The chill winds of change and the battle for Goldstein’s golden mile

By Royce Millar

Candidates for Goldstein: Independent “Voices” candidate Zoe Daniel and Liberal MP Tim Wilson.Credit:Simon Schluter

It’s a chilly morning at the Royal Brighton Yacht Club and not just because of the breeze across Port Phillip Bay.

There’s an unusual disquiet among the Icebergers, the stoic ladies and gents who gather for early morning, cold water swims, all year round.

They’re a close-knit bunch, but some have recently broken with the group’s unwritten “no politics” rule by donning T-shirts supporting the federal candidacy of former ABC TV reporter Zoe Daniel in the seat of Goldstein.

Keith Badger (centre) and some Brighton Icebergers supporting Goldstein Independent candidate Zoe Daniel. Credit:Photo: Paul Jeffers

Daniel, 49, is one of a mainly female wave of independent candidates contesting Coalition seats at this election, some are part of the “Voices” movement inspired by Cathy McGowan, the former Independent member for Indi in northern Victoria, and some supported by Climate 200, the fundraising body founded by clean energy advocate Simon Holmes a Court.

Daniel, backed by a local Voices group and part-funded by Climate 200, describes herself as a “disruptor” of the two-party, male-dominated political order that, she says, is so broken it’s unable to address the biggest challenges of our times like climate change.

She even has the Icebergers warming up about politics.

“It’s fair to say that the open support for Zoe has sparked some tension about the election – some good-natured debate among friends,” says Keith Badger, a keen Iceberger and a one-time British Conservative party member who voted for Tim Wilson in 2016 and who is now Daniel’s campaign director.

No one denies Daniel’s visibility, including incumbent Liberal MP Tim Wilson, 42, who rails against the cashed-up “cavalcade” of outsider environmental activists encroaching on the “pleasant streets” of his electorate.

Some campaigns just have a zeitgeist, an energy and momentum that make things happen – the “it’s time” factor. But is it really time for Goldstein, named after Vida Goldstein, an early suffragist who unsuccessfully contested five elections as an independent early last century?

It’s a big ask.

Goldstein– formerly known as Balaclava – is among the bluest of blue ribbon Liberal seats, held since federation 121 years ago by conservative MPs, all male. In the 1940s, an independent, Arthur Coles, did hold Henty which took in a small part of the seat, but since Coles the whole of Melbourne has had just one independent federal MP – left wing footy hero Phil Cleary in Wills in the 1990s.

Melbourne has never had a female, independent federal MP.

The Golden Mile

The Royal Brighton yacht club is at the southern end of the Golden Mile, a strip of leafy streets and mansions with easy beach access, one of Melbourne’s wealthiest neighbourhoods. Goldstein is among the country’s wealthier electorates with a median weekly household income of $2018 according to the 2016 Census, well above the Australian average of $1438.

More than 43 per cent of Brighton residents have bachelor degrees or higher, twice the national average. There are more non-religious residents here than the Australian average, but 6.8 per cent describe their religion as Judaism, well above the national average of 0.4 per cent.

Results from polling booths through Goldstein show voting patterns, like property prices, reflect proximity to Port Phillip Bay.

The Liberal vote is strongest in the well-to-do bayside neighbourhoods – Brighton, Hampton, Sandringham, Black Rock and Beaumaris – but softer in the more modest inland suburbs of Bentleigh, McKinnon and Highett.

Tim Wilson first won the seat in 2016 by a record margin and retained it in 2019 with 52 per cent of the primary vote despite a swing against him.

He cut his political teeth at Monash University’s student union and as a policy director with the free market think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), and is now often described as a “moderate” or “modern” Liberal, but says he prefers just “liberal”.

He was prominent on issues such as same-sex marriage and proposed to his partner, Ryan, on the floor of the House of Representatives. But his stance on issues such as softening section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and for tinkering with superannuation, have led critics to query his moderate credentials.

Duelling campaign signs in Sandringham. Credit:Photo: Joe Armao

Daniel says the Goldstein “incumbent” is not a “moderate Liberal”. “He votes every time with Barnaby Joyce. This is not representing the people of Goldstein.”

If he is to prevail again Wilson needs to hold on to bayside Liberals, a group often characterised as well-educated, small-l Liberals interested in issues such as the environment and refugees in the tradition of the original Goldstein MP and Fraser-era frontbencher, Ian Macphee.

Daniel is banking on these same voters being sufficiently disillusioned by the long, rightward shift of the party nationally to back a respectable, centrist independent. She is a mother of two and lives in Hampton.

Such disillusionment appeared to be reflected in the 2018 state election result when the Liberals lost the seat of Hawthorn and, almost, the seat of Brighton to 19-year-old Labor candidate Declan Martin.

