By John Englart
21 July 2013
The Federal seat of Wills is generally considered a safe Labor seat, but history shows it has elements of radicalism and electoral unrest which in the past have upset it’s pure Australian Labor Party pedigree. The long term trend shows the Labor primary vote slowly decreasing and the Greens slowly increasing. While sitting Labor member Kelvin Thomson is likely to comfortably hold the seat on preferences in 2013, the trend to watch on election night will be whether the Green vote continues to increase and the Greens achieve more than their 20.60% 2010 primary vote.
The electorate is 57 square kilometres in size and takes in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs centred on Brunswick, Coburg, Pascoe Vale, Fawkner, Glenroy, Oak Park, Strathmore Heights and Gowanbrae. The City of Moreland forms the majority of the electorate, with small portions of the City of Yarra to the east and the City of Moonee Valley to the north west. Geographically, the electorate straddles a ridge between the parklands of Merri Creek to the east, and Moonee Ponds Creek and the Tullamarine Freeway on the west. The western Ring Road (M80) provides a boundary to the north. The seat’s southern boundary runs along Park Street which is shared with the electorate of Melbourne where Adam Bandt was successfully elected for the Greens in the 2010 General election.
Sydney Road runs north south bisecting the electorate. This is the backbone of the electorate providing restaurants, music venues, and strip shopping from Brunswick to Coburg. It is still a prominent northerly route out of the city of Melbourne, past the infamous walls of Pentridge Prison at Coburg, behind which the remains of bushranger Ned Kelly once lay. The prisoners, and the remains of those like Ronald Ryan, the last person judicially executed in Australia, are now long gone and the prison walls now contain an upmarket estate of townhouses with further high density development proceeding.
The electorate has a relatively good network of public transport. The Number 19 tram runs the length of Sydney Road to a terminus at North Coburg. It is one of the busiest tram routes in Melbourne’s extensive tram network. Other tram routes include Lygon Street and West Brunswick. The Upfield train line parallels Sydney Road the length of the electorate, while the Craigieburn Railway line services suburbs in the north west of the electorate. Various bus lines travel east west linking the radialy oriented tram and train lines. The northern suburbs span transport Zone 1 and 2 which elicits complaints from residents having to pay extra fares spanning two zones for relatively short journeys. While Cycling in the southern half of the electorate is booming, car culture rules in the traditional residential neighborhood suburbs further north. (See Issues – Transport)
Traditionally the area has a mix of light to medium industrial, manufacturing and clothing industries providing local jobs. The downturn in manufacturing and the closure of much of the clothing trade due to cheap imports has had a long slow impact on the area over the last 30 years. However, small wholesale and retail clothing factories still exist and particularly in spring months in the lead-up to Christmas you can sees lines of tour buses carrying people around the wholesale clothing factories in the area with an eye to purchase factory bargains.
In the northern suburbs of the electorate there are small automobile service industries. With the Ford plant closure at Broadmeadows in two years time in the neighboring electorate of Calwell, there will be a direct impact on workers who live in Wills.
The electorate hosts a campus of RMIT at Brunswick. Staff and students living in the electorate also attend La Trobe University, Melbourne University, and RMIT city campus, as well as local TAFE institutes: Kangan Institute and Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE. All of these Government funded tertiary and further education organisations are feeling the pain of State and Federal cuts to tertiary and further education.
Wills Electorate history
The seat of Wills was created in 1949 and was named after explorer William John Wills of Burke and Wills fame. It is regarded as one of the safest Labor seats in the country being occupied successively for the Labor Party by Bill Bryson (1949-1955), Gordon Bryant (1955-1980) and then by Bob Hawke (1980-1992) who became Prime Minister for 8 years from 1983 to 1991.
The decisive 1955 split in the Labor Party over anti-communism was most prominent in Victoria. Bill Bryson, the first MP for the seat of Wills, was on the anti-communist side. He contested the 1955 general election as the candidate for the Labor Party (Anti-communist) – what would evolve to become the Democratic Labor Party. He lost the electoral battle to the offical Labor candidate, Gordon Bryant, who went on to represent the electorate for 25 years, including serving as a minister in the Whitlam Labor Government.
After Gordon Bryant’s retirement, Bob Hawke, as Secretary of the ACTU, was catapulted into the seat in 1980 and straight into a shadow front bench position in the parliamentary Labor party. In 1983 he took over the leadership of the Labor Party defeating Opposition leader Bill Hayden on the day Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser called a general election. Bill Hayden dryly commented later that it was an election a drover’s dog could win. Hawke went on to win the Federal election for Labor and became Prime Minister. His leadership was eventually challenged by Treasurer Paul Keating in 1991, which lead to Hawke’s retirement from politics and the seat of Wills in late 1992.
