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Day 5: In The Arena

As I prepare to leave home to drive to Boronia, the Labor leaning northern part of the marginal electorate of La Trobe, in Melbourne’s south-east, Julia Gillard is speaking to nurses in Sydney. Without warning, Sky News switches to a Brisbane school where Kevin Rudd is surrounded by cameras and engaged in a detailed conversation with the Principal about the stimulus spending which has delivered a new assembly hall.

Rudd’s return excites the commentators but it seems a long way from the concerns of people at The Alchester Village, a nondescript shopping centre which derives its name from the junction of Albert and Colchester Roads in Boronia Heights, nestled at the foothills of the Dandenongs. Internal political party rivalries rate poorly here against the concerns of local traders, small business and suburban home-owners.

I meet Laura Smyth, the ALP candidate for La Trobe, so I can follow her on a street walk with the Minister for Financial Services, Chris Bowen. The Cabinet minister is on one of many assigned tasks with candidates in marginal electorates around the country, although Bowen will be largely confined to Sydney since he is one of the government’s official spokesmen, charged with running media interference during the election campaign.

The Labor team has set up a table outside the supermarket from which five young people hand out leaflets to passers-by. It is one of the time-honoured rituals of an election. One card reads: “Tony Abbott’s WorkChoices – coming soon?” The red and white text set on a black background fairly shouts danger.

Smyth has been up since well before dawn, handing out flyers at the Upwey railway station from 6am. If she can snaffle 436 votes from the sitting Liberal, Jason Wood, the seat will be hers. The Labor Party has been trying to regain La Trobe since losing it in 1990. It is a hard seat to shift. There are three good reasons to support Smyth, another leaflet tells me. She grew up in Melbourne’s south-east, she knows the value of hard work, and she’s part of Julia Gillard’s team.

Bowen arrives, accompanied by a media adviser. His own seat of Prospect in NSW has been renamed McMahon, after the ineffectual Liberal PM who fell to Whitlam. “For my sins,” Bowen observes sardonically.

A member of the NSW Right faction, Bowen asks about the voting behaviour of the Alchester Village area. Smyth, from the Griffin sub-faction of the Victorian Left, points out that the Labor vote declines in the southern part of the electorate, around Narre Warren, Berwick and Pakenham.

They visit the butcher, the newsagent and the coffee shop. Young mothers and tradesmen bustle by as we sit and drink coffee. The coffee shop owner comes out to question Bowen about GST paperwork and other costs in his business.

Two women approach. One of them, an articulate local resident named Corrie, takes issue with Gillard’s assertions that she “understands” what Australians are thinking. She is appalled that Gillard links asylum seekers with border protection, wrongly implying that refugees are akin to a hostile invasion force. Smyth tells her about Gillard’s speech on asylum seekers. Corrie is also disappointed that the ETS was abandoned. “You should stick to it and fight for it,” she says.

I speak to Corrie later. Whilst taken aback by the sudden and brutal dispatching of Rudd, she acknowledges that “politics is like that”. She’s more concerned by the lack of vision. Yes, you need to attend to local issues but she expects the national government to take action on the big things too.

Corrie did not tell me how she intends to vote but she gives the clear impression she is a Labor-leaning voter who expects more from a Labor government.

Earlier, Smyth has told me that voters are surprised when she tells them how much the government has done in La Trobe. She says programs such as the trades training centres are both popular and needed.

Bowen departs. The street walk has yielded photographs of the candidate with the minister, the minister with shoppers, the candidate with local residents. A press release will no doubt be written for the local newspapers.

Of such things are local campaigns comprised.

A few hours later, I am in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, at the headquarters of the Australian Greens’ candidate for Melbourne, Adam Bandt. Like Smyth, he impresses as an intelligent, thoughtful candidate. Also like Smyth, he knows that this is the moment of truth. If the Greens can’t win Melbourne this time around, with Lindsay Tanner retiring, they probably never will.

A large crowd gathers. Mainly but not exclusively young, they seem to represent all manner of occupations and lifestyles. What is most notable, though, is a palpable air of excitement and anticipation. It is infectious. It is welcoming.

Bandt addresses the crowd on issues and practicalities. “The more polling booths we fail to staff, the more votes we will lose,” he says. People numbers are vital to success in Melbourne. Bandt conjures up the unimaginable agony of losing by a handful of votes and then introduces the South Australian Greens Senator, Sarah Hanson-Young.

The 28-year-old first term Senator speaks well, joking about sitting near the Nationals 69-year-old seventh-term Senator Ron Boswell. Like Bandt, she talks of the importance of environmental issues and of the need for renewable energy. Like Bandt, she warns of an impending onslaught by the ALP, an onslaught that will be well-financed and relentless. The crowd hushes as if fortifying themselves.

Hanson-Young tells a story about her hairdresser, Kathy, who wanted to know: “Who’s Gillard?” The disengaged voters are still coming to grips with the idea of a new Prime Minister. The Rudd effect is perhaps the big unknown in this election. But Kathy also wanted to know: “Who’s the dude in bathers?”

At the end of the meeting a bank of tables provide lists for people to volunteer for door-knocking, to hand out how-to-vote cards at the Electoral Commission office where pre-poll voting will take place, to staff polling places on August 21, and a host of other tasks. Everyone takes away posters and billboards. “This time I’m voting Greens”, says one.

I’ve been tweeting and uploading pictures throughout the proceedings. An ALP member tweets back and suggests I come to the launch of the Labor candidate Cath Bowtell’s campaign website at Trades Hall. I head to Lygon Street, Carlton, but the event is all but over. The campaign director, Ali Vaughan, tells me over 200 people attended. There is a definite sense that the battle has been joined between the ALP and the Greens.

Later, I talk to one of my oldest friends, David Gray, a former Victorian MP and long-time ALP member. He says: “The ALP has lost its way. These voters concerned about the environment were once, and should still be, a natural constituency of the ALP.”

I arrive home to find that Abbott is on “Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday” and has announced a policy of tax deductions for private school fees and other education expenses. It attempts to trump Gillard’s pledge to make school uniforms deductible. I wonder what Corrie will make of all this visionary policy-making.

I’m told that Kerry O’Brien has had another one of those verbal jousts, this time with Joe Hockey. For once, I can’t be bothered watching. The evening news is obsessed with Kevin Rudd. It seems to miss the point.

And Mark Latham is on Sky News, opining on the defects of Australia’s political system, particularly the media’s role in turning politicians into bland “white bread” politicians. He’s right, of course, but his solution to opt out is a cop out.

On Day 5 of the election campaign, I’ve met candidates who ooze energy and belief. I’ve met young people willing to get out in the cold on behalf of their candidate. I’ve seen hundreds of people prepared to attend political gatherings in pursuit of issues that matter to them.

There are those who mock, deride and trivialise the political process. They infest online spaces and the commercial media.

The words of Theodore Roosevelt ring true:

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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