The accidental MP and former tennis pro contesting one of Victoria’s tightest seats

Chris Brayne doesn’t shy away from the fact he is somewhat of an accidental MP while greeting voters outside the Rosebud Scout Hall.

Four years ago, Brayne had just turned 25 and was a $16 outsider with the bookies to win the seat of Nepean, an area taking in the tip of the Mornington Peninsula from Safety Beach down to Portsea.

Labor had only ever won here once before, under the Cain government in 1982. With a median age of 52, the beachside seat is Melbourne’s Florida (not for its weather, but its proximity of retirees to water) and usually safely in the Liberal column.

Labor MP for Nepean Chris Brayne.Credit:Joe Armao

The “Danslide” election of 2018 swept all that history aside, as Brayne gave up a weekend job at the Dromana Drive-In to become the state parliament’s youngest politician.

“It was a huge shock,” says Brayne. “Some people have tried to disparage me for it, ‘a drive-in employee gets elected as a member of parliament’, I see it as a badge of honour.”

If the Coalition is any chance of winning government next Saturday, Nepean is one of the first seats that will need to fall to erode Labor’s huge majority.

To avoid being a one-term MP, Brayne is facing a tough challenge from Liberal candidate Sam Groth, a former tennis pro who once hit the fastest recorded serve of 263 km/h.

Sam Groth is the Liberal candidate in Nepean.Credit:Joe Armao

After a boundary redistribution, the margin is just 0.7 per cent and one of the tightest contests at the election. Despite being the incumbent, the bookies again have Brayne as an underdog, although not as big as last time.

“Obviously I was unexpectedly elected four years ago,” Brayne says to one voter, while pressing a red how-to-vote card in to their hands.

“I’ve used my position, rebuilt the schools, including Rosebud Primary School, new express bus to Frankston, let’s keep the momentum going.”

Brayne argues that the peninsula had long been ignored by Spring Street before his surprise win and that making the seat marginal had helped attract funding in areas such as education and transport.

“I think it’d be a huge shame for us to just revert back to the previous status quo, where we are taken for granted,” he says.

It’s a message that resonates with voters like Madi Waters, an education worker who is backing Labor: “I think the Liberals just forgot about us,” she says.

Labor voter Madi Waters.Credit:Joe Armao

The Liberals are not taking any chances in their bid to win back Nepean, wheeling out a celebrity candidate in the form of Groth, who has also made a name as a sports commentator.

With every vote crucial, simple name recognition could be decisive.

While Brayne stands at the polling booth in a campaign T-shirt with his face on the front, Groth opts for a Ralph Lauren button-up shirt.

Originally from Albury, Groth moved to Rye with his wife and twin boys a few years ago. Liberal leader Matthew Guy has made several trips from Melbourne to give Groth’s campaign a boost.

He describes the transition from tennis player – he rose to number 53 in the world at one point – to politician as “very different”.

“People want to see rejuvenation, revitalisation. They want to see new faces and people as a part of the Liberal Party,” he says.

“This will be an electorate where you get a feel of what’s happening across the state, whether those people that left the Liberal Party in 2018 are coming back.”

Sam Groth on the tennis court.Credit:AP

Groth agrees with his opponent that that area has been underfunded in health and transport but says the reason for that is because Labor has been in government for 19 of the past 23 years.

The Liberals’ local promises include spending $340 million on the redevelopment of Rosebud Hospital and $175 million for an overpass of the Mornington Peninsula Freeway at Jetty Road.

“People are sick of funding going up the road to Frankston Hospital; nowhere else in metropolitan Melbourne do you have to travel 50 kilometres to get public health care. The roads are terrible,” says Groth.

Chris Brayne (left) and Sam Groth (right) are locked in a tight battle for votes.Credit:Joe Armao

While many Victorians have ranked the COVID-19 pandemic down the list of priorities at this election well behind health, the environment and corruption, the issue has a different cut-through on the Mornington Peninsula.

The area was controversially included in the lockdowns of metropolitan Melbourne, despite relatively low case numbers, prompting calls to be designated as regional.

A regular comparison made by candidates and voters is that the Mornington Peninsula was locked down and under curfew in 2020 and 2021 while Geelong, across the other side of Port Phillip Bay, was open.

Nepean MP Chris Brayne with Premier Daniel Andrews.Credit:Facebook

“I think they felt neglected here,” says Groth. “They would have appreciated a local member who could have stood up for their local constituents and not just for the interests of his own party during that time.”

Brayne says there were several reasons while the lockdown was necessary, including the high rates of second-home ownership by people in Melbourne and the peninsula’s older population.

“If COVID had gotten out of control, then it could have been devastating,” he says.

While they aren’t considered much of a chance of winning the seat, there are also several independents running in Nepean who may play a role with preferences.

Charelle Ainslie, a businesswoman and former national softball player, is running as a “real not teal” independent and says that many voters are upset with the major parties.

She was once involved with anti-lockdown group Reignite Democracy Australia but has since cut ties.

“I do think there’s a very strong anti-Dan sentiment and that will come through,” she says.

That’s something Liberal voter John Parkes, a retired consumer affairs officer, agrees with: “I’ve got nothing against the local member, but I just cannot face the prospect of another four years of Dan Andrews leading the state.”

Liberal voter John Parkes.Credit:Joe Armao

Another independent candidate, Elizabeth Woolcock, had planned to run for Liberal preselection but was standing on her own on a platform of protecting the area’s green wedge status.

“I’m not against growth, so much, we just need to do it with ecology in mind,” she says. Both independents are preferencing Groth.

The people of Nepean appear keen to make their voice heard. The Victorian Electoral Commission reported that the seat has the highest number of combined postal vote applications and early votes so far.

Independent voter John Harris.Credit:Joe Armao

John Harris is normally a swinging voter but he says he is avoiding both of the major parties to vote independent at this election.

“I don’t trust Daniel Andrews, I don’t know much about Guy, if he’d be much better,” he says.

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