ABC election analyst Antony Green says that to win, Daniel needs to force Wilson’s primary vote below 45 per cent, get to 30 per cent or more herself and attract 70 to 80 per cent of preferences. Green thinks Daniel is a chance. Wilson “is in trouble”, he has told The Age.

Early polling by Climate 200 has buoyed the Daniel camp. But no one takes such numbers too seriously. What is clear is that a prominent Independent has made Goldstein a real contest, maybe for the first time.

The Black Rock Yacht Club

Against the backdrop of a sunlit Half Moon Bay, Zoe Daniel looks relaxed in front of an audience of about 400 at a packed meet-the-candidate event at the Black Rock Yacht Club.

Zoe Daniel and supporters at Black Rock Yacht Club.

It’s a mainly older, well-to-do mob many in their 60s and more, their eyes fixed on the candidate. Supporters seem to just like saying “Zoe”. For these rusted-on ABC viewers, the former foreign correspondent has star quality.

The push for Goldstein is more sophisticated than the standard, often heartfelt but under-resourced independents’ campaigns. There’s a $1 million-plus budget, a registered campaign company, an executive that directs four local committees, a small paid team including a demographer and media minder and there’s financial, strategic and publicity support from Climate 200.

Daniel will need all of this and more to win. Incumbents from the major parties have big advantages including publicly funded salaries, offices, paid staff, cars, multi-millions in taxpayer funded pork-barrelling and party expertise and resources.

The incumbent

Tim Wilson won’t use the name of his independent opponent. He’s in his electoral office on Nepean Highway East Brighton a slightly barren location removed from election theatrics in Goldstein’s major commercial centres.

Wilson’s surroundings suit his narrative. He’s painting himself almost as an underdog, battling big outside money and an alien green-left influence, standing on his reputation as a hard-working local MP who knows his constituents and their concerns: cost of living, petrol prices, school fees, national security and China, housing affordability, superannuation and climate change.

Any regrets about the Coalition’s tortured handling of climate over the past 15 years?

Goldstein MP Tim Wilson.Credit:Photo: Simon Schluter

Wilson, the assistant minister for industry, energy and emissions reduction, says the government has “landed in a very good place” with its technology-focused plan to get to carbon neutrality by 2050 while also growing the economy. “We’ve built a sustainable solution that takes the whole country forward with us,” he says.

Should the Coalition have endorsed a more ambitious emission reduction target for 2030 than the Abbott-era 26 to 28 per cent on 2005 levels?

The focus on targets is “yesterday’s conversation”, says Wilson. “It’s now all about the enabling mechanisms … scaling up technology.”

He is running hard on national security, even claiming that given circumstances including war in Europe and Chinese expansionism, Australia is in “its most dangerous decade”.

And he continues to call for Australians to be allowed to access their superannuation for a deposit on a home, an idea slammed by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull as “the craziest” he’d ever heard because of the likely hike in house prices.

Wilson insists Goldstein voters are also concerned about whether “some candidates” standing for election are “truly independent”.

He says activist groups such as GetUp and Extinction Rebellion have been unusually active on the streets of Goldstein, coinciding with anti-Tim Wilson graffiti and big money being tipped into the campaign by Climate 200.

“It all seems to be miraculously around supporting exactly the same issues that some candidates (Daniel) are supporting.”

Tim Wilson’s election campaign launch. Wilson says his community relationships are built on active engagement.Credit:Photo: Eddie Jim

Wilson, who lives in Sandringham, says he will spend nothing like “they” (Daniel) do, and won’t need to because his relationships with the community “are personal and built on hard work and active engagement”.

He refuses to disclose his campaign budget. Daniel says she needs to raise $1.2 million and has already raised close to $1 million, including more than $400,000 from Climate 200.

So, who does Wilson believe is his real opponent? Labor or Daniel?

Both, says Wilson, who then revealingly talks up the ALP’s Martyn Abbott as a candidate with integrity who at least owns his Labor allegiance. In truth, Wilson wants Labor voters to stick with the ALP rather than switch to Daniel, for his own sake. If Labor outpolls Daniel, her tilt for election is finished.

Labor campaign launch

On another sunny Sunday afternoon, Labor is launching its Goldstein campaign at the Highett Bowls Club, without sea views. There’s about 60 mainly older, diehard Laborites; some have been around since the Whitlam days.

Martyn Abbott, 25, an innocent-looking electorate officer for a state Labor MP, is paying his political dues in time-honoured tradition.

ALP candidate Martyn Abbott at his campaign launch Credit:Photo: Scott McNaughton

“Is Labor serious about Goldstein?”The Age asks: “Well I’m serious,” says Abbott: “People want action on climate change, and they want an end to what has been almost a decade of rorts.”

He has just $10,000 raised locally for his campaign so far and is hoping for another $10,000.

