A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

The daily commute a key issue in the home of Neighbours

Public transport, schools, open space: a typically potent political mix confronts candidates in neighbourly Forest Hill, reports Daryl Holland.

Words and pictures by Daryl Holland
 
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Camouflaged among the winding, tree-lined streets of this otherwise unremarkable part of the city lies one of Melbourne’s most popular tourist attractions.

Every day, while local residents head out to stock up on undies at Big W or attempt one of several generally unsatisfactory routes to the city for work, busloads of mostly British tourists leave the CBD and head 24 km east to a nondescript cul-de-sac in Vermont South.

Pin Oak Court, recognisable to many as Ramsay Street in the television series Neighbours, is arguably the stereotype for suburban Melbourne.

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The street (pictured right) is typical of the Forest Hill electorate, which spans suburbs — apart from its namesake — that include East Burwood, Blackburn South, Vermont, Vermont South and the north-east corner of Glen Waverley.

Forest Hill is the domain of the single storey traditional suburban home. The 2011 Census revealed that of the electorate’s 18,000 dwellings, almost 16,000 were free standing and only 69 dwellings were in apartment blocks greater than two storeys.

The electorate was created in 1976. Back then, locals would spend their summers swimming at the Nunawading Memorial Pool and having birthday parties at Wobbies World. Until quite recently, you could enjoy $8 movies at the electorate’s retail epicentre, the Forest Hill Chase shopping complex.

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The pool is still there, although it has been renovated and renamed Aqualink Nunawading. Wobbies World, however, is long gone, and is now the construction site for a new police station (pictured below). Hoyts opened a new cinema complex at Forest Hill Chase in 2011 and tickets are now $19.50.

At the last Census, 40 per cent of the population was born overseas, with China, the UK and Malaysia dominating as countries of origin. The Chinese-born population almost tripled between 2001 and 2011, from 1284 to 3419.

Politically, the electorate has worn a mostly Liberal hue. The party’s Neil Angus holds the electorate by a margin of 3.5 per cent, having wrested the seat from Labor’s Kirstie Marshall in 2010. Ms Marshall’s consecutive terms had disrupted the Liberals’ tenure which started with John Richardson (1976-2002).

There was a minor redistribution in 2013 which extended the electorate to the north-east. It now includes all of Vermont.

Mr Angus will re-contest the seat, while Labor is being represented by self-described “local community advocate” Pauline Richards and the Greens by ex-Army officer Brewis Atkinson.

The contrasting styles of Mr Angus and Ms Richards were on display in late August when both candidates spoke at a Metropolitan Transport Forum in Nunawading, attended by UniPollWatch.

Forest Hill is the domain of the single storey traditional suburban home. The 2011 Census revealed that of the electorate’s 18,000 dwellings, almost 16,000 were free standing and only 69 dwellings were in apartment blocks greater than two storeys.

Mr Angus was serious and well-prepared, giving detailed descriptions of the coalition’s transport achievements and plans. During question time, he diligently took notes from the questioners and promised to follow up each one.

Ms Richards was more relaxed, preferring to make her points with long anecdotes about her family’s regular trips on public transport instead of detailed facts and figures.

The campaigns of Mr Angus and Ms Richards have so far focussed on transport, education and community open space.

The Greens’ Mr Atkinson told UniPollWatch that the issue that most bothered him was political corruption. “Why is it that NSW and Queensland can kick out a politician every two years [for corruption], and we can’t?” 

With polls suggesting a swing back to Labor, the seat is on a knife-edge, with the candidates expected to put their cases at many public events over the coming weeks. Ms Richards acknowledged as much at the transport forum. “Neil and I, I think, are going to be spending a little bit of time together over the next 98 days or so,” she said.

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Transport remains a focus for voters. The Forest Hill electorate has no train line. To the north is the Belgrave-Lilydale line; to the south, the slower Glen Waverley line. There is a single tramline that runs from Burwood Highway in Vermont South to Docklands. During peak hour, the appropriately named No. 75 tram takes 75 minutes to reach the CBD. There is talk of extending the line to Westfield Knox Shopping Centre, although this does not apear to rank as a priority for either major party.

A number of bus routes connect residents with local shopping centres and train stations. But time remains a bug-bear for those who use the public system. When everything runs smoothly it takes between 45 minutes and one hour to get to Flinders Street Station, depending on where in the electorate travelers live.

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One of the biggest issues for locals is parking at train stations. A recently retired Glen Waverley resident told UniPollWatch that for the last four years of his working life he had driven to his office in Docklands because of inadequate train station parking. He said the car parks at Glen Waverley, Syndal and Mount Waverley stations were often full by 7:30am.

The promise of cheaper fares remains the brightest news on the public transport front. The Coalition has said that Zone 1 and 2 trips will only be charged at the Zone 1 rate from next year. At the transport forum, Mr Angus argued that this would save commuters up to $1200 a year.

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Mr Angus also said that the East-West link would allow Forest Hill residents to avoid 16 sets of traffic lights, which will make travel to Melbourne Airport up to 20 minutes shorter.

There are three main options for getting to the city by car. The most direct route involves tackling 10km of the often-congested Burwood Highway/Toorak Road before taking the M1 tollway at Tooronga. Alternatives are to head directly south to the Monash Freeway or north to the Eastern Freeway. Eastlink skirts the eastern edge of the electorate.

Google Maps estimates a trip to the city to take 30 minutes, but residents spoken to by UniPollWatch said that the drive usually took them about an hour in peak traffic. One former resident joked: “It’s pretty fast at 4am.”

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The electorate contains three state secondary schools: Vermont Secondary College, Forest Hill College and Highvale Secondary College.

The former is at capacity, with 1300 students, and is forced to turn away students from outside its ‘zone’. The principal has questioned whether the school can continue to accommodate all eligible students should land in the adjacent Healesville Freeway Reserve be used instead for housing, as has been proposed by the land-owner VicRoads.

Premier Denis Napthine announced in April that Vermont Secodnary College would get $2.7 million for a new science block, and Forest Hill College would get a $2.1 million upgrade.

Highvale Secondary College lives in the shadow of its highly sought after neighbour, Glen Waverley Secondary College. In August, Labor pledged $5 million to replace its portable classrooms with permanent ones. 

But despite issues with education and transport, local councillor Raylene Carr told UniPollWatch that the single most important issue in the electorate was the survival of the Healesville Freeway Reservation.

In 1969, the Bolte Government set aside a 35-hectare strip of land between Springvale and Boronia Roads for a future freeway. The road is no longer needed and Whitehorse Council and many in the community want the land kept as open space. VicRoads, on the other hand, has drawn up plans to sell as much as 60 per cent of it to developers.

Anne Makhijani, the convener of the Friends of the Healesville Freeway Reserve, has helped marshall a 5000-signature petition calling for the land’s retention as open space. “We can’t just sit and watch this happen and not do anything about it,” she said.

In a sign that the major parties also see this as a key issue for the electorate, Labor and the Coalition have in recent months both voiced different levels of support. Labor has pledged to keep all of the land as open space, while the Coalition’s commitment is less emphatic. It will keep 15.4 hectares as open space, with the remaining 20 hectares offered for sale to the local council and other government departments and agencies.

► This is an edited version of a story first published at Unipollwatch.

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