Fresh headache for Greg Hunt as grassroots campaign sets sights on his seat

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt faces a community-led attempt to defeat him in his Mornington Peninsula electorate at the next election, using the campaign model that ended the political career of former prime minister Tony Abbott two years ago.

Voices of Mornington Peninsula will launch its push to unseat Mr Hunt on Saturday with an online forum featuring two big political names – former Liberal leader John Hewson and retired independent MP Cathy McGowan.

Ms McGowan’s defeat of conservative high-flyer Sophie Mirabella in the Victorian seat of Indi in 2013 created the “voices” model.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

She told The Age on Friday that Mr Hunt’s marginal seat of Flinders could fall to an independent candidate, citing the performance of former Liberal Julia Banks, who ran there in 2019 and snared more than 13 per cent of the vote.

The campaign’s organisers, who hope to announce a candidate within weeks, say the changing demographics in Flinders and a growing local environmental movement have made it a better prospect for a voices campaign than many of the dozens of mostly conservative-held seats where such groups have sprung up in the wake of Mr Abbott’s 2019 defeat by Zali Steggall in Warringah.

The former Olympian used the voices playbook in her triumph over Mr Abbott, campaigning hard in the affluent but socially progressive seat on the former PM’s record on climate change and same-sex marriage.

Mr Hunt holds Flinders with a 5.6 per cent margin. Mr Abbott’s margin was 11 per cent, while Ms Mirabella’s was 9 per cent.

Tony Abbott and Zali Steggall.Credit:ninevms

The voices approach uses community-based volunteers to conduct thousands of “kitchen table conversations” to recruit supporters. Campaigners are under strict instructions to avoid political aggression and “be their better selves”.

A challenge by a credible local independent would pose another headache for Mr Hunt as he grapples with Australia’s troubled COVID-19 vaccine rollout, which was dealt another blow this week with the use of the AstraZeneca shot further restricted in scientific advice before supplies of alternatives are available to keep the program on track.

But the minister told The Age that his local credentials, as a life-long Flinders resident and local member for 20 years, were solid, citing a list of transport and community infrastructure projects he had helped deliver.

Mr Hunt said he welcomed wide participation in elections, but said he did not want to see a repeat of 2019, when what he called the “outside money” from interstate corporate climate campaigners, who donated about $60,000 to Ms Banks’ campaign , tried “to influence how local people voted”.

Independent candidate Julia Banks campaigning in Mount Martha in 2019.Credit:Joe Armao

“That’s not in the interests of the people of Flinders, and it would be disappointing if that occurred again,” he said.

The campaign’s co-founder Louise Page noted the changing demographic of the peninsula, which has had an influx of new residents from Melbourne, pointing to the election last year of several young progressive members of the Mornington Shire Council. Ms Page said recent environmental campaigns, including protests against a gas terminal at Crib Point and a quarry at Arthurs Seat and a push to protect giant spider crabs, were part of a resurgence of local political activity.

“It’s time for the peninsula to realise we can do things if we get together,” she said.

“People are starting to understand the difference between someone who is aligned to a political party and somebody who is going to stand strong for the community.”



Mr Hewson said his support for the voices movement came from a desire to see improved representation in politics, rather than a wish for Mr Hunt, who he described as a hard-working minister, to lose his seat.

“He works hard at it, and he does try to listen to the community,” Mr Hewson said.

Flinders, traditionally a conservative stronghold, contains some of Australia’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, with the millionaires’ playgrounds of Sorrento and Portsea at the tip of the Mornington Peninsula. It also contains pockets of disadvantage, with parts of Rosebud and Hastings struggling.

The seat is also socially progressive, posting the nation’s strongest “yes” vote in the 2017 same-sex marriage plebiscite from any electorate in Australia officially regarded as “rural”.

Ms McGowan, who said the rise of the voices movement reflected a nationwide dissatisfaction with the dominant political players, said Ms Banks’ performance in 2019 indicated that the right independent candidate might stand a chance.

“She got about 13 per cent, so there’s obviously a hunger for better representation,” Ms McGowan said. “There is a lot of energy around ‘we want better’.”

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