No one at the Labor launch really thinks they will win. Labor’s primary vote in 2019 was 28.3 per cent. Yet over cups of tea and ribbon sandwiches there is a bit of a buzz among the party faithful – about Daniel.

Jim Magee (Labor) is the mayor of Glen Eira in the north-east of the electorate. “Goldstein is getting the biggest shake up the seat’s ever had,” he says. “Zoe Daniel has something that the people of Goldstein want.”

And the Greens? Daniel is expected to absorb a lot of the party’s 14 per cent primary vote from 2019. In a close race the remaining Greens preferences could be important. Greens’ candidate Alana Galli-McRostie refused to be interviewed for this story.

The challenger

Back in Hampton, The Age is in an op shop asking for thoughts about the looming Goldstein election. “It’s between Tim Wilson and Zoe Daniel,” says sales assistant and Bentleigh resident, Amy Derksen.

Daniel agrees. She’s in a spacious cafe not far from her Hampton home. “In reality it’s me against the incumbent.” Like Wilson, Daniel never uses her opponent’s name.

She decided to run for Goldstein after her children urged her to do something about climate change. “There comes a point where you can only shout at the TV or rant on Facebook for so long,” she says.

Zoe Daniel runs in the electorate.Credit:Photo: Simon Schluter

She backs a 60 per cent emissions cut by 2030, compared to the Coalition’s 26 to 28 per cent, Labor’s 43 per cent and the Greens’ 75 per cent.

Among her proposals for achieving the cut are redirecting all taxpayer subsidies from fossil fuels to renewables, a ban on new coal and gas developments, fixing the power grid to support more solar energy and an independent climate body to hold governments accountable on emissions.

Like other independents, she has also prioritised government integrity and transparency, calling for an anti-corruption commission with teeth, a code of conduct for MPs, the capping of political spending and disclosure of all donations over $1000.

Daniel is pragmatic when it comes to her campaign. She only requires disclosure of donations of more than $14,500, consistent with Australia’s famously lax electoral laws.

She says she despairs at the “insincerity” of the Coalition’s response to the issues around workplace safety for women in Canberra and is calling for full implementation of recommendations of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s Respect@Work report, and of the recommendations of the Set The Standard report on behaviour in parliament.

Daniel dismisses allegations of being a Labor stooge as a Coalition “construct”, stressing she has never been a member of a political party and has always been a swinging voter, which includes voting for Wilson in 2016. “I am the person who goes into the polling booth and thinks ‘neither of these parties represents me’.”

She says has “no preconceived notion” of supporting either Labor or the Coalition in the case of a hung parliament.

Daniel says her policy priorities – developed with her constituents – would be clear. She would talk to the Coalition and Labor and assess which party is best able, and sufficiently trustworthy, to help deliver them. She will not be drawn on how far she would go supporting either side – if, for example, she would guarantee budget supply on the floor of parliament.

She does, however, rule out accepting a portfolio by either side if offered.

The polling booth

It’s a Monday evening at the Sandringham Football Club and upwards of 300 have turned out for Tim Wilson’s formal launch. Special guest Health Minister Greg Hunt says it’s the biggest Liberal launch he’s ever seen for a single seat.

Wilson fires up the crowd railing against the independent-Climate 200’s “insidious plan to buy our community’s voice” which, he says, has awoken “a giant” – Goldstein Liberals.

Brighton Liberal member and sustainable marketing specialist Nadya Krienke-Becker is staying loyal to Wilson. “I just know that there is definitely strong support for Tim among Liberals in Goldstein.

Nadya Krienke-Becker is a Tim Wilson supporter in Goldstein. Credit: Photo: Simon Schluter

“Hand on heart,” she says, “I believe the Liberal party is moving our economy ahead as we also move toward zero carbon.”

In attendance also is former Bayside mayor, Felicity Frederico, OAM, a self-described “disgruntled moderate” who has unsuccessfully contested preselection three times for the state seat of Brighton.

Frederico says Daniel’s candidacy has locals exercised about politics “because there’s now a choice”.

Former Bayside mayor Felicity Frederico says Zoe Daniel is “gaining traction” among traditional Liberal and Labor voters in the area.Credit:Photo: Simon Schluter

As for her own voting intentions? “I think there’s an appetite for political leadership based on a platform of trust, respect and humility – leadership that reflects the demographics of the wider community, because we do need more women in parliament.”

Not quite an endorsement of Daniel, but pretty close.

Frederico says the challenger is “gaining traction” among traditional Liberal and Labor voters but stresses that many remain undecided.

It’s those many people of Goldstein yet to make up their minds who Wilson and Daniel need to convince.

Jacqueline Maley cuts through the noise of the federal election campaign with news, views and expert analysis. Sign up to our Australia Votes 2022 newsletter here.

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