Albanese’s tax gambit supercharges the battle for Dunkley


Alex Ellinghausen

IN the city of Frankston in the federal electorate of Dunkley,they singI Am Australian with gusto. Then they sing it again. While there are many people in this country who feel conflicted about Australia Day and local councils that refuse to confer citizenship on January 26,Frankston is a city and Dunkley an electorate where such sensitivities register only as outside noise.

Inside the Frankston Arts Centre in Melbourne’s south-east on Friday morning,nearly 100 people followed one another onto the stage to become Australian citizens,while their families filmed and cheered and waved little plastic flags. Then they belted out The Seekers’ unofficial anthem in raucous chorus. Twice.

Among our newest citizens was Iain Collins,who came to Australia from England as an infant 56 years ago. “I know the history isn’t a great one but it is still our day,” he says of his decision to make his pledge on Australia Day. “Its significance is who we are now,not who we used to be. Whether it is today or another day doesn’t matter much to me but whilst it is our day,it is special.”

Jesse Collins,Iain Collins and Bec Swinton at the Australia Day citizenship ceremony in Frankston on Friday.

Jesse Collins,Iain Collins and Bec Swinton at the Australia Day citizenship ceremony in Frankston on Friday.Jason South

Collins has always lived in Seaford,a suburb two stops along the Frankston train line and squarely within the boundaries of Dunkley,a Victorian electorate that – due to itsMarch 2 byelection and the government’s newly announced tax turnaround – is at the epicentre of national politics. He says the most critical issue in the electorate is plain to everyone who lives there. “A lot of people out there struggling,” Collins says. “You see it in the streets.”

The central question facing the voters of Dunkley,one that will resonate beyond the bayside suburbs and inland housing estates of this traditionally marginal electorate,is whether the federal government genuinely understands how bad things are and is serious about helping.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has broken his word to show his government does. If the stage 3 tax cuts supported by Labor at the last federal election are amended to fit the radically,reshaped design unveiled by Albanese his week,then according to Labor’s calculations,87 per cent of working people in Dunkley will come out ahead. Despite this calculus,Collins’ wife Bec is not convinced. “I don’t think they know how hard it is for families right now,” she says.

“With the tax cuts,people are going to be angry because it is a broken promise. Everyone is struggling. Even people in the higher tax brackets are struggling. I felt like Peta Murphy really understood families and community and how hard people are doing it. There are not many politicians who seem to.”

Labor candidate for Dunkley Jodie Belyea in the electorate in Melbourne’s south-east on Friday.

Labor candidate for Dunkley Jodie Belyea in the electorate in Melbourne’s south-east on Friday. Jason South

Peta Murphy was a popular local woman and Labor politician who served as the member for Dunkley from 2019 until shedied of cancer shortly before Christmas. The byelection to choose the next member for Dunkley had – until this week’s tax announcement – shaped as a very local contest betweenJodie Belyea,a community worker inspired by Murphy to join the Labor Party,andNathan Conroy,Frankston mayor and Liberal candidate who says he too knows the pain of the financial squeeze being felt by so many Australian families since the end of the pandemic.

Albanese’s address at the National Press Club this week,where he outlined his proposed changes to tax cuts legislated by the previous government with Labor’s support,has supercharged the battle for Dunkley.

Political strategist and former Labor campaign manager Kos Samaras says the byelection vote will demonstrate whether the government’s tax gambit,one he says Albanese had no choice but to make,will be enough to regain the faith of middle-Australia voters who feel neglected by Labor.

“This group of voters is the group that has been moving away from them in huge chunks over the past 12 months,” Samaras says. “These are the people who didn’t vote for the proposition at the[Voice] referendum. They are barely keeping their head above water and experiencing significant mortgage stress. This is the group that thinks federal Labor has been preoccupied with things other than them.”

“They feel like they are ignored by the major political parties,that the media and political bubbles have been preoccupied with other things,that the affordability crisis is something they are really struggling to cope with and no one is in their corner trying to help them.”

