House of Reps

Rhonda Funnell

Labor candidate in “tiger territory”

May 28, 2016Thomas Finlay
Photo courtesy of Rhonda Funnell - ALP Candidate for Mackellar.

Candidate Snapshot

Party: ALP
Electorate: Mackellar
First Stood in this Electorate: 2016

The ALP candidate for Mackellar, Rhonda Funnell, has spent forty years as a Labor supporter in one of the safest Liberal seats in Australia.

Despite feeling like she is in “tiger territory”, surrounded by people with different stripes, she belongs to a small community of Labor supporters on the northern beaches region who actively organise themselves through social media and fundraising events.

Raised by union parents in Sydney’s western suburbs, she says her working-class background informs her political views and gives her a focus on those less well off in the electorate.

As a teacher, funeral director and small business owner, Funnell says her experiences have given her a strong understanding of Mackellar, as well as the issues facing the electorate at the next election.

“I think at my stage I’ve seen a little window of a lot of the things that most people are looking at. What’s out there, and what’s facing average Australians... a lot of people in this area are doing it fairly tough.

“I think I’ve seen it from the perspective of the parent, as a teacher, a mature-age student,” she says. “Having three kids, and two of them have had to leave the area because they can’t afford to stay here. They can’t afford to get into the property market at all.”

While Mackellar has voted Liberal at every election since it was established, Funnell believes a lack of action on issues has led to voters “switching off” in Mackellar.

“The Liberal Party has done basically nothing for this area. In Warringah and in Mackellar, it’s always been career politicians who wanted to feather their own nest,” she says.

Mackellar includes the suburbs of Dee Why, Palm Beach, Mona Vale and Newport, and continues inland through Frenchs Forest and the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. Unaffected by recent federal redistributions, its 102,000 electors voted 62 per cent Liberal at the previous federal election. Mackellar is considered by the Australian Electoral Commission to be a “safe” seat.

For Funnell, the electorate has lacked “average, everyday people” representing their views at the federal level, and believes that voters are looking for a candidate who “lives a life like them”.

Funnell points to healthcare, education and improving transport infrastructure as the three policies foremost in Mackellar’s future. Of special significance to her is the New Northern Beaches Hospital: originally a Labor initiative taken on by the Baird state government, but let down by inadequate transport services.

“We have a bottleneck area on the Wakehurst Parkway. If you’re coming from the northern part of the peninsula in an ambulance – and this is going to be a level five hospital, and your life may be at risk – that’s a road that very, very frequently floods. It’s just ridiculous, that in this day and age, an emergency vehicle can’t get through.”

Likewise, Funnell points to Mona Vale Road as an important project, including completion of the dual carriageway and better service to Mona Vale Hospital. She also sees the continuing bottleneck of the Spit Bridge as a project holding back the peninsula. She regards these transport issues as one of many that were unaddressed by northern beaches Liberal members during their time in office.

“If you asked anybody what the Liberal Party has done for this area in a federal sphere, they probably couldn’t write down one thing. The Liberals have been good at networking, but they haven’t actually done anything as far as things like the infrastructure, the roads.”

She also points to continued Gonski funding as an important Labor initiative in Mackellar. “We’ve already had three years of Gonski, and already principals on the northern beaches are starting to say ‘this is making a huge difference’.”

Funnell ultimately sees these outstanding issues as a reason for Mackellar to change its traditional voting habits in this election.

“Probably some people have voted all their lives, but they’ve never thought about what it means. To me, the Labor Party are builders, and the Liberal Party are quite often dismantlers.”

While Funnell acknowledges that Mackellar lacks the traditional Labor support network offered in other electorates, she sees the local ALP as a close-knit and united community. While federal funding often goes to marginal seats, Mackellar instead relies on pasta nights, barbecues and sausage sizzles to raise money. While these can be expensive to hold, Funnell also sees these as evidence of a giving and passionate community.

She says there is at least some dissatisfaction among Mackellar's Liberal supporters, which might be upset the traditional balance in the electorate.

She points to discontent over Jason Falinski’s nomination as the Liberal candidate, the departure of Bronwyn Bishop, and the division between conservative voters over independent candidates as signs of a changed electoral battlefield.

“You’ve got someone like [conservative radio commentator turned independent hopeful] Jim Ball coming up in the area, who’s very hard right. A lot of Liberals wouldn’t necessarily like to go to someone like him, but are hovering with someone like Falinski. There’s a lot of infighting.”

“It’s never been like this in Mackellar before, so it’s going to be quite an interesting election.”

Funnell hopes Labor can be seen in contrast against the recent Liberal leadership spill, factional disputes and Bronwyn Bishop's expenses scandal. She describes Labor as “standing united against a candidate quite disliked in his party”, and is eager to prove Labor is more in touch with Mackellar’s values.

“I don’t want to get into personalities. I don’t think that’s good... I don’t think that’s very Australian. I’d rather just stick to what we stand for, what our issues are, and go forward. What we have to do is look to the future.” 

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