The battle for the Sydney seat of Bennelong, where tennis commentator John Alexander is trying to wrest John Howard’s former seat off Maxine McKew, may be determined by an ongoing fight over the provision of social housing in the electorate, funded under the Government’s stimulus package.

McKew, who holds the seat by about 2400 votes, has been targeted by a local group, Residents Against Inappropriate Development, over 13 multi-unit developments in the suburbs of Eastwood, Ryde and Marsfield, although the main object of the group’s anger has been Housing NSW. Under NSW development laws, Housing NSW can override local planning laws for social housing.

RAID claims that the Federal Government’s conditions for social housing stimulus funding — that it be allocated by the end of 2009 to provide rapid stimulus — has led to high-density housing — “substandard, undersized boxes” — being imposed on their neighbourhoods without local approval. The projects are all townhouse-style developments, and none are over two levels.

RAID spokesman Tom Geroulas, a local optometrist, told Crikey RAID had no issue with social housing. “There has always been social housing around Ryde.  What they’ve done is demolish social housing properties in good condition — some of them recently refurbished — to make way for these new developments that are at odds with the existing characteristics of the community. High-density housing in low-density areas. Some of them have 1 car space per five units.”

Geroulas said they were also unhappy with the consultation process undertaken by Housing NSW, with residents notified just before Christmas of impending developments. In his view, Housing NSW, in order to meet the Federal Government’s end-of-2009 deadlinem, has rushed the project and overridden local objections. He also suggests Housing NSW deceived residents by suggesting projects would be medium density, rather than high-density.

The Liberals have been very quick to exploit the issue at local, state and now federal level. Back in January, a RAID rally attracted a heavy contingent of Liberal politicians. In the group below are, from left to right, Anthony Roberts (Liberal MLA for Lane Cove, Victor Dominello (Liberal MLA for Ryde, Greg Smith (Liberal MLA for Epping, Ivan Petch (in blue shirt and suit) former Liberal MLA and “independent” Ryde Councillor, Artin Etmekdjian (Liberal Councillor for Ryde), Bill Pickering, Liberal Councillor for Ryde and Sarkis Yedelian, Liberal Councillor for Ryde.

RAID pic 1

Alexander was not present due, Crikey understands, to his Seven Network tennis commitments.

Geroulas denies any links with the Liberals. “There’s no direct relationship — no financial support or say in the group’s direction. We’re a very genuine organisation.”

However, “John Alexander has listened to us and engaged with the community. So have local Liberal councillors.” But Geroulas points out Labor-controlled Botany Council has threatened legal action against Housing NSW for similar issues to the ones raised by RAID.

RAID began explicitly targeting McKew back in December, before many of the issues RAID describes as problems had emerged. She was the target of an illegal poster campaign, with “Stop Maxine’s Ghetto Stimulus” plastered around the electorate.

RAID pic 2

Alexander’s campaigning material avoids “ghetto”, but targets “social housing projects imposed on our communities by Labor.” Tomorrow night, Alexander is hosting a meeting to discuss how Labor has “seized planning controls from local councils”; he promises to “stop Labor destroying our local community.”

RAID members are working for Alexander, including self-described RAID founder Paul Margereson, who was at Alexander’s ill-timed Saturday morning appearance at North Ryde Mall with Barry O’Farrell, where Bob Hawke joined Maxine McKew and stole the show. Another opponent of McKew’s, Julie Worlsey, who will stand for Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party, is also a member of RAID. Christian Democrats preferences will flow to Alexander.

Among the other claims circulated by RAID and local Liberal councillors is that the units cost too much and are “shoeboxes”.  Housing Minister Tanya Plibersek rejected the criticism when they were raised at the Rudd Government’s community cabinet in Bennelong in April, saying the units, 80% of which will house aged pensioners, are architect-designed and better than the place she and her husband first bought, and suggested that if anyone could have completed the project for less than the average price of $270,000 they could have tendered for and won the work.

Bennelong isn’t the only marginal where social housing may cost Labor MPs. Similar controversies have erupted in Victoria and Queensland. A repeated theme is that local community spokespeople insist they have no objections to social housing, but object to the ones being built in their areas on either process or design grounds. The right-wing media has been happy to encourage anti-social housing campaigns, and the same anecdotal claims about cost blow-outs that have been peddled in relation to the schools stimulus have gotten a run here as well – invariably, a local builder can be found who swears he could have built it for much less than the actual cost.

The irony is that if marginal seats like Bennelong are lost because of a reaction to social housing, Labor will have ended up losing not because it was too timid or risk-averse, which is the essence of current criticisms of both the Rudd-Gillard Government and its re-election campaign, but because it tried to address long-standing and intractable problems of housing supply and homelessness and was punished for it by local communities offended by higher-density housing.

John Alexander and the Liberal Party campaign headquarters were asked to respond to several questions regarding RAID and social housing issues but did not do so before deadline.