electorate of Bentleigh was the quintessential family dream: spacious houses on leafy streets. Decent roads and transport options. One of the most sought-after public schools in Melbourne.

Lately, though, the winds of change have accelerated at an uncomfortable pace. State government planning reforms have paved the way for higher-density development in prized areas near shopping strips and public transport. Once sleepy streets are being earmarked for large-scale apartments. And the very blessings that draw people to the area in the first place – good amenities, quiet neighbourhoods – are suddenly in danger of becoming a curse for the locals who want to preserve what they have.

For residents like Mrs Morgan – whose street in McKinnon recently came under threat of an “inappropriate” three-storey apartment proposal – planning has become such a sensitive issue it will determine her vote at next month’s state election.

“We moved here from Prahran to get away from high-density development and traffic congestion, and we specifically bought in this area to be as close as we possibly could to McKinnon Secondary, to put our kids into that school,” says the self-described swinging voter.

“But what’s happening will completely change the demographic and the whole amenity of this area. So in terms of political choice next month, I definitely won’t be voting Liberal.”

It’s an ominous sign for the Napthine government, which came to power only four years ago riding on a similar wave of discontent against Labor in this very seat – only then, the flashpoint issue was overcrowding on the Frankston train line.

At the 2010 state election, Bentleigh was the last Labor-held electorate to fall, giving Ted Baillieu the 13 seats he needed to win government. So tight was the contest that only 522 votes separated incumbent MP Rob Hudson and Liberal counterpart Elizabeth Miller, a former nurse who emerged from relative obscurity to swing the election in the Coalition’s favour.

Fast forward to present day and the government has spent much of its first term lurching from one political headache to the next, making the task of holding on to sandbelt seats like Bentleigh even tougher.

What also makes this contest unpredictable is the area’s volatility. Taking in suburbs such as McKinnon, Moorabin and Hampton east, Bentleigh is a mix of the old and the new: ageing residents who have lived there for decades; aspirational young families who can afford the average house price ($925,000 for three bedrooms); a multicultural melting pot where 45 per cent of locals have parents who were born overseas.

But the seat has changed hands repeatedly over the past 50 years, with voters tending to switch their allegiance based on policy or personality, rather than stick with the same party for the sake of tradition. Come November 29, the government needs an anti-Liberal swing of only 0.9 per cent for the electorate to switch, yet again.

Miller’s main challenger, Nick Staikos, is your quintessential politician who’s worked his way from the ground up: a Labor member since he was 16; Glen Eira’s youngest councillor at 19; a staffer to former federal MP Simon Crean; and a life patron of the local senior citizens club, which has about 500 members.

“There are a lot of things we need to get done for our community – rebuilding our schools, removing level crossings, ensuring that our significant senior citizen community is looked after,” says the ambitious 28-year-old.

Miller, on the other hand, joined the Liberals only in 2006 and has cut a fairly elusive figure on Spring Street ever since. She’s softly spoken and has a tendency to avoid the media, but those who know her will tell you she’s fiercely committed when it comes to her electorate.

When Melbourne was hit with flash floods in 2011, resulting in extensive damage to streets in McKinnon and Ormond, the newly elected Miller doorknocked every house on Cadby Avenue and Station Avenue to ensure residents had appropriate food, shelter and heating. Drain pipes were eventually installed with her assistance, and months later, when severe rains hit the area again, she spent hours driving up and down the streets to make sure water was draining properly.

In a rare interview at Parliament last week, Miller, 47, admitted the battle for Bentleigh would be tight, but believed people would vote on her record as an “active, hands-on, grassroots member”.

“I’m living and breathing my community, and overall, they undoubtedly have confidence in this government,” she says.

Still, there are plenty of factors that could prove her wrong. Like many other electorates, Bentleigh is growing –  but with that comes growing pains.

McKinnon Secondary College, for instance, now has 1850 students – and countless others are trying to enrol –  which can put a strain on facilities and space without additional resources, says principal Pitsa Binnion. She welcomes both parties promising $9 million for building upgrades (Labor committed in March; the Coalition last Monday) but admits the popularity of her school has led to other challenges in the area.

“The problem is there’s such growth in the area and the demand is so high it creates other issues like traffic and buildings going up everywhere,” she says. “What are we to do?”

Others are asking the same question. On Tuesday, it was standing room only at the Glen Eira council as nine planning applications were debated. One of them was the three-storey proposal for Penang Street, where the Morgan family live, which was ultimately rejected – although it is not yet known whether the developer will challenge at VCAT. Other residents, like Greg Wilkinson – who lives in Loranne Street where a four-storey apartment block was approved – weren’t as lucky.

“I’m not against change, but I am against intense change,” say Wilkinson, who voted for Miller at the last election but insists he won’t do so again on the back of the government’s planning reforms.

And what about transport, the critical issue that became emblematic of Labor’s inability to manage population growth in 2010? About 191 weekly services have been added on the Frankston line since then, resulting in punctuality averaging 90.2 per cent over the last 12 months – up from 70.9 per cent over Labor’s last year in office.

But Public Transport Users Association spokesman Daniel Bowen, who also happens to live in the electorate, says that while there have no doubt been improvements in punctuality, cancellations remain an issue, while the government’s own figures show cancellation rates on the Frankston line worsened slightly in the 12 months to September.

The good news is, with only six weeks until the election, critical issues such as planning, education and transport will remain in the spotlight. Labor has already pledged to remove the Centre Road level crossing; both major parties have promised upgrades to schools in McKinnon and Bentleigh; and both also have grand new plans to bolster jobs.

As for voters like Robyn Morgan and her neighbours? They simply want whoever wins in November to stand up for the community when it comes to neighbourhood change. “We’re not against new development, but it just has to be appropriately sited,” she says.

3 Responses to “The Race Is On!”

  1. anon Says:

    anyone know anything about the racecourse closure sign on Queens avenue gate?

    1. gleneira Says:

      Perhaps a result of the Caulfield races on Saturday and with their usual efficiency forgot to remove the sign and unlock the gate? A mere suggestion!

  2. anon Says:

    Staikos forgot to tell the reporter that he is also a lifetime appointee to the Caulfield Race and Recreation Reserve Trust. Probably likes to keep this perk quiet. He would have had a fine day at the Cup yesterday. The MRC value his input as he usually supports their needs

Comments are closed.