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Election podcast: What's at stake in the battle for Shortland

By Scott Bevan

THE electoral division of Shortland is as much defined by water as it is by land.

The 265 square-kilometre electorate makes its way south along the coast from Highfields in the north to Budgewoi.

The seat is flanked by water.

Along the electorate's eastern side is the Tasman Sea, providing a stunning outlook for a string of beachside communities, including Dudley and Redhead, Blacksmiths and Catherine Hill Bay.

Founder of Survivor's R Us Ann-Maria Martin outside the organisation's warehouse in Cardiff. Picture: Scott Bevan

Shortland's western boundary cruises down the middle of Lake Macquarie, taking in the villages and suburbs along its eastern shoreline.

With water being such a feature of this seat, it seems appropriate that it is called Shortland.

After all, it is named after the British naval officer Lieutenant John Shortland, who sailed along the coast and into Australian history books in 1797. He is recorded as being the first European to enter the mouth of a river that he would name after the young colony's governor and fellow Royal Navy officer, John Hunter.

Two hundred and twenty-five years on, if Lieutenant Shortland were to attempt to sail into the electoral division named after him, he would most likely find himself stuck on sand.

Storm clouds over Lake Macquarie, from Belmont South. Picture: Marina Neil

The sole entrance to Lake Macquarie from the sea is Swansea Channel, which is about half-way along the electorate's eastern side.

But entering the lake for most vessels is anything but smooth sailing, with a regular build-up of sand, particularly at the northern end of the channel, and a piling up of a navigational problem, as the Commodore of Lake Macquarie Yacht Club, Geoff Edman, explains.

"Swansea Channel is very frustrating," he says . "It's a great waterway, it's got the ability to cater for many more boats, but what you've got at the moment is you just can't go through Swansea Channel.

And it's not just deep-draught boats anymore. That has been the issue, but it's now down to 1, 1.1 metres, so motor boats and catamarans ... can't get in without assistance.

So on this sublimely beautiful day, as we talk near the club's marina at Belmont, Geoff Edman gazes at the glistening water and sees what is missing.

A constricted Swansea Channel, he argues, is not just harming the lake's reputation as a sailing hub, it is blocking millions of dollars from flowing to local businesses.

With sailors from other areas staying away, and boat owners unable to enter the lake and berth their vessels at the marina, Mr Edman estimates the yacht club is losing between $750,000 and $1 million annually.

Commodore of Lake Macquarie Yacht Club Geoff Edman, with the club's marina in the background. Picture: Simone De Peak

"You can then add that to all the marinas around the lake, to all the coffee houses that are close to the wharves, the other clubs that are here, and we're talking several million dollars a year in lost business to Lake Macquarie. And all the employment that goes with that. So it is a significant issue to the lake community in having that channel cleared."

The channel is periodically dredged but not regularly enough, Geoff Edman asserts, "so we're talking three years or more since the channel was able to be just traversed without any issue".

A dredge at the northern end of Swansea Channel in early 2021. Picture: Simone De Peak

Swansea Channel has bobbed up as an issue for the May 21 federal election.

Labor has said if it is elected into government, it would work with Lake Macquarie City Council and the NSW government "to unlock the region's economic future" with a $20 million development package. That would include investing in a dredge to be permanently based in Lake Macquarie.

Geoff Edman has welcomed that announcement and is hoping all candidates standing in Shortland look at finding a long-term solution for Swansea Channel.

"If this was the main link road between the M1 and the city, if you got a pothole in it, you'd have it fixed overnight," he asserts. "This is the main link road between the east coastal highway for boats and the lake. Fill the 'pothole' in, dredge the sandbank, and all would be good."

Many boats may not be able to get into the lake, but all that water on either side of the electorate is drawing more and more residents to the area, as they seek their spot by the sea or the lake.

Real estate agent Katie Kepner outside a property in Dudley. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

As Katie Kepner, a real estate agent for Belle Property Lake Macquarie and Newcastle, says, "people are starting to realise how special this place is".

