It’s around 8:30am on a Friday, and now that the rush of city workers has eased, the piazza above Mitcham’s underground station is empty but for the last wave of stragglers vanishing down the escalators to the platform.
Strategically positioned within sight of the station, just a short stroll away, is the Collector’s Coffee House, which opened at the beginning of March. The interior is industrial in style, with black-painted walls and polished concrete floors. If it weren’t for the empty seats and absence of beards, it could be mistaken for an inner-city haunt.
A student nursing a coffee pecks away on her laptop in one corner while cafe owner Deb Shugg takes a seat by the window. She’s grateful to be off her feet after the morning rush, but still hard at work.
Shugg wears a khaki apron with her cafe logo embroidered on the front pocket. She’s processing a large stack of white paper coffee cups, sticking the logo on them one by one. She’s working hard to establish her young business, warm and attentive to customers filing in the door.
Between orders, Shugg is happy to answer a few questions about her thoughts on the fast-approaching federal election. And she has a lot to say.
Though she doesn’t see herself as a deeply political animal, Shugg is plainly engaged and observant of public debate, though not particularly impressed with many aspects of it. She wonders what has become of the kind of clear political choices that she grew up with.
“I come from a very strong Labor family background. My mother would never vote for anyone other than Labor because she needed the benefits that the Labor government provided in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” she says.
“When the two parties were created, they had clear and obvious differences in the way they felt that the country should be run. And so it was easy to pick one.
“Now, they’re all wishy-washy,” says Shugg.
Hers is not a lone voice. Dissatisfaction around the centring of the major political parties, and perceptions of a lack of real choice, was a concern raised by many Deakin voters interviewed by The Citizen for this election special report.
As the campaign heats up, and parties seek to distinguish themselves with some clear policy choices, Labor is betting that investing more in health will pay off in key seats like Deakin. Its headline promise – to pump $2.3 billion into cancer care – has been spruiked by leader Bill Shorten as the “most important investment in Medicare since Bob Hawke created it”.
But Shugg is ambivalent when it comes to health services. Her family has always “self-insured”, she says.
In the years when her kids were young, she says, ensuring their health and education were her family’s top priorities. “They’re the things you can’t go back and redo if you get them wrong at the beginning. That’s our theory. So, I guess, you know, that underscores a mistrust in the education system.”
When it comes to education in this electorate, Shugg’s decision to send her children to private schools reflects that of a good number of families in the electorate, which has a slightly higher proportion of high school students enrolled privately than the national average.
At 55, she observes that she’s in a demographic moment where health and education issues don’t hit home as powerfully as they did when her kids were young. “We’re in an interesting time because we’re not old enough to be sick all the time, and we’re too old to have children in the education system,” she says.
Shugg’s Mitcham neighbourhood, and the others that make up the Deakin electorate, have long been representative of classic, comfortable suburban middle Australia. The most recent census shows that still holds true, with the median household income at $1522, almost one hundred dollars above the national average of $1438.
Yet the character and face of this piece of suburbia, like so many others, is changing rapidly. As the population grows in the City of Whitehorse, a council within the electorate, more migrants are calling suburbs like Mitcham and Vermont home.
In 2011, 13.8% of residents in Whitehorse were not Australian citizens, compared to 18.6% in 2016.
Alice Zeng, 32, is an example of this – she’s a permanent resident living in Vermont, arriving from China at the end of 2014. At 10:30am, she’s a few minutes walk away from Shugg’s cafe, taking an English class at Mitcham Community House while her children are in day care.
The class is filled with students who vary widely in age and ethnic background, but most are middle-aged women.
As a permanent resident, Zeng isn’t allowed to vote on 18 May, but she is nonetheless eager to voice her concerns about her new country.
“My biggest concern is about education, because as a new migrant, we want to have more opportunity to communicate with others,” she says.
“But, language is always the biggest problem.”
The 2011 Census shows 30.3% of people in Whitehorse spoke a language other than English at home, compared to 36.7% in 2016.
Zeng’s concern about language extends to her children. She hopes they will learn English through their time in child care – “they can make friends and learn some English, because we still speak Mandarin at home,” she says.
Questioned about the issues that resonate most with her, she lists child care fees as a priority. “Before we get the child care subsidy, it was impossible for us to put two of them in child care,” she says.
“We can’t afford that. That’s too much. That mean cost half of the salary my husband earned.”
According to academic in social and political sciences Dr. Lauren Rosewarne, when it comes to women voters, “[we’re] factoring in not just socio-economic, not just education levels, but issues around children”.
This explains why the language of ‘working families’, mums and dads, are part of the vernacular for all sides on the campaign trail.
In his budget reply speech, Shorten described Labor as “the party for working mums and working families”, following this up with a major announcement pledging a $4 billion childcare package and cheaper childcare for families earning under $174,000 a year. It’s been critiqued by experts as one of the most important policy reforms to surface in this campaign.
Meanwhile the Coalition spruiks its childcare policy, including a record $8.3 million investment, as “sustainable, affordable and keeps downward pressure on fees”. On the local front, Deakin’s sitting Liberal MP Michael Sukkar recently promised $190,000 in funding for redevelopments at Pinemont Pre-School.
“Ensuring a safe and engaging space for children to learn and play is critical for developing minds and I am proud to have secured this funding commitment in support of the kindergarten,” he says on his website.
But as Deb Shugg’s reflections show, politicians should not assume that all female voters are in a phase of their life where family policies are going to guarantee their votes.
As Rosewarne observes, “you’re likely to see a demographic split between younger and older women.
“I suspect this would be because younger and older women are likely have different priorities: young women are more likely to be more progressive, are more likely to rent, are less likely to have children,” she says. “These factors are likely to divide young and older female voters.”
That said, on two occasions where The Citizen team dropped by Mitcham during the campaign, the most visible signs of the political battle were those being waved on the roadside by a group of grey-haired women protesting the proposed Queensland Adani coal mine, underlining the dangers of making any presumptions around “the women’s vote”.