Well, Pauline Hanson has done Dancing with the Stars often enough to know how to make an entrance, and this week’s was a doozy. Hours before she flew into Perth for a week of barnstorming the west ahead of Saturday’s election, she told Insiders‘ Barrie Cassidy that she was not sold on the idea of vaccination, that the links to autism needed to be studied and that parents should read the evidence and “make up their own minds”. At which point the meeja-sphere erupted, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull weighing in to say that Hanson’s comments were dangerous, and also that he had given the order for Australian troops to kill autism, he, to kill it, not Labor, kill it, kill autism. Kill.
On Monday, The West Australian had a cut-out shot of Hanson that was less than flattering, with the headline “Confused and Dangerous”. I was studying it at the newsos in Bunbury, a few minutes ahead of an early morning pickup by Sam Brown, the local One Nation candidate, and cursing the news cycle. The vaxx stuff was everywhere, people were talking about it in the cafes dotted all the way up Victoria Street, the main drag. Seven-thirty am, and the town was already buzzing on a holiday Monday morning, people with papers spread out on cafe tables, the sky a glassy blue, sunlit, warm air coming off the beach.
Bunbury has been a mix of old west and hippies/artists/sea changers for decades, joined by FIFO families in the last decade or so. It is simultaneously a centre of a region of rolling green plain, a pretty little Victorian town, and the meth-ice capital of Australia. Sorry, THE METH ICE CAPITAL OF AUSTRALIA!!!. Three times I’d been told this, since arriving the day before, and I’m quite prepared to believe it, for a whole lot of factors: big sudden money, the head-rending effects of FIFO, the rise in unemployment as the echo of the mining boom died out. Unemployment, crime and meth have become the three major themes of the campaign, in a way that doesn’t seem to have registered much in the out-of-state coverage of the thing, with Bunbury and Busselton to the south pointed to as the epicentres of drugs and crime.
Well, as I say, prepared to believe it, but I’ve seen meth towns in the US, and their main street crossroads does not have four breakfast cafes with the obligatory smashed avo, open at 7.30, a restored cinema and a range of prosperous shops stretching beyond. Boarded-up doorways, smashed display windows and shambling, Living Dead junkies are more the style, and in West Virginny, that would earn you Tidy Town status. Also, the night before, I’d gone on a bar crawl (four tomato juices) and tried really, really hard to look in such a way that someone would offer to sell me some meth. Skeevy, sweaty, bloated and all in black, hunched over — I actually had to pull my look back a little to get in the crackhead zone. De nada. Maybe they all thought I was a cop. Maybe all the people out this morning were meth-heads, and the white stuff round their crepes wasn’t icing sugar.
Jobs, crime, meth, competing new road schemes of dizzying complexity, a mining profits tax proposed by the WA Nationals, $36 billion in public debt, $3 billion deficit — and it had all been swept away by Pauline’s comments on vaccines. That had even swept away her remarks that Vladimir Putin wasn’t such a bad guy. But then again, anything Pauline Hanson was going to say that Sunday morning would set the agenda. The WA election is about One Nation and nothing else — whether they can take up their second shot at major party status and go with it, or whether they will once again run into the sand.
“Hoo-roo!” A LandCruiser pulls up, and Sam Brown, local candidate, climbs out in installments, a tall, limby man, former athletic champion, wraps his vast hand around mine, grabs my bag and swings it into the back, atop piles of One Nation merch. The day before, when we’d spoken, I’d assumed we’d be on a walk-around, door-knocking, glad-handing, it being four days to the election ‘n’ all. Apparently not. We were soon on the road to Mandurah, an hour north, where Hanson was doing appearances.
“Yeah, uh, we’re all going to hook up with Pauline at the Mandurah centre, and then I’m going to do a couple of films with my media specialist.”
The films go on his page, and are, erm, enthusiastic. No doorknocking then? Sam looks a little askance, “Nuh, I’m not a great one for knocking on people’s doors, to be honest. I wouldn’t want it done to me, so I don’t do it to others.” We’re heading out of Bunbury now, the coastal flats opening up, the sea unseen over a rise to our left, rows of low trees to the right, whizzing by, the great Aussie road.
