Betting the house on Northcote

New Greens candidate Lidia Thorpe in Northcote. 11th September 2017. The Age Fairfaxmedia News Picture by JOE ARMAO
New Greens candidate Lidia Thorpe in Northcote. 11th September 2017. The Age Fairfaxmedia News Picture by JOE ARMAO
New Greens candidate Lidia Thorpe in Northcote. 11th September 2017. The Age Fairfaxmedia News Picture by JOE ARMAO

New Greens candidate Lidia Thorpe in Northcote. 11th September 2017. The Age Fairfaxmedia News Picture by JOE ARMAO

New Greens candidate Lidia Thorpe in Northcote. 11th September 2017. The Age Fairfaxmedia News Picture by JOE ARMAO

New Greens candidate Lidia Thorpe in Northcote. 11th September 2017. The Age Fairfaxmedia News Picture by JOE ARMAO

Affordable housing.The Acting Leader of the Opposition, Tanya Plibersek  joined Labor's candidate for Northcote, Clare Burns with Northcote renters Franco Mentiplay, Kathleen McMenamin. 27th September 2017. The Age Fairfaxmedia News Picture by JOE ARMAO

Affordable housing.The Acting Leader of the Opposition, Tanya Plibersek joined Labor's candidate for Northcote, Clare Burns with Northcote renters Franco Mentiplay, Kathleen McMenamin. 27th September 2017. The Age Fairfaxmedia News Picture by JOE ARMAO

"You said we should look out further

I guess it wouldn't hurt us

We don't have to be around all these coffee shops."

Northcote's most famous singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett tapped into the Australian anxiety about spiralling house prices two years ago with her breakout hit Depreston.

Daniel Andrews' state Labor government has been mining the same material lately, desperate to score a big hit of its own on Saturday in a defining byelection in the seat of Northcote.

Labor has pitched a string of policies directly at tenants and would-be first home buyers struggling to break into the market, offering long-term leases and pet ownership rights for renters and a crackdown on real estate underquoting.

The aim is to hold onto a piece of political real estate the ALP has owned for 90 years, but which is threatening to turn to the Greens for the first time.

In a tight race, victory might go to the side with the best grasp of how times have changed in Northcote.

Barnett's single, about a couple battling to buy a home in Preston, might not be a bad place to start.

Fifteen years ago the median house price in this working-class suburb was $302,000, and Labor held the seat of Northcote with a giant margin of 28.4 per cent.

Now a house in Preston carries a median value of $950,000 and the Greens, who were barely in the contest in 2002, are within a margin of 6 per cent and poised to make Northcote their own.

The byelection, triggered by the death of Fiona Richardson in August, could decide not just who holds Northcote but the electoral fate of Melbourne's inner north.

With the neighbouring seats of Brunswick and Richmond also in the balance for similar reasons at the state election next year, a win in Northcote on Saturday could help give the Greens the balance of power in Victoria.

It's the Greens' dream and Labor's nightmare.

But last month, with more than three weeks to polling day, the Greens' campaign strategists realised they had a problem.

Their candidate, local Indigenous activist Lidia Thorpe had been connecting with voters and their political "brand" a proven winner in Melbourne's left-leaning, inner-city seats.

The first weeks of the Greens' assault on the former Labor stronghold urged voters in Northcote, Fairfield, Thornbury, Preston and Alphington to make history by putting the first Indigenous woman in State Parliament.

Campaign material followed the tried and true "doing-politics-differently" formula that had helped grow the Greens vote steadily in nearly every inner-city election it had contested since the mid-2000s.

But from the telephones, doorsteps and even the pubs and barbecues, Greens campaign volunteers were reporting an ominous message: it wasn't enough.

Voters liked Thorpe, felt good about an Indigenous parliamentarian and had no problem embracing the Greens' world view and environmental concerns.

But Northcote is groaning under the pressure of a population explosion; schools, roads, trains and trams are all struggling to cope.

When Richardson won the seat in 2006, there were about 38,500 voters enrolled, now there are more than 48,000 voters.

Above all, the local property market is sizzling and just like Barnett, everyone is talking about it.

"On the doors, all they want to talk about is housing," a senior Labor official said this week.

Labor has pinned its hopes on hosing to hold Northcote.

Labor has pinned its hopes on housing to hold Northcote.Photo: Darrian Traynor

Voters wanted to hear the Greens' solutions to the real problems facing the inner-north and for the first part of the campaign at least, were not convinced by what was on offer.

Labor strategists had been predicting for years that this day would come, but their relief might be short-lived.

The ALP knows it could out-campaign its opponent in Northcote and still lose the seat.

But the Greens have taken the hint from their voter feedback that Plan A was not enough and there has been a "pivot" to abroader,issues-based approach.

They are now talking about climate change, forests, the locally sensitive issue of planning, and hammering developer donations to political parties, where they believe Labor is conflicted.

On the other side, the ALP is throwing everything at Northcote; spending about $500,000 on its campaign and deploying no less than five full-time paid electorate workers in a seat that would normally have one officer assigned.

As well as the blitz on renting policies, the Andrews government has chipped in with a steady stream of other left-of-centre announcements as it bolsters its progressive credentials.

There's the safe heroin injecting room in North Richmond and the plastic bag ban, on the books for years but reheated.

The recent progress of voluntary euthanasia laws through State Parliament is not expected to hurt either.

Preferences might be the difference on the day and Labor has stitched up deals with the Liberal Democrats, Fiona Patten's Reason Party and the Animal Justice Party.

The deal with the animal rights outfit stings for the Greens, who owe their triumph in Prahran in the tightest contest in 2014 to AJP preferences.

Labor's candidate in Northcote, Trades Hall official Clare Burns, has a steely focus on what she says is the main game in the seat: housing.

