“Now uh what we’re going to do is do the photo first, so if you’d all take a letter…”
In a church hall that looked like a vast temporary classroom, square windows and wood paneling, a dark-haired bespectacled woman was trying to wrangle a lively crowd. Twenty rows deep, grey-haired and a bit of henna, wire-framed spectacles, the odd jumper around the shoulders, and above all, neat slacks, the Kooyong Votes Climate meeting — banner ‘n all, with the dreaded GetUp logo, like a prison tattoo skull ‘n’ bones to the right — couldn’t shut up.
“Are there going to be speeches…”
“When do we divide into groups…”
Behind the teacherly woman, de facto media director, 20 kids in T-shirts were holding enormous white cut-out letters. Night was coming on in the windows. In North Balwyn.
“No, we’re going to do the photo first! This is a very important part of the campaign!”
“Take a letter.”
They did. And spelled out, proudly
KOGONOY TOVES LCIMEAT
“No no, turn them round”
KNGOOOY VOTSE ATICLME
“Towards me! Stay where you are VOTES! Except for you ‘E!”
By now, however the crowd had worked it out, and was shuffling the letters around themselves.
KOOYONG VOTES CLIMATE
The self-managing society had emerged, in Kooyong. The photographs were taken, the letters handed in, and the crowd attended once more.
“Right! Let’s organise some doorknocking! I’d like to remind you that all the candidates for the division of Kooyong are here tonight. Except Josh Frydenberg, but he was invited!” Roar. “What are we here to do?”
From the crowd: “Get rid of Josh Frydenberg!”
Hey boy, that’s Balwyn calling.
North Balwyn! One hour earlier I had jumped off the tram at the Bulleen Road junction Shopping Centre in the late afternoon light. The glorious 48. With an hour to kill, I’ll popped into some delightful little wine bar or vaguely hip café that has opened up since the early 2000s and… And nothing. To the left and right, the shops – lamps, a newsagent, a button shop (a button shop?) were shut, silent. Man this is hardcore ‘burbia. A Thai restaurant. I ordered a glass of wine, and a roti, in case the area still had those rules where you had to eat something to get a drink — or in the hope that it still did. When I ordered a second glass, the roti untouched, the Thai daughter/waitress looked at me as if I was on meth.
After, pacing the empty streets, still with a half-hour to kill, the face of Frydenberg stared out from billboards. Trying to look reassuring. But looking like a bookie who used to be a prison guard. At the traffic lights, to a woman in a sort of puffer twinset: “What do you think of him?”
“Well it’s hard to know. He tacks one way then he tacks the other…”
Yachting metaphors! In a landlocked division! Balwyn, I am home.
Half an hour later, with the event underway — this was last week, an innocent age, before the world changed again — the candidates were meeting and greeting from their stalls at the back. Oliver Yates, former head of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, and his volunteers amidst a sea of bluey-greeny… is it turquoise? Teal? Julian Burnside, enthusiastically talking to punters, looked –fresh from his recent savaging, amid t-shirted Greens — like David Attenborough in a lemur colony. How is it that Kooyong has a Greens candidate who looks like a Liberal, and a Liberal who looks like the lynchpin of a Pixies tribute act? Ahhhhhhh, is that their plan? Then a welcome to country interrupted by a red-faced woman asking us to remember the pensioners (not hard, they were right here), an intro from Rod Quantock (effectively the governor-general of the liberal middle classes) and comedian/activist Tim Lo Surdo; “I’m from Democracy in Colour, it’s a movement of people of colour coming at ya…” there is a rumble of confusion. Colour? We have colour! Teal, and perhaps burgundy as a bold choice for a winter cashmere. The discussion began:
“OK who here thinks climate change is real and will impact vastly on our grandchildren?”
All hands went up.
“Right that’s sorted out. Trumpet major!”
An older gent in a Fletcher Jones shirt produced a cornet from somewhere and blew part of Reveille.
“Now let’s find some team leaders!”
Another 45 minutes on, and two cornet bursts later, 20 team leaders were standing at the front and side of the crowd, advertising their wares and signing people up. “I’m Marie, this is Dave, and we’ll be holding conversations on Saturdays outside at Kew Junction, just near the Woolies.”
“I’m Trev and I’ll be doorknocking in East Kew…”
And people signed up, and took bundles of the usual scorecard leaflet, with its big coal-brown cross against the Labor candidate Jana Stewart (who was there), for the party’s commitment to build coal-fired power stations.
Then it was over and I looked for a vox pop:
“Hi, I’m from Crikey, looking for lifelong Liberal voters who’ve switched this time.”
“I’m a Labor member for the state upper house” said a haughty woman, who seemed to imagine that was anything other than Kilsyth Pick-a-Part, but for politics. Irrelevant, but I was too preoccupied for a comeback so that was it now.
Another gent, neat hair, wire glasses, v-neck sweater:
“Well I’ve been 50-50 for years. I may vote for Oliver. I won’t be voting Liberal … we gave them a chance. To be … sane. Josh was for a while. Now he’s gone right again.”
So it went. Sweater-over-shoulders had been a “swinger” (voter, please God); he would choose on the day, but not Liberal. Bill Chandler, a former planner and independent media publisher, who’d started an indie campaign a year earlier: “Well, we have to bring Frydenberg down to 44%, and hold preferences. It’s tricky but it’s possible.
Oliver Yates: “A Green can’t win this seat even if…” (slightly narked)”…they change their candidate after declaring. I can. There’s 30 candidates like me across the country. It’s a teal movement….”
“Teal! Thank you! Not turquoise! That was killing me!”
Out they went, into the night. Three hundred people attending, I reckon 250 volunteered. 10 weeks out. Frydenberg is facing a sort of The Saturday Paper Stalingrad on his hands, a brutal villa-to-villa political battle, from the rich antiquing plains of Hawthorn to the cake ghetto of Maling Road and the louche uplands of Kew’s Harp Hotel and the Skinny Dog, oh my God, what a middle-class meat-rack that is (I say that with love). He’ll need all the money he can get, because he won’t be able to match the ground game. This is a seat that should be sending people out to marginals. It’ll be the other way round.
Between state funding coal-fired power stations, and getting visas for paedophilia defenders, the right wonders how they can rebuild the party of Menzies. But tonight in North Balwyn, here it is, ranged against them.
Without buying into cheap sentiment about the old bruiser, Menzian liberalism is simply wherever the liberal middle class is, their political gravitational centre. It’s not abstract commitments to IPA talking points or Paul Kelly-esque bloviations about collapsing civilisations — it’s their everyday sentiments and habits, their predispositions about what matters. Given recent events, should the Coalition be so foolish and malign as to preference One Nation anything other than last, then this just got real.
The goofiness, the awkwardness, the trumpets and the teal is the sign of people becoming political because they cannot now not be. Arise like Lions Clubs from your slumber, KNGOOOY VOTSE ATICLME. At 7pm this was a meeting. By 9pm it was an organisation, and the Liberals have a fight on in the heart of their heartland.