We’re gone a full 20 minutes before Sam raises the topic of George Soros.
“He’s running GetUp, you know.”
Before we get to that, there’s a lot of other stuff. How Sam and his whole family moved to Bunbury a decade ago from Queensland, for the construction work, “on Bluewater, then on Worsely in Collie,” both coal-fired power plants, and he meant his whole family, father, mother and siblings, all following the construction work. Sam’s a scaffolder, rigger, out of a small town, then an athletics scholarship, and years on the trail. “Track? Running? No, uh, high-jump, I was a high-jump champion.” Two kids in new marriage three, and one, two teenagers in Brisbane from a previous thing. When the local work dried up, he went into FIFO, working across the west, on land and rigs, “doing two-and-two [two weeks on, two weeks off] when I could, and four-and-one when I had to.” “Four-and-one’s bad?” Four and one … I’d never do it if I had a choice.”
FIFO wasn’t his first choice either, nor that of many of those who do it — “It’s called a choice, but it isn’t at all, it’s just what’s offered.” — and it’s FIFO that got him into politics. “The suicides. The marriage breakdowns. The men killing themselves on the job. No one reports it. They say they don’t so people won’t copycat, but the truth is they don’t want people to know about it, because … it’s being sold as a choice.”
He gets more passionate as we drive, weaves with the road, dunes rising and falling, pockets of sprawl. No one does sprawl like Western Australia, the Americans are pikers at it, sudden exurblets of a dozen houses rearing up and vanishing in the rear mirror, coming from nothing, connected to nothing. Sam weaves too. On FIFO and Bunbury, he’s expert and precise and passionate. “Look, you know, I don’t know anyone’s relationship can survive four-and-ones. I wouldn’t do them after a point. It’s the other end too, the work camps are run on an American prison model — literally an American prison model — there’s guards roaming all the time. If they hear you on the phone displaying ‘anxiety’ or ‘disturbed responses’, they’ll report you to the doctor, then you’re gone. So everyone holds it in.” The CFMEU? He shrugs. “They’re alright, I’m a member, my dad was one of the first 300 in, but you know we’ve had an inquiry, nothing’s been done. Labor don’t want to know either.”
We stop for coffee at a drive thru, staffed by two slim Asian kids, students most likely. Sam gives ’em a card. “Consider me when you’re voting, please, we gotta change things round here.” “When is the election?” says one, turning his card over doubtfully. “Oh sorry, Saturday, it’s Saturday.” “One Nation, go!” says the girl at the register, playfully I would have thought.
“See, I’m getting that everywhere,” says Sam as we drive off. “Indigenous people — well, I’m art indigenous. We shouldn’t even have to say indigenous. We should just say Australians!”
“Well, yeah, but in this case you’re talking about your support by the indigenous, so y’know …”
For Sam, FIFO is bound up with 457s, and he makes a compelling case. “The thing about 457s is they know they can be flicked anytime, so they can’t arc up. Keeps everyone else in line. It’s how they’re eroding our penalty rates and loadings, you know what they want is flat rates all the way through. They try that, there’ll be a strike. Big strikes. But … what can you do? Like until a while back I didn’t know we didn’t own our own water.”
“Say what now?”
“Yeah, it’s owned by the UN and the Commonwealth. We can’t run a pipeline from Darwin to the Murray to help the farmers–“
We’re straight on the coast road, but I feel the wheel skid beneath us, discourse-wise, that lurching feeling. Suddenly we’re ploughing through the thickets to God knows where. Sam believes that WA should make up the gap created by the faltering resources economy with infrastructure spending, that this can be done without raising taxes, though they should be raised if that’s what it takes, that government regulation should be used to limit the multiple abuses of the FIFO system being applied by corporations, and that what is most needed to address the drug problem round Bunbury is a crisis detox centre, not more prisons, or empty tough talk — “We’re crying out for it, they should do that instead of spending half a million on four public toilets.”