Burns has told voters - a lot - that she is a renter who shares a house with three friends.

Labor believes there is a hardcore Greens vote in the inner-city that has been lost to the ALP cause.

These voters are over 35, professional and mostly in secure work and housing.

They are left-leaning, fed-up with the ALP and its compromised, complicated politics and disgusted at the party's stance on refugees.

But Labor sees opportunities in the emerging generation, aged under 30, battling with an economy that is hard to break into and offers mostly unstable, casual gig-economy jobs.

For this group, home ownership is an impossible dream in Northcote's white-hot market and renting is no picnic either.

Labor strategists believe these voters are willing to listen to economic arguments, particularly if aimed at their kitchen-sink concerns.

Northcote is a testing ground for this strategy.

If it works voters should expect to see more of the same at next year's general election.

Long-time Northcote resident Georgie Waddell will vote for Labor, although she has supported the Greens at other elections.

Although she owns her home, Ms Waddell says she likes the fact that Labor has put rental affordability at the heart of its campaign.

"Renting around here is ridiculous. It's very difficult."

But Thornbury resident Katie Henwood, a mother of two, says she is leaning towards the Greens.

"With little kids, I want to look after them and the environment," she says.

Against Labor's spending onslaught, the Greens are planning to spend about $250,000, which they think is about $50,000 shy of what it would take, in most elections, to mount a good inner-city marginal campaign.

But they will rely on their traditionally strong "ground game" and could put as many as 1000 volunteers on the ground.

Federal leader Richard Di Natale??? has been to the electorate twice, most recently on Wednesday to reannounce his party's support for a Great Forest National Park.

The Greens are also poised to announce a cap on rental rises of 2.5 per cent a year.

Changing the plan mid-race is never a good sign for a campaign, especially with more than 20 per cent of the vote already cast in pre-polls, and despite the party's trademark bullet-proof confidence, Greens insiders acknowledge the strength of the forces deployed against them in Northcote.

And yet Labor has good reason to be nervous.

The Greens have been steadily chipping away at the ALP's hold on the seat since they first eclipsed the Liberals as Labor's main challenger there in 2002.

Richardson ran out a comfortable winner in 2006 over the Greens' Alex Bhathal???, more than 8 per cent clear on a two-party preferred vote.

By 2014, that margin had been eroded to just 6 per cent and the Greens' Trent McCarthy might have pipped Richardson had he not been preferenced last by the Liberals, who are not fielding a candidate this time.

There are similar stories to tell in Richmond and Brunswick, fuelling the perception that the rise of the Greens and the fall of those seats is simply a matter of time.

The government is also warily eyeing last year's federal election numbers in Northcote booths, where Labor was smashed by Brand Green.

In the Northcote North Baptist Church Hall booth, the Greens secured a swing of nearly 13 per cent, winning almost 65 per cent of the two-candidate preferred vote.

In the Thornbury booth on High Street, they snared almost 60 per cent of the two-party vote with a swing of almost 10 per cent.

There is little reliable polling to predict what will happen next Saturday.

But a "robo-poll" conducted for environmental groups by ReachTEL in mid-October gave Labor a narrow primary vote lead that suggested a 42 per cent to 39 per cent gap before preferences.

But that has done nothing to calm the nerves or soothe the frustration among the hardheads at Labor HQ.

"If the Greens win, it will because of who they are, not because of anything they've done," an ALP official said.

Out on the campaign trail, the Greens acknowledge that they will be heavily outspent in Northcote but refuse to be outgunned.

Where Labor has hired vans and scooters to drive mobile billboards around the electorate, the Greens have a bicycle trailer loaded with placards.

Party strategists have a map of the electorate with a black dot pinpointing every home where a Lidia Thorpe placard has been stuck up.

By mid-Thursday, the placard count had reached 850.

The party has done no internal polling on voter intentions but believes the proliferation of placards on front fences points in its favour.

Lidia Thorpe says this is grass-roots politics at work.

Thorpe has political activism in her blood, with her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother committed activists for the Aboriginal cause.

The candidate says she made her own start in politics leading the successful fight to stop a gas pipeline being built through the Nowa Nowa gorge in East Gippsland.

"I was threatened by loggers, had gunshots fired outside my house," Thorpe says.

"As a result of sticking to my guns, it's the only bend in the pipeline from Longford to Sydney."

But Nowa Nowa is a long way from Northcote, and voters on the campaign trail have consistently raised with Thorpe the distinctly urban problems of overcrowded public transport and excessive development.

"It seems with all the development we're having that infrastructure is not being thought about around our public transport so people are really concerned about that," she says.

The electoral focus on urban pressures is awkward for the Greens, who have built much of their campaign around their policy to protect native forests in central Victoria.

"It's 90 minutes away from where we're standing today," Thorpe says. "It provides clean air and clean water for the people of Northcote."

Labor is at an impasse on the issue of protecting native forests, after its taskforce industry and environmental representatives failed to find a way forward.

It's a key policy difference between the two contenders, but how heavily the issue weighs on the minds of voters remains to be seen.

Clare Burns argues it doesn't.

"Actually not at all," she says when asked how often voters have raised the issue with her during the campaign.

But she argues the issue of protecting native forests is complex, because of the high number of forestry jobs at stake.

"If this was an easy thing it would have been done by now," she says.

Burns insists, unsurprisingly, that it is Labor's housing and rental policies that have captured voters' interest.

"For myself as a renter, for so long I felt left out and like people don't really care," Burns says.

"Now we've got people in government who want to make things fair for us and it's resonating and people are talking to me about that."

It's a small irony that Labor has pinned its hopes on housing to save a seat that was for so long safe as houses.

This story Betting the house on Northcote first appeared on The Age.