To the south-east of Melbourne, beyond the inner suburbs, stretches the sandbelt; flatter, more industrial and less Anglo than the eastern suburbs. It’s also the area where development has been most rapid and far-flung: Berwick and Cranbourne, country towns not so long ago, have been swallowed up by suburban sprawl, just as Dandenong and Frankston were a generation earlier.

There was always a core of Labor-voting suburbs along the Dandenong rail line, but most of the area voted Liberal as late as the 1970s. Labor swept the area in the 1980s, but that was reversed in the Kennett victory of 1992, when the Liberals won two-thirds of the seats. They failed to swing back much in 1996 and 1999; in Carrum and Cranbourne, Labor was actually worse off in 1999 than it had been after the 1992 landslide.

But in 2002 the area returned to Labor with a vengeance: it won all 12 seats, some of them with huge swings, including the three biggest in the state in Lyndhurst and the two Narre Warrens. (Narre Warren North swung 14.8%, going straight from fairly safe Liberal to fairly safe Labor without stopping at marginal.) By contrast, 2006 was notable for the absence of swing; Labor held every seat, and only Carrum recorded an above-average swing.

There’s no doubt Labor will continue to hold the majority of these seats, but the opposition hopes to find some of the gains that it needs.

Four are in the target range, all strung out along the Nepean Highway: Bentleigh (6.3%), Mordialloc (3.5%), Carrum (6.7%) and Frankston (3.2%). The only other margin in single figures is Narre Warren North on 9.2%, which looks like a bridge too far.

The betting currently puts the Liberals as favourites only in Mordialloc, with Frankston too close to call. I was in Carrum yesterday, and although there are the usual mutterings of discontent, it gave no impression of a strong anti-government mood. Unless there’s something that the polls are not picking up, it’s hard to see the opposition taking more than one or two sandbelt seats.

This is also fairly poor Greens territory; only in Oakleigh, with 12.4%, did they score noticeably above their state average in 2006. If there’s a backlash against the Liberals for aligning with Labor against the Greens, this is not the area where it will be felt.

When the swing is on, this area can shift its complexion dramatically.

So far, however, that doesn’t look to be happening this year, and without it the opposition’s task is that much more difficult.

Peter Fray

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