“There’s a chicken shop in Concord run by three brothers …” Craig Laundy, Liberal candidate for Reid, a big, blokey, footballer-in-a-tribunal-suit type of guy, is kicking off an anecdote to a voters’ forum.

Maybe it’s an anecdote about small business, but it has the intonations of a joke. I shuffle the joke Rolodex in my head, trying to find one about three brothers and rotisserie chickens. There is one, but if he’s leading with that to a family audience, the Liberal attempt to win the seat of Reid is going to make Jaymes Diaz’s attack on Greenway look slick. It’s not. It’s something about small business, higher taxes, red tape. But he’s no sooner in his stride than he has to be finished, and you can see the frustration build. Laundy’s got his family out front, he’s the sexy candidate, he wants to run the show. Seated midway along a panel of six candidates on trestles covered in chiffon pink, he’s buzzing with energy, and not a little frustration. We’re in Auburn, mid-west Sydney, in the civic centre , one of those steel glass parquet plaster places dropped into the middle of tired and slightly rundown ‘burbs, a town hall, an informational culture hub (library), and this rather chilly meeting space. The other candidates, bless ’em, look like extras in a “little guy against the system” bad Aussie movie — a church lady-type Green, a young blonde DLPer, inflections rising to heaven, and a Pakistani-Australian and Sri Lankan-Australian for Palmer and Katter respectively, who spend the afternoon knocking lumps out of each other.

And of course John Murphy, Labor sitting member, former vets affairs public servant, a man with the sort of face you forget even as you’re looking at it, his one flamboyant splash a tie of scarlet blood red. Murphy holds Reid with a 2.7% margin. If the election goes as the polls say, Murphy will be fighting for his political life, and if he goes then western Sydney will have gone too. The seat is Laundy’s to win, and he’s been gunning it for months now, heir to a pokies and pub fortune, working an electorate that stretches from the splashy, Anglo water frontages of Drummoyne and Five Dock, down here to the parched lands, places wrapped around the Parramatta Road.

On the coast, the booths go 75% Liberal; down here it varies between 30% and 50%, depending on the ethnic group, and here is where Laundy is going to have to bring them round. He’s probably the best and most imposing of the Libs’ west Sydney candidates, though he has a disconcertingly young air, a puffy chipmunk face, mild overbite perhaps, like he was about to build a dam with his teeth. He might perhaps have thought that this occasion would be a slam dunk, but he didn’t count on either the format, or the audience.

The forum had been organise by the Friends of Auburn Library/Ideas Pod, which was well-meaning but a little librarianish. If the candidates wanted to say something big, they didn’t get the chance. They were up then down then up in three-minute hits, and then they were answering diced and sliced questions on refugees and Ggggggonski, ending up on same-sex marriage and a hung parliament. Laundy had no sooner launched into an attack on Labor’s refugee policy — “every time there’s an election Labor comes up with a new refugee policy, we’ve had the same one for years. We started offshore processing,” Laundy said, foreshadowing the crueller-than-thou strategy that Abbott would outline in the debate later that evening.

“Izzadeen is spittingly angry at the two-party system, so is Ashraf, and I don’t blame them.”

Did he have the audience, 80 or so, about 60 of them non-Anglo, a mixture of Middle Eastern and Chinese? Hard to tell, but pokies prince he was, he hit the button to spin again. “There’s a lot of people here with relatives in refugee camps waiting to get in, and we want to make sure everyone gets a fair go,” and before he can really open up, he’s down again, and the boobish, well-meaning moderator is shuffling someone else to the microphone to say something about Gonski.

