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Wherever there’s a marginal seat, there’s a politician from the Coalition or Labor pledging millions of dollars. By Karen Middleton.

Big-dollar pledges for marginal seats

Prime Minister Scott Morrison (centre) flanked by Liberal member for La Trobe Jason Wood (left) and Minister for Cities, Urban Infrastructure and Population Alan Tudge (right).
Credit: AAP Image / Ellen Smith

Federal Coalition and Labor MPs and candidates are pledging billions of dollars in local grants for roads, commuter car parks, mental health centres and sports facilities in a frenzied sandbagging exercise in their most vulnerable marginal seats.

Victorian Liberal MPs appear to be leading the charge with commitments worth nearly $1 billion made in the Liberal-held seat of La Trobe alone – not including the cost of four 500-space commuter car parks at local railway stations that were promised without a nominated price tag.

Incumbent MP Jason Wood has announced $938 million in funding pledges, including $623 million on road upgrades in the outer-Melbourne electorate, which is in danger of falling to Labor.

Elsewhere in Victoria, in the even more vulnerable Liberal-held seat of Dunkley, which is notionally Labor after the recent electoral redistribution adjusted its boundaries to account for population shift, incumbent Chris Crewther has promised $300 million in grants.

This includes $228 million in railway station upgrades and 800 commuter parking spaces at Frankston, Seaford and Kananook railway stations, which Crewther has said will cost $38.5 million.

Crewther came under opposition attack, on the last sitting day before parliament was prorogued, for announcing local grants in a funding program that had not even opened for applications, a move the government dismissed as an error.

Several of the biggest funding commitments in last month’s federal budget are proving electorally useful for Coalition MPs, particularly the “congestion-busting” road allocations, mental health package and community grants programs.

A number of marginal-seat Liberal MPs and candidates have announced funding for headspace centres in their electorates, with Labor candidates often matching the pledges.

On the day the election was called – and after the government went into caretaker mode – Health Minister Greg Hunt and Indigenous Health Minister Ken Wyatt unveiled a $19 million men’s health strategy and another $11 million for the Men’s Shed movement, covering a series of grants and the provision of a portable defibrillator for every men’s shed in Australia.

The commuter car park funding is part of a $500 million park-and-ride package the federal government unveiled in its budget. The package covers 50 commuter car parks across Australia.

Liberal MP for Deakin Michael Sukkar has made more than $112 million in promises since the election was called, including $74.5 million on road upgrades and $30 million on 747 more spaces at two commuter car parks at the Heatherdale and Heathmont railway stations.

That follows three others providing another 1500 spaces at Croydon, Ringwood and Mitcham, which he says have already commenced.

He also dropped in to a men’s shed at the end of the first campaign week.

Sukkar is facing a campaign against him led by activist group GetUp! because of his role in the challenge to Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership.

Three more commuter car parks have been promised in the marginal Liberal-held seat of Forde, on Brisbane’s outskirts, with incumbent MP Bert van Manen announcing car parks for Beenleigh, Loganlea and Coomera at a cost of $45 million.

Van Manen is also among those to promise to fund a new headspace centre, one of many MPs announcing new centres across Australia.

New infrastructure is featuring heavily in election funding promises, with Liberal National MP Michelle Landry, incumbent in the marginal central Queensland seat of Capricornia, promising $20 million for a 1000-seat convention centre at the Keppel Bay Sailing Club and another $10 million to build the Urannah Dam.

In the at-risk Labor-held seat of Braddon, in Tasmania’s north-west, incumbent Justine Keay has promised $146 million in road upgrades, plus another $12 million in training centres, sports-facility upgrades, weed eradication and education centres. Her total includes $3.5 million on a new headspace mental health facility in Burnie.

Keay retained Braddon at a byelection on last year’s so-called super Saturday, held after four MPs including Keay were ruled ineligible to sit in parliament over dual nationality.

The Liberal challenger, Gavin Pearce, is spruiking a $100 million funding pledge that Prime Minister Scott Morrison made in Braddon a week into the campaign for five irrigation projects in the state’s south.

He has made other promises worth another $11 million, two-thirds of which is part of a package focused on facilities on King Island. The remaining almost $4 million has been earmarked for manufacturing facilities, sports clubs and infrastructure.

The north-eastern Tasmanian seat of Bass is Labor’s most at-risk Tasmanian seat and arguably its most vulnerable nationally. There, incumbent Ross Hart is campaigning on a $150 million roads funding package he announced with shadow infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese on Wednesday.

Labor has also promised a $7 million boost to the Royal Flying Doctor Service in the area.

Hart has announced a slew of would-be $150,000 grants to local football clubs if Labor wins government, as part of a $5 million commitment to supporting local football in regional Tasmania.

Both Coalition and Labor MPs are promising to pour money into local sporting teams, especially for upgrades to netball and football club facilities.

