I went to the Meet the Candidates for the seat of Melbourne during the Victorian state election a few years ago and loved it. The audience were locals of all ages, although seemingly mostly middle-class and with a slight overrepresentation of resident group members and Greens voters. Crammed into a small room in the local town hall, people seemed to feed off each other’s energy. When a candidate gave an answer that that tried to dodge the question, the crowd would jeer and yell at them to answer the question (which is not to say that they then did). I thought it was a good reality check for the politician, to be forced to confront the community. On reflection though, politicians are probably exposed to the public in this way quite a lot, and hardened to the ‘feedback’ they receive.
The other great thing about Meet the Candidates is that you get the minor candidates, those who’ve escaped the media spotlight because they’re unlikely to win. Minor candidates are more likely than the main contenders to offer colour and unpredictability, rare qualities in Australian politics, a landscape where even when someone has something new to say, it often feels like they’re just replicating and repackaging old forms. Sure, the minor candidates’ ideas might be crazy, confused, or wildly out of step with community attitudes, but there’s a genuine grievance or inspiration there, and there might be something to learn from it. Why do they throw their hat in the ring when they’ve got no chance of winning?
So I was excited about the Meet the Candidates held for the Melbourne by-election on Monday night. The by-election’s on 21 July, and it’s happening because well-liked Labor member Bronwyn Pike resigned. The Greens were placed to win the seat back in 2010 but then the Liberals made a decision not to give the Greens their preferences. This time however, the Liberals aren’t running. Their government is struggling anyway so probably didn’t think fielding a candidate in a seat that they were unlikely to win, and in which their vote was only likely to decline, was a good move. This means the election’s become a Greens/Labor contest, and the Victorian Greens are throwing everything at the prospect of winning their first ever lower house seat.
Perhaps it was my mood, but I found the forum a bit dreary. I’m suffering from disillusionment with politics generally; sick of the spin, slogans, T-shirts, pep talks, tribal vibe. The problem is that for too long I laboured under an illusion that some politicians and parties, the Greens for example, might be somehow different from other parties, and now that I’ve taken a step back from politics, I’m starting to see the whole political system as a machine, almost like lego, with the actions of each party dictated by the machine. That’s fuzzily conceptualised, but it’s my best explanation for now. I tried to think of a question I could ask them but all that came to my head was the mundanely aggressive ‘Why do you spin such shit’, which is obviously inappropriate!
Anyway, later, when I recovered my mood and looked back on my notes, I did find a little bit of interest there. So I’ve done a little summary of each of the candidates speeches and some of the questions they asked, which you have to bear in mind is a hopelessly incomplete and subjective account of things, but at least it’s honest. Part 1 is here, but there were 14 out of 17 candidates speaking, so I’ll give you it in instalments.
Berhan Ahmed: ‘I am standing because I want to give back to the community, and not because I want power.’
Former Australian of the Year, leader of African Thinktank, came to Australia from Eritrea 25 years ago, made his way from tram and taxi driver to Senior Research Fellow. Ahmed’s previously been a candidate for the Greens but is now standing as an independent because, he says, he wants to represent the welfare of the community rather than being beholden to any political party. That was pretty much his schtick, that he wasn’t doing this out of self interest or political considerations, but genuinely wanted to help the community and represent their diverse views.
In terms of policy, Ahmed talked about safe public transport, less crime, everybody safe walking on the street, opportunity for everyone. But in general, he focused more on his own life story and motivations than policy detail. In general, it was interesting how much each of the candidates did focus on their own story, which was generally about a struggle that marked them as someone who understood the concerns of ordinary people, their subsequent triumph against adversity, their connection to family and contribution to the community at large ‘giving back.’
Gerrit Hendrik Schorel-Hlavka: ‘I’m a constitutionalist but not a lawyer.’
‘I’m a constitutionalist, but not a lawyer.’ An older guy with white hair and a thick Dutch accent. He was wearing a sparkling white T-shirt and a polar jumper, both branded with his name. He’s run as a candidate many times. When I told my friend about him later, he said, ‘Oh, the constitutionalist! Yeah, I met him on the train.’
I’ve been wondering why Schorel-Hlavka chose to define himself as a ‘constitutionalist’, which obviously doesn’t refer to the Australian constitution so doesn’t have a clear meaning, rather than referring to a commonly understood concept like human rights. I think it’s because he wanted to go broader; I get the sense that he’s referring to some kind of inherent moral code so obvious that he thinks everyone should share intuitively, without it having to be articulated, particularly by politicians or bureaucrats. As far as I could tell, his general theme is that the vulnerable are getting exploited, everyone’s getting ripped off, and we need to stand up for our rights. A few days after listening to Schorel-Hlavka I got a letter at work from someone concerned about their high electricity bill, and they said ‘surely this must be unconstitutional.’
