Skyrail’s broad concrete trunks shoot overhead at Willesden Road, the entrance to Hughesdale station. Ghost ‘burb, Hughesdale, Melbourne’s south-east, strips of old Edwardian shops on either side of the street. I can just remember when the station had level-crossing gates, a man in a peaked cap dashing out to them every 10 minutes. Now the old wooden station’s gone, and Skyrail sweeps over, like the future. It’s a little thrilling. It definitely won Labor the state election, propaganda of the deed, written in readymix.
Beneath its sweep, at 7.30, on a raw weekday morning, Jason Ball, fresh-faced Greens candidate for here, is talking to a man, stylish chap in leather jacket and pastel scarf, on a $2000 bike, about Safe Schools. It has been going for some time.
“Y’see, I just don’t like them teaching 12-year-olds how to do anal sex.”
“Well, that’s not what it’s doing. The program was requested by teachers to deal with bullying. It’s been reviewed twice.”
There’s no trace of irritation in Ball’s voice, nor of condescension. The talk goes on. I’m admiring of his self-control. If I were hit with that question on a cold morning beneath a concrete overpass I’d say “well, sure beats trigonometry”.
“Don’t forget we got the cycle paths!” Ball yells after him.
“You did, that,” as he rides off. Ball smiles, fresh-faced kid grin. He looks like the teen best friend to the lead in an ’80s sitcom. He’s lean, loose-limbed, body of the VFL player he was.
There’s not many other gnarly encounters in the hour that he’s there, a lot of support, politeness always. He talks climate change, public transport, defuses accusations about death taxes, sometimes signing off with the party’s simple tagline, “the Greens can win the seat of Higgins”.
“We’ve put my phone number on our email-outs, so I’m taking 30 or 40 calls a night. It’s climate change and childcare, climate change and childcare.”
Is he coping with it?
“I’m loving it.”
He gets a lotta smiles, people don’t take leaflets because “I voted for you”. The trains thunder overhead, the schoolkids in 19 different uniforms flirt at a coffee window, the cellophaned suits and skirts whir round the track in the dry cleaners. Middle-class Melbourne as it is now. Is Hughesdale where it’s at (which would be a first for Hughesdale)? Is Higgins ready to go Green, and change the country’s political landscape?
“I’ve been a specialist in gastroenterology. I’ve worked in Africa. I’ve worked hard to be where I am, just like you’ve worked hard.” Two nights before, twenty minutes late, yr correspondent had dashed into the hall, where Liberal candidate for Higgins Katie Allen was opening her remarks, with her CV. She is an immensely distinguished medico, obviously something of a fitness enthusiast, a no-nonsense bootstraps type. I took an instant dislike to her, to save time, as I’d been late.
How had I get lost in Malvern, of all places, after a week all over Victoria and New South Wales? Phone dead, vague memory of the address, the cab driver and I careened around the dark wet streets, tramlines shining under streetlights, antique chairs and tables staring out from shopfronts, until we found the Korean church, where, in the neat modern hall, the Christian Lobby was running a candidates’ forum for the seat of Higgins.
The only Koreans present were those running the refreshments table. About 80 or so of Melbourne’s bourgeoisie, and a few others were here to hear what the three candidates had to say. Sitting member Kelly O’Dwyer is not contesting. Labor has parachuted in a forceful lawyer candidate, Fiona McLeod. Jason’s looking relaxed at the table. And Katie is running out the time of her opening remarks on her CV.
“I was a blapto-trinkagologist for eight years. I performed the worlds first hangalangafrectomy. I do macrame in space. I’m an admiral in the Mexican navy…” — my notes may be wrong on some of this stuff. Sounded like a suck’s charter to me, but in the row in front, a couple in fine woolknit mumbled “most impressive, most impressive” at each other. That’s evidence that the Greens may still have a harder ask in Higgins than other encounters would suggest.
When Jason speaks, he offers a little of himself and his career, the vicissitudes of LGBTIQ life in such contexts, the turn to social activism. But he’s mostly on climate change and inequality, a call to the conscience, quotes Gandhi and the gospels, is received with decent applause and polite murmurs.
Then the questions begin. The first is on franking credits, and my god, it’s like The Rolling Stones took the stage. McLeod stuffs up a response: “The, uh, imputation doesn’t apply, no well union funds I’m getting to that…” The audience goes wild with anger: “That’s not it at all. Wrong. Wrong. WRONG!!” McLeod looks lost in Malvern, too.
The vox pops later are equally mixed. A 60-something hospital administrator notes that it’s probably right she lose her 4-5k franking credits for the greater good. Others are furious. Franking-tithe’s monster is on the loose. A nearby, salt’n’pepper-haired, grey-jacketed man, a pathology lab franchiser, goes from the iniquity of franking as double taxation (it’s not) to the myth of global warming, these kids “indoctrinated” by teachers, American blacks wanting handouts, “bloody childcare workers — why should they get more money?” on it goes.
“Can I get a first name, to quote these remarks?”
“No you bloody can’t.”
The blazered id of the bourgeoisie, envy and frustration at lives given over to accumulation, sprayed around with spittle and tea-moistened Tim Tam flakes. Peter Costello, ex-Higgins, was their shape-shifting lizard god. The hate, the anger drained into me, took a pint of Scotch later to sluice it out — flashback to eight-year-old self being told by white family friends that “that bloody Communist Hawke wants to take my money and give it to the Abos!”
Angry, angry, angry, always angry, in our big houses, at BBQs beside our Hockney-blue swimming pools. Thus I was grateful that night, for the reminder, lost in Malvern, that the class of my birth are ghastly, just ghastly people. They won’t be going Green anytime soon.
Two days after, at the handing out, Ball seems unfazed by the evening — which included a slew of questions on Israel Folau, abortion, etc — nor by the Australian Conservatives Senate candidate, who thunders that “all three candidates seem excellent people but some of them are purveying cultural Marxism WHICH IS DESTROYING OUR CIVILISATION!”
“I was 27 when I did this the first time. I’m 31 now, a lot more seasoned.” Footy language. He’s at the pre-poll all day, train stations and intersections in the morning, the phones at night. With years spent on bullying and LGBTQI issues, he’s been in politics for most of a decade. The Greens’ Higgins campaign is massive in size, but it takes mud’n’blood stamina to head it. “Hundreds of volunteers. We’ve got grandmas cooking for us every night,” then, correcting himself, “I mean, all sorts of people.”
He’s a country kid still, a seasoned pro, a hopeful Green beneath the concrete, the footy stars, and the chance of the election’s most stunning victory of all.