But Hart’s Liberal opponent, Bridget Archer, has been highlighting – and attacking – two funding pledges Labor leader Bill Shorten made on campaign trips to the much-visited Apple Isle.

He has pledged $50 million for the Tasmanian tourism drawcard the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), and another $25 million towards an Australian Football League team for Hobart – promises Labor hopes will have statewide appeal.

Archer and Gavin Pearce have both condemned the AFL funding, declaring the money could fund hospitals and health – including 850 hip replacements or nine years of flu shots for the state’s entire population – instead.

On April 18, Prime Minister Morrison and Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman had Archer with them when Morrison pledged an extra $25 million for Tasmania’s health system – coincidentally the same amount Labor had allocated to the AFL team, and described as such.

The pledge followed a previous commitment of $92 million towards Tasmanian health that Morrison had made in Launceston – with Archer and Health Minister Greg Hunt alongside him – the day before calling the election.

Like other candidates, Bridget Archer has also been announcing funding allocations on the Morrison government’s behalf – despite not being in parliament.

One of those, the Liberal candidate for the highly marginal New South Wales coastal seat of Gilmore, Warren Mundine, was involved in the announcement of a $1.4 billion commitment to fund the Berry bypass on the Princes Highway south of Sydney.

In the Western Sydney seat of Lindsay, which the Liberals hope to wrest from Labor following the dumping of incumbent MP Emma Husar, Liberal candidate Melissa McIntosh announced on April 13 that she was “fighting” to upgrade a local traffic blackspot, Dunheved Road, and had started a petition.

On April 30, the candidate announced that Morrison had “officially committed” $63.5 million to fund the road upgrade, suggesting she was personally responsible for the development. Her announcement did not mention that for the government to officially commit the funds, a decision would need to have been made before it entered caretaker mode on April 11 – two days before she launched her petition.

McIntosh’s petition served as a strong hint to Labor that the Liberals were preparing to make an announcement.

Labor’s candidate for Lindsay, Diane Beamer, made her own announcement on April 28 that a Labor government would fund the road upgrade.

These estimates of campaign spending promises in marginal seats, based on announcements posted on candidates’ Facebook pages, are likely conservative.

This week, the major parties struck trouble over other kinds of online posts from their candidates, with both Liberal and Labor candidates being disendorsed or put under pressure to resign over comments deemed unacceptable.

After former MP Melissa Parke quit as Labor’s candidate for the Perth-based seat of Curtin in the first week of the election campaign over past comments criticising Israel, one of its Northern Territory senate candidates, Wayne Kurnoth, was disendorsed this week for anti-Semitic online posts.

The Labor candidate for the seat of Melbourne, Luke Creasey, was also in the spotlight after it was revealed he had made a rape joke on social media some years ago.

On Wednesday, the Liberals dumped two Victorian candidates in Labor-held seats – Jeremy Hearn in Isaacs, over anti-Islam comments, and Peter Killin, in Wills, after he endorsed a description of Liberal MP Tim Wilson as a “notorious homosexual”.

Morrison said it was appropriate that the two Liberal candidates be dropped.

“We have seen the same thing happening with the Labor Party,” Morrison said on Wednesday.

“… For the Liberal Party in this day and age when there’s social media, multiple postings and all these sorts of things, that obviously represents new challenges in the vetting of candidates. This is something I’ll certainly be expecting the party to be working on and improving their processes.”

At a campaign news conference, Morrison rejected a suggestion from Opposition Leader Shorten that his party was riddled with extremists as “absolute nonsense”.

The next day, Morrison was cleaning up more mess on another visit to Tasmania. He was questioned over yet another online controversy, this time involving the Liberal candidate for the Labor-held seat of Lyons, Jessica Whelan, and strongly anti-Muslim social media posts she was accused of having made.

Whelan, who was at the same event, was shielded from the media as Morrison fielded the questions.

The prime minister declared she had been the victim of hacking and had not posted the content. “I don’t think it’s hard to believe in this day and age that images can be doctored,” he said when journalists challenged his explanation.

He referred the matter to the Australian Federal Police, a move that might have shelved debate on the issue beyond the election.

But on Thursday night, screenshots of more posts surfaced, and on Friday morning, Whelan resigned as a candidate.

Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek had demanded the Liberal Party take the same action against Whelan as it had against Jeremy Hearn for his anti-Muslim comments and disendorse her.

But Plibersek then refused to respond to questions about Labor’s Luke Creasey and his rape joke. On Friday, with more of his social media history being called into question, Creasey too resigned from his candidacy.

As the election tempo increases on the way to May 18 and the dirt units go into overdrive in the final fortnight, both major parties may be wishing for a return to the controlled calm of Easter and Anzac Day. But there are still some things money can’t buy.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 4, 2019 as "Money porks". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.