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The Sharp End: Encounters With MPs (Members Of The Public)

Ari Sharp, Australian Democrats candidate for Kooyong, reports from the campaign frontline.

SharpYou’d be amazed at the barriers that being a candidate brings down, and also the ones that it puts up.

Take the early morning train station caper. Usually, hanging around dark train station subways early in the morning would be viewed with a combination of fear and suspicion by the rush of early morning commuters.

However, by wearing a decent suit and a half decent smile, a candidate is all of a sudden free to converse with whoever wanders by, the social barrier of chatting to a complete stranger having been broken down.

There is much greater freedom afforded to a candidate hungry to meet and greet their constituents than there is to the stranger lurking in the dark train station corridor.

With the sense of self-importance on behalf of the candidate comes the sharp contrast of the MP (member of the public) who frankly is not interested in what you have on offer.

There are many people who take great pleasure in waiting until the candidate has stepped forward and offered their most earnest sincere smile for 7:20am along with a lovingly displayed leaflet-de-jour, and then offer the cold shoulder, or worse the putdown. “Democrats – I don’t think so…” or “No, not today mate…” is the occasional refrain, alongside those for whom you are in the same category as the dog-poo they stepped in on the way to the station.

So early mornings at suburban train stations is one encounter that candidates will experience, and talks at schools are another.

For many teachers, civics education can be a real uphill battle, with students cynical about the political process, and viewing it as remote from their day to day experience. So a chance to liven it up a bit with a real life political candidate is one that many schools embrace.

During the week, I was involved in a very lively forum at Canterbury Girls Secondary College, a large public girl’s school in the heart of Kooyong. Years 7-11 packed into the main school hall, and representatives from each of the major parties in this election had a chance to put their case. Labor, Liberal, Greens, One Nation and of course yours truly with the Democrats, were each represented, and this schools forum had the added twist of the students casting a vote at the end in a mock election.

With five minutes to answer the question “why should voters vote for you and your party?”, there was certainly plenty to be said and not a lot of time to say it.

It was interesting to note the different styles of the participants, from the heavily scripted performance of the Liberal and Labor candidates, to the largely off-the-cuff attempts by the Green, Democrat and One Nation candidates. Most of us realised the need to adapt the words to the occasion, cutting back on the political point scoring and instead trying to offer a vision for the future that would hopefully capture the imagination of the restless student audience.

There is no doubt in my mind that school students have the best bullshit detectors – the intangible sixth sense ability to identify when they are being had – of any group of people. Unlike other audiences who will put up with hyperbole and political gamesmanship, students have an incredible ability to cut through the crap, and pick up when politicians are insincere or uncomfortable, and have no qualms about switching off when they know you are out of touch.

It is a shame that many people lose this intangible sixth sense as they grow older, and become far too tolerant of mediocrity.

Another vital aspect of running a good local campaign is to get the message out on election day. For good or for bad, voters have become incredibly reliant on how-to-vote cards when they go in to vote, and the absence of these is often the downfall of a good independent or minor party candidate.

Few people realise the enormity of the logistics of staffing polling booths.

Kooyong, an inner city electorate of 49 square kilometres, has 32 polling booths, each open from 8am to 6pm, many with multiple entrances, all of which need to be staffed. The situation is even tougher for those in the country.

Take Gippsland, which covers most of eastern Victoria, and has 99 polling booths. To get how-to-vote cards in the hands of voters therefore required plenty of party members, supporters, friends and family.

In my experience, guilt is often a great way to persuade reluctant people that they should help out on election day. Many a conversation has lead down the path of: “I know your exams are coming up/your grandmother’s sick/you’re a member of the ALP, but do you realise that we have 32 polling booths, needing an average of 6 people EACH!!!” This is pretty effective at getting a few volunteer hours out of people. (yes, yes, I know you, dear reader, are probably very busy, but if you are keen to help the cause, please get in touch at – do realise that we have 32 polling booths, needing an average of 6 people EACH!!)

With such a focus on all things local, it is possible to become a bit out of touch with the national dynamics of the campaign, where the battle is ultimately won and lost. It seems to me that Beazley has struggled to shift the focus onto the domestic agenda he craves, and this will only become harder in the final week as attacks in Afghanistan continue and the week is punctuated by a horse race that stops a nation.

My hunch is that Howard will ride on the back of fear and insecurity, and capitalise on the “don’t change horses midstream” which was made famous in Wag the Dog.

Get set for plenty of muckraking, though, as the campaign moves into a frantic home stretch.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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