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Day 6: Little Actions Vibrate

Gillard and Abbott both “suspended” election campaign activities on Day 6 in order to attend the funeral of Private Nathan Bewes, the latest Australian soldier to be killed in Afghanistan.

It is to risk accusations of disrespect and poor taste to claim that, in fact, their decision was the only significant election campaign activity yesterday. It was a decision as calculated as any other to maximise the call to “values”. It was a decision which highlighted the almost total lack of debate about Australia’s involvement in the nearly nine-year-old war.

Dare it be said that what these young men who have given their lives in service of government policy deserve is a democracy that takes seriously its commitment to a Parliament of Representatives?

Dare it be said that this was never more so than in the midst of an election campaign?


I was running late for the GetUp! function organised by Sue Barrett and her German-born husband, Jobst. The meeting room in their company’s premises in South Caulfield contained seven men and nine women, half of them in their 20s, the rest tending middle-aged.

A thoughtful group, they included people who worked in mental health or with refugees, others in education, marketing, the public service, IT.

They had answered the call to “GetTogether” by the not-for-profit group that styles itself as an “independent, grass-roots community organisation”.

What motivated them to join 1600 others around the nation in over 200 separate venues on this winter’s night at the beginning of an election campaign? Why weren’t they down at the local Liberal, Labor or Greens campaign rooms?

Barrett – “everybody lives by selling something” says her website – was in charge of proceedings, briskly organising the gathering into three groups to discuss “three key actions for the election”.

A neighbourhood leaflet drop, a mental health care vigil, and the manning of polling booths on August 21 were the main items already decided by online polling of GetUp! members.

If you see a GetUp! person at your polling booth they are likely to be wearing a t-shirt that says: “Don’t vote for me, vote for the issues”.

And they were most definitely motivated by issues. Sue and Jobst care deeply about living sustainably. Their home is apparently a model of energy and water saving.

A couple of women speak vehemently about their work with refugees. “Facts never change people’s minds,” says one, proceeding to tell us of how her mother came to champion refugees after an Afghan asylum-seeker became her regular gardener. The lesson: an emotional approach is needed. People need to have human contact with those who have fled their countries of origin.

Two young Indian males speak eloquently about democracy, about how this tactic of focussing on fear instead of unity has been used successfully in India. It clearly worries them.

The political parties pay lip-service to mental health issues, another woman tells me. Is one party better than the other on this issue, I ask. No, “it’s not even on their radar.”

How do you feel about the current political situation, I ask. “I want to be optimistic,” says one woman. Especially since we’ve now got a woman at the top, someone else chimes in.

The problem is the “sameness” between the parties, says another.

Rudd was so focussed on the global situation that he forgot about his own backyard, says one of the men.

Two members of the group say they are ex-ALP voters. One of them fears for the ability of either party to deliver in government.

It’s hard to tell if there are any conservatives in the room. There is one young man caught up in the world of 9/11 and climate change conspiracies. He reads a statement to the gathering and I recognise the LaRouche influence. It’s sad because he’s so obviously interested in world affairs. He approaches me to ask if anyone has ever censored anything I’ve written.

Much discussion ensues about courses of action to be pursued over the coming weeks. It seems a bit of a mish-mash, with too many loose ideas going undeveloped. I want to take them inside the precision operation of a major party campaign machine. I wonder how they would have reacted at the campaign rooms of the Greens in Melbourne the night before.

It would be easy to mock their apparent political innocence, to condemn them as “do-gooders”, but I sense that they are also quite tough, determined. What’s more, they actually care about something.

And “little actions vibrate,” Sue Barrett tells the room. It’s how GetUp! raises money and builds its profile.

As the meeting breaks up, I ask them some general questions about the election. Is Kevin Rudd an issue? A lot of people are angry about that, one man says.

Does Gillard make a difference? You need to be more specific with that question, a man says. He points out that Gillard does not necessarily improve the government’s chances.

What about the Greens? Some people are being driven to the Greens by repulsion with the major parties, says one. Vote Greens and you get two votes, says another woman, “so why not?” It echoed the view of a Labor supporter I spoke to this week who said that if the ALP won’t clean themselves up, “we’ll have to do it for them by voting first for the Greens”.

Jobst Barrett tells the room about the German Greens and their long-term role in German politics. People need to see the Australian Greens with some power, he says, and they will swarm to them. Why, even the former German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, was a Green. The Foreign Minister! Imagine that here.

But then the killer moment. “So what about Abbott?” I ask and the room erupts into a thunderous roar of derision. I can’t hear anything that’s said above the din of contempt for the Leader of the Opposition.

One man wonders what would have happened if Costello had stayed. Another dismisses my suggestion that Malcolm Turnbull would be a more attractive Liberal leader. “No, no,” he says definitely.

All of these people live in the electorates of Melbourne Ports (Labor), Goldstein (Liberal) and Higgins (Liberal). Their votes are not going to decide the election in any way. Their Senate votes will no doubt help propel a Green into the red chamber.

The may not be representative of the Australian population. But they were there this night, doing something. Give them some credit for that.


As the day ends, there is a desultory debate on Lateline about population. The media world is indulging itself in the launch of a new channel. ABC News24 lunges at Kevin Rudd over his “casual disregard for the National Security Committee of Cabinet”.

The election campaign’s first week is drawing to a close but it lurches back to life at midnight when The Age publishes details of Gillard’s climate change announcement. She’s proposing a Citizens’ Assembly of “real Australians” to investigate the science of climate change. She wants to build a “community consensus” on the issue before taking any further steps. The ETS remains on the shelf until 2013.

Real Australians? I think of the small citizens’ assembly I witnessed this night. I can almost hear their thunderous roar.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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