Tanya Plibersek

“I’m not telling Australians not to eat meat,” says Tanya Plibersek. “We offer health guidelines — eat fruit and vegies, don’t eat a lot of meat, don’t drink a lot, don’t eat a lot of sugar, but it’s not the job of government to tell people not to eat meat.”

It’s a cold night in Chippendale in Sydney, in the hall at Darlington Public School, where the local ALP branch is holding an Animal Welfare Forum with Plibersek, Labor MP Stephen Jones and World Animal Protection’s Nicola Beynon. Jones, who has led Labor’s push for a ban on cosmetic products developed with animal testing — belatedly adopted by the government — has driven up from Wollongong, about 90 minutes down the Princes Highway; there are about 25 people in the hall. There’s a large wet patch on the carpet upstairs where the weekend storm got in; someone’s kids are playing there, mostly quietly, while the meeting proceeds.

Plibersek’s interlocutor isn’t convinced by her view of the role of government on vegetarianism. “You’re looking at me sceptically,” she says, “but I’m not going to tell people not to eat meat.”

“But if you can do it for health why not do it for the environment?” another member of the audience asks.

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Plibersek has earlier spoken about Labor’s proposal for an independent office of animal welfare; Jones talks about the need for “passionate but intelligent advocacy” on animal welfare and forging alliances with the wider community — meaning the kind of traditional working-class community he represents down Port Kembla way — in order to achieve wins on animal protection. Later, he’ll argue about the live cattle trade with a member of the audience, explaining that he led the revolt within Labor in response to the infamous Four Corners episode, but then he found out how important live cattle exports were to Indonesia, which lacks widespread access to refrigeration outside the capital. “The only alternatives are animals from further away, like Brazil, or deforestation,” he says.

Animal Justice Party representatives are in the audience, too, but they’re happy to congratulate Labor on the cosmetic testing ban and want more information about the powers of the proposed office of animal welfare. Some vegans want to talk about the rates of domestic violence and substance abuse among meat industry workers (Plibersek: “I’m going to be like Tony Jones and take that as a comment”). Then a no-nonsense policewoman gets to her feet, introduces herself and wants to know whether there’s any interest in a dedicated policing unit for animal welfare. She talks about domestic violence cases, or cases involving mental illness, that she’s attended in the area where she’s had to leave family pets by themselves, so she’s set up an organisation to look after the pets of owners who’ve had to go to hospital.

While Plibersek is speaking, a noisy miner (not the 2010 variety, but the bird) flies into the hall and perches ominously on a beam above Jones’ head. She urges him not to look up. It won’t be joining The Chaser’s rat; “I’m not taking that home,” Plibersek says as it flies off into an adjoining room. Some audience members think the government should lead the debate on the benefits of vegetarianism and more sustainable meats like kangaroo. Jones joins in the discussion after his colleague. “We’re not going to effect change by shouting at people,” he says. The people in his electorate, he’s earlier explained, aren’t likely to share the views of many people in the room on eating animals, but they do want to be sure that the meat they eat has been killed ethically and that chickens really are free range. “One step forward” in alliance with the wider community is better than no steps forward, he says. There’s also debate about why the Commonwealth doesn’t simply impose animal welfare legislation on the states. “There’s no constitutional power,” Jones explains.

It remains unsaid, but the exchange is emblematic of a wider challenge for Plibersek, and Anthony Albanese in the adjoining seat of Grayndler, five minutes down nearby King Street — meeting the concerns of their inner-city electorates while working in a wider political reality in which those concerns are seen differently, and perhaps in an entirely opposite way, by outer suburban and regional communities. No one mentions asylum seekers, the issue that has driven so many former Labor voters to the Greens, but the analogy is clear.

The previous day, Plibersek was a couple of kilometres over at the Redfern Legal Centre, with shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus, announcing that Labor would be restoring most of the funding to community legal centres cut by the Coalition; Brandis, as Dreyfus points out, has essentially ignored the entire community legal centre sector during his time as attorney-general. Plibersek’s electorate, covering inner Sydney, has eight community legal centres, including Redfern, and a number of representatives from other Sydney centres have attended to hear the announcement. The additional funding is critical for front-line services dealing with domestic violence, in particular, and strongly welcomed by the sector. Outside in the sunshine, Plibersek and Dreyfus pose for a Facebook video while two men unload a bag of pumpkins and some fruit from a ute and step carefully around them. The cafes and specialty restaurants that evidence gentrification already litter the area, just down the road from Redfern Oval, even as the centre handles domestic violence cases, rent disputes and legal aid requests.

The announcement is the flipside of Labor’s challenge to reconcile “inner city” priorities with its wider political interests. Unlike the Greens, Labor doesn’t have the luxury of maintaining an electorally unpopular but purist “let them all come” position on asylum seekers. But because it can form a government, it is able to commit to delivering for frontline services like community legal centres in a way Greens MPs will never be able to.

It’s the same when Albanese holds an event at Young Henry’s, a craft brewery on the border of Newtown and Enmore, on a wet Saturday afternoon a fortnight before. He’s there to announce that Labor will restore a couple of million dollars of funding the Abbott government cut from Reclink, a sports and arts program that provides opportunities for people with various forms of social disadvantage, such as the disabled, the homeless, people with mental health issues or the economically marginalised. Albo himself has played for the Rock and Roll Walers in the local Community Cup, sponsored by Reclink, at Henson Park, where he’s been playing sport most of his life. This is still an area where footy fields — Redfern Oval, Henson Park — hold community resonance years or decades, long after the teams associated with them moved away or, in Newtown’s case, vanished altogether.

At Young Henry’s — lauded by Albanese as a successful small business — some fully fledged hipsters, complete with sculpted beards, sit nearby, sipping on craft beers and ignoring the Walers and Albanese’s announcement. “I’ll win if the people who tell me they want me to win vote for me,” Albo says of his chances. A lot of voters, he says, want to register a protest, but they still want him elected anyway. The Greens are throwing everything at him, employing four full-time staff and much of their NSW budget to try to unseat him. Fortunately for Labor, they’ve picked a shocker of a candidate in Jim Casey, a NSW Green from central casting, complete with a Trotskyite history. Casey compared Albanese to Joe McCarthy for mentioning his International Socialist affiliation, and famously claimed he’d prefer an Abbott government and demonstrations in the streets to a Labor government. No pragmatic gradualism and building alliances with the broader community there.

The purity/delivery distinction is a key factor in whether Albanese can hang on against changing demographics (no one seriously thinks Plibersek is in danger), and of fascination to political observers. But it’s a very real tension for more traditional inner-city residents, the non-hipsters who have low incomes, disadvantage, mental health issues or are victims of domestic violence, for whom publicly funded basic service provision makes a massive difference.

But as the policewoman who runs her own animal care service demonstrates, it’s dangerous to stereotype the inner city. She’s trying to shoo the bird out an open door as Plibersek winds up the meeting and we head into a brisk Chippendale night.

This is the unglamorous reality of politics for most MPs, whether you’re Labor, Coalition, Greens or any other: a cold night, a school hall with 20 people, arguing the toss with people who think you’re not doing enough, people with good hearts, trying to reconcile idealism and pragmatism amid sceptical looks, knowing that for some of them, your ability to deliver or not makes a serious difference to their lives.

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

North Stradbroke Island, QLD

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