Arithmetic is compelling as a three-cornered fight for Higgins heats up

The idea that Higgins voters sit comfortably in multimillion-dollar homes might be true enough in places like Toorak, but it’s far from reality for much of the electorate. Almost half of the voters in many areas rent, rather than own their homes. In South Yarra, it’s 54 per cent.

Greens candidate Sonya Semmens says she knows first-hand the struggles of renting in Melbourne.

Greens candidate Sonya Semmens says she knows first-hand the struggles of renting in Melbourne.Credit:Eddie Jim

The City of Stonnington, which is almost entirely within Higgins, has 40 per cent renters, and across the electorate, the proportion of tenants is about 43 per cent. Windsor, transferred into the electorate in the redistribution, records the highest Greens vote in the state seat of Prahran, which is held by the Greens.

Allen concedes she is in a battle but says she feels it is “less feral” than at the 2019 election, when she was a new candidate. She believes that three years later, she is well known in Higgins and has built a strong support base.

“It felt tight last time, but I won 54-46 [on a two-party preferred basis]”She says.

Still, voters are more familiar with Prime Minister Scott Morrison this time, too. Higgins is one of those socially moderate electorates where Morrison’s style of conservatism doesn’t sit well.

Former Prime Minister John Howard campaigned alongside Liberal MP Katie Allen in Malvern on Tuesday.

Former Prime Minister John Howard campaigned alongside Liberal MP Katie Allen in Malvern on Tuesday.Credit:Eddie Jim

John Howard stopped by to gladhand voters on Tuesday, but the current prime minister has now been seen.

Allen, however, says that when voters say they don’t like Morrison, she asks them, “Do you like what he’s done?” “And they say,‘ yes ’,” she says.

Unlike neighboring electorate Kooyong, where Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is facing a significant challenge from teal independent Monique Ryan and her vast number of volunteers, Allen has no teal army to battle against in Higgins.

Nevertheless, the presence of two determined campaigns – Labor and the Greens – makes the arithmetic compelling.

Former prime minister and Higgins MP Harold Holt on the hustings during the 1966 election campaign.

Former prime minister and Higgins MP Harold Holt on the hustings during the 1966 election campaign.Credit:The Age

If Allen’s primary vote were to fall significantly, whoever came second in the count – Labor or Green – would be in the hunt. The second place-getter – assuming their primary vote rose to somewhere in the 30 per cent range – could forge ahead, fueled by preferences from the third place-getter.

Ananda-Rajah says this election remains a hard read, but after an intense doorknocking campaign, she says she detects “a definite mood for change”.

“I’m seeing people who have voted Liberal all their lives declaring they have changed their vote this time, and I’m seeing people like this every single day,” she says.

Labor frontbencher Senator Penny Wong, who has flown in to support Ananda-Rajah, nods in vigorous agreement.

“There is an intense dislike of Scott Morrison combined with people being underwhelmed by the performance of his government.”

John Gorton, pictured with his wife Bettina, succeeded Holt as prime minister and MP for Higgins.

John Gorton, pictured with his wife Bettina, succeeded Holt as prime minister and MP for Higgins. Credit:The Age

Ananda-Rajah – an infectious diseases specialist who has worked for the past 13 years at The Alfred hospital – says she is concerned that a lack of coherent housing policy has left young people far behind.

“And after nine years of inaction, Morrison at five minutes to midnight comes up with this idea about using superannuation for housing. Who can believe him? ” she says.

Semmens is equally dismissive and says the voters of Higgins are switched-on, well-educated people who want better from their representatives.

“The young people of this electorate have been sold out on housing and climate action,” she says. Morrison’s latest housing policy stood to “impoverishing your present for the future while helping the rich”.

Semmens says she understands the pain felt by renters through personal experience.

As a single mother with two young children forced into renting after her marriage ended in 2016, she discovered homelessness after her landlord, wanting to renovate, evicted the family.

She says she applied a dozen times for rental properties and was knocked back each time. After a desperate plea on Facebook, a friend of a friend offered her their mother’s bungalow in the Dandenong ranges.

As winter came on, the little family lived for four months in the unheated bungalow.

Without Wi-Fi, Semmens lost clients and income from her consultancy, ran out of savings and had to borrow money from family and friends to finally secure her family an apartment.

She says Morrison’s super-for-housing policy would not help her.

“I’m a woman with two children and a small business,” she says. “How could I put aside money for superannuation?

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“How can we expect politicians to make decisions for average Australians experiencing housing stress when politicians are some of the biggest property investors?”

A mid-May chill descends as the sun disappears behind clouds, setting up goosebumps among the t-shirt brigades at the polling station. The rain pelts down. None of these competitors, however, is about to retreat.

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

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