Northern region wants answers after growth spurt

The passengers heading south at morning peak hour along Canberra's new light rail tracks are packed like sardines.

Another tram going north is emptier, and one of Australia's one million early voters is aboard.

Julie Piggott is travelling from her home in Franklin as she pinpoints what decided her vote. After a short pause, her reasons flow out.

"My perception of the Liberal party's swing to the right," she begins.

The tram approaches Manning Clark North as Piggott describes a Coalition term in government that had her shaking her head.

"Everyone's disappointed in Malcolm Turnbull, but that was only because he had to appease the Right," she says.

Piggott identifies veteran conservative warrior Eric Abetz as hurting the Coalition's chances by frustrating the deposed prime minister's moderate agenda. The conservatism of a younger member of the party's right wing, the ACT's own senator Zed Seselja, was another factor in her vote against the Liberals.

"They've been taken over by the Right now, and they don't stand for us," she says.

The Coalition's stances on same-sex marriage, climate change and energy dismayed Piggott through the last parliament.

Had Turnbull remained prime minister, would she have been more likely to vote Liberal? "Absolutely," Piggott says, before the tram stops and empties its remaining passengers into a cool, crisp morning at Gungahlin Place.

Franklin resident Julie Piggott is unhappy with the Coalition, saying it has moved further to the right of politics. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos.

Franklin resident Julie Piggott is unhappy with the Coalition, saying it has moved further to the right of politics. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos.

The spectre of August's leadership implosion looms in the suburb, one of two city centres in the ACT's redrawn federal electorate of Fenner.

At Gungahlin Marketplace, Gail Ashton also mentions the former prime minister's downfall.

"I don't really know why they did that to him, because I thought he was doing really well," she says.

Ashton, from Amaroo, has previously supported Labor and is leaning that way again. Despite being happy with how the Coalition has left the nation, she is attracted to Labor's suite of policy.

Bill Shorten's promises on health are a selling point. "As long as he does what he says," she adds wryly.

Only metres away, a polar opposite political view emerges. Ray Johnston says a player in Turnbull's fall, Tony Abbott, is a good man who is being treated disgracefully in his bid to retain his seat.

"This election started very boring and uninspiring, and finally, finally, it became a case of decent people against a bunch of liars."

Fenner remains hardcore Labor territory after the electoral commission changed its boundaries last year. Covering Gungahlin and most of Belconnen, its notional two-party preferred vote for the ALP is 63 per cent, equalling that of the neighbouring, more central electorate, Canberra.

The margin, in the words of Fenner's Liberal candidate, is "crazy big". Leanne Castley, a Palmerston-based country music singer-songwriter and Citadel Group project manager, has still decided it's time to get involved.

"I'm here to win. I don't do anything half-heartedly," she says. Castley was inspired to run by her love for Canberra's north and a wish to stand up for hard-working people.

"I'm not a political wizard by any stretch of the imagination, but I understand the struggles of day-to-day life in this electorate and hope to fight for the people like me."

Scott Morrison, a baseball-cap wearing NRL fan who attends Taylor Swift concerts, has fashioned a more mainstream image than his predecessor. Castley says voters are responding well to Morrison, and are encouraged by his "normalcy".

Asked about Turnbull's demise, she says the Coalition won't turf out a prime minister again under new leadership rules.

Castley also defends Senator Seselja, who is fighting off a "Dump Zed" union campaign and challenges to his seat from the Greens and independent candidates.

I would ask them all to think more about what they can offer to the jewel in Canberra's crown.

Glen Hyde

The conservative senator, attacked for his stance against same-sex marriage and support for Peter Dutton's leadership bid, has always been true to his values, Castley says. In opposing same-sex marriage, he still represented the Canberrans who voted against it in the postal plebiscite.

"Zed's never flipped and surprised anybody with the way he's gone, and I admire that greatly in a person. I don't want to be having someone in parliament you can't trust a word they say," she says.

"It would've been no surprise to anybody that that's the way he went."

On her door knocking circuit Castley says she's met people worried about taxes and Labor's plan to scrap refundable franking credits on dividends from shares. The Coalition is offering Canberra a growing health spend and more jobs, she says.

Across town, Fenner MP and shadow assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh leaves the National Press Club treasurers' debate and leaps into his re-election pitch for Canberra's north and north-west.

Labor is promising to remove the cap on public service staffing and spend $200 million on the ACT's second stage of light rail. Leigh vows ACT public schools will receive more resources if his party wins government, and Canberra Hospital would have upgrades. So would Kippax Oval's facilities.

The former ANU economics professor says, not for the first time in this campaign, that he hates the term "safe seat".

