Dominic Wy Kanak (left)

If you didn’t know that Dominic Wy Kanak was the Greens candidate for the upcoming Wentworth byelection, you’d have a hard time picking him out of a crowd. When I meet him outside Bondi Pavilion, he’s surrounded by a group of Indigenous activists, chatting about a rally they were all attending that night in Redfern.

Like many others, he was bemused by Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s decision to make Tony Abbott a special envoy for Indigenous affairs, following the leadership spill which saw the former member for Wentworth, Malcolm Turnbull, ousted as Prime Minister.

“I’ve heard of envoys but more in the sense of foreign affairs, where someone’s an envoy to another country. It might be a positive because it might mean the federal government is recognising the Aboriginal sovereignty of communities, but I don’t think that’s the intent,” he deadpans.

“What I’m hearing on the campaign trail is that people want to see a different standard of politics in Australia, a different level of behaviour. Over the last few years it seems that the community has been abandoned by the Liberal Party.”

Wy Kanak is a Torres Strait Islander, and Indigenous rights are a major part of his election platform, along with action on climate change and more humane treatment of asylum seekers. He also wants to revisit the Indigenous Voice to Parliament — which was previously rejected by the Turnbull government — but would “see where the community wanted to take those debates” first.

The Greens have attracted criticism, a lot of it from within their own party, over what some see as a shift closer to the centre under Richard Di Natale’s leadership. But Wy Kanak is about as grassroots as it gets, opting for Aboriginal flag t-shirts over suits, and protests over press conferences.

While this approach may win him credibility within the party, it doesn’t seem to be doing him any favours with the broader electorate. A recent survey by the Voter Choice Project showed that 40% of Wentworth voters didn’t even know his name. For the frontrunners, independent Kerryn Phelps and the Liberals’ Dave Sharma, these numbers were 3% and 5% respectively.

What local council drama could mean for Wentworth

It’s a surprising figure given Wy Kanak has been serving on local council for nearly 20 years. In that time, he’s witnessed the impacts of a series of unpopular decisions made at local and state levels by Liberal governments.

Wentworth covers the local government areas of Waverley and Woollahra. The Liberals enjoyed comfortable majorities on both councils at the start of 2017, but the State Government’s attempt to amalgamate the two councils with neighbouring Randwick was deeply unpopular with locals.

The amalgamations coincided with Waverley Council’s controversial plans to upgrade Bondi Pavilion, and there were concerns the community space on the top floor would be privatised and possibly converted into a  function centre. The community came out in full force to defend the historic building, launching a star-studded campaign that told voters to “Put the Liberals Last” at the upcoming election. Wy Kanak, along with other Labor and Greens councillors, joined the fight, attending rallies and pledging to scrap the existing upgrade plans.

It worked. The Liberals lost their majority in Waverley at the council elections last September, paving the way for a “working relationship” between Labor and Greens councillors.

Climate change front of mind

Part of Turnbull’s appeal was his progressive stances on issues like climate change, which is set to be a defining issue in the byelection.

Wy Kanak wants to encourage more households to invest in solar panels, and would consider offering subsidies for them to do so. His energy policy is focused on “energy independence” and ensuring people aren’t “tied to the poles and wires of price-gouging companies.” He is heavily involved in the campaign against the Adani mega-mine, and intends to continue the fight in parliament.

“I think even people who usually voted Labor voted for him because they saw in him the hope of a Prime Minister who would stand up to corporations and the ultra right wing of his party,” says Wy Kanak.

Despite the Greens’ relatively low polling numbers compared to other progressive candidates, Wy Kanak remains optimistic about the byelection process.

“Byelections are unique opportunities for the community to raise any issue, as minor as it may be. You’re the only federal election happening so you have the focus of the media,” he says.

“I think if candidates are doing their job properly they need to give voice and expression to what they hear coming out of the community.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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