Hazelwood fire still a burning issue in Victorian election

On election morning, Morwell resident Julie Brown usually rings her sister, asks who to vote for and heads for the local polling station – mostly to avoid a fine.

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But this year, things are very different.

Like many in the Latrobe Valley town, Julie has developed a genuine interest in politics. The town was impacted by smoke and ash from a fire at the nearby Hazelwood open cut mine in February and Julie said the leaders went missing.

“Non-existent,” she said.

“There was no leadership I didn’t even know who I should be looking at as a leader.”

After receiving mixed messages from authorities, Julie relocated her family to a free camping ground an hour out of town. Two of her three children suffered serious respiratory infections. 

According to Tracie Lund who runs the Morwell neighbourhood house, the story is common.

Ms Lund is running as an independent candidate for the seat, claiming political response to the fire was slow and unsatisfactory.

“There was nobody taking ownership,” she said.

“I think the community really really noticed that. It was a critical time for this community and they needed a voice they needed a strong community advocate.”

Ms Lund will need a swing of more than 10 per cent to claim the seat, which current Nationals member Russell Northe is tipped to retain.

He conceded some agencies could have performed better in the aftermath of the fire, but said personally he did his best.

“It was a difficult time for all concerned,” he said.

“Some people will use it as a political purpose and that’s unfortunate. Otherwise, I think there’s some genuine concern in the community.”

Labor’s candidate is among the youngest contesting the November 29 ballot.

At 24-years-old, Jadon Mintern said the mine fire will feature as a key issue, but is concentrating on a range of issues important to the community.

He said the Valley must diversify beyond coal and cites timber processing as a possible alternative.

“Could very well provide the quality high paying jobs for the Latrobe Valley in the next 10 to 20 years and that’s what I’m keen to investigate,” he said.

The Victorian coalition’s four-year term has been marked by the still unexplained removal of Premier Ted Bailieu, and internal division often concerning Liberal-turned-independent Geoff Shaw. 

It will take a swing of just one per cent to force a change of government and current polling suggests that’s likely.

But even if the polls are accurate, the Greens are tipped to win three or even four Upper House seats, meaning it could hold the balance of power in the new Victorian Parliament.