Discontent in Melbourne’s west sees Labor rivals set to shake up the party’s stronghold

It’s school pickup time at Point Cook in Melbourne and cars are bumper to bumper along the state’s namesake road.

It’s emblematic of the infrastructure problems in this rapidly growing part of town. Wherever you turn in the west, roads, transportation, schools and hospitals are pressing issues for voters. It’s generally safe territory for Labor – but discontent is brewing.

Liberal and independent candidates unite in accusing the government of neglecting the region and not keeping its promises.

Angela Newhouse, who challenges Point Cook’s newly created electorate for the Liberals, calls Point Cook Road a major local trouble spot. “For four and a half years I struggled to get up and down at a snail’s pace with tens of thousands of other angry commuters,” she says.

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Within Labour, there are fears that the western fringe will register significant swings against the party. These heartland seats have been disproportionately affected by Covid and in the federal election in May Labor saw significant swings against it in the outer suburban Victorian seats.

The party’s candidate for Point Cook, Mat Hilakari – an organizer for the Socialist Left faction – says Labor has a positive story to tell about road improvements in the west, but admits there is still work to be done .

“It’s about making sure there’s the infrastructure that people need,” he says. “One of the important things is being able to get around – to get to work, to get home – quickly.”

Hilakari focuses on Labor’s track record as the party of government that will be able to deliver on promises such as $109.6 million to double the capacity of the emergency department at Werribee Mercy Hospital and upgrade one of the most dangerous intersections on Point Cook Road.

The opposition, meanwhile, is pledging $146 million to duplicate a section of the road as part of a $1.5 billion funding pledge for roads in Melbourne’s west.

While the Liberals have high hopes, experts say Labor voters are more likely to switch to independent candidates in hopes of riding the ‘teal wave’ of the federal election.

Related: Victorian state election 2022: what you need to know before November 26

Election analyst Ben Raue says preferred results for two-party Liberals rose in May in the northern and western suburbs federal electorates of Gorton, Fraser and Hawke, due to preference flows from smaller parties. Even so, the party winning seats this month in Labor’s western strongholds would be a “real stretch”, he says. “It’s much more of a long-term strategy.”

New state donation laws — capping financial contributions at $4,320 per organization or person for each campaign — could hamper independent efforts because they prevent large donations from financiers like Simon Holmes à Court, who has backed Teal candidates at the federal level.

A top independent, GP and former obstetrician Joe Garra, won almost 20% of the vote in the primary when he ran against Treasurer Tim Pallas in Werribee in 2018.

After a redistribution of electoral districts, he is now running in Point Cook, which replaced the Altona seat. Based on the preferred bipartisan 2018 results, Labor notionally owns Point Cook with a margin of 12.8%.

Garra wants more specialized health services, including cardiology, and expanded maternity care at Werribee Mercy Hospital.

Questioning the local credentials of the Labor candidate

In neighboring Tarneit – a seat held by Labor since its inception in 2002 – the party is pinning its hopes on Dylan Wight, a former Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union organizer who also hails from the party’s left-wing faction.

Wight says he has yet to detect a ‘seismic shift’ away from Labor as he promotes the party’s school delivery and transport credentials in an electorate that is home to the second V/Line station busiest in the state after Southern Cross. Last month, as part of a $200million transport package, Labor pledged to build a new Tarneit West station.

“It will go a long way to ensuring that people in this community can hop on a train, get to work more easily, but also hop on a train and experience all that Victoria has to offer,” he says.

The ALP hopes to avoid a repeat of Fowler’s result in Sydney’s west in May’s federal poll. Former mayor and independent candidate Dai Le defeated former shadow MP Kristina Keneally, who had been parachuted from the city’s affluent northern beaches.

Wight’s liberal opponent, Preet Singh, says 17 years of life in the electorate gives him a deep understanding of the issues facing the region. He says Labor setting up Wight, which moved to Tarneit this year, proves the party ‘doesn’t take us seriously’.

But Wight, who grew up in Geelong, dismisses such criticism, saying that as an AMWU organizer during the closure of Toyota’s Altona plant in 2017, he stood with many workers from Tarneit who lost their jobs.

Singh also took aim at the Labor Party station announcement. “It’s no coincidence that the government is making this announcement now…people aren’t that naive,” he said.

His party has pledged $100 million for a new train station in Tarneit and a multipurpose sports complex, but there is no timetable and it is unclear how the funding would be divided.

Win or lose, Singh, who runs a solar installation business, wants to ensure Tarneit is no longer “a safe headquarters”.

“People need a fair course…we need investment, we need infrastructure, we need schools, we need a better hospital system,” he says. “If you drive around Tarneit, the roads still look like country roads…and all the schools are overcrowded.

‘Nothing has changed’

In the fringe seat of Melton – Australia’s third fastest growing local government area, according to the latest census, and which was given a high priority ‘target’ seat by the Labor Party’s campaign seat – Incumbent Steve McGhie faces the state’s former Liberal MP. Graham Watt.

The challenger points to the need for a hospital, road repairs and strategies to reduce congestion as key flashpoints.

“People have been waiting for a generation or more for a hospital,” says Watt. “Why do we have to wait so long for hospitals when in the eastern suburbs you can get a hospital in three years?”

The Opposition pledged $900 million for a new hospital to serve the Western Growth Corridor and promised construction would begin within a year. Labor, after pledging to build a hospital in Melton ahead of the 2018 election, also pledged $900 million, saying the hospital will open by 2029.

One Melton voter, Christine Steel, told Guardian Australia that roads and the hospital would be the biggest problems for her at the voting booth. She says she thinks the Andrews government has “definitely not taken care of this area”.

McGhie is pushing for better access to job training. “I would love to see Tafe back in Melton in the next few years,” he says.

Related: The Daniel Andrews paradox: The lingering appeal of Australia’s most controversial prime minister

The government has pledged $650million to improve V/Line train services, but there is no timetable for when electrified Tube trains will arrive in Melton – despite Labor Party promises before their landslide victory in 2018.

Dr Ian Birchall, a scientist at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience who won 10.5% of the primary vote in Melton in the 2018 election after campaigning for a hospital, is running for the seat again. He jokes that he could recycle his campaign because “nothing has changed”.

He calls the government’s plan to build a 240-bed hospital insufficient, saying it will have to accommodate up to 500 patients. He is also campaigning for a hospital complex in private-public partnership, integrating teaching and a Tafe in the same district.

Birchall acknowledges that as an independent he would not be part of a government party, but says he could still “draw attention to the fact that we are missing so much”.

Wight and McGhie – a former leader of the Ambulance Employees Union – reject claims that Labor has neglected West Melbourne. “Tarneit received, in dollars and cents, comparable to any fringe electorate in Victoria,” Wight said.

Regardless of the outcome of this election, Labor rivals are determined to give the party a wake-up call.

Garra, the Point Cook independent, says his aim, unless elected, is to squeeze Labor’s margin at Point Cook.

“I want the government’s vote to fall for them to say, ‘Oh my god, we almost lost the seat, we have to take care of them better,'” he said. has happened in recent years, but that’s the reality.

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