Get Prahran wrong and it’s over. The unconventional pronunciation will expose the uninitiated. It’s Pran, or Paran, but Labor volunteers calling Prahran households to spruik candidate Neil Pharaoh fudged it, exposing them and tarnishing his claim to represent the community for Labor.

“My mum can’t pronounce Prahran,” Pharaoh said. He tried to downplay the gaffe, but the damage, however brief, was done in those households. Sniggers all round.

Prahran, like other inner-Melbourne seats, holds a mix of voters strongly supporting both major parties and the Greens. In well-heeled Toorak and the luxury towers of South Yarra, the Liberals hold sway. On the other hand, Prahran, Balaclava and Windsor have towers of their own for housing commission residents, and the Jewish quarter of Balaclava and East St Kilda to the south have elected Labor compulsively.

The Greens’ Sam Hibbins is riding the hope of a decent primary vote after polling booth results showed around a 25% first preference for the Greens in specific polling places during the 2013 federal election. Those booths were in areas of federal seats Higgins and Melbourne Ports, which the Prahran electorate overlays.

“We’ve never had as good a shot as now to win the balance of power in the lower house,” Hibbins said.

But Labor polled better than the Greens in 2013 and in the 2010 state poll. Pharaoh is not considering a loss to Hibbins. “My opponent here is Clem Newton-Brown, that’s my concern here,” he said.

Popular Liberal backbencher Clem Newton-Brown is the man to beat — and the Greens think they can manage it with a grassroots campaign that has visited 8500 homes in the electorate in the past six months. If Hibbins does claim second-highest primary at the November 29 poll he could be shot forward by an expected boost of preferences, an advantage Newton-Brown didn’t have in the 2010 poll, which handed him the seat from two-term Labor MP Tony Lupton.

Newton-Brown managed 16,197 primary votes to Lupton’s 9384, but preferences catapulted Lupton to within 3000 votes, with Newton-Brown on 18,333 versus Lupton’s 15,443.

After a 2013 redivision of the electorate the seat picked up millionaire’s row — Queens Way boasts flash apartments overlooking Albert Park Lake that can sell for more than $1.2 million. Newton-Brown is hopeful those voters will lean Liberal, but Hibbins says the Greens can also pick up a boost there.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2011 census showed the seat had 60,188 residents with a median age of 34, under the state average of 37, and 13,110 families. Median weekly household income was $1563 and in 2011 unemployment was at 4.4%, but according to the latest ABS labour force statistics, unemployment is up to 6.1% nationally in September 2014.

A few factors will hurt Newton-Brown’s chances this time around, such as a dissatisfaction with the Napthine government and the lack of a state high school in the area. Premier Denis Napthine announced $20 million for a new state high school in Prahran in April, but one site the community thought would be good for the school, at 590 Orrong Road, has been sold to developers for a 448-unit apartment complex. Newton-Brown called on Liberal Planning Minister Matthew Guy to curb the development to appease the surrounding residents, but the development is still going ahead.

On busy fashionable clothes mecca Chapel Street, Newton-Brown has erected campaign advertising inside Avenue Apartments, a newly constructed tower formerly a Lamborghini showroom visited by Brynne and Geoffrey Edelsten — and elsewhere on derelict buildings.

“I don’t think people expect their representatives to be in such a cosy relationship with developers,” said Hibbins.

Newton-Brown told Crikey: “The tenant has signed a lease and won’t be opening for a month or so, while they are doing their fit-out they are happy to have my signage in the window.” He denied any cosy relationship.

Pharaoh, a Rainbow Labor member with a background in social justice and the private sector, is keen to prove his community bona fides. His party has announced a plan to force Victoria’s Civil and Administrative Tribunal to take into account “the extent of community opposition to planning proposals”, which was a defining point of the battle against the Orrong towers — VCAT excluded the display of community opposition from its decisions.

Hibbins also stands to benefit from the Orrong tower fight, with a pro-community consultation stance during his one term on Stonnington Council.

“I think he’s got a reasonably good track record on planning decisions in council,” said the Orrong Group’s Margot Carrol.

All three candidates will also be chasing the gay vote in the seat, home to nightclubs such as Poof Doof. Pharaoh is the only gay candidate of the three, but Newton-Brown was nominated for a straight ally award by Globe Community Awards — which eventually went to Age journalist Jill Stark — and Hibbins says the Greens have a long record of standing up for gay rights.

Pharaoh plays down his homosexuality, saying he’s not a one-issue candidate, but he has attacked Newton-Brown for voting for a Liberal amendment to equal opportunity laws in 2011 to allow religious organisations to engage staff with the same beliefs as they hold, seen as allowing gay employees to be sacked based on their sexuality, among other outcomes. For his side, Newton-Brown says he was integral in the move by the Victorian government to expunge convictions for homosexual sex. Both the Labor and Liberal parties promised similar bills on that matter.

While it appears the Greens are in a stronger position than 2010, they still trail Labor. One thing on the Greens’ side is Hibbins’ prominence from his work on the council, but Pharaoh has campaigned tirelessly. Preferences could be crucial. But on the road to a result the campaign is sure to get dirty.

Peter Fray

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