Battle of Hastings: Strictly Ballroom star and ex-staffer fight for state’s most marginal seat
Labor is banking on the celebrity power of Strictly Ballroom star Paul Mercurio to snatch Victoria’s most marginal electorate, Hastings, from Liberal hands, with fewer than a dozen notional votes separating the major parties.
The actor is up against Liberal candidate and former Greg Hunt staffer Briony Hutton, who said she would be guided by her Christian faith in considering legislation and has defended controversial candidate Renee Heath.
Hastings has a notional margin of 0.01 per cent that favours Labor after the seat’s boundaries were changed last year, although it is held by the Liberal Party.
At a Langwarrin pre-poll booth this week, Hutton expressed disappointment with the treatment of Heath, an Eastern Victorian Region candidate. Opposition Leader Matthew Guy said Heath would not sit in the Liberal party room if she was elected after The Age reported on her association with the controversial City Builders Church.
“I know Renee personally, and she strikes me as a thoroughly decent person who doesn’t seek to force her faith on other people,” Hutton said.
Hutton worked for former federal health minister and Flinders MP Greg Hunt but insists she is disadvantaged in Hastings.
“You start from behind because you’ve got to build up your own name recognition. Going against a name like Mercurio is always going to be a challenge.”
Hutton said her electorate has long been overlooked and her party’s commitment to electrify the train line between Frankston and Baxter, as well as upgrades to sports facilities, showed the Liberals’ commitment to the seat.
The retirement of former Liberal MP Neale Burgess means there’s no incumbency advantage.
Mercurio, who lives in Tyabb, has taken leave from his role as Mornington Peninsula councillor to contest the election.
He said both Liberal and Labor had asked him to run, but maintained Labor was the obvious choice because it demonstrated stronger support for the arts, equality for women and LGBTQIA+ rights.
“They’re much more aligned to who I am,” he said.
Mercurio said cost-of-living concerns and the state of roads were major issues but if elected, he would focus on delivering local infrastructure.
The Liberal Party retained the Mornington Peninsula seat at the 2018 election with a margin of 1.1 per cent.
But a boundary change moved Hastings notionally into the Labor column with a buffer of 0.01 per cent, according to the Victorian Electoral Commission.
Liberal backers hope frustration with lockdowns on the Mornington Peninsula will help carry Hutton to victory, but Mercurio defended Premier Daniel Andrews.
“Absolutely, I think Dan and the Labor Party did great and made mistakes,” he said. “But let’s now move forward and look at how we regenerate and grow as a community in a positive way.”
Monash University politics senior lecturer Zareh Ghazarian said Hastings was a litmus test for Labor.
“If Labor can win it, they’re on track to retain government,” he said.
Ghazarian said Hutton faced the greater challenge because of her lower profile, particularly if voters believed Mercurio offered solid local credentials and held genuine concerns for his community.
Paula Crossman, who owns The Heritage pub in Balnarring, said her patrons were highly attuned to local issues and cared passionately about the environment and coastline.
“They want to preserve everything to make sure it’s right for future generations,” she said.
Crossman, who lives just outside the electorate in Mount Martha, said Hastings had been known as a down-at-heel area, but demographics were changing.
“My daughter has just bought a house there, and she loves it.”
In the suburb of Hastings, which has long been considered affordable, the median house price increased almost 24 per cent in the past year to $690,000, according to the Real Estate Institute of Victoria.
Bittern resident Sandy Milne, who is a member of the Westernport and Peninsula Protection Council, said tourism and the natural environment were entwined in the electorate.
But she said many people found it difficult to afford rental properties, and homelessness was rife, particularly for women aged over 55.
“There are people sleeping in their cars on the foreshore,” she said.
La Trobe University adjunct research fellow in politics, Ian Tulloch, expects there will be a swing to the Liberal Party on the Mornington Peninsula, although demographic changes may also favour Labor.
“We’re going to see some surprises. That happens every time,” Tulloch said.
Meanwhile, former federal MP Chris Crewther is hoping to relaunch his parliamentary career by contesting the neighbouring Mornington electorate after losing the seat of Dunkley in 2019.
His main challengers include Labor’s Georgia Fowler and independent Kate Lardner, a physician trainee, who is isolating after contracting COVID-19 this week.
In Nepean, where the post-redistribution margin is 0.7 per cent, Labor incumbent Chris Brayne is fighting off a challenge from former professional tennis player Sam Groth.
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