In terms of specific policies, Schorel-Hlavka said the state government shouldn’t increase rent about CPI if you’re a pensioner (public housing or private rental I’m not sure), talked about the need to provide shelters at disabled parking spots for when people in wheelchairs are offloading. He spoke most articulately about the need for Dutch-style bike lanes.
His final pitch to us was: ‘What can you achieve on your own? It only take one person in the parliament who can speak up and stand up for your right. Go to council. Are you ripping me off? Are you overcharging me? Be conscious of your right.’ On politicians: ‘Before they elected, they promise everything, but as long as they elected, they unpromise everything!’ Very true.
Anyway, one reason to like the guy is that he has mouse pads for campaign materials.
David Nolte: ‘Give Labor and the Greens the boot.’
A funny guy. He represents himself as the small ‘l’ liberal choice, emphasises his small business experience and compassionate approach. I’m still not clear how dispensing drugs as a pharmacist is an indication of commitment to social justice; perhaps it can be but I need more detail. I understand Nolte’s a member of the Liberal Party (unconfirmed, so forgive me if I’m wrong), but doesn’t agree with their social policies. He told the crowd he’s opposed to the Nanny State that blocks exotic animals to our zoo and opposed to over-regulation. He also wants to reunify North Carlton with Carlton (a long running campaign of the Carlton Residents Association). *
Other policies Nolte spoke about were a Victorian Training Assistance levy to payroll tax like super; and getting trams and trains to sign solar purchase agreements. He’s actually released quite a lot of policies on the environment, indigenous issues, planning etc – they’re available on his website. I admire Nolte for coming up with so many election policies on such a diverse range of issues, and I liked his earnest solemnity.
One odd thing Nolte did though, is to show us a prospect coloured brick. ‘See this?’ he said. ‘Someone threw this through my window. It says junkies belong in jail. This shows my social justice credentials.’
Nolte didn’t say anything about bikes, but this is a pretty great advertising strategy he’s using. I’m not sure where he’s getting them from, but he appears to have bought this one at least, which my friend and I spotted on Rathdowne Street while riding home. I’m worried that it’s a bit misleading though, as his bike policy is off chops: the key tenants being elevating Bicycle Victoria to QANGO status (I had to google this, it means Quasi-Autonomous-Non-Government Organisation), more bike pump stations and adult bicycle registration.
*It was – guess who – Jeff Kennett who cut North Carlton from the City of Melbourne, separating it from its Carlton bruvvas and forcing it to join the (higher rate paying) City of Yarra. I was reading a bit about the argument for reunification yesterday and it seems to be a mix of a desire of cultural unity of a province that shares a history, a people-power argument for heritage protection, and (at least apparently) a desire to rebalance the political constituency in the City of Melbourne, which currently favours businesses (although that’s probably more because they get to vote twice in the local council elections!). When someone asked a question about North-South Carlton reunification later, it turned out not many other candidates supported it.
John Perkins – ‘There is up to 30 billion misspent in supporting religion.’
The Secular Party candidate, and I’m pretty sure he’s run before too. A middle-aged guy with brown hair that like a zealous university professor. His thing is public funding of religion, but also secular values. The main beef he raised in his speech was Commonwealth funding of the chaplaincy program, which I thought was a bit odd given that it’s a state election. He also claimed the Baillieu Government has increased funding to Access Ministries from $200 000 to $500 000, and that the Baillieu Government was defending educational discrimination in VCAT, against the parents of children at religious schools (presumably where either the parent or child was forced to adopt aspects of that religion). Perkins pointed out that at least one primary school in the electorate has religious instruction, and there are publicly funded separate praying rooms for men and women at RMIT. In terms of specific impact on the electorate, this seemed to me to be a bit weak.
Perkins fell down down for me was when someone asked a question about immigration, and he said refugees should be welcomed here, but they need to accept secular values. I took that as a dig at Islam, and an example of where overly zealous atheism can come into conflict with religious harmony and diversity.
Meet other candidates:
Still to come:
Kate Borland (public housing activist); Adrian Whitehead (environmental campaigner), Fiona Patten (Sex Party); Cathy Oke (Australian Greens); Maria Bengtsson, Australian Christian Party