But living in a special place comes at an ever increasing price, contributing to one of the biggest issues of this election: housing affordability.

Katie Kepner, who specialises in properties in the area's coastal hubs, including Dudley and Redhead, says it is becoming increasingly difficult to buy into those places and wonders what it will be like for her children when they are adults.

"It's a scary thought, because even now, entry level into an area like Dudley, it's certainly probably around the million mark, maybe just a fraction below if you can find something like that," she says. "But entry level at that point for your first home, that is incredible. Imagine in 10 or 15 years what that entry level is going to look like."

However, some can't imagine owning a home in the future. Ann-Maria Martin, the founder of a community organisation called Survivor's R Us Incorporated, says there are frightening numbers of local people who can't put a roof over their heads now.

"Housing is our biggest problem here in Newcastle/Hunter," Ms Martin says. "We can't get people into refuge because they're all full. We've got people on the streets trying to get rental accommodation, that's through the roof.

"So at the moment, we've got about 150 people on the streets, and that's women and children, men with children, living in their cars, because we can't get them in anywhere."

Survivor's R Us, which helps those fleeing domestic violence as well as the homeless and "anybody who needs our services", is based in a warehouse in a light industrial estate at Cardiff, on the northern fringe of the electorate.

Ms Martin says demand for the organisation's services has climbed as the cost of living and the price of accommodation have.

"We're finding people from all different backgrounds, it's not just low-income families," she says. "People who are just struggling with the prices in the supermarkets, lost their jobs due to the pandemic. We've got our DV [ domestic violence] victims as well. So it seems to be everybody. It's across the range."

Ann-Maria Martin says a federal government needs to do more in providing social housing and making accommodation more affordable and accessible. She just wishes she could reach the ears of all the political candidates.

Asked what she would say to a political candidate, if they walked through the door, about the electorate they wanted to represent, she replied, "We're in dire straits here".

"We need help so badly. I would show them clients that we've got who are living in cars. They come here to get food, they come here to have a shower, wash their clothes. We can only do so much. Our biggest thing is it upsets us as workers that we can't help them any further by getting them into a home.

"As a mum I hate putting another mum in a car and say, 'Go sleep on the streets'. It's not safe out there. We need to be doing more, and I just hope the politicians out there are starting to listen."

Commercial and residential developments in Charlestown, which is part of the Shortland electorate. Picture: Simone De Peak

To address part of the housing affordability issue, the major parties are making announcements about plans and policies designed to encourage more people to buy their own property, and to find a place to call home.

The Coalition has announced plans to expand its home guarantee schemes. Under those programs, the federal government acts as a guarantor on part of the loan, and those who qualify can purchase a property with a lower deposit.

Among Labor's plans is a $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund, with the aim of building 30,000 new social and affordable housing places in five years.

The ALP has also proposed a scheme where it would help lower and middle-income earners buy a home by contributing to the property's purchase. So the government would have equity in the home along with the purchaser.

Real estate agent Katie Kepner is cautious about the shared-equity plan, believing a government could provide assistance to prospective homeowners "without having a stake in their purchase of the property".

The price of housing is the largest devourer of household budgets being eaten by the soaring cost of living. And the impact of those rises are seen in every part of the community, including on the workshop floor at the Windale Men's Shed.

President of the men's shed, Roger Greenan, has lived in Windale since 1958, when, despite his workmates' advice, he caught a bus to the suburb and saw his future here.

In reams of reports looking at poverty and high unemployment, this social housing hub has featured through the years. As a result, Windale has done it tough in public perception. But to Roger Greenan, Windale is home, where he and his wife raised a family.

Long-time Windale resident and president of the Windale Men's Shed Roger Greenan. Picture: Scott Bevan

For Roger Greenan, a cornerstone of Windale life is the men's shed. With the members being retired people, the cost of living is not just a frequent topic of conversation, it keeps people away from the shed.

"Sometimes people can't afford their membership, which is $20 a year, so we let them pay it off," Mr Greenan explains. "Sometimes they don't come to the shed because it costs $3 a week... If they can't afford it, they don't come.