You could hardly say that Laundy was going in hard, nor Murphy. Indeed, seated together on one trestle with the Green, and the three minor candidates on the next table, like a children’s one at a dinner party — was it sitting slightly lower or was that just my imagination? — the major candidates appeared to be more in cahoots than in contest, emitting a sort of mutual sympathy at having to be lumped in equally with the never-to-be-elected dingbats around them. Was this a strategy, both of them going slow, to try to tuck in behind the other, avoid the impression of being an extremist? Or was it simply a lack of juice? Murphy didn’t look like a juiced-up kinda guy, more like a piece of human clip-art, but what was Laundy’s excuse? He was the golden boy of the blue west, chosen as the focus for the party’s arena-style launch of its western Sydney strategy in January, with shadow treasurer Joe Hockey announcing that “the Liberals aren’t in Auburn, they are Auburn”, and I presume it wasn’t a styling reference.

Since then Laundy’s army has spread out across the electorate, their Twitter-crowing about owning this or that territory having a rugger-bugger air about it. How that goes down in a mixed Indian-Lebanese-Turkish place like Auburn remains to be seen. The Laundy family occupied the first two rows of seats in the audience, golden nuclear family, with an outer edge of cousins it seemed, the chipmunkiness, the essential Laundiness fading the further out you got. Around them were constellated a bevy of local Libs, an odd bunch, a couple of young political tragics, one or two remnant silvertails with their hair up in buns, and a bloke who had more or less jumped straight out of a Tom of Finland catalogue.

Doubtless they were all decent and lovely people, but there was also a slight air of a human pick-a-part yard about them, people who had little better to do on a Sunday afternoon than come to make up the numbers at a forum on something they’d already decided on. Laundy himself, well, I dunno. He gives an air of competence, but not of authority. He has the son’s curse, that even when he is speaking to a crowded meeting, he sounds like he is still in a study running through the lines under the eye of a watchful and unforgiving father. It’s a slight crimp in the shoulder where he should be standing tall, a slight conciliatory manner when aggressive bastardry might be the order of the moment. John Murphy looks and sounds, as I may have alluded to, like a man placed in a parliamentary seat by the witness protection program so that no one would ever find him, but he still carried an air of adult authority, and no doubt has a lot of this area stitched up. Should the Libs underperform in western Sydney, it will be because of a factor not coming up in the polling, the weakness of its  candidates, legacy kids of machines and networks, selected within a branch structure that has all but collapsed as a real and effective filter of chancers and also-rans.That process has been further complicated by the entrance of the Katter and Palmer parties into the urban fray and their willingness to commission whatever multi-culti powerbase huckster is open to hang a shingle out for them. Were Bishrul Izzadeen (KAP) and Nadeem Ashraf  (PUP) Anglo guys it would be permissible to extend the election’s Tintin analogy and say they sat there, flanking the DLP Tracy Flick grouper like Thompson and Thomson, indistinguishable men in dark suits, knocking the hell out of each other, but that would be unacceptable. As it was Ashraf  was a quiet and considered man — dude, are you in the wrong party — who had to be prompted to speak up, while Izzadeen was a bebop freestyler who had the three or four of us who had come along to listen rather than fill up the chairs for a candidate applauding and wanting more. Short, compact, blazing eyed, Izzadeen was the Lenny Bruce of an Auburn afternoon, doing some sort of bebop language, not so much deploying cliches as sending them out on suicide missions, in batches, free-form raves than ran faster than my pen. If you heard ’em in a thick accent that might be a little bit racist too, but it would get the flavour:

“Rhe Gonksi, the problem with the Gonski is the decide each class has been put into which is casual and if there are 20 there are 40 that’s the funding and where it is forecast and what about these 457 visas why can they not get some other guy I hear this McTernan, McTerney guy he was on a 457 but then they are attacking it willy-nilly I see all the youths going to Centre Links and it is so sad. History repeats back. This country is going down and we’re falling through the cracks and regarding Mr Palmer for PM I don’t know what convoluted jazz legal mumbo-jumbo taking everyone to court how can he run the country if he can’t run people. I know the issues. I know Mr George Reid, who this seat is named after, and he would be rotting in his grave if he knew what was happening to this country.”

