Inside Story

Greg Hunt’s zeitgeist problem

Election 2019 | Chill winds have been buffeting the health minister from all sides

James Murphy 14 May 2019 1436 words

Liberal candidate Greg Hunt campaigning at seaside Rosebud, south of Melbourne, last week. Aaron Francis/Newspix

Mutiny is breaking out on the sleepy Mornington Peninsula. The division of Flinders, normally a Liberal Party certainty, has somehow become a seat to watch. When I was growing up there, elections barely registered — they seemed to be the preserve of people elsewhere in the nation. But this time is different. This time Flinders is in doubt.

Twice through the campaign I made my way down the freeway for candidate forums. The first, on a dark and stormy May Day, saw over 400 electors crammed into the quaint Balnarring Community Hall to rage against an LNG import plant proposed for Westernport Bay. The second, last Thursday, was a candidate Q&A organised by the Australian Christian Lobby, with perhaps eighty parishioners and curious locals in the pews of the Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Hastings.

They were different crowds, to be sure: in Balnarring, sea changers, local conservationists and Saturday Paper subscribers sat alongside their climate-striking kids; in Hastings, there was a lot more white hair, dignified knits and posh rugby jumpers. Think Diver Dans and Linda Twists at the former, Harold Bishops, Howard Gribbles and perhaps the odd grumpy Alf at the latter. (Your correspondent’s native Peninsula is roughly as ethnically diverse as Australian TV was in the 90s.)

Nevertheless, both crowds were united by frustration with politics as usual, with party pointscoring, with Canberra obfuscation and evasions. And even if this was a self-selected and less-than-representative sample of the electorate, that’s got to worry local MP and federal health minister Greg Hunt, at least a little.

Flinders has been represented by the Liberal Party and its forerunners for 109 of the 118 years since Federation. It went Labor for short stints — a term here and a term there, after which the well-heeled electors of Mount Martha, Sorrento, Red Hill and Portsea came to their conservative senses. Prime minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce held the seat for thirteen years, Howard government minister Peter Reith for eighteen.

Hunt has held the seat since 2001, and over the six elections in the intervening eighteen years he has never dipped below 57 per cent of the two-party vote. He’s been the member as long as I can remember. So how did his fate come to be in doubt?

Two things seem to have come together to turn Flinders into a contest. The first is the fact that the Liberal Party is on the nose across Victoria. Last November’s “Dan-slide” to Labor saw huge swings in normally safe Liberal seats throughout Melbourne’s east and down to the Peninsula. A few even flipped to Labor: Hawthorn in the inner city; Box Hill, Bayswater and Ringwood in the eastern suburbs; and, overlapping with most of Flinders, the normally safe seat of Nepean.

We can assume a good chunk of that swing came down to the popularity of the Andrews government, but the right-wing populist tinge to state leader Matthew Guy’s campaign rhetoric also seemed to have an impact. So too did the ousting of Malcolm Turnbull, still fresh in voters’ minds then. The Liberals looked like they could no longer maintain the moderate middle ground of Australian politics, and Victoria punished them for it.

Knowing this, opponents of the Coalition have descended on the Peninsula and urged voters there to stay angry. All kinds of groups have popped up, each of them attempting to tie Hunt to what Kelly O’Dwyer might call the “climate-denying, anti-women” wing of the Liberal Party. Wilderness Society billboards up and down the freeway put Hunt’s grimacing face next to Tony Abbott’s, reminding voters he was instrumental in the dismantling of the carbon tax. Huge ads wrapped around the local newspaper, paid for by Trades Hall, ask readers, “Who will Greg Hunt stab in the back next?,” tying him to the ouster of Malcolm Turnbull and positioning him as a Dutton supporter. Indeed, lurking in the bushes outside the Holy Trinity Church in Hastings were activists waiting to ambush Hunt, one of them in a giant papier-mâché Dutton head. Progressives see blood in the water at Flinders, and the hunt for Hunt is on.

The other half of the equation is the candidacy of Julia Banks. Last election Banks ran for the Liberals in the marginal Melbourne seat of Chisholm. She was duly elected and sat on the government’s backbench, but was dismayed by the removal of Malcolm Turnbull and her colleagues’ abandonment of what she calls the “sensible centre.” She quit the Liberals to sit on the crossbench. In November she announced she wouldn’t recontest Chisholm; in January she declared she would run against Hunt in Flinders — where she apparently raised her family — as an independent. From the crossbench she not only supported the efforts of newfound centrist friends like Kerryn Phelps on the medivac bill, but also used question time to put her new opponent under pressure, wedging Hunt between his party and his electorate.

That was the theme of her pitch in Balnarring and Hastings: elect a candidate from a party and you get someone with a split loyalty. Indeed, Hunt wasn’t even present at the Balnarring forum because of an event in Canberra — a point Banks was quick to underline. During her time on the crossbench, she told both forums, she had seen how powerful independent members could be, how they could change the agenda and command the attention of the government. The voters of Flinders could get that if they elected her. They would miss out on it if they sent a government backbencher (here she means Josh Sinclair, the Labor candidate) or returned an opposition member (she clearly doubts a Coalition win).

Nobody at these forums quite made the point that Banks’s experience of crossbench power has come in the context of an effectively hung parliament; the parliamentary arithmetic may not be quite so favourable after the votes are tallied on Saturday night. Instead, people seemed genuinely impressed by her sell — they are sick of politics as usual, of parties and partisanship. (Indeed, Hunt’s emissary to the Balnarring forum, the local state MP, was just about booed off stage when he dubbed the LNG plant “Labor’s gas plant.”) Banks has captured the zeitgeist.

Greg Hunt is clearly rattled by all this. In a number of interviews and public exchanges he’s been rather tense on the topic of his seat and the challenge from Banks. But at the Holy Trinity Church in Hastings, it was clear he’s in this race to win it. In his opening address he made quite a compelling case not only for his candidacy but also for the government, talking about people whose lives have been turned around by newly listed drugs in the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme — something he says could only have happened with the economy in good shape. This is what governments are for, he says. This is why he wakes up in the morning. He appears genuinely impassioned, and it moves his audience. It’s the kind of story that could be winning votes for the Coalition all around the country, if only Hunt were able to tell it more frequently. Instead he’s stuck defending his own seat, talking to eighty parishioners in Hastings.

Flinders is not the only Liberal heartland seat to suddenly and rather unusually come into play this election. In Melbourne, after eons as safe Liberal seats, Kooyong and Higgins are both live contests. In Sydney, Wentworth is being defended by independent Kerryn Phelps and Warringah is under siege by independent Zali Steggall — both seats associated with recent Liberal prime ministers. And there are others. We can only guess the resources the Liberals are pulling off the marginal front line to shore up their vote in some of their safest seats, but rumours of more than a million dollars being poured into Josh Frydenberg’s seat of Kooyong — to not much effect, if Monday’s polling is to be believed — gives you a rough feel for the scale.

With the mutiny in Flinders and seats like it, we are a long way away from the days of election campaigns fought out entirely in Western Sydney — days when, for most of us, elections seemed to be decided by other people elsewhere. Far more of the country is experiencing a real contest this election. Far more of the electoral map is in play. The election may well get called early this Saturday night, but the way that majority gets cobbled together and the outcome of some of these weird and unexpected contests will be well worth staying up late for. •