The Sharp End
Encounters With MPs (members of the public)
November 4, 2001
Ari Sharp, Australian Democrats candidate for Kooyong, reports from the campaign frontline.
You’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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org – 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