Melbourne’s western suburbs need real solutions, not an anti-trans culture war

·4-min read

If the Victorian Liberals are sensing a mood for change in Melbourne’s western suburbs, they’re not mistaken.

This fast-growing, diverse region suffers from chronic underinvestment in infrastructure and was hit hard by Covid – and with federal election results showing swings of up to 10% against Labor incumbents, it’s understandable the opposition is hopeful of making inroads west of the Bolte Bridge in November’s state election.

But the Liberals are missing the mark if they believe the west will be won over by the preselection of radical conservative Moira Deeming for the Western Metropolitan Region.

Opposition leader, Matthew Guy, has defended the choice of Deeming, a Melton councillor and devout Presbyterian who has called abortion a “terrible evil”, opposes trans rights (describing it as her “number one issue”), and was deemed too extreme even for Scott Morrison.

People within the party justify Deeming’s selection on the grounds that her conservative views are in line with local voters.

This assumption fails to truly understand Melbourne’s west and instead echoes a reductionist narrative that multicultural, working-class regions are naturally receptive to religious fundamentalist messaging, particularly on abortion and LGBTQ issues.

It is true that residents in the western suburbs are more likely to be born overseas, speak a language other than English at home, and identify with a religion than the national average. But these superficial data points alone do not tally up to a case of radical social conservatism.

The trend in the west, according to the latest census data, suggests a gradual shift away from religion – at a slower pace than the rest of the nation but still in the same direction.

In the three main LGAs – Wyndham, Melton and Brimbank – Christians no longer constitute a majority, with numbers falling in the last census. While the number of those who identify with no religion grew, an even bigger jump was witnessed in non-Christian faiths, largely driven by growth in Hinduism and Sikhism in Wyndham and Melton.

It’s worth noting that the Christian Protestant and evangelical sects most likely to raise concerns with gender and sexuality rights, including Morrison’s Pentecostal and Deeming’s Presbyterian churches, saw declines in all three LGAs and combined make up less than 2.5% of the population.

That significant percentages still identify with a religion speaks to the region’s diverse cultural backgrounds. But identifying with a religion doesn’t automatically equate to holding ultra-conservative values, as reflected in 2017 when the western suburbs voted in favour of marriage equality.

If the Liberals truly had their ears to the ground in the west, they would hear a smörgåsbord of grievances they could build a meaningful, impactful campaign around.

Related: ‘In the past’: Matthew Guy dismisses concerns over Victorian Liberal candidate’s attacks on transgender rights

Melbourne’s west is home to two of the fastest-growing regions in Australia – Wyndham’s population grew 34.5% since 2016, according to the last census, and Melton’s 32.1%.

That growth has led to poorly designed, car-dependent new suburbs where basic transport infrastructure is an afterthought, resulting in absurd commutes of 30 minutes or more just to leave a suburb.

While residents in regional – and marginal – northern Tasmania were promised a $336m highway upgrade during the federal election, urgent calls to fund a similar upgrade for the peak-hour car park that is the Calder freeway – a major artery linking the city to Bendigo – were ignored.

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Melbourne’s west still sits among the most socio-economically disadvantaged regions in the country, where insecure work is common – as made evident by the city’s two major Covid waves that hit these suburbs the hardest.

While the state government is playing catchup on health investment (after years of local campaigning, a new Melton hospital was finally granted funding in the latest state budget), in recent months, several local GPs have announced they can no longer continue with bulk-billing. This is a devastating blow to equitable health access and comes on top of soaring inflation that is only compounding the daily challenges faced in these communities.

With recent election cycles chipping away at Labor’s once-insurmountable margins, eyes are looking west.

Mounting frustrations with what many in Melbourne’s west perceive as neglect from the two major parties saw a drop in both Labor and Liberal primary votes at the federal election, and drove a swing towards minor parties and independents.

The Greens have sensed an opportunity and come out swinging against a proposed third runway at Melbourne airport, which could have serious health and environmental consequences for the area.

The Liberals are right to recognise an opportunity, but instead of beating a culture war dead horse, they may want to consider charging forth on issues that actually matter to Melbourne’s west.