Having a prominent person inflicted upon an electorate outside the normal preselection processes with that person then focusing on managing the country rather than representing his electorate can cause a feeling of general neglect.
At the subsequent by-election in late 1992 the Labor minded electors of Wills went rogue and elected high profile Independent Phil Cleary, a teacher and AFL football commentator who stood on strong socialist left policies. But his election was successfully challenged in the High Court and declared void on 25 November. The reason for this was that Cleary was on unpaid leave from the Victorian Education Department, and the Constitution of Australia forbids people employed by the Crown from standing for election. As a general election was approaching, another by-election was deemed unnecessary.
Cleary stood again in the general election of 1993 and was again returned by voters, although with a reduced two party preferred count. These victories by Phil Cleary demonstrated that even Labor voters in a ‘safe’ seat can sometimes get sick of being taken for granted and will elect high profile alternative candidates. A safe seat is no guarantee of electors support.
The seat returned to the Labor Party in the 1996 general election, after a redistribution of seat boundaries and a substantial and well run campaign by the Labor Party to elect active local resident and former State Labor MP for Pascoe Vale, Kelvin Thomson, who has represented the electorate of Wills to the present.
Peoples Republic of Brunswick/Moreland
The northern suburbs in the electorate encompass residential and light to medium industrial areas, predominantly middle class with high rates of migrant settlement tending to be more conservative but still predominantly Labor voting areas. Gentrification is less noticeable, but there is an increase in small scale subdivision of housing blocks with more medium density housing development.
The southern end of the electorate based on Brunswick has always had a radical element of anarchists, socialists, communists, left labor activists, students, migrants, political stirrers, artists and bohemians going at least back to the 1880s. Brunswick has been colloquially called the ‘Peoples Republic of Brunswick’ for it’s strong labor, working class and radical traditions. This epithet moved to the ‘People’s Republic of Moreland’ after Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett sacked the councillors then amalgamated the Brunswick and Coburg council areas, with the addition of the suburb of Fawkner from Broadmeadows Council in 1994, to form the City of Moreland Council.
In the 1930s artist participated in the “free speech” fights in Brunswick, organised by the Communist Party in response to a Victorian state government law banning “subversive” gatherings. In one of his protests Noel Counihan locked himself in a cage chained to a balustrade on the corner of Phoenix Street and Sydney Road and addressed the crowd who jeered the police attempting to close down the activity. The Free speech fight was ultimately successful. During the 1980s the Free Speech memorial was built outside the Mechanics Institute on the corner of Sydney Road and Glenlyon road to commemorate the fights for freedom of speech and particularly Noel Counihan who had a long association with the area. Council’s art gallery in the Brunswick Town Hall diagonally opposite and is named the Noel Counihan Gallery.
The tramways depot in Brunswick was once a hotbed of radicalism with workers at the Brunswick Tram Depot running their own rosters for a time during the 1990 Melbourne Tram dispute and lockout.
When the local Moreland Community Health Service (now Merri Health) based at Brunswick attempted to close it’s medical service in 1999, a vigorous community campaign forced the Service management to reverse it’s decision, leading to the medical practice surviving but being taken over by St Vincent’s Hospital as an outreach practice.
After the brutal rape and murder of ABC journalist Jill Meagher in a Brunswick back lane in 2012, the community turned out on mass to say an emphatic no to violence against women, to Reclaim the streets, in a peaceful march on Sydney Road estimated at 10,000 people. It was a response in keeping with the traditions of community solidarity in the area.
