The future of the Willimanstown shipyard is unclear. Photo supplied.
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Fort Gellibrand sits on Battery Road near Point Gellibrand, at the southernmost tip of the Williamstown peninsula.
A short walk from Point Gellibrand is the Williamstown shipyard, owned by BAE Systems. Its appearance is almost incongruous against the warm, country-like atmosphere of the rest of the suburb. Steel gates, signs warning of security and cameras, and the professional, mostly monochrome exterior of the workplace imply importance.
However, the carpark is nearly empty.
Gellibrand, a safe Labor seat, was traditionally an industry-based electorate in which manufacturing jobs were common. But its industrial, working class character is changing. The potential closure of the shipyard and increasing gentrification has shifted Gellibrand from its industrial roots and electoral importance.
Covering 102 square km in Melbourne’s inner west, Gellibrand stretches from Maidstone in the north down to Footscray, onto Williamstown on Port Phillip Bay, then across to Sunshine and Altona Meadows in the West.
In a 2010 redistribution of the seat, Gellibrand lost parts of Braybrook, Altona Meadows and Seabrook, while gaining Sunshine and Ardeer. This increased Labor’s margin from 23.9% to 24.2%.
Labor has held the seat since it was created during the expansion of Parliament at the 1949 election. Two of its members have been senior ministers in Labor governments. The 2013 election recorded a 7.6% swing towards the Liberal party, a significant blow for what was previously the safest Labor seat Victoria.
Labor MP Tim Watts currently holds Gellibrand, the third safest Labor seat in the state.
Heritage housing and streetscapes have remained largely intact throughout Gellibrand, yet increasing gentrification worries residents. Williamstown, Altona Meadows and Seabrook have experienced considerable gentrification.
Craig Rowley, CEO of LeadWest, understands community concerns about high-rise apartments and “greenfields” – new suburbs – but believes the high population growth requires development that fits into these suburbs.
Job losses and the imminent closure of the Williamstown shipyard upsets many Gellibrand residents.
“It’s been a long-term place where many, many people have worked,” says Lynne Hewet, Gellibrand resident and Education Coordinator at the Williamstown Community and Education centre.
“There are limited job opportunities in this area; people have to travel for work.”
Rowley says data shows many residents commute to the city and southeastern suburbs, making transport infrastructure a top priority for the electorate and the state government.
The Melbourne Metro, an $11 billion project involving building two tunnels and five underground railway stations, and the Western Distributor, the latest major road project that aims to reduce choke points and congestion, have been denied additional funding from the Federal government, reflecting the coalition’s view on the projects.
The federal budget allocated $857 million towards the Melbourne Metro Rail Project. The state government says the money is not new investment because the funds were always expected through the Commonwealth's asset recycling scheme once the Port of Melbourne was privatised.
The Liberal party said the Western Distributor is a “pale imitation” of the Western section of the East West Link project and will deliver fewer benefits. They say local residents need to know how the new proposal will affect their neighbourhood.
Although these developments led by state Labor government will, in some way, directly affect residents for years to come, it is uncertain whether the benefits will affect the longstanding Labor preference.
Craig Rowley calls population growth a headline issue.
“There’s this density growth, density-enabled growth, within the electorate of Gellibrand that is fairly focused around Footscray and Maribyrnong, and spreading through other places.”
Mr Rowley said population density growth comes with its challenges.
“The big, headline challenge of high population growth, is keeping up the growth in jobs, close to where people live. That’s something we’re focused on.”
An electorate known for diversity, it was recorded in the 2011 census that Gellibrand’s residents were originally from 130 different nations. Considering the various languages and language barriers and differing socio-economic status of families in the electorate, the “high level of harmony amongst diversity” is considered an achievement.
The other thing agreed upon is, just like in early settlement, Gellibrand finds itself in the centre of sweeping change.
As the first landing point and sea port for settlement on Port Phillip Bay, some regard Point Gellibrand as a comparable Australian heritage ‘sacred site’ to the First Fleet’s landing place in Sydney. However, the nation’s diminishing ties to the heritage of this electorate are embodied in the Williamstown shipyard’s imminent demise.
Residents’ sentimental connection to the longstanding heritage site of the shipyard may not be practical, but it reflects a wider universal concern: a fear of change.
Richard, a Maritime precinct volunteer and Gellibrand resident, expresses genuine sadness and concern at the job loss experienced and the likely closure of the shipyard.
“If they do close that yard I’d love to see more of it returned to the public, as a recreation space … I hate to think of developers getting their hands on it.”