The good people of Griffith aren’t very excited about Saturday’s byelection to replace Kevin Rudd — if they know about it at all. James Rose walked the heat-hazed streets to take the pulse.
Fatigue is a common feeling this time of year in Brisbane. By now, the summer heat has blasted all sense out of the air. Pavements sizzle, a layer of heat haze wobbles over every surface, and it’s hard to imagine ever wearing a light sweater again. And, as everywhere, there’s the back-to-work factor, as employees shuffle back to the drudge and torpor of another year chained to the pay packet. Double whammy.
So you have to feel for the candidates in Griffith. Not only are they having to be out pounding pavements in the blazing daylight and in the languid, watch-the-cricket-in-your-undies evenings, but they have to enthuse voters out of their seasonal ennui.
While perhaps cursing Kevin Rudd and the Australian Electoral Commission for choosing this flattest of flat times to oblige a byelection, the wannabe pollies — and they are all wannabes, as the incumbent has, of course, zipped — are, just days out from the poll, holding up well.
Old Cleveland Road in Coorparoo, the very heart of the seat, seems frayed and wasting like an over-fried egg. Empty shop fronts stare blank over chipped pavements as an unending stream of cars whisk past on their way to somewhere else. A cooling breeze starts, rousing the litter. But it soon wheezes and dies. This is old Brisbane, smelling of trains and jasmine in equal measure, hardly different from when I used to visit my grandmother who lived around the corner in the mid-1970s; a set for a retro movie, with the talent in flares, jumping out of GT Falcons.
Shuffling punters offer little spark. The few I spoke to had little real interest in Saturday’s poll. One that did thought it was a state election. The straw poll I had sought became chaff in the enervating mood on the corner of Old Cleveland and Cavendish Road.
Apart from the unfortunate timing, that’s probably something to do with the fact that many read this as a dead rubber, or at best disconnected from anything that actually matters to them; an over-elaborate job tender process for a position no one really feels makes much difference. The result affects the balance of power in Canberra not at all, and it only really raises the interests of numbers wonks. The fact the previous holder of the seat was arguably Australia’s most peripatetic public servant, rarely glimpsed in these parts and even then with a phalanx of minders, media and the obligatory, inexplicable, tribe of screaming schoolkids, only emphasises the air of disconnection.
As the real Rudd passes further into history and myth, his bespectacled ghost walks tall around these streets like a silver-haired, bandy-legged Godzilla, and all the candidates are surely snagged by its presence.
The vote-seekers themselves play that down of course, and all the talk of a Ruddzilla certainly does a disservice to the keenness of their articulated concerns and to the candidates themselves, who seem a fairly bright lot (despite the fact that a few don’t live in the electorate, including the Stable Population Party’s Tim Lawrence, who appears to have taken the name of his party a little too literally, keeping his campaign population very, er, stable — in Sydney).
“The connection between the dead retail district in Coorparoo and Canberra is loosely applied if it exists at all for many.”
Despite all attempts at localism, however, this is still a byelection. And, like most others, the pillar issues seem to be national. Cost of living, jobs and small business development, healthcare, childcare, infrastructure all featured on the lips and/or literature of those seeking votes. Climate change loomed as both an issue in itself and as a stalking horse for the carbon tax. The issue of Abbot Point and dumping into the Great Barrier Reef was also a common dot-point issue.
So nothing terribly earth-shattering there, and a sense that an election is simply a time to spit out a few complaints, mention “the government” with derision and to extemporise on a few matters of less-than-pressing importance prevails. A reflexive mood of “it’s an election so we have to be cynical” is as much a factor here as it is elsewhere as punters ponder the surprising wisdom of the pseudo-anarchistic T-shirt admonition, “Don’t vote — it only encourages them”.
The connection between the dead retail district in Coorparoo and Canberra is loosely applied if it exists at all for many. And so, the standard byelection trick of scrunching federal politics into a electorate-shaped box seems likely here in Griffith, as elsewhere, to founder. The fact the system was designed to go the other way around, at least in principle, seems as redundant now as it ever has been. It’s a trend that breeds alienation as voters feel they are simply fodder for those in the Big House. Which, of course, they are.
That’s as much a result of the numbers as anything. And the numbers are likely to be tight. Preferences won the seat last time round for Rudd, and the Coalition’s Dr Bill Glasson actually won significantly more primary votes and generated a sizeable two-party-preferred swing. In last year’s federal poll, 82% of the primary vote was for either of the two majors, with the Greens being eviscerated and the other minors and independents struggling to reach four figures. The only one that did, the Palmer United Party, hasn’t bothered to turn up this time around, suggesting a more concentrated big party blitz.
So Griffith becomes a colourful excursion from the frivolities of question time, a Punch and Judy show on the banks of the brown and creeping Brisbane River. But watch the winning candidate — almost for sure Labor’s Terri Butler or Bill Glasson, neither of whom appear content to be green leather bench-warmers.
And watch on Saturday for the crowds eager to recreate the golden era of Rudd’s unlikely rock star days. Will he appear on election day? His fans will surge on the merest whim of possibility. Whether that makes a difference is unlikely. There are no rock stars in Griffith these days. Like the plodding Brisbane River that borders this seat, there are surges and floods, but it always finds its level again.
After the hubris of Rudd, that looks to be around pavement level on Old Cleveland Road, where old Brisbane struggles to be truly heard in modern Canberra.