Roger Greenan believes the cost of living will be an issue at the ballot box but doubts politicians have the answers.

"There's a lot of rhetoric out there, but they're not actually giving an answer, what the outcome is going to be, how they're going to do this," he says.

Asked if he believes there is an answer, Mr Greenan replies, "I think there could be an answer, if they put in controls. Subsidies. A lot of countries do, but Australia doesn't seem to do a lot of that."

For Roger Greenan, how the world moves from coal to other sources of energy is also a consideration. The energy and climate debate may be global, but, with the electorate hosting coal mines and the Vales Point power station, he sees it as a local issue - and he reckons governments could do far better at managing change.

"They've got power stations closing down, but what are we going to do? Light fires?," he asks.

"They've just left it too late. And once again, I think the federal government, and I don't care which one it is, seems to put the hard ones on the backburner, trying to address them when necessary, rather than addressing it at the right time to get it right for everyone's concern."

Roger Greenan says cutbacks to the GP Access after-hours service will also register among voters in Windale on May 21, and Belmont's Geoff Edman agrees.

"Doctors are so rare, you can't get into see them within three or four days, usually, and you really need something now when you get sick," Mr Edman says. "I've used GP Access many times over the years, and I've found it excellent, and I'm sure anybody else who uses it would as well."

Real estate agent Katie Kepner outside a property for sale in Dudley. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

As a mother of one, with another due in the coming weeks, Katie Kepner believes child care is a major issue, particularly as demand for services and facilities increases in the area.

"Child care is really important in allowing professionals like myself to continue working and servicing the community," she says. "If we don't have the appropriate places available we aren't able to come back to work.

"So I think there's definitely demand still for improvement in that area, where we can add more childcare facilities and make them more accessible."

Katie Kepner is a US citizen and won't be voting on May 21, but she believes Labor's Pat Conroy will retain the job pf Member for Shortland, which he has held since 2016.

Labor candidate for the 2022 election, and incumbent, in the seat of Shortland, Pat Conroy. Picture: Marina Neil

Lake Macquarie Yacht Club Commodore Geoff Edman agrees that Labor will hold the seat because, for one thing, that is the way it has always been. Since its creation in 1949, Shortland has had only Labor MPs.

"I think it's more the tradition of who the voters are in this area, that they'll go again with Labor," he says.

"Funnily enough, I expect there'll be an increase in the margin from Labor over Liberal this time. I think there's a lot of swinging voters who would normally vote for Liberal, who are going to move back to Labor. I think there's a fair few of those. But equally, I think there's going to be a fair few who want to go with Independents or other parties."

In the 2019 election, Pat Conroy's margin was more than halved to 4.5 per cent. Liberal candidate Nell McGill, who ran in the 2019 poll, is standing again on May 21.

Despite that slashing of the margin, long-time Windale resident Roger Greenan believes Mr Conroy will win again, arguing, "I've heard a few opposition people talking, but they're not offering a lot to throw him off the rails, I don't think".

A surfer off Redhead Beach, which is in the seat of Shortland. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

At the Survivor's R Us headquarters at Cardiff, Ann-Maria predicts a victory for Pat Conroy. But whoever ends up representing the people of Shortland, Ms Martin has an invitation and a challenge for them.

"I'd like them to come and spend a week with us on ground level and help go through with our clients and that, and see what we go through every day on helping people in the community, and where we need this funding and where it can go to," she says. "So whoever gets in, they've got to spend a week with us..

"I think that would give them a good idea of what's actually happening in their community. Because I don't think they really get what's happening out there, how dire straits it is. They would actually get that view, and then they can take that back down to parliament and say, 'This is what's happening, and it's real'."

You can go on an audio journey through the seat of Shortland, and learn more from the locals, at "Voices of the Hunter with Scott Bevan - Federal Election Special" on the Apple, Spotify and Google podcasts, and through newcastleherald.com.au

A boat passes through the opened Swansea Bridge into the channel that has become an election issue. Picture: Jonathan Carroll
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Dive Deeper:
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One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
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Get all your news in one place