Day 11: With The Liberals in Deakin

Sections of the media have been preoccupied with Julia Gillard’s marital status this week. Her relationship with her partner is supposedly important. But it’s really just gossip. So far it’s been a week to reinforce one’s contempt for what passes for news.

It was time to instead commune with the Deakin Liberals. Roughly shaped like a revolver, the electorate of Deakin stretches from Blackburn in the west, through Nunawading, Mitcham, Vermont and Ringwood in the middle, to Croydon South and Bayswater North in the east. It is 61 square kilometres of Melbourne’s middle class, residential, eastern suburbs.

More often than not held by the Liberal Party, Deakin was won by Labor’s Mike Symon in 2007. He defeated the Liberal Party’s Phil Barresi by 2,328 votes, after securing an above-average swing of 6.38%. Symon won 28 of the 37 polling booths in the electorate and now holds the seat by 1.41%.

This year, Phil Barresi is recontesting the seat. He is one of three defeated Liberal members from 2007 standing again. If Barresi succeeds in Deakin, it will mean that the ALP has almost certainly lost office. If he loses, Labor could still struggle to win the election. Either way, the ALP knows it must hold Deakin in 2010.

On Monday, I wandered into Barresi’s newly-opened campaign rooms in Ringwood St, Ringwood. The rooms are a short walk from Symon’s campaign rooms which front Maroondah Highway just around the corner.

I was greeted by two Liberal helpers, Meredith and Anne, ladies of a certain age. Over coffee and biscuits, they lauded Tony Abbott as an approachable and likeable leader, whilst dismissing Malcolm Turnbull as anything but a man of the people.

As we chatted, a woman who identified herself as Ingrid, entered the office. She had come to register her objection to the Liberal Party’s policy on climate change. As she put her case to Meredith, Anne engaged me in discussion of an alternative direct action plan by Bjorn Lomborg.

Midway through exploring the pros and cons of painting the roads white in order to reflect heat, my conversation with Anne was interrupted by the arrival of a man named Stuart who demanded to know: “Is Phil still in love with WorkChoices?” Suggesting that leopards don’t change their spots, Stuart was less than impressed with the idea of a re-elected Barresi. “Haven’t they got anyone new?” he said to me later.

To be fair, Ingrid and Stuart were clearly never rusted-on Liberal supporters. Ingrid described herself as a traditional Labor voter who has gone with the Greens for the past several elections. She worries that climate change has faded as an important issue. People are “burnt out” and confused by the climate debate. She’s disappointed with Gillard’s “playing it safe” approach.

I returned to the campaign rooms yesterday to talk with Barresi. An affable, feisty, 54-year-old, he was born in Italy and arrived in Australia aged four. He has an impeccable Liberal pedigree, including management roles in a number of firms and as a Director with the Australian Retailers Association. Over coffee in the behemoth Eastland shopping centre, he tells me he was re-endorsed for the seat in June last year and has been campaigning full-time, and unpaid, since March.

Barresi is on message throughout our meeting. He says he was doorknocking in that now famous week last month that culminated in what he calls the “dismissal” of Rudd. The response amongst householders changed overnight, he says. Concerns about insulation, the Building the Education Revolution program and other Rudd government measures gave way to a deep anxiety about the manner of Rudd’s removal by factional warlords.

Abbott performed well in Sunday’s debate, says Barresi. Someone told him they had decided it was time to “reconsider” Abbott after that performance. Gillard has a hidden Left agenda, he says. She’s trying to get elected by doing what Rudd did in 2007. The nation was “sold a package” and has been “let down” in its execution.

Barresi gives examples of schools in the electorate which have been frustrated by the BER program. One school got a $3 million hall which could have been built for half that amount. The money saved could have gone to building much needed classrooms. One school principal told him it would have been better to spend some of the allocated money on staff facilities, especially more toilets for a large female staff, but this wasn’t permitted under the BER guidelines.

There have been three insulation-related fires in Deakin, says Barresi. He tells me there are around 6,500 homes still to be inspected. In one instance he approached Kevin Rudd to intervene in the case of an elderly resident who wasn’t satisfied with the response she got from Symon.

