Polling booths have closed and counting has begun for the Aston federal byelection after a grey and quiet day in the outer-eastern Melbourne electorate on Saturday.
Despite the lacklustre turnout, it is a history-making election. Labor’s Mary Doyle and the Liberals’ Roshena Campbell are battling it out to become the first woman to represent the electorate, which takes in the suburbs of Wantirna, Bayswater, Boronia, Ferntree Gully and Rowville, after former education minister Alan Tudge resigned from the seat and the Liberal Party in February.
But neither candidate was able to cast a vote for themselves on election day as neither Doyle nor Campbell were living in the electorate when the register closed. Doyle lives in the neighbouring electorate and Campbell, who lives in Brunswick, recently rented a property in the seat.
Three Liberal MPs told there was some concern about Campbell’s inner-north residency, citing former Labor senator Kristina Keneally’s unsuccessful run in Fowler as an example of locals rejecting candidates parachuted into seats.
In Ferntree Gully, 49-year-old small business owner Brett said he was in the Young Liberals when he was a university student but didn’t vote for Campbell as she wasn’t a local.
“You’ve got to have skin in the game and the candidate has to be from the local area,” he said.
“People aren’t stupid – they want to know you’re representing them and [that] you’ll be a local voice,” he said.
“If you're going to support a community, if you're going to represent a community, you've got to live in the community.”
But if you arrived in the electorate late Saturday afternoon, you would be forgiven for wondering where all the voters were or if there was an election happening at all.
There was not a sausage sizzle in sight at any of the five polling booths visited by across Boronia, Knoxfield, Ferntree Gully and Rowville, where political party volunteers vastly outweighed the numbers of voters walking in to cast their vote.
At 5.30pm, one of the biggest polling booths in the electorate, Karoo Primary School in Rowville, was deserted except for a small burst of late voters rushing to cast their ballot before 6pm.
Almost all voters approached by said they voted for the Liberal Party, including Rowville local Christina, who said she had been disappointed in Labor’s efforts so far to address the cost-of-living crisis.
“I voted for Labor in the last election, but I feel like they have done nothing to fix the cost-of-living crisis,” she said.
“There are even more people who can’t afford to pay their mortgages or their rent.”
While the crowds had dwindled in Rowville, volunteers who had been at the site all day said early estimates suggested there had actually been more residents voting in the byelection than in the May 2022 election.
An early count suggested more than 2200 locals voted at the school, compared to about 1400 for the federal election. Volunteers said the mad rush to vote happened in the morning and just after lunchtime, before petering off at the end of the day.
There was also strong support for the Liberals in nearby Boronia, where several voters who arrived at a polling booth at Boronia Primary School late Saturday said Campbell had their vote.
Retired factory worker Jan Jonker, 77, and his wife, Eileen, 76, have voted for the Liberals for the past 50 years and did so again in the byelection.
But the couple said they were concerned the party was losing its power and relevance across the Australia.
“To be honest, the Libs desperately need a boost. Dutton’s trying, but they really need this,” Eileen said. “I really hope Roshena can be that boost.”
Late Saturday, Boronia Primary School polling booth was a ghost town, except for a group of political volunteers mingling at the front entrance and a small rush of last-minute voters.
Banners for Campbell and Doyle had been pulled off the fence and were strewn on the grass in the nature strip outside the school.
Among those rushing to get their vote in was Boronia couple Sam and Matthew Winnett, who didn’t vote Labor or Liberal, citing both parties’ failure to adequately address climate change.
Sam’s vote went to the Greens for their polices on childcare and health, while Matthew voted for the climate-focused Fusion Party.
“Fusion are addressing the urgency of climate issues better than any of the major parties, who are just using buzzwords or attacking each other rather than providing any details of how they are going to fix things,” he said.
The Liberal Party holds the seat by a margin of 2.8 per cent, down from 10.1 per cent before last May’s federal election, when the party suffered a backlash against former prime minister Scott Morrison and personal scandals involving Tudge.
But a defeat for the Liberal Party in the Aston byelection would buck a century-old trend – no national government has won a seat from an opposition at a federal byelection since 1920.
Meeting volunteers and voters at Bayswater Primary School on Saturday morning, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese urged residents in the electorate to turn up and vote as the ballot was an opportunity to send a message to the Liberal Party.
“We’re giving it a crack today,” he said.
“I’m very hopeful of as good a result … we’re taking this campaign seriously. But history tells us that the Coalition, the Liberal Party, should be in a very strong position.”
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton joined volunteers at Lysterfield Primary School at midday and accused Albanese of playing political games by setting a high benchmark for the Liberal Party in the marginal seat.
“Today is not about a general election. It’s not about changing the government. It’s about electing a strong local representative,” Dutton said.
“The Labor Party has spent the last month throwing mud – they haven’t explained to the people of Aston why it is that they cut road funding as their first act in government.”
While Labor’s campaign has focussed on Dutton, the Liberals have attempted to harness unrest about cost-of-living pressures and road funding cuts made in Labor’s first budget.
At a polling booth in Lysterfield, Bayswater receptionist and mother-of-one Laine told the cost-of-living pressures were starting to hurt local families in the area.
“The cost of living is starting to scare us a little bit … the future is so unknown,” she said.
“We’ve got friends that are looking at now selling their homes because of interest rates, which is scary. That’s obviously not something you think’s going to happen when you buy your first home, that interest rates are going to go up so much.”
With early voter turnout down ahead of polling day, federal MPs have inundated polling booths in Aston.
Labor MPs Andrews Giles and Raff Ciccone were spotted at polling booths in Aston on Saturday morning, as well as Liberal frontbenchers Dan Tehan and Jane Hume and backbench MP Keith Wolahan.
Former Liberal MPs Tim Wilson and Josh Frydenberg, who lost their electorates to teal independents last year, also volunteered on polling booths.
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