A liberal stronghold, Casey covers 2337 square kilometers on the very eastern edge of the Melbourne metropolitan area. Incumbent Tony Smith was elected as the 30th Speaker of the House of Representatives in 2015. A stronger local economy with a focus on small businesses, youth employment, public transportation, and tourism are among the key issues in the electorate.
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The marginal seat of Casey is best known for the delights of the Yarra Valley and the Yarra Ranges: stunning mountain views, picturesque vineyards, rustic cottages among lush lavender fields, and bustling farmers markets.
The area, about 60 kilometres east of Melbourne, is known as the city’s food bowl and has developed a reputation as one of the world’s leading cold climate wine growing regions.
Tourism is paramount. In 2013-14, the industry contributed an estimated $1.1 billion to the local economy and employed over 10,000 people.
But behind the blend of old-world charm, exquisite wine and artisan cheese, industry players are struggling to meet the growing demands. The Chairman of Agribusiness Yarra Valley, Clive Larkman, says lack of labour is a huge problem. “Just talk to any farm owners, they will tell you the issue is hurting the industry,” he said. According to the 2011 Census, the unemployment rate in Casey was just 3.9%.
Seasonal labour is critical for the viability of many farms which would be severely at risk if a reliable supply of labour could not be maintained. The industry relies heavily on working holiday-makers for picking and sorting fruit and vegetables, pruning and weeding. A 2011 study by Agribusiness Yarra Valley of the seasonal workforce found that up to 5,000 workers are needed daily for five months of the year.
In the 2015 budget, the Coalition announced a plan to scrap the tax-free threshold for backpackers and to tax them at 32.5% from their first dollar earned from July 1st this year. But early in the election campaign the Coalition government announced the plan would be suspended for six months.
Mr Larkman says if the so-called ‘back-packer’ tax is introduced it will be regressive for the agribusiness and tourism industry in Casey because backpackers will think twice about choosing Australia as a place for a working holiday.
The Chief Executive Officer of the Yarra Valley Wine Growers Association (YVWGA), Richard Howden, says the industry is also struggling to hire and retain skilled labour. “There is a major lack of skills, from vineyards, to the wineries, down through to the cellar door and the hospitality side of it”, he said.
The YVWGA believes education is the key to resolve the issue. Howden describes the re-opening of a campus of the Box Hill Institute in the Casey area - the only tertiary education campus in the outer east - as a major step forward in providing young, skilled labour which the electorate desperately needs.
After the Swinburne University of Technology’s Lilydale campus shut down in 2013 due to funding cuts from the former Victorian government, there had been an unmet demand in the area for TAFE services. The new campus of the Box Hill Institute, a $10 million election promise by the current Victorian government, is expected to fill that void. Local community advocates campaigned hard against the closure of the Lilydale campus in 2013 and it was a significant issue in the 2014 Victorian election campaign.
Yarra Ranges Mayor, Jason Callahan, describes Casey as a unique electorate with a range of diverse needs. He says over half a decade after the Black Saturday bushfires, the issue of mobile reception is close to the heart. For locals living in Warburton and its surrounding areas, among the most fire-prone in Australia, it is a potentially life-threatening issue.
In 2014, residents, and the Yarra Ranges Council, made a joint submission for funding to fix the problem. The Coalition Government announced last year that mobile reception towers would be built in East Warburton and Steels Creek as part of the $100 million mobile black spot program.
Steels Creek is expected to have a tower in time for the next fire season, but East Warburton is forced to play the waiting game. A spokesman for the East Warburton Mobile Action Group, John Harry, says “we are desperate to avoid another fire season without mobile coverage, but for now we are left in limbo”.
Harry claims in some areas the network coverage is either ‘completely absent’ or ‘erratic.’ According to Harry, the FireReady mobile app – which gives timely and tailored warnings on bushfires throughout the state - is also ‘completely useless’ in times of fire when mobile communication is down.
But despite the ongoing issue, Harry says local Liberal MP Tony Smith has been an ‘excellent’ representative in Canberra and had done an ‘outstanding’ job in listening to the needs of the community.
The Liberal Party has managed to hold onto the seat since 1984 and Smith has held it since 2001. With over 15 years of experience under his belt, he currently holds the high-profile position as the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Smith replaced Bronwyn Bishop, who stood down following an expenses scandal.
The stakes are high and the issues are long-standing. Will Smith rise to the occasion?