A local tells me the old Manly tourism slogan was “Seven miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care”. And it’s true, Manly’s broad, sun-beaten streets, smelling of chip fat, sea air and that sweet coconut tang of expensive sun cream feels like a different universe to Sydney and, it turns out, the rest of Warringah.
The idyll makes talking about politics feel faintly absurd. The young man at the Hotel Steyne is friendly and wants to help, but he hasn’t really thought about the election, except to say that Steggall is the “only candidate” apart from Abbott to cut through. He’s an engineer in his late 20s who could’ve worked in any number of places, but chose Manly for the surfing.
In a beach-front cafe, the barista gives a throaty laugh when I ask if any of his customers have wanted to talk about the election. In another, I speak to a young French woman who hasn’t spoken to anyone about federal politics.
And yet this is the site of the greatest clusters of political material I’ve seen anywhere in Warringah — all of it for independent Zali Steggall, or against Tony Abbott. The number of Steggall posters start to thin on the roads that lead out of Manly. But whether it’s the harbourside mansions just over the Spit in Mosman, or the residential/small business sprawl of Fairlight and Balgowlah, the posters rarely stop completely. When they do, they’re not replaced by endorsements for Abbott — or any other candidate, for that matter.*
Heading north, things skew a little older, a little less glamorous. The pastel mansions creeping up the waterside hills like a staircase are replaced by more modest red brick bungalows with tinnies in their unruly front yards. It’s still nice — I’m yet to see anywhere in Warringah that isn’t — but it’s nice in a ramshackle suburban way, far more recognisable to the majority of Australians.
It’s here where I finally caught a first glimpse of that Liberal Party blue in someone’s front yard and it’s… Jason Falinski. My bus had crept across the AEC border into Mackeller. Funnily enough, the Advance Australia anti-Steggall ads — made up to imply she’s a Labor candidate — didn’t stop.
People say it feels different this time. For voters, even those not particularly convinced by Steggall, it’s the fact that a change is even possible. “It was a bit dispiriting, all these years with no other option,” a long-time Neutral Bay resident tells me. For those campaigning for change, whether on behalf of a particular candidate or just for “not Abbott” it feels angrier. Every campaigner I speak to has been shouted at, at least once. A local woman door knocking with GetUp tells me the response is, from some people, “visceral”.
“It feels like [Abbott voters] are taking it very personally, like there’s this vibe of ‘how could you do this to him?'” she tells Crikey, outside a little cafe in Forrestville. The shouting happens mostly in places like Killarney Heights, a suburb on Warringah’s western flank engulfed by a little horseshoe of water on either side. Wealthy, even by Warringah standards, and skewing a little older.
Back on the shoreline, north of Manly, watching a training exercise at Queenscliff Surf Life Saving Club — Abbott’s local — I overhear a guy, athletic, late 40s, talking about how “leftie revisionists” are muddying the history around Uluru to stop people like him and his mates from being able to walk on it. Corflutes are one thing, but for every poster we see, or don’t, one suspects there are many, many people like this within Warringah’s 68 square kilometres: unlikely to actively display their voting intentions, and quietly recalcitrant to change.
On the bus heading south away from Warringah mall, a teenager in the seat ahead of me sighs and looks away from his phone. In the window reflection I can see his Instagram feed is playing one of Abbott’s anti-Steggall ads — since being here, I’ve also been assailed with this same ad every single time I’ve gone online.
In a coffee joint right near his office on Sydney road, I get a mixed response on Abbott — “Not a fan of the churchy stuff,” a young man and first-time voter tells me, but he equivocates a little once he knows I genuinely want to talk about it.
A man, with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and broad frame rubs his eyes and says in a raspy half-whisper that he’ll probably vote for Abbott, because everyone’s saying he shouldn’t.
“I mean, I reckon everyone has to work it out for themselves, but at the same time,” the kid replies, and then laughs, “I don’t really care.”
A truck with big Abbott posters spends the weekends stalking the streets of Manly. Abbott crouches in front of a crowd of supporters holding a sign that reads “Tony Supports the Tunnel. We support Tony.” That’s literally the only policy on this giant mobile billboard.
That it should come to this; the great conservative warrior, reduced to taking partial credit for a state government project in his area. It pulls to a stop at some traffic lights, and an older guy standing next to me in a weather-beaten cap makes eye contact with the driver and they share a laugh.
“What do you reckon?” I ask.
“Aw, yeah?” he says, then shrugs and walks off toward the beach with a dreamy smile.
*In the interest of thoroughness, I should say I’ve seen one poster each for Abbott and the Greens Kristyn Glanville, and nothing for anyone else.
Charlie Lewis is reporting from our special Warringah bureau for the length of the election campaign. Follow his coverage here.