Zali Steggall
Zali Steggall campaigning with her father Jack in Manly (Image: AAP/Jeremy Piper)

The waiter leans in and offers me tempura prawns, flirting outrageously with one of my interview subjects as he leaves. Like every third person in Manly, he has a thick European accent (in this case Italian) and, like every second person in Manly, he is very attractive. I look down at the drink they gave me as I entered and resolve that if anything might tempt me away from Crikey, it would be if The Manly Daily needed a local business reporter.

We’re in the Manly Pavilion, which sits resplendent at the end of a little L-shaped strip of sand that curls away from Manly Wharf, to watch Zali Steggall make her pitch to members of the local chamber of business.

From the get go, Steggall really hammers the sensible centre line that worked so well for Kerryn Phelps. She gets a little titter through the room when putting her climate change action platform forward: “some people think that makes me extreme green left, I really reject that, it’s not a right-left issue, it’s an issue of the sensible centre”.

It’s hard to gauge exactly how it goes over at first. Steggall’s two main selling points are climate change action married to fiscal conservatism. At Monday’s climate forum she went over well, but she always would have; that group knows she’s in their corner. This is a test of the second plank, and winning that group over is key.

“This is a campaign all about positivity; our motto is ‘when they go low, we go high’,” one of Steggall’s volunteers tells me with an endearing lack of irony. The motto is mostly true of Steggall’s performance — “I’ve made a real choice to be positive, not ‘I’m just the least worst option” — but she can’t resist the odd pointed aside at Tony Abbott.

Speaking of her plan to defer to experts and the lived experiences of her constituents, she says “I certainly won’t be in a second floor office with my door closed”. It gets a big laugh from a small section of the crowd (one of whom wishes Steggall a “happy birthday for yesterday” at the end of the talk and turns out to be her dad. He seems awfully nice.)

Later, she goes on: “If we do get a change of government, we know what the incumbent is like in opposition — I don’t think he’s best placed to negotiate with a Labor government”. It gets nods and murmurs, as does her opposition to Labor’s franking credit reform.

Michel, an attendee who caught the eye of our waiter and runs a biodegradable underwear business in Brookvale, gives her assessment of Zali Steggall: “She seems good. She’s obviously got the sporty thing, but she’s a lawyer [too]. She’s not silly. And of course, we want more women.”

Everyone I talk to agrees she’s a serious and thoughtful candidate, and thinks she’s across issues beyond her climate change pitch. They’re tired of the negativity they’ve come to expect from local politics and politics in general (“It’s like, ‘No, no, just tell us your policies, Tony'” says one attendee).

This doesn’t quite translate to full-on excitement. But perhaps that’s more to do with the somnolent venue — very warm, dimly lit, more or less everyone standing for the whole 90 minutes of talking, the odd free drink — taking the edge off everyone by the time I talk to them. Maybe it’s just early days and a population as much “small c -conservative” as rusted on Liberal voters is holding back until closer to the day. 

One other odd point of consensus: everyone I spoke to said they’d “heard” that Steggall was Labor affiliated. None had time to fully check, not everyone knew where they’d heard it, and no one spoke as though they were sure it was true. They’d just heard it. Some readers chided me for describing Tony Abbott as a genius of negative campaigning on Monday. I only offer the above — that little introduction of doubt, slowly inching its way into a voting populace — as evidence in my favour.

Still, no one seemed exactly terrified by that prospect. And the industrial relations nerd in me couldn’t help but note that this room full of small- to medium-sized business owners didn’t ask one single question about minimum rates of pay, or penalty rates, or union influence. They cared about education and training, keeping good young workers in the area, and public transport. It’s also worth noting that none of the questions betrayed the merest hint of doubt in the scientific consensus around climate change.

Towards the end of the Q and A, Steggall is forced into a conversation with a couple of slightly intense questioners who are dismayed with falling standards in careers advice and vocational training. It’s very specific, too specific, and Steggall can’t solve it off the top of her head in front of an audience in Manly so her rhetoric gets a bit abstract, a bit “politician”. It’s by no means a disaster, and it ends with her offering to meet with one of the women to discuss it further, but it slows the sense of momentum the night previously had. 

As I’m about to leave, one of the women approaches Steggall, conciliatory — “I didn’t want to be hard on you, it’s just…” I overhear, before the crowd noise drowns them out. Steggall hands over a card, the woman says something and Steggall throws her head back in a full-throated laugh.

If this small sample population (roughly 100 are here all up) is anything to go by, people are taking her seriously. They are withholding judgement, but overall they quite like her. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say — and this might be more important — they want to like her.

Charlie Lewis is reporting from our special Warringah bureau for the length of the election campaign. Follow his coverage here

What do you make of Zali Steggall’s campaign so far? Write to [email protected] with your full name and let us know.