We had seen these public toilets a whiles back, products of the “Royalties for Regions” program trumpeted by the Nationals, where non-mining regions get transfers for infrastructure projects. Public toilets was one. Later, at a barbecue area, we saw two big plastic water tanks, about two hundred apiece at Bunnings I would reckon, and the big “Royalties for Regions” poster, and one for the local WA Nats candidate.
“I went through the R for R budget,” said Sam. “You know what most of it is for? Events. And you could hide anything in ‘events’.” Too right that, but as well as all these things that Sam believes, he also believes that water is owned by the UN; that it is being denied to farmers, so that Chinese agribusiness can buy us up; that we have 4000 troops in Iraq; that the government has created in Parliament a state fund for zero-interest sharia law loans; that George Soros … actually, I can’t read my notes for that one, but the Clinton Foundation is in there too.
“What do you, um, read?”
“Well, look, I read everything. I don’t believe in left or right. I’m not going to do that, I read from everywhere.”
“But I mean what magazines or books. Or specific writers?”
“Well I read from across, you know, the net.”
“But I mean, where-“
“Well, I ask a lot of questions.”
Ah. “So you google!”
“Yep, a lot.”
We’ve approached the Mandurah Forum. We’re at the wrong shopping mall — I’ve been texting the media liaison for directions, aware that with that, I’m working for One Nation — but they’re going to be here in 10 minutes, so we’ll wait. In the west, if you wait in a mall long enough, the body of your party will float by.
Inside, we wait for a coffee at the Shingles Inn, a real franchise. “You could do a bit of campaigning,” I say. “Did you bring any leaflets?” OK, now I’m co-ordinating for One Nation. Sam, tall, tanned, open faced, suddenly looks shy, stricken, a kid before the high bar. “Nahhhhhh, this is Mandurah. I’m Bunbury.” “Still-” “Nah, leave it to the local.”
We see TV crews rushing, and follow, and there’s Pauline Hanson, doing a pretty minimal walk-around, the newso behind her with The West Australian‘s cover across its glass wall, and that picture, chomp chomp chomp like she was Mrs Pacman. She’s with a couple, a walrus of a man, white-whiskered, with his young Asian wife, and their two kids in the top of the shopping trolley, one and three. Pauline dandles the kids’ tiny feet and hands for a bit, and a couple of snappers go wild, the shutters whooshing furiously. Andrew is a gold miner, his wife Leofeh came here three years ago from the Philippines. Does he support her? “Oh yeah, absolutely.” What’s most important to them? “Oh the vaccination. When we took Zion” — “Zion?” “This is Zion,” he says, “and this is Zaniyah” — “to the doctor, they told us we had to vaccinate.” “She’s very good,” says Leofeh, indicating Hanson. So there you go. Not for the first time, it’s worth considering that Pauline might just know a thing or two.
Sam sure thinks so. He’s a kid around her, suddenly enthusiastic. He uses her page for his research. “I put up questions sometimes,” he’d said earlier. “People send me answers.” But the meet is over in seconds. I wasn’t sure what we’d come up here for, and I’m still not, a morning’s campaigning on the ground gone, when he’s sitting on 15%, and an hour’s drive back to the crack-hell of Bunbury (“Where would I see all this meth?” “Well, I dunno,” he had said, affronted. “I don’t know that world.” “Are we sure Bunbury is a meth hell?” “Well, that’s what The West Australian said …”).
But Sam has what he wants, he’s worked out the run-up. “Door knocking’s not the way. I’ve got this bloke up from Tasmania. He’s got a strategy.” “Look,” he’d also said earlier, “win or lose this, I’m going to start a foundation, a foundation for kids who’ve lost their dads, and their mums, to FIFO. ‘Cause it’s huge.” His voice had cracked. “It’s a huge issue.”
I tried to remember that, as well as the George Soros stuff as, after shaking hands, he lopes off into the mall, receding until the Gruen transfer takes over, the vision shifts, cartwheels, and he’s lost in the crowd streaming in from the car park, from the bright sunlight and glassy blue sky.