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Federal Election 2022: The seat of Swan

Mortgage belt foothills suburbs to the east, trendy café strips in the middle, multicultural melting pots to the south and the affluent river-hugged suburbs to the west.

Swan is Western Australia’s most diverse seat.

Couple that with two brand new major party candidates vying for the position with long-serving Liberal party MP Steve Irons retiring, and you have one of the most interesting contests in the country.

As a long-time marginal seat, Swan is crucial to both parties.

Labor knows this, freely admitting it is one of three target seats in WA, alongside Pearce and Hasluck.

Both parties have so far promised more than $37 million for the electorate, the majority from a shared $30 million promise to build an aquatic center in High Wycombe.

Perth-based political commentator Peter Kennedy says the retirement of Irons and the resurgence of the Labor party at the state level were major factors in the contest.

The seat includes the usually blue-blooded state electorate of South Perth which fell to Labor last year for the first time ever.

While Labor’s state and federal prospects have diverged in recent elections, Kennedy said the party had a better shot than previous outings with its pandemic popularity.

“WA voters have moved towards Labor big time in March last year so there’ll be a residue of that, which will still be lingering for this campaign,” he said.

“His [Irons’] personal following could be worth a couple of percent … he’s held the seat for a good while so his absence puts the seat in play.”

The Liberals have chosen PR firm owner and former Liberal political staffer Kristy McSweeney, a proud conservative who regularly features on the right-leaning Sky News.

Labor’s candidate, Goldfields-raised chemical engineer Zaneta Mascarenhas, comes straight from the party’s socially progressive left-wing faction.

Unlike higher density Australian cities, WA voters sprawl across Perth to meet the electoral commission’s population targets. Swan, technically an inner-city electorate, covers an array of communities for this reason.

A boundary redraw added to this diversity, by sending the electorate further west from the city and adding a swathe of hills suburbs that were carved off Ken Wyatt’s seat of Hasluck.

Census data from 2016 shows in the bustling metro center of Cannington to the south of the electorate there are large Chinese, Indian and Filipino communities and 50 per cent of the entire electorate had parents born overseas.

Swan’s average household income, at $1527 per week, is slightly lower than the WA average of $1595 but this varies significantly suburb by suburb depending on what part of the map you point at.

The closer to the river a constituent lives, the wealthier they are, with South Perth families earning an average of $1,883 per week compared to Queens Park in the electorate’s south, where they earn $400 less a week.

This diversity makes Swan a tough nut to crack but Irons managed to not only win the seat from Labor’s Kim Wilkie in the face of a nationwide swing during Kevin Rudd’s election in 2007, but he has held it ever since despite it remaining a marginal seat. Irons retained the seat in 2019 with a margin of 3.2 per cent, shocking Labor which had it pinned as a surefire win.

Kambalda Kid

Mascarenhas’ parents migrated from Kenya to Australia in 1976 after the White Australia policy was scrapped by the Whitlam government. They moved to Kambalda where her father de ella worked as a fitter and turner and her mother de ella worked as a school cleaner and lollipop lady.

Their daughter studied science and engineering at Curtin and moved into chemical engineering where she worked for Iluka Resources for several years.

Before standing for politics Mascarenhas worked a climate change consultancy firm Energetics, which helped ASX 200 companies understand their greenhouse gas footprint.

She was a star pick by the party’s left faction for Swan and opened Labor’s campaign at its national launch in Perth on May 1.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and Labor candidate for Swan, Zaneta Mascarenhas during the Labor Party campaign launch at Optus Stadium in Perth, WA, on Sunday 1 May 2022.Credit:alex ellinghausen

Mascarenhas says parliament desperately lacks people with science, technology, engineering and mathematics backgrounds at a time when they are needed the most.

“I think our federal parliament needs more diversity and when I say diversity, I do mean genders, races, but also skills,” she says.

“I don’t think that we have enough people with science and engineering skill sets in our federal parliament and we’re at a time where science has never been as important as it is today, whether that relates to health advice with COVID, or whether that relates to climate change action.”

Mascarenhas says cost of living is overwhelmingly the biggest issue for Swan constituents.

“We’ve not seen wages keep up with the cost of living and the truth is we’ve seen that over the full three terms of this government,” she says.

New generation for Liberals

McSweeney also says cost of living has risen as an issue but is keener to talk up employment prospects in Swan.

“The other side of that cost of living is… anyone who wants a job can have one,” she says.

