Labor candidate for Bennelong, Brian Owler (Image: AAP/Dan Himbrechts)

It’s a Thursday night in in Eastwood, a leafy suburb in Sydney’s north. Labor’s star candidate Dr Brian Owler is addressing the party faithful in an unfitted office space. The walls are unironically exposed concrete, and eskies filled with beer and soft drinks are resting against them. The only furniture is a snack table and some stray dining chairs.

At the front of the room is “Mr Medicare” himself, the neurosurgeon running against incumbent John Alexander in the seat of Bennelong. Alexander, a former tennis player turned Liberal politician, has held the seat since 2010.  

Owler keeps his speech short, thanking everyone for their hard work and cracking a few jokes about the “salubrious” decor.

“The thing that actually made my decision [to get into politics] was when I saw the way this government has treated science, particularly when it comes to energy policies and the environment,” he tells the crowd.

“To me, the time has come when we don’t just want a change of government, our country needs a change of government.” He’s met with raucous applause.

During his time as AMA president, Owler was vocal about the health risks posed by climate change and the need for action. It’s a sentiment shared by campaign volunteer Ashutosh Shukla, a scientist and climate change activist. He joined Labor three months ago because “they’re the only major party acting on climate change.”

“I am quite motivated by what Owler’s vision is, in particular on healthcare … as well as his science record,” he says.

“I think Owler, he brings that outsider message, and that energy straight away. He’s not someone who’s come through the Labor ranks or through the union ranks.”

“We’ve got someone who’s quite credible, quite extraordinary and is able to not just have a look at what our talking points are, but come with his own positions, his own ideas and speak to the community with great passion.”

It’s not the first time Labor have parachuted a high-profile candidate into Bennelong. The seat was a Liberal stronghold for decades before Maxine McKew’s shock victory over then-prime minister John Howard in 2007. McKew was defeated by Alexander after just one term, but her win gave Labor hope in what is still a safe Liberal seat. When Alexander’s citizenship controversy triggered a by-election in 2017, he was up against former NSW premier Kristina Keneally. Alexander won back the seat, but with half the margin and a 5% swing towards Labor.

Owler already has some name recognition thanks to his work in road safety campaigns and his past criticism of offshore detention (a position he has downplayed since joining the Labor Party). But there are still many voters in the area who have no idea who he is.

Phuong Tran is a single mum in the neighbouring suburb of Marsfield. She gets bombarded with Liberal Party advertising at election time, but doesn’t receive anything from Labor and had never heard of Owler.

“A lot of people I know in this area … are really supportive of the Liberals. A lot have their own business, they’re dentists or running law firms or doing real estate. There’s a very strong sense that this is a Liberal seat,” she says.

She tells me she usually votes Labor or Greens because she “doesn’t quite trust” the Liberal Party. They’re investing record amounts into education, yet her children’s schools are increasingly under-resourced and rely heavily on community fundraising efforts. They’re delivering tax relief to working families, yet she’s barely making ends meet despite taking on freelance translating work on top of her job in wedding planning.

“I think the narrative the government presents to me is so distant from my reality, from both parties but more so from the Liberals.”

“I’ve noticed people around me … seem to be tighter in their budget, in their spending. I don’t feel in the last 10 years people are getting more jobs. I think people are getting more anxious.”

Tran is more concerned about the environment. It’s not that she doesn’t care about school funding or job security — she just wants there to be a planet left for her children. She knows about the dead fish in the Murray-Darling and the proposed oil drilling in the Great Australian Bight. But what worries her most is unlikely to ever be front page news.

“There used to be heaps of ladybugs around here, now there’s none,” she says.  

“When my children were small we’d catch them in our hands and have a look at them, let them go. I haven’t seen one for about two years. We try and show them butterflies, I don’t see any either. It’s scary, no one is talking about it.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey