It's 6.35am on the Berwick Bypass in Melbourne's outer south-eastern fringe, well before sunrise, and the city-bound traffic is already backed up, a blinking river of slow-moving sludge. Each morning, harried headlights queue to make the torturous trek on the Monash, from the booming growth corridor spruiked by every government since Menzies as the place to settle down with three kids and a $300,000 mortgage.
At Berwick Station, just off the freeway, La Trobe
Labor MP Laura Smyth is huddled in the lifting darkness
, handing out flyers hawking her party's "$78 million" solution to the Monash problem and, in an indication of Labor's modern priorities, tax cuts delivered during the 43rd Parliament, supposedly to take the heat off middle-income earners.
Heavily indebted battlers commuting to far-flung jobs are precisely the kind of people the former Alan Griffin staffer needs to woo to hold the ultra-marginal seat she surprisingly snatched from Liberal antique dealer, ex-cop and multiple genetically modified orgasms
fan Jason Wood by just 1600 votes three years ago.
Smyth, schooled in the brutal sandpit of student politics, somehow stays chipper as the passing rush of a V/Line express service threatens to deposit her corflute and Labor's re-election chances in another postcode.
"[pullquote position="right"]Most people are positive ... you occasionally get people who want to argue[/pullquote], but it's the face-to-face contact that's important," she says, teeth chattering. The issues in La Trobe are, as ever, "infrastructure, the cost of living and education", and she'll be out walking the line each and every morning until September 7. "Hi, I'm Laura Smyth, your local member ... hi, how are you? ... hello!" And on it goes.
Smyth was one of three Kevin Rudd footsoldiers -- alongside Ed Husic and Stephen Jones -- clustered up the back of the PM's first press conference in the ministerial wing on spill night. Husic was rewarded with a frontbench role, and some expected Smyth would be tapped, too. But with a margin of just 1.7%, party powerbrokers thought it better that the sophomore MP, still just 36, be deployed to the campaign frontline.
Before Rudd's ascent, La Trobe, held by the Liberals for most of its history, was all but abandoned by Labor HQ -- if the party was to lose seats in Victoria, it would be one of the first seats to fall. Sandbags are expensive and, in La Trobe it was said, pointless. But now, with a recovery possible, the resources have returned -- Smyth's double-storey Berwick office is heaving with flyers, posters and doorknocking plans, and her band of volunteers seem encouraged enough to toss off the doona at 5am to help out.
Out here, you get a sense of what Thomas Frank wrote about
in a different context. While a return to Wood and the conservatives would arguably harm voters' economic self-interest (think cuts to public services, privatisation and, in the medium term, an increased GST), many will vote for change anyway, probably due to a frustration with Labor's leadership circus but also because of a tacit failure of successive centre-Left governments to defend and extend the social and economic gains that would deliver them prosperity. Smyth is trying to firewall herself from the maelstrom in Canberra, exploiting her local brand, and upping the face-to-face contact. Anecdotally at least, it’s paying dividends.