In 1993, a school polling booth in Meadow Heights had a 75 per cent primary vote for Labor. In 2010, the Broadmeadows electorate’s Labor vote was 69 per cent. You might be surprised to hear what the vote was this year.
When we first moved out to Meadow Heights, I thought it was the edge of the world. In the late 1970s, it was indeed a frontier suburb. Three hundred meters down our road, was a dead end that opened to fields of grazing land. From our front door we could see all the way to the airport, not a single home obstructing our view.
Like many of today’s young migrant families, my parents left the seemingly safe-haven inner suburb of Northcote, looking for more affordable housing and work. Meadow Heights offered a unique mix that today’s families could only dream of securing. Affordable housing and nearby work. Ford, Nabisco, Yakka, and many other factories were all within a 5km radius.
Our local school was brand new. For its time, it looked amazing. Bethal Primary was only a few years old when I attended my first Grade 3 class. To our parents it was again proof that this new venture offered a home and above all else, respect. Good roads, local plentiful work, and great schools for their kids.
Unfortunately, this ideal locale to raise a family in the 1970s and 80s was about to be devastated by an economic tsunami that many families never recovered from. Within 10 years of our arrival, Yakka was closed and soon, many other factories were to follow. Ford held on for another two decades before that too shut its doors.
The early 1990s recession was brutal for the residents of Meadow Heights. Youth unemployment reached eye watering levels and never really subsided, no matter how many times Jeff Kennett crowed about how well Victoria was travelling.
Over time, instead of the factory floor, many of Meadow Heights’ residents found work at the aged care home or other service industries that paid less and often had irregular hours. (During the recent pandemic nearly 30 years later, there were plenty of Melbournians who got a glimpse into that world as their jobs vanished almost overnight)
Throughout this entire period of economic upheaval, the people of Meadow Heights marched out at every state and federal election to firmly back Labor. In 1993, my local voting centre at the Bethal Primary School, recorded a 79 per cent primary vote for Labor. Nearly two decades later, the primary vote at Bethal Primary remained high when Labor lost at the 2010 Victorian State Election.
Meadow Heights’ faith in Labor remained unshakeable, 65 per cent of voters placed a ‘1’ next to John Brumby’s name to be their Labor Member for Broadmeadows. A safe seat for decades, Labor regularly used this seat and others like it to place their leaders and key factional heavy weights into parliament, safe from the dangers faced by their fellow members of parliament who occupied traditional marginal seats.
Yet, before the 2022 state election, the last MP to live in the state seat of Broadmeadows was the late Jack Culpin, a member of the Electoral Trades Union and a ‘sparky’ by profession. He represented Broadmeadows between 1985 and 1988.
Meadow Heights’ demographic footprint has not changed since. Over 75 per cent of its residents still speak another language, besides English at home and its residents are still worst affected by major existential events such as a recession, or a ‘once in a generation’ pandemic.
Like the early 1990s recession, the pandemic had a devastating impact. By the time of the 2021 Census survey, half of all Meadow Heights residents stated they were not employed. Only 12 per cent were able to work from home. Only 7.8 per cent of couples with children were both working and 40 per cent were suffering rental stress, 25 per cent were suffering mortgage stress.
While the economic impact was terrible, the health impact was horrific. Meadow Heights was close to ground zero during the pandemic. One of highest case and death rates per capita in the country. Personally, I lost count of the number of people I grew up with who had lost parents and loved ones.
The survivors, including many of my friends, either processed it maturely, got angry or climbed down a rabbit hole. The psychological and economic impact will last generations.
According to Brian Michael Jenkins, an authority on national security who has published critical work on the legacy of pandemics, the devastated local economies, social disorder, and severe political repercussions (like we saw at the recent Victorian state election) will not be the full legacy of COVID19. Ominously, he makes the point that trauma does not go away, evidence suggests it gets handed down through generations.
On November 26 this year, the Labor primary vote in Meadow Heights dropped to 40 odd percent. Other, similarly ‘safe’ seats suffered a similar fate.
While Victorian Labor retained its dominant electoral position in the election, the unshakeable pillars that absorbed the massive swings in Labor heartlands are now gone.
For Labor and Dan Andrews, addressing the infrastructure problems in the outer suburbs will be the easy bit. Addressing the entrenched trauma that many families are living with in these areas is another story entirely.
Kosmos Samaras is a pollster and the former Deputy Director for the ALP – he comments regularly on politics for major news outlets.