As you rumble down the Western Highway, past vast swaths of paddock, you’ll find yourself in densely populated Melton – one of the fastest-growing local government areas and once considered safe Labor territory.
This part of Melbourne’s western fringe is already bigger than the City of Ballarat, and by 2050 almost half a million people will call the City of Melton home.
This patch of paddock in Cobblebank, inspected by Melton mayor Kathy Majdlik, Melton MP Steve McGhie (centre) and Health Minister Martin Foley, is to be home to the state’s newest public hospital. Credit:Christopher Hopkins
On Sunday, Health Minister Martin Foley took the highway to 245-267 Ferris Road, Cobblebank, within the Melton local government area, to announce the state government was acquiring the land – 500 metres from a new train station, near new housing and next door to a shopping centre – to build a long-awaited public hospital.
Mr Foley said the government was “well down the path” of acquiring the land, which is owned by the Catholic Church, and that the business case was due to be completed by the end of the year.
Melton MP Steve McGhie said the progress was “exciting for the Melton community and the western corridor”.
“This is one of the fastest-growing regions within the state, if not the country and I’m … very proud to be here 2½ years after being elected that now we’re talking about where the Melton hospital is going to grow out of the ground. It’ll be fantastic that people can get the treatment and supply of medical care closer to home.”
An artist’s render of the new Melton hospital.
With changing demographics, a growing population, and shifting political allegiances, the area so often overlooked for vital infrastructure is experiencing a boom in government attention.
Money is expected to be set aside in next year’s state budget for construction of the hospital, which Mr Foley hopes will begin within the next 12 months. The hospital, part of Western Health, is expected to be fully operational by 2026-27.
The cost of delivering a business case, acquiring the land and undertaking detailed planning will be $77.4 million.
“There will be an emergency department, and it’s going to be pretty hard in this moving community to not have integrated into this facility maternal and child health support and other arrangements,” Mr Foley said.
“But those specific provisions as to precisely what the model of care will look like will be worked out in consultation with the council, with the local community, with the local civic organisations to make sure that this facility delivers what this community needs.”
By just two months out from the 2018 election, more than 11,000 locals had signed postcards calling for Labor and the Liberal Party to commit to building a public hospital in the area.
The campaign, dating back at least 20 years, was stepped up in the lead-up to the election and gained significant momentum after it was revealed 11 babies had died in potentially avoidable circumstances at the nearby Bacchus Marsh hospital.
Thirty-three GPs, cardiologists and radiographers warned in late 2019 that patients’ lives were at risk unless a 24-hour hospital was built in Melton by 2022.
As the demographic of Melton rapidly shifts from blue-collar working class to young families aspiring to achieve the Australian dream of owning a home, so too have politicians shifted their focus on the region.
Labor sources have privately conceded the party needs to give Melton more attention, warning the ALP is at risk of losing this once-safe seat.
Voters rejected the major parties at the last election. Mr McGhie recorded a 15.5 per cent swing against him, and the Liberal candidate recorded a 12.7 swing against him.
Labor ultimately won, but its margin plummeted from 11.2 per cent to 4.3 per cent. That election was marred by controversy: long-time MP Don Nardella was forced to resign over an expenses scandal and Labor candidate Justin Mammarella pulled out at the 11th hour citing family reasons.
While some point to the extenuating circumstances of the candidates’ controversy, and praise Mr McGhie’s leadership, Labor is acutely aware of the perilous nature of the situation it finds itself in.
Liberal and Labor insiders believe the latest boundaries will mean the ALP’s margin is cut in Melton. And while the Liberals may struggle to snare the seat, it could be picked up by a strong independent candidate and force Labor to divert resources to this once-safe seat.
More than 40 per cent of the electorate voted for an independent candidate in 2018. This, sources have said, should send alarm bells to Labor headquarters.
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