“Because of the occupations and the need for the workers in those occupations because of the industry that Swan has, everybody who wants a job has got one.”

McSweeney’s mother Robyn was a former state Liberal upper house member and McSweeney herself got her first taste of politics working for the Howard government as a political staffer.

She has done stints in senior government roles in every Coalition government since and now runs her own political public relations and lobbying business, with operations across the country. But Swan is her home.

“This is where I live, it is where I’ve always lived. Where my family’s always lived, where my niece and nephew go to school,” she says.

Liberal candidate for Swan Kristy McSweeney outside the IGA she used to hang around at growing up.

Liberal candidate for Swan Kristy McSweeney outside the IGA she used to hang around at growing up.Credit:Hamish Hasty

McSweeney says she wants to take complacency out of government, starting with making life easier for seniors.

“Australian politics also needs people who listen, and who do the things that make a day-to-day difference on the ground to people’s lives,” she says.

“There are things that we do that will not cost more money and will not require changing the law that we can fix. I want an express line at Medicare and Centrelink for seniors.”

campaign controversies

Despite some ideological differences, both Mascarenhas and McSweeney have plenty in common.

Firstly, they were both preselected for their seats under somewhat controversial circumstances.

McSweeney was pre-selected uncontested after Irons retired at the last minute, citing a family tragedy. It prompted accusations from City of Canning councillor Jesse Jacobs that it was a bait and switch and if he knew Irons was retiring he would have nominated himself. Irons denied the claim.

Mascarenhas beat out her right faction competitor Fiona Reid in June last year after an intervention by the WA Labor Party’s left faction controlled administration committee, who vetoed Reid’s nomination.

The two women have also landed in hot water over past comments.

Mascarenhas faced calls from Assistant Defense Minister Andrew Hastie to explain comments she made at a student protest over university funding in 2003 where she accused the-then federal government of preparing to spend money on defense to “kill innocent human beings.”

Mascarenhas says the Coalition was playing student politics by dragging up comments she made 20 years ago.

“People deserve better than a tired, desperate government launching political attacks about what was said 20 years ago as a uni student,” she said.

McSweeney drew the attention of LGBTQI+ publication Out in Perth in March over comments she made during an interview on Sky News with former Senator Cory Bernardi.

McSweeney was asked about Britain’s Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper declining to answer questions defining what a woman was when she said she wouldn’t have any problems walking around her electorate pointing out who a woman or man was.

She says she would not “comment directly on fringe websites” but the comments were taken out of context.

“My comment as per the primary source was that most people identify as a man or a woman. There are people that identify as other and they are a small minority that should be respected,” McSweeney says.

What constituents want

Political wish lists are as diverse as the electorate itself with climate change, political stability and cost of living all important to Swan voters.

East Victoria Park research scientist and mother Shani Higginbottom, 36, says she is considering voting Greens with childcare and climate change concerning her the most.

“I’ve got a two-and-a-half year old daughter, and I’m a working mum, so for me, childcare is really one of the big killers both in not only the cost of it but also just the staffing ,” she says.

“We’re big into sort of climate change and sustainability here so we really are interested in what the parties are offering in terms of dealing with climate change.

“I want to see them actually doing stuff rather than just talking the big talk.”

Sue from Manning, 61, says McSweeney will get her vote because the Liberals had been active in the area under Irons’ term.

“Steve Irons played a significant part getting the on-ramp built from Manning Road to freeway south, so I’m very pleased with his hard work and effort,” she says.

“Liberals have been very proactive for this district I feel very proud to live in this vibrant area. My only concerns are they will continue to maintain the same persistence and determination Steve has.”

Neville Williams, the 58-year-old owner of Forrestfield butcher Williams Meats, was apathetic about politics but says cost of living and rising costs of doing business were hurting him hard.

“Your staff need more money to live on, and you try to do the right thing by them and make sure they got enough money to live on, it’s so hard to make a quid because everything is so tight,” he says.

Carlisle resident Katie, 31, is a new homeowner and shared concerns about the cost of living rises and climate change.

“My main concern this coming election is the impact of mining on our environment and what our country is doing to combat climate change,” she says.

“Inflation is also a concern and whether or not wages will keep up with the rising cost of living.”

Despite the Liberals being the incumbent party in Swan, political commentator Kennedy says Labor has a score to settle and probably has the edge in the contest.

“They’d be smarting from the fact they didn’t win it three years ago and they’re not going to let it slip through their hands this time,” he said.

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