Liberal candidate Nathan Conroy,who has served as the City of Frankston mayor for the past three years,in Dunkley on Friday.

Liberal candidate Nathan Conroy,who has served as the City of Frankston mayor for the past three years,in Dunkley on Friday.Jason South

For Peter Dutton’s opposition,the stakes are just as high. It will take a massive 6.3 per cent swing,in a very difficult state for the Liberal Party,for the seat of Dunkley to change hands. Yet,if the Libs don’t win on March 2,they have to make serious inroads.

As Samaras explains and senior Liberal figures confirm,winning outer-urban seats such as Dunkley,with its predominantly Anglo,TAFE-educated voters who,on the night of the 2021 Census held mortgages at a rate well above the national average,is the only path back to power the Coalition can see. The seat covers an unusually monochromatic part of Melbourne,with nearly two-thirds of the electorate nominating English,Irish or Scottish ancestry as part of their ethnicity. It is also economically diverse,with the affluent streets of Mount Eliza bearing little resemblance to the housing estates of Carrum Downs. If the Liberals succeed in Dunkley,this campaign will convince them they are on the right track in Labor seats such as Werriwa,Macarthur and Greenway in NSW,McEwen in Victoria,Hasluck in Western Australia and Blair in Queensland. “This will test Dutton’s theory,” Samaras says. “That is why it is a must-win for both. Absolute cracker of a by-election.”

Rarely for a byelection,the two candidates are in fierce agreement about what the central issue is. Belyea has been door-knocking for two weeks and says the thing on everyone’s mind is cost of living. “That has been the consistent thing that locals have been talking about.” Conroy nominates three issues. Cost of living,cost of living...and cost of living. Both candidates are also eager to talk about the Albanese government’s tax cuts:Belyea for the relief she says it will bring families in Dunkley;Conroy for the broken promise it represents.

“These stage 3 tax cuts were in place for many years,” Conroy says. “There was a conversation,research and everything done,and[Albanese] promised before the election that he was going to keep them.” What will Conroy say to the 87 per cent of working people in Dunkley who,according to Labor,will pay less tax under the government’s newly released plan than they would have under the changes legislated by the previous government? “I think 100 per cent of people don’t want people to lie to them.” Conroy also points out that the tax changes won’t come into force for five months. “People are struggling right now,” he said. “They are everyday,hardworking Australians. People just want a fair go.”

For Belyea,the new tax package shows the government gets it. “We know that there are going to be 73,000 people in Dunkley who are going to have $1500 in their pocket,which is nearly double what they would have had,” she says. “I think it just shows that the government is listening to people and taking the cost of living seriously by offering more relief.”

A former federal minister,speaking confidentially to protect their current employer,says that where the Labor campaigners want the tax debate to be about fairness,the Liberals are determined to make it about trust. Labor,however,believes that trust and integrity remain one of Albanese’s strong suits;Liberal strategists point to polling showing that Albanese’spopularity was in decline throughout the past year,as inflation drove up interest rates and the prime minister prioritised an ill-fated referendum campaign for an Indigenous Voice to parliament. About six in 10 electors in Dunkley voted against the Voice,which is in line with the national result.

Belyea says she understands what Dunkley needs through her social and community work. In 2018,she founded The Women’s Spirit Project,an initiative to improve the fitness and wellbeing of disadvantaged or marginalised women. Peta Murphy was a patron of the project. “I know what it is to work in the community,to create things that empower more people,” she says.

The late Labor MP Peta Murphy in Parliament in November.

The late Labor MP Peta Murphy in Parliament in November.Alex Ellinghausen

Conroy,at age 31,has served as the City of Frankston mayor for the past three years. Having grown up in public housing in a working-class part of Cork city in Ireland and then married a local from Carrum Downs,he has started his own family and says he knows from his stretched household budget what people in Dunkley are going through. “My mortgage has gone up $2000 a month and childcare is our second-biggest expense,” he says. “I represent them but I also am them. I’m exactly them.”

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Chip Le Grand is The Age’s chief reporter. He writes about national affairs,sport and crime,with a particular focus on Melbourne.

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