Day 20: New Hope

Mike Symon looks remarkably relaxed. It’s 6pm and the Labor member for Deakin is sitting on stage in the New Hope Baptist Church, in Blackburn North. At the mid-point in the election campaign, there is just the faintest whiff of new hope for the Labor Party.

Kevin Rudd is back in the news. Yesterday afternoon, he followed up his interview with Phillip Adams the night before and answered the call from Julia Gillard to step into the campaign. The vanquished and the victor will appear in public together today. After a disastrous start to their campaign, Labor is finally showing some unity of purpose.

The Labor Party has also had some success in getting back on track with the issues. Even though Wayne Swan was caught out yesterday by a question about interest on government borrowings, there has been a sense these past two days that the Labor campaign is, pardon the expression, moving forward. Bread and butter issues such as assistance to families, superannuation and health are getting media attention.

Of course, this may all come to a screeching halt over the weekend, if the next round of opinion polls show the ALP’s support still sliding. This weekend may well be the point of revival or the point at which a change of government becomes inevitable.

Away from the televised election campaign, local electorate contests are engaged in largely unseen hand-to-hand political combat. Candidates are out door-knocking. They’re visiting shopping strips to meet and greet voters. Reams of election literature is being distributed. Pre-poll centres are patrolled by volunteers clutching how-to-vote cards.

And then there are the candidate forums. This was the second one Symon and his opponents attended yesterday. Earlier in the afternoon, he was talking to the euphemistically labelled “seniors”. Now, he’s about to discuss foreign aid and development at a World Vision electoral forum.

Phil Barresi, the Liberal candidate, sits at the opposite end of the table. David Howell, the Greens candidate and Symon’s preference partner, sits in the middle. As a former MICA paramedic, it seems appropriate that Howells should separate the two main contenders in this marginal seat.

Fresh from speaking to Phil Baressi, the former Liberal member for the seat, I met with Symon a few days ago. I’m keen to see how he handles a public occasion like this one.

As you see so often when talking to individual members and candidates, there are two political worlds. The televised world is hogged by the party leaders. There’s a focus on stunts and triviality. Talk to Barresi or Symon, however, and it’s possible to have a conversation that doesn’t canvas earlobes or budgie smugglers.

Like Baressi, Symon is not shy about making the odd criticism of his opponent. I suspect these two men don’t much like each other. Baressi asked “where’s Wally?”

Symon wants to know how Barresi managed to waste so much of his nearly twelve years as the member for Deakin.

Barresi claims a role in getting the Springvale Road rail separation started. Symon disputes this and says a look at the forward estimates in the Budget papers will dispel any idea that Barresi played a role in the now-completed project. Symon talks of his work in building a “partnership” with the State government.

But, for the most part, a conversation with Symon is about the electorate and its needs. He talks at length about infrastructure improvements in Deakin. He vehemently refutes any suggestion that money has been wasted, reeling off a list of community facilities that have been built or renovated over the past three years.

Many sporting grounds and community halls, for example, lacked access for the disabled. Some lacked suitable female toilet facilities. The Nunawading Library upgrade is sorely needed. Symon talks of the importance of these facilities at the local level. It’s not macroeconomic policy but he believes these things are important parts of the fabric of life in a local community.

Symon says it’s a shame that Australia is so far from the rest of the world. Not everyone understands how well we’ve handled the global financial crisis. They’ve forgotten the importance of the bank guarantees and the stimulus payments in holding economic calamity at bay.

He’s frank about what happened to Kevin Rudd. The public “stopped listening,” he says. Rudd had become very good at “talking around” but not always “talking to” an issue. He says there is a real buzz around Gillard.

In 2007, Symon says WorkChoices was the number one issue in Deakin. The electorate was a major focus of the union campaign that year. The question mark hanging over Abbott’s attitude to industrial relations is a potent one, he believes. Contradictory comments by shadow ministers have fuelled the cynicism about the Opposition Leader’s intentions.

Symon is blunt about the fate of the Emissions Trading Scheme. Even if it were brought back, it would fail in the current Senate. He acknowledges the government needed to “put ourselves out there” and explain the ETS better.

I wonder what his reaction would have been to an election fought on the ETS. The reaction to the issue from students at a local high school was lukewarm.

Symon has a distinctive attitude to politics that only Labor people have. The ALP loses more often than it wins, he says. But he says that doesn’t stop him staying in the fight. “If you don’t talk about things you believe in, you let someone else do it for you.”

Last night at the World Vision forum, Symon drew applause from the audience when he said he was prepared to step away from the party line and push for an increase in Australia’s foreign aid and development assistance budget. The 0.5% of gross national income target isn’t enough, he said. We need to get to 0.7% as soon as possible.

During his address to the crowd of about 250 people, Symon acknowledged the foreign aid budget had peaked under Whitlam in 1974 but declined under the Hawke and Keating Labor governments. He twice makes the point that the nadir of foreign aid was under Howard in 2003.

I’m impressed by this little known backbencher. He looked somewhat awkward on television earlier in the week when Gillard went walkabout in a local shopping centre. One-on-one, however, he can talk about a wide range of issues, national and local.

The election campaign presents particular difficulties, even for the local member. Symon says there is no shortage of volunteer helpers but they’re always needed earlier. “It’s difficult to build to capacity in a short time.”

Like Barresi, Symon visits railway stations nearly every day to campaign. He doorknocks and laments the lack of local electronic media in a metropolitan electorate. With obvious envy, he tells me of a visit to Rockhampton where he noticed that the local member managed to appear in the first three items on the evening news.

Symon is frank about the difficulty of establishing a presence online. He has a website but isn’t very active in social media because of the time needed to engage in that way. It’s “all or nothing”, he says. Backbench MPs have three staff members in their electorate offices. Constituent work takes up a lot of time.

I ask Symon whether he has ministerial ambitions. Of course, I get an election-time non-answer but he names education, science and social policy as areas of particular interest.

I’m curious about what he regards as the best and worst aspects of being a member of parliament. He says there is particular satisfaction in being able to help a constituent who may be having difficulty with a government agency such as Centrelink. He also likes being able to take an idea for a local project and see it through to completion.

Travel is the worst part of parliamentary life, he says. It’s also difficult to argue for a position and then lose the battle. But Symon is conscious of the need to keep plugging away, that the reward for effort may come years later. He tells me of work he was involved in years before he was elected to Federal Parliament. It concerned the State Holidays Act and the timing of public holidays for Anzac Day. A minor issue to be sure, but he says there was a sense of policy fulfilment this year when Anzac Day fell on a Sunday and the work from years ago came to fruition.

The World Vision forum held last night is a world away from the major issues of the election campaign. But it was reassuring to see the local member and his two main opponents on stage discussing issues that went beyond the selfish and narrow “what’s in it for me” approach to politics.

I’ve now spoken to a range of people in Deakin. Some support one side or the other. Some think Symon isn’t involved enough locally. Others snort at the contribution Barresi made when he held the seat previously.

That’s politics. What I’ve seen are a couple of men who seem to have a reasonable understanding of the diverse electorate they seek to represent in the Parliament. I’ve seen two men who can think beyond the local issues to national and even international concerns.

New Hope indeed.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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