Over the last 20 years the southern end of the electorate has become increasingly gentrified with more professionals and people with higher education background moving into the suburb, while still retaining a large cohort of students, bohemians and a substantial migrant population. Turkish restaurants still proliferate along Sydney road, but upmarket cafe’s and bars are increasingly encroaching from the south. Housing development on former industrial sites and apartment blocks are proliferating with the level of high density and high rise development a continuing local development and urban planning issue. (See Issues – Urban Planning)
The gentrification in the southern half of the electorate has tended to favour a rise in the vote for the Greens, becoming the second highest polling party after the Labor Party in council, state and federal elections. Other progressive parties which may benefit from this mix in the southern part of the electorate of Wills could include the civil libertarian Sex Party and the newly formed Wikileaks Party. Freedom of Speech still strikes a responsive chord in the electorate as attested by a rally and march in 2010. (See Indymedia – Brunswick free speech rally fights corporatisation of public space) (See Issues – Freedom of Speech)
The National Broadband Network chose the suburb of Brunswick for it’s pilot inner city rollout of high speed fibre optic broadband and has generally been welcomed by those able to sign up to take advantage of the faster speeds. Information based small businesses in Brunswick will particularly benefit from this national infrastructure scheme. (See Issues – National Broadband Network)
The electorate has an active community group lobbying for strong science-based climate change action – Climate Action Moreland. In June 2012 some members of Climate Action Moreland were pictured with MP Kelvin Thomson urging Replacement of Hazelwood coal fired power station with clean energy. In 2009 sitting MP Kelvin Thomson debated the issue with local climate change activist and author David Spratt. (Engagemedia Video (34:06) – Moreland Climate Debate with David Spratt and Kelvin Thomson MP) (See Issues – Climate Change)
Moreland Council has a political shakeup in 2012
Moreland City Council, and the previous Coburg and Brunswick councils before 1994, have been dominated by the Labor Party. In the 2008 Council election 8 Labor members were elected, plus 2 Greens and 1 DLP. Over recent years Greens and Independants have made inroads into representation on Moreland Council. At the 2012 council election there was a substantial shakeup with the Labor Party losing majority control of Moreland Council for the first time.
In the north east ward where I live, certainly one of the more conservative wards on council, we had 3 Labor representatives and 1 Green going into the 2012 council election. But this was all turned on it’s head. In a long field of 24 candidates, the electors of north east ward elected 1 Labor, 1 Green, 1 Independant (a member of Liberal Party), and 1 Socialist. We managed to elect the full political spectrum range just from our ward, but nevertheless with a certain green and left bias. The election of Sue Bolton from the Socialist Alliance and Rob Thompson, a Liberal Party member, surprised many. But the biggest surprise was the fact that only one Labor member was elected from the ward, when formerly there were three.
It was a tough Council ballot. Neither the Liberal Party or Labor Party had endorsed candidates which further complicated the ballot with several different informal Labor tickets to confuse electors. I organised a survey of candidates on local sustainability issues on behalf of Sustainable Fawkner to try and make sense of all the candidates. I sent the survey to all candidates that registered an email address (17 out of 24). Only 6 candidates bothered to respond in writing, although I spoke to a few more over the phone. I published the responses of the 6 who replied to the survey. Three of these were successfully elected to council. I like to think my survey helped inform people to make a more informed vote, at the very least knowing a little more on who they were voting for.
The Battle for Wills in 2013
In the 2010 General election 7 candidates contested the seat of Wills. Kelvin Thomson (Labor) received 51.81% of first preference votes. Claude Tomisch for the Liberal Party achieved 23.79%, Mark Riley for the Greens 20.60%, Daniel Mumby for Family First 1.56%, Paul Roberton for Democrats 0.87%, Trent Hawkins for Socialist Alliance 0.86%, and Craig Isherwood for Citizen Electorate Council 0.51%. Voter turnout of 91.07% and a 6.02% informal vote.
The following people have so far declared their candidacy in Wills in 2013:
- Sitting Labor MP Kelvin Thomson is running for re-election.
- The Liberal Party is running first time candidate Shilpa Hegde.
- The Greens are running Dr Tim Read.
- The Palmer United Party is running Roland Abrahams.
- Socialist Alliance are running Margarita Windisch.
- The currently registering Save The Planet party is standing Dean O’Callaghan on a climate change action platform’ (Updated 22/7)
The Greens already outpoll the Liberal vote in the southern half of the electorate and are approaching challenging the Liberal Party for second place in primary votes overall. If the Greens do overtake the Liberal Party on primary vote this election, the two party preferred vote for Thomson is likely to be less, although still a comfortable margin.
It is widely assumed that Kelvin Thomson will hold the seat with a comfortable two party preferred margin after distribution of preferences. As a long term resident of the electorate, he has actively informed citizens with regular newsletters and has been an active local member. He is on the left of the Labor Party on many issues including environment, population and climate debates, although on Gay marriage law reform he voted against the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill in 2012.
Over the coming months I hope to provide profiles of the candidates, a commentary on local election meetings and how issues are perceived in the electorate of Wills.
Tallyroom profile of Wills
Australian Election Commission (AEC) profile of Wills
Wikipedia – Division of wills
Wikipedia – Electoral results for the Division of Wills