“Can I help you with that, brother?”
With his thick wiry stubble, white woolen jumper and dark blue-grey flat cap, he looks like a fisherman from a romance novel — right down to that Javier Bardem Castilian accent. He hauls himself, leaning on the banister and a single crutch, up the stairs at the end of the Corso to help fellow protesters affix the “Save our Coast” sign beneath the rippling flags. They’re here to oppose the approval of seismic testing off the coast of New South Wales, from this point in Manly, up as far as Newcastle.
Seismic testing involves shooting acoustic pulses into the ocean floor — every few metres, every few minutes, for days at a time — to create an image of what is underneath. Potentially gas, in this case. Environmental groups say it will kill local marine life, disrupt the migration of whales in the area and hobble the local fishing and tourism industry.
It’s odd that “the climate change election” has featured almost no discussion of this issue. Quite apart from the disruption it may cause, this testing is in the hunt for the kind of resources most scientists concerned with climate change think should stay in the ground. If anything’s there, extraction presents yet more risks to local wildlife. And this is all on the electorate’s doorstep. Meanwhile opposition to the Adani project in the Galilee Basin, 1600 kms to the north, has become ubiquitous in Warringah.
All the candidates are invited, none are permitted to speak, which proved a poor deal for many of them. As I arrive I see independent Susan Moylan-Coombs and the Greens’ Kristyn Glanville greet one another. There is a notable warmth and civility between the non-frontrunners, a mutual understanding of what it is to toil away with the spotlight always directed elsewhere. Later, I see Labor’s Dean Harris as he’s crossing the road to leave. He’d blended in until that point. Obviously there’s no Tony, but I also don’t spot any Steggall teal or GetUp orange.
As it turns out Steggall, who opposes the testing, is busy addressing a few hundred volunteers at North Harbour Reserve.
“The federal government is imposing this on us, despite opposition from the state government, from the local council and the community,” Natasha Dean, the movement’s spokesperson says through a loudspeaker in a soft lilt. “We’re going to join hands in a moment, because it’s symbolic of how we’re going to protect the coast.”
The crowd is slightly atypical of my experience of Warringah protests — perhaps due to the setting, there are more young families and weather-beaten surfer types dotted in among the immaculately turned out older couples.
They shift to the point where the ocean foams and rolls back, and face the sea. It reveals that a decent chunk of the people who looked as though they might be part of the protest are just people at the beach who didn’t move when the signs started appearing. But it’s a lovely image and seems to attract just as many random beach-goers to stand with them. They take their photo, and a drone, flitting about the beach like some kind of horrific giant moth, gets footage from overhead.
A serious young woman is walking around, asking people to call opposition leader Bill Shorten’s office and leave a message calling on him to issue a statement on Labor’s behalf about seismic testing (as it turns out, in the last few days, they’ve promised a review). “It’s like a virtual sit-in; they get back to their office and it disrupts their day, going through all these voice messages.”
I ask if she’s tried to get Harris to give his position, and then have to explain that he’s the Warringah Labor candidate.
“Oh no, just Shorten.”
“Which organisation are you with?”
“None, we’re just people who care.”
The chief thing that sets protests in Warringah apart is the broad, polite optimism. It’s the same the next day at a Stop Adani event in Neutral Bay; bright, attractive young families meeting up to letterbox the area and talk to local voters.
Other protests — say the Invasion Day protest or protests against the far-right — often have an edge of pain, of anger, where the speakers seem animated by pure exasperation; a sense, less of hope, than having no other option but to point out the monumental systemic failures that bring such protests about.
Warringah protesters usually aren’t people the system has otherwise failed. I don’t mean that as any kind of slight –the relative privilege of these crowds doesn’t undermine the sincerity or importance of what they’re trying to achieve, but it does shift the tone. Every protest I’ve attended is imbued by this smiling confidence that they will win.
Whatever their specific gripe, the overall impression I get from unsatisfied Warringah voters is, because of their prosperity and the seat’s usual status as a coronation rather than a contest, they have been taken for granted. I suggested to a Steggall supporter soon after I arrived that an area like Warringah is always going to be taken care of, and he countered “well, we’re taken care of because we take care of ourselves”.
Whether this belief is grounded in reality or not, the promise of an election that isn’t a foregone conclusion is that these issues will at least have to be heard. The challenge for Steggall is uniting enough of those disparate grievances into a swing that gets Abbott’s primary vote below 50%.
Charlie Lewis is reporting from our special Warringah bureau for the length of the election campaign. Follow his coverage here.