"It implies you don't need to earn the trust of voters in every election."

He attacks the Coalition's cuts to the public service, Canberra's major employer, and says it has treated the city like an ATM by moving agencies to the regions under its decentralisation project. Labor will treat Canberra better, he promises.

Fenner has a young population and the ACT's largest percentage of people aged 0 to 17. It has more couples with children, larger rents, higher mortgage repayments, and bigger household incomes than the Australian average. It is highly multicultural, and about a third of its residents were born overseas.

Young Canberrans and families have increasingly overlooked the original "nappy valley", Tuggeranong, for the sun-exposed suburbs of Gungahlin as the district drives Canberra's population growth. The majority of the ACT's most fertile suburbs are now in its north.

Gungahlin, launched in 1991 with 389 residents, now has about 80,000, but its growth is expected to plateau within the decade. The spurt has outpaced infrastructure, clogging arterial roads and forcing governments to scramble to catch up. The duplication of Horse Park Drive is one solution, but the district needs to bust congestion elsewhere.

The windows of morning southbound trams reveal a sardine squeeze inside.

At Gungahlin Marketplace cafe Atlas Tim Knights reports having more customers since light rail began. People are coming north to shop and have a coffee. While tax breaks would always help small business, Knights would like to see more spending on health and education.

"The hospitals are understaffed and over-capacity," he says.

Atlas cafe's Tim Knights says he wants to see more money go towards health and education. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos.

Atlas cafe's Tim Knights says he wants to see more money go towards health and education. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos.

Community council president Peter Elford says Gungahlin's young families are focused on health and education.

What the district is missing, compared to Canberra's older city centres, is a large employer. The Coalition is moving Defence Housing Australia there, but public service agencies are largely absent. Elford hopes the next federal government will work with the territory to establish a jobs hub in Gungahlin, and locate public servants there.

"We've very light-on with employment in the town centre," he says.

To the ACT's north-west, Belconnen is home to two large public service employers, the Bureau of Statistics and the Home Affairs Department. It has what was once said to be the largest shopping mall in the southern hemisphere.

Westfield is abuzz. Down the road, Lake Ginninderra is choppy in the wind. Belconnen Community Council chairman Glen Hyde bursts with pride for this corner of Canberra.

"For me, this district has been the absolute love of my life," he says.

With 100,000 people, it is the territory's most populated area and is expected to retain this status by adding another 50,000 in 40 years. Expansion awaits through the Ginninderry project at the ACT's border.

Among Belconnen's existing suburbs, differences in wealth are visible. Dunlop and Fraser, on Canberra's north-western fringe, have a median weekly household income $800 greater than Holt's.

At Canberra City Care, a Life Unlimited Church-run community centre at Charnwood, a cooking class is making quiches and citrus salad as shoppers buy discount food at its pantry. Volunteers and students extract parts from obsolete computers and prepare reusable ones for cheap resale.

Operations manager Danielle Bate sees first-hand how cost of living pressures bear on low-income earners.

"They can make it through every week, just, if they're careful, but if anything out of the ordinary comes up, it really pushes their ability to manage to breaking point sometimes," she says.

"It's certainly not always an easy way to have to live on the edge all the time, choosing to go without one thing in order to pay for another thing, and not being able to have those luxuries that other people take for granted."

Expensive housing is squeezing budgets for low-income people, she says.

"Anything that puts a bit of extra money back in their pocket is always appreciated for anyone on a pension."

Easing on medical, rental or utility costs would all relieve the pressure, Ms Bate says.

Operations manager of Canberra City Care Danielle Bate and manager of handUP food pantry and RE-runs op shop Kristen Castro. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos.

Operations manager of Canberra City Care Danielle Bate and manager of handUP food pantry and RE-runs op shop Kristen Castro. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos.

Back in Belconnen's town centre, Glen Hyde says businesses have also reported customers are spending less as public service wage rises remain constrained.

The district is thriving overall, he says. But Hyde, who is also a Labor party member, says public transport will be an ingredient to keep it humming. Stage three of Canberra's light rail project, perhaps connecting Belconnen to the city's airport, will grow the district's potential - if and when it comes.

Belconnen needs sustainable growth and should wisely use the land made available for development. A federal environmental protection agency should help the district preserve Lake Ginninderra, Hyde says.

Up-tempo shop music blares inside Westfield as the crowds thin at the day's end. Buses cross Benjamin Way and public servants head home.

Labor's notional primary vote is imposing in Fenner, particularly throughout Belconnen. But Hyde still has a request for candidates ahead of May 18.

"I would ask them all to think more about what they can offer to the jewel in Canberra's crown," he says.

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