Day 13: All Politics Is Local

The ALP released a national disability “strategy” yesterday. They could have just called it a policy statement but everything is a strategy these days. At least it was a national strategy in an important policy area that has gone unrecognised for too long. It was Julia Gillard’s first major announcement of the day.

But it was the only worthy policy announcement of the day. With Gillard and Abbott both in Melbourne, the race to state politics was never more keenly fought. Abbott announced a plan to crack down on gangs and Gillard declared war on knives. Melbourne marvelled at their intuitive understanding of our most deeply-held fears.

Later, Gillard was mobbed in a shopping centre in the electorate of Deakin. Abbott visited the Essendon Football Club and practised handballing. There was no sign at Windy Hill of that great Bombers fan, Peter Costello. Another prominent supporter, Simon Crean, was far from Melbourne in the northern Queensland electorate of Leichhardt, visiting schools with the sitting Labor member, Jim Turnour.

Back in Melbourne, even Malcolm Turnbull had flown in. He appeared in Melbourne Ports and Kooyong, opening campaign rooms and giving pep talks to the troops.

The former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Tip O’Neil, is famous for coining the expression, “all politics is local”. Gangs, knives, football and schools are about as local as it gets.

On Melbourne’s northern fringe, local politics was also in evidence in the electorate of McEwen. The Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, was in Wandong yesterday, announcing a commitment to provide $2.25 million to build the Wandong Black Saturday Memorial Stadium.

McEwen is as marginal as it gets. After several recounts in 2007, Fran Bailey won the seat by 31 votes. A court challenge ensued and months later Bailey was confirmed as the member. She has now retired and the seat is being recontested by the Labor candidate, Rob Mitchell. The Liberals have nominated a Kinglake policeman, Cameron Caine.

The ceremony to announce the federal funding for the stadium was held in a small sports pavilion with about 30 people in attendance. It was cold, wet and muddy but across the oval the blackened trees still bore the scars of Black Saturday.

Ten primary school children looked on as McClelland talked of the sports facilities the stadium will provide for the local community. Construction will create 100 jobs and 40 longer-term positions into the future.

The project will be a three-way effort with additional money from the state government to refurbish the adjacent playing fields. The Victorian Reconstruction and Recovery Authority is kicking in $430,000. The Mitchell Shire Council will manage the project.

Three tiers of government, a relatively small amount of money, but the locals were ecstatic. Max Perry, a local bus driver and chairman of the Management Committee, spoke of the months of work, submissions and planning that had culminated in this moment. He demanded the cheque from McClelland before he left.

Perry exuded pride in this project and belief in its value. Here was a man at work in his community.

Several people spoke of Kevin Rudd sitting in this very same pavilion shortly after the bushfires. They were impressed with his empathy and calm understanding of their plight. No-one mentioned leaks or leadership challenges.

Of course there was politics at this small event. It’s always political when a Federal minister comes to town promising money for a local project, hand-in-hand with his party’s candidate. But it was hard to begrudge this community their small share of a large pie.

McClelland is approachable and at ease with people. He worked the room like a professional politician but I sensed he quite enjoyed it too. Politics, after all, is in McClelland’s genes. His father, Doug, 84 next week, was Minister for the Media in the Whitlam government from 1972 to 1975.

McClelland represents an altogether different community from this one. Chatting about his inner-metropolitan seat of Barton in Sydney, he says 42% of his constituents come from non-English speaking backgrounds. The Georges River is the southern boundary of Barton and across the water in the electorate of Hughes the demographics and the issues change dramatically.

It’s commonplace to deride politicians but if you want to know about the composition of Australia they’re the people to ask.

The seat of McEwen stretches from Seymour in the north to Powelltown in the south, and from Woodend in the west to Alexandra in the east. It includes the bushfire-devastated Marysville. Like McClelland, Mitchell is able to reel off facts and figures about the electorate he hopes to represent.

There are growth corridors, such as around Macedon, where services and infrastructure are the dominant issues. Other areas contain what are known locally as “rural lifestyle properties”. Around Woodend, environmental issues are important. In Yea and Alexandra, more traditional rural issues are to the fore. In the Upper Yarra, it’s logging. The Mitchell Shire has growing pains whilst Seymour’s population is declining.

Mitchell doesn’t have a campaign office for the election. “It’s the boot of the car,” he tells me. At nearly 11,000 square kilometres, McEwen dwarfs McClelland’s electorate which is a mere 38 square kilometres.

But both men seem to be acutely aware of what’s going in these seats. As a minister, McClelland says he tries to get back to the electorate each weekend during the election but he spends much of his time on the road campaigning elsewhere.

As a candidate, Mitchell says he has doorknocked about 3,000 homes. His car, with “Mitchell for McEwen” adorning both front doors, looks well-travelled. Mitchell has spent much of his working life in the transport industry, particularly in spare parts. Should he win McEwen, he will join a small band of state members of parliament who have gone federal. He was the member for Central Highlands in the Legislative Council from 2002 until 2006 when the chamber was reformed and reduced in size.

Before he leaves, I ask McClelland about his second term agenda if the ALP wins the election and he continues as Attorney-General. He reels off a list of security and “access to justice” issues. There are plans to reform dispute resolution procedures and family law arbitration. He talks of speeding up the settlement of about 400 outstanding Native Title claims.

Is it frustrating that these issues receive so little media attention? McClelland acknowledges the difficulty of dealing with a media that values “thrill over substance”. The only hint of recent events in his response is a dark reference to journalists who act as “sponsors” of particular politicians.

The ceremony over, the morning tea consumed, we all head for our cars. The minister’s chauffeur-driven vehicle glides away. Mitchell is headed elsewhere in the electorate to continue his campaign. There is much to be done.

With nominations for the election now closed, Mitchell will find out today how many candidates he will be competing against. Preference flows will be determined. In his and campaign rooms around the nation, how-to-vote cards can now be printed. Candidates will trawl for postal and pre-poll votes. The pace of the election is about to quicken.

I head for Wallan to make contact with the Liberal candidate. Mid-way from Wandong, a road sign signals the Great Dividing Range and just off to the left a land developer’s billboard announces “Hidden Valley Land Sales”.

New homes are springing up all over this semi-rural region. Just outside Beveridge, a giant “ALP OUT” sign has been ploughed into the side of Bald Hill. It’s a protest against the state government’s proposed Growth Areas Infrastructure Contribution tax.

The Hume Highway brings me home to suburban Melbourne. The evening television news is dominated by scenes of Julia Gillard in that shopping centre and Tony Abbott handballing a football. It seems far removed from Wandong, the interstate minister and the local candidate.

There are two elections: the one played out on television every night and the one that’s played out in communities like Wandong. It’s a pity we only ever seem to be shown the former.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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