“My name is Roman, and I am running for the seat of Menzies on this ticket.” At the podium in the Church of Christ Doncaster, the thin young man in a sort of black frock coat paused and gripped the pine lectern. Behind, the standard exposed red brick and a chunky wooden cross, looming three metres high and leaning in.
“My experience is in complex computer systems, aged care, and living in Switzerland. I am a believer in a system of management known as …” (say Six Sigma, I thought, say Six Sigma) “… Agile. All parties have something to offer, but all have failed us. That is why I say to you: head of Liberal, heart of Labor, eye of Green.” He paused. The audience, white-haired, parka-ed, and not in a mood for any malarkey, shifted in their seats. Roman straightened up a little and repeated, “Head of Liberal. Heart of Labor. Eye of Green.”
“Jesus,” I exhaled involuntarily. Several people turned their heads sharply. Others shifted in their seat. There was another hour of questions after this, the final candidates’ forum in the safe seat of Menzies, out in Melbourne’s middle east. I mean the middle of its east, not that it’s like Syria. It’s Doncaster for god’s sake.
“We’re not applying best practice to our problems,” Roman burbled on. “Why not attach particular outcomes to particular tax bills presented to the public?” Hmm, that was actually a good idea. A coterie of Green and Uniting Church types looked up with renewed interest.
“Also, same-sex marriage,” he said. “I don’t see the need for it.” They looked down again. He went into a long spiel about civil partnerships and the nature of contract, and lost the small claque he had gained. In front of me a white-haired couple glanced at each other, silently inquiring of each other whether they should go home and watch an episode of New Tricks. Why are we here, the look seemed to say. Why are any of us here?
Why, indeed. It was a cold Monday night, Malcolm Turnbull was on Q&A, and we were out for a hustings in one of the safer seats of the realm, held by Minister for Side Parting and Pursed Lips Kevin Andrews, one of seven other candidates here tonight. Seated behind Roman, Andrews slumped in tiredness next to a beefy man from, ironically, the Animal Justice Party. Andrews holds the seat with a near-14% margin, and he has held onto preselection, fending off challenges from party moderates due to hard work and the solid support of the area’s large Macedonian-Doncastrian population, none of whom, sadly could be there that night.
If there was any reason to be there, aside from the chance to bait Andrews in his lair, it was because Andrews is facing a challenge from one Stephen Mayne (disclaimer: Mayne is not unconnected to this publication), who is running as a “Turnbull/Hamer Liberal” (the adjective shifts around a little) on a campaign of getting Andrews to get off his arse and get some federal love and money directed at the seat, and to bang the drum for a reform of our political donations regulations system, i.e. to get one. That night, he was the only serious opposition Andrews faced, and a lot of the audience, who will vote for Andrews without blinking, were nevertheless there to see the bloke cop a spray or two.
They have their work cut out. After 25 years in Parliament, Andrews knows how to speak to his brief, combining the global and the local effortlessly. “We face a global existential threat of vast terror, which only the Coalition is fit to deal with! Also the dogleg at the Drynong Rd entrance to the freeway has been fixed, and that is entirely down to me!”
Scatterings of applause. Local politics. The residents of Doncaster have it more than most, because they alone, of all Melbourne regions, are deprived of a railway station. The place is like a separate demesne, cut off from the world, running an experiment to see how many apartment complexes and Westfields you can cram into one small space before the residents turn round and start voting for Islamic State.
Andrews is an easy man to dislike, and I availed myself of the opportunity. For many inclined to sympathy with some strands of the Christian tradition, Andrews appears to embody the worst side of it. He’s a neat and fussy man, all clipped and smooth borders. His blackish helmet of hair would be appropriate on a Roy Orbison tribute act, nowhere else. He appears to have problems with his hands. They flutter around him like fat meat butterflies, as he writes notes while others speak. He cackles occasionally, possibly signing deportation orders. The outer form expresses the inner.
Three times he was assailed by questioners asking him how he could square Manus and Nauru with the Christian invocation to accept strangers; each time he had a pat answer, the last ending with the dismissive words about “not being idealistic”. It is the right-wing Christian’s answer to everything, the clue that their faith isn’t about adhering to a testing morality — but instead acts as a form of psychological support, a rabbit’s foot to rub while they do what they were going to do anyway.
The only time the fires of passion lit in Andrews was when he was talking about the cancellation of the East West Link. “This could have been built! A billion dollars given away! It would have connected us to a system saving huge amounts of travel time!” There was a murmur of approval from the crowd. Hells, yes. Who didn’t want to get out of Doncaster as fast as possible?
Mayne aside, no one really landed a glove on Andrews. The Green candidate and Labor candidate were identical-looking young men with dimpled smiles and strawberry-blond hair. The Labor bloke, named Rundell, recited his entry to politics in the manner of someone reading the first chapter of their own autobiography (family trait presumably); the Green crammed 15 policies into the last minute of his speech, like he was finishing an exam; the Family First bloke — it was all blokes — complained about government attacks on property rights, including “rising sea levels”; and the Animal Justice Party man complained about the limited purview of rules granting the status of “pets”: “that only covers the dog and the cat! That’s all right for your dog and your cat, but what about the pig next door?’
Mayne, towering impossibly over the podium — I was reminded that we shall soon reach the 200th anniversary of the writing of Frankenstein — spent a couple of minutes talking about his 30 years of living in Templestowe. It sounded like an appeal to the parole board to me, but he seemed to like the place. He presented Andrews with a blizzard of projects that surrounding marginals had got, and the money Menzies wasn’t getting. “What about our aquacentre! What about our aquacentre!” That got a big reaction from the crowd .
Later Andrews got a question — a gotcha that turned into an inadvertent Dixer — that allowed him a fresh catalogue: “Labor will turn us into Greece — I have had the ‘stop’ sign at Nelson Mandela Rd repainted” — while Mayne needled him on campaign finance, and promised that, if elected, he wouldn’t support any party unless they dropped an immediate $50 million on the electorate, which is an interesting position for a free marketeer. Does he have a chance of unseating Andrews? Only if there is a boiling sea of dissatisfaction with the member that has simply been waiting for an outlet that was not of t.e.h Leftz. Mayne will make Andrews run — many of the audience, after, agreed with him — but the electorate will dislike him and vote for him anyway.
Thus the evening had a political panto quality about it, in keeping with the election entire. Save for one moment: the quiet, unrhetorical speech by the Voluntary Euthanasia Party candidate, a man in shaven head and leather jacket who explained to us that because if the virtual total removal of his bowel due to birth defects, he was in constant pain, was unable to access home palliative care — i.e. a morphine drip — because his condition was not terminal, and that, when it was no longer bearable, he would like to die at home, and not in Switzerland.
He was a dark presence, pain playing across his face, and the room was suddenly emptied of chatter. And Heart of Liberal, Head of Labor, Eye of Green nonsense. He was a reminder that much of what really matters in life is not being drawn into this election, which is why people are so irritated by it. He spoke in pain, he sat down in pain, he remained so through the 90 minutes of questions, and in the room, the looming cross loomed a little larger.