Symon’s name elicits a certain contempt from Barresi. “Where’s Wally?” he asks several times. It seems that Symon has undertaken a direct mail to constituents this week that has riled the Liberals. There are a number of references to Symon’s invisibility in the electorate and to the busing in of “unionists” to assist his campaign.

WorkChoices was a significant issue in Deakin in 2007. The ACTU’s “Your Rights At Work” campaign was waged door-to-door over many months. Liberal Party resentment remains high.

Part of Barresi’s disdain for Symon stems from his pride in his own representation of the electorate from 1996 through to 2007. Barresi withstood a strong swing in the GST election of 1998 and became renowned for his grassroots campaigning. “Is that all I’m ever going to be known for?” he laments with a sigh and I tell him it’s not a bad thing to be known for.

And it isn’t. Local campaigning during and between elections is one of the last bastions of the relationship between candidates, MPs and the voters. In this age of presidentialised television campaigns, it’s reassuring to see a candidate from any party still prepared to mix it with the voters. Barresi is famous for his pioneering use of street corner meetings throughout the Deakin electorate. They’re known now as “Listening Posts”.

During this campaign, Barresi is on the road every day. There are eight railway stations, including two major ones, and he’s spending up to two hours a day distributing literature and being seen at them. The train station visits can start at 6am.

There are eighteen shopping strips in the electorate, including the two giants, Eastland and Forest Hill Chase. Thursday and Friday nights, and Saturday mornings are favoured times to meet and talk with potential voters. Last week, former Prime Minister Bob Hawke went tripping over television cables with Symon at Eastland. No-one knew who Symon was, Barresi claims. He’s secured an agreement for equal time from the management of Eastland. Election candidates walk a tightrope of rules and regulations when attempting to campaign inside a shopping centre. Balloons, for instance, are not permitted.

There are 52,000 homes in Deakin and Barresi says he cannot possibly hope to knock on the door of each. Campaign volunteers will assist during these finals weeks of the election.

Party membership is “strong” in the area, he says, although one of his campaign workers told me membership was low. The membership is ageing and not just in the Liberals. Barresi laments that people are not “joiners” like they once were. He has a “Community Visitation Program” to make contact with schools, senior citizens, ethnic groups, sports clubs, and all manner of community organisations.

Deakin and the neighbouring electorate of Aston are the centre of Melbourne’s “bible belt”. The Crossway Baptist Church has a large establishment in East Burwood but Deakin also boasts the largest Sikh temple in Melbourne. There are Seventh Day Adventists and Mormons. The Assemblies of God head office is in Mitcham. Barresi ponders the significance of the “religious vote” but says he does not assume it favours the coalition.

Barresi was a backbencher throughout the term of the Howard government. He pointedly suggests his lack of ministerial experience indicates a less than favourable performance assessment from John Howard. Coincidentally, he’s good friends with Peter Costello.

“I don’t have to go back to the Parliament,” Barresi says. “But I love to help.” He is obviously proud of his work in obtaining funding for the Springvale Road upgrade in Mitcham, a notorious bottleneck for decades. He’s not so pleased that the work was completed during Symon’s term and Symon took the credit.

We return to Barresi’s campaign rooms. Whilst we’ve been away, a campaign helper has erected a large sign on the front of the building. Billboards and posters adorn the windows. The premises bustle with people arranging the minutiae of an election campaign.

Regardless of your politics, Barresi and these campaign helpers deserve respect for their willingness to involve themselves in the great act of electing representatives of the people. It’s not a perfect system and none of the candidates who offer themselves for party preselection or parliamentary election are without blemish or ego. But if you don’t like what they’re up to, you can always join them, vote them down, replace them. You can participate.

As I head home, I stop at another of those shopping centres that litter the Maroondah Highway. It’s just down the road from Mike Symon’s electorate office. In an electronics store, I get talking to a young sales assistant named Michael. He voted for the first time in 2007 and supported Kevin Rudd. This time he’s not quite sure what to do. He resents the idea that Gillard should be supported just because she’s a woman. But he doesn’t think people like Abbott. Why not, I ask. “It’s just his personality,” I’m told.

Meredith, Anne, Ingrid, Stuart and Michael: at my Listening Post I’ve met just five people who will pass judgment on Mike Symon and Phil Barresi. It’s not many but at least I’ve met five people who give a damn.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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