God, it was good. I was sitting next to an old neatly moustachioed guy in Sunday best, who’d turned out to hear the candidates, and we tried not to catch each other’s eye. Once we did, we were gone. We started giggling. By the end of each free-form Charlie Parker-esque rave we were gasping with laughter. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t nice, but god, it was fun. Meanwhile, poor old Craig Laundy was sitting there with a rictus smile, but inside, he was holding his chipmunk face in his hands, sobbing in falsetto. “These are the preferences that may get me through. Why can’t these people just support the Libs?”

Why indeed? Izzadeen is spittingly angry at the two-party system, so is Ashraf, and I don’t blame them. Afterwards, most of their supporters — most of them candidates for KAP or PUP in surrounding seats — Pakistani- and Lebanese-Australians tell me how they don’t like Labor, don’t like being taken for granted, don’t, as small business people, like their corporatism, but “the Liberals wouldn’t give me the time of day,” says one. “If I tried to get ahead in the Liberal Party I would be 80 before I got anywhere.” Both KAP and PUP — the latter of course building an organisation out of Clive’s pocket — are providing a home for disaffected small business non-Anglos, and I suspect that no one has quite anticipated that this would be the case, or what effect that might have on where marginal seats go. Compulsory preferential voting really starts to get fun when you have parties whose mix of Left and Right populism, single issues and local sway makes them utterly unpredictable. It also turns the process of voting into an auction, but that’s a topic for another time.

After the agonising process of six candidates answering prepared questions in turn (best answer of the day? DLP candidate : “The DLP is in favour of higher education …”, an epochal shift on their part, that), we actually got a chance to ask our own questions, the first three of which turned out to be by Falun Gong plants, the remainder of which were major party plants, Greens included. Later, when the melting moments and herbal teas sachets were being laid out for a post-event meet and greet, I worked the room, looking for anyone, anyone who wasn’t part of a clique, who had just turned up to hear what the candidates had to say. The Laundy camp was all in one corner. So dazzlingly white, it was like looking at snow.

Everyone else? There was no one, no one, save Mr Moustache, in his lime-green suit and blood-pink calf-leather shoes, hell of a combo, straight out of the ’40s, but he pulled it off. Yuri, his name was, a Ukrainian-Australian, straight from Little Kiev round Lidcombe station, once a near-ghetto of DPS, now just the church, the social centre and Dooley’s Catholic club, a vast beer barn they own, now frequented by many men who despite minor variations all look like Ivan Milat. Yuri, arrived in ’49, age 12, from the European camps, made a career as a pharmacist, then dabbled in a bit of property development. He had the very mildly accented English of the old New Australian. He had a sense of the absurd, of life — when the Katter Party guy said he didn’t understand why city people had to pay for country people’s NBN he shouted with laughter —  and I liked him enormously. “Are you a Liberal?” I said warily. “I would prefer to say conservative.” “Who impressed you?” “Oh, the DLP girl, what she said made sense. But I like John [Murphy]. But I wanted to see if the DLP was putting up a good candidate, and they were.”

And he was, as far as I can tell, the only even vaguely undecided voter there, the only person not there as part of some simulacra of public involvement. Later that night, the first debate would make the Friends of Auburn Library “meet the candidates for Reid event” look like the Putney Debates between the Diggers and Cromwell — the full conspiracy between parties and media designed to suck out of political discourse anything resembling a loftier vision, a sense of who and where we are, what road one should be on. As we wrapped up, shooed out by librarians, Laundy swept by en famille, a blizzard of brightness that briefly made me think I’d had a stroke. “Good to see you again,” he said, pumping the hand. “We’ve never met,” I squawked, but he was gone, out into Auburn, shawarma palaces and Turkish video stores, teenager girls in patterned headscarves and Paris Hilton shades pushing little sibs round in strollers. Can he win this ‘burb? He has to, and if he can’t, it may be the improbably process by which Labor snatches a hung parliament out of a forecast defeat. But that’s life in the chicken shop.

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