Page updated July 4, 2022

ABC News: Battleground seats reveal contest of ideas as federal election draws closer

February 6, 2022
Belinda Lo says funding for family violence services will be a vote-changer for some people.(ABC News: Matthew Doran)

Wandering the streets of Melbourne’s Box Hill on Lunar New Year, it was clear something was not right in the usually bustling and vibrant slice of suburbia.

“The vibe — well it’s COVID. You can’t be celebrating, right?” Steven Zheng remarked.

It would usually be a struggle to get a table in one of Mr Zheng’s restaurants around lunchtime.

But as we took a seat and pored over the enticing menu, he was obviously worried about how he could keep his kitchens running.

“Now out of lockdown, but with case numbers so high, it’s still very difficult in terms of finding staff that want to work in this kind of environment,” he said.


Like many businesses in the area, Mr Zheng’s restaurants have struggled through the two years of the pandemic. He even lost one of his chefs to the virus.

The affable businessman is not looking for financial handouts from governments, but he is hungry for a coherent plan to help his restaurants survive into the future.

“Which is easier said than done, but that’s why these people are the leaders, right? They have to come up with the solutions,” he said.

“It’s probably the most difficult time to lead the country in a global crisis, but from the results it hasn’t seemed like an A-plus [effort].”

Chisholm an electorate to watch

Lunar New Year is a time of renewal and hope, when wishes for good health and prosperity are spread through the community.

But COVID-19 continues to cast a long shadow over Australia and it has forced the cancellation or postponement of most large-scale Lunar New Year celebrations on health and safety grounds.

It has also brought a number of perennial election issues into even sharper focus, with leaders under pressure to outline their vision and, more importantly, plans for rebuilding a fatigued and frustrated country.

2022 is the Year of the Tiger — an animal symbolising strength, power and leadership — traits the nation’s leaders will be hoping the public see in them during the campaign.

Box Hill’s main shopping strip is in the Melbourne electorate of Chisholm — one of the most multicultural seats anywhere in the country.

It is also one of the most at risk for the Coalition at the next election, sitting on a wafer-thin margin of just 0.5 per cent. A handful of votes could change the fate of Chisholm, currently held by first-term Liberal MP Gladys Liu.

“From the leaders that I voted for in [2019], I do judge them based on the results that have come out of the pandemic,” Mr Zheng said.

Richard Shi was part of the team organising Lunar New Year celebrations in Box Hill, but had to make the difficult decision to postpone the festival.

“In previous years we’ve had around about 60,000 to 100,000 people show up and, you know, during COVID that’s not really a good thing,” he said.

Planning the festival had been difficult enough.

“I think we made 200 calls in one day asking for potential food vendors, and 70 per cent of them came back bankrupt — like, they were gone,” he explained.

A member of the Asian Business Association of Whitehorse, Mr Shi said the local economy had been decimated.

“There have been business owners that have been here for 20 years. I’ve seen a business owner go out of business and they were one of the first shops in Box Hill Central,” he said.

“So it’s pretty sad, it’s a very, very sad time.”

Mr Shi insisted there was a role for all governments to play in providing support for small businesses.

“We live in Australia, we live in Victoria, we do business in the City of Whitehorse,” he said.

“I think it’s a team effort, and there just needs to be some help for the small guys.

“We can’t just hand out money, I understand that, but you know there has to be some type of middle ground.”

Strain on social services high

While the empty shopfronts and streets tell the tale of the economic cost of the pandemic, the social toll has also been high.

“When lockdowns were slightly eased, there was a huge increase of demand on our services, particularly for our family violence and elder abuse victim survivors,” Belinda Lo, from the Eastern Community Legal Centre, said.

In two decades of practice, Ms Lo has seen a dramatic shift in the national conversation around family violence and the treatment of women — particularly in the last year, since allegations of a toxic culture in Parliament House brought the issue into direct sight of political leaders.

However, she is not convinced real solutions are on the table.

“I think people are well meaning, but it can appear to be very knee jerk sometimes,” she said.

“I personally get really frustrated when I hear that family violence has got to do with particular families or with particular sort of social dynamics of individuals — it’s not. Family violence occurs because society is formed in a way where there is inequality between our genders.

“For those of us who have had firsthand experience of family violence, either ourselves or people that we love, or those of us who work in the family violence sector, it definitely would be a vote changer in some way.”

Housing affordability high on voters’ lists

Chisholm, while hotly contested, is just one of 151 House of Representatives electorates up for grabs. Almost a third of those seats are on a margin of less than 6 per cent.

With a surging real estate market and rental shortages, the search for affordable housing is hitting most corners of the country.

In the Brisbane electorate of Griffith, held by Labor’s Terri Butler on a margin of 2.9 per cent, Noam O’Reilly is among the young renters battling it out for a place to call home.

“I’ve been a renter for 10 years now, and during that 10 years I’ve lived in nine different places,” they said.

“We were told that our lease was up for renewal in March and we were told that the owners were wanting to put it on the market, I assume because the market is doing so well at the moment.”

Mx O’Reilly has lost their job in the arts sector during the pandemic and has gone back to university to study law.

Juggling work, study and house hunting is proving a challenge.

“You’re trying to go to as many inspections as you possibly can, and when you’re at those inspections, there are large groups of people going through — between 50 and 100 people seeing the property at one viewing,” they said.

Local winemaker David Feldheim said strong leadership was necessary to get the country out of its COVID-19 slump, but warned matters unrelated to the virus needed to be addressed.

Smoke from recent major bushfires in Tasmania and further afield in recent years has damaged his grapes.

“It’s just shocking, the complete lack of response to the bushfire, and the whole odour of climate change, which I see as a farmer on the front line,” he said.

“I see less rain, I see warmer days, I see crops getting ripe earlier.”

Mr Feldheim said his wife’s family had been making wine for generations, but his children might struggle to continue the tradition without proper action on climate.


You can read the original story here


Go To Top