Seconds before she would have been swept away, someone pulled Julia Banks off the pavement. Her fuschia woolknit long coat flared briefly, as she was pulled to safety, and the mobility vehicle swept by. It was a beauty too, with GT stylings and a sort of prong, a la Donald Campbell’s bluebird. That was how come we’d all been watching it sweep by the doors of the polling place, late afternoon, lost in admiration and nobody noticed it was about to take out the candidate who might decide the election. The driver almost took out a mum and baby behind Banks, but to be honest we were less interested in that.
Mobility vehicles are big on the Mornington Peninsula, to Melbourne’s south-east, which is just about all of Flinders, the hitherto safe seat of Greg Hunt. Here at pre-polling, across from the beach at Rosebud, a place of weather-beaten old soldiers and spray-tan divorcees, MVs seem to be about a third of the traffic. Aussie flags, green ‘n’ gold, koalas hanging from aerials, Acker Dacker mudflaps, people really make an effort.
Forty years ago, some of these folks were cruising past this same strip of shops in airbrush panel vans on which valkyries rode unicorns into a golden future. Now, they’re powering back from the IGA, six pack, dog food and dog in their lap, sic transit gloria skeggies. They seem to enjoy scattering the how-to-vote birders, 20 or so. One bloke stops at the corner, collie dog actually in tow, setting the pace. Wraparound shades, bald head scored with benign/malign welts like a neolithic grooving stone. Has he been, I ask, attracted by Labor’s cancer pledg-
“They’re all the bloody same!” Even the dog looks balefully at me, as they motor on. The birders and candidates don’t try to catch any of them. “They’ve all got postals,” says one. “And some of them are mean.”
Everyone else is fair game, and Banks has been here most of the day, stationed at the corner to get people from both directions. “Would you consider an independent?” she dives into those just taking Lab, Lib or Green cards, trying to rise through the pack of the minors — Animal Justice, Australian Conservatives, Clive’s bananas party. Teal leaflets again, but a shade that makes it look like PR for a dental clinic.
She’s good on the quick burst, the new Aussie pollies’ discipline, a product of three weeks’ prepolling and the mobbing effect of preferential voting and how-to-vote cards. Candidates who would otherwise be doorknocking now spend days perfecting the nine-second spray, that might tip a wayward vote. Julia Banks’ goes something like this:
Hello voting today this seat could really use an independent not only to get much needed improvements but to send a message about climate change and leadership no Adani Greg Hunt killed Malcolm Turnbull…
And then they’re over the chalk line, and her fate is in their hands.
A short interview amid the melee:
“You’re running well to the left, aren’t you? Stop Adani, the dumping of Turnbull …”
“I’m running from the centre … I’ve always been at the centre, looking for practical solutions,” Banks says.
“But come on, would you be saying stop Adani if you were still under the Liberal bann-“
“Well, I spoke out about the refugees when I was-“
“In the push to the centre, well, a lot of people who might support you would be wary because of the ‘I could live on the dole, 40 dollars a day’ statement…”
A flash of exasperation and anger. “Look, if you listen to the full interview, it’s clear I put that in the context of other benefits as well,” Banks says.
And with that, she leaps back into the fray.
The year 12 students are meeting and greeting us as we come in to the auditorium of Padua College, a sleek Catholic school in Mornington, an evening earlier, for a youth candidates forum. Boys in year 12 still look like shambling livestock, year 12 girls like the Mitford sisters hosting a hunt ball, how nice of you to attend, can I take your coat. Banks, small in real life, looks like she graduated last year, and has come back to see how the next generation of queen bees are doing.
Greg Hunt, equally petite, hangs round the big boys. He’s the local MP, yet somehow manages to seem on the edge of these circles of football lummoxes, laughing too hard at their jokes. Josh Sinclair, the Labor candidate, is a 26-year-old hunky dreamboat the kids flock to.
He’s also the best speaker by far, forceful, not condescending, talking about climate change, challenge to the planet, etc. Hunt, local boy, rattles off sticker items: this intersection, that bus route.
“We’ve managed to get Melbourne and Monash to site campuses here, so kids can go to uni without leaving the peninsula.” He grins like Wallace, sans Gromit. Jesus, never leave? At all? The peninsula has a hillbilly quality to it. But the kids seem to like it. Banks they’re not so sure about. She gives the booster speech — daughter of a migrant, worked my way up, took on the big boys, made my home here — but it sounds 20 years out of date, booster talk for the iPhone/social media/cutter generation.
When the student panel quiz her — “some of us will be turning 18 this year, and voting for the first time” — on the economy, penalty rates, tax, etc, Banks seems unprepared and rambles: “That’s why education is so important …”
It’s the same at the pre-poll. Someone asks a question on “all these new taxes” Labor is proposing, and Banks prevaricates and resorts to generalities. “Well, the economy is a complex thing …” Is this a lawyer’s bluff, vamping til she gets the line? It’s the day News Corp airs old stories about less-than-perfect workplace relations, then pulls them when Banks lawyers up bigly. The following day, Alex Turnbull’s robocalls will hit the wires, damning Hunt as one of his dad’s assassins.
Days earlier, GetUp types (or so I was told, by a minor party birder, who seemed a touch addled) had brought Greg Hunt a retirement cake, right outside the pre-polling station. “He wasn’t happy.” Not surprised. Banks has preferenced Labor, Hunt is staring at defeat, ignominious, that he might have avoided, like Christopher Pyne, fellow toy soldier, moderates for no climate action and island prisons. No one thought it could happen, but it’s Once Upon A Time In Rosebud.
“We’ve secured the fast train and [something million] for road widening. There’ll be a new exit on [Gefulgap Road], leading to the [National Mime School where Ford used to be]. The government has allocated $30 million for a [clinic for nervous ponies].”
No one can accuse Sarah Henderson of being lost for words. Working the queue outside pre-polling at the Belmont shops, at the southern end of Geelong, she never lets up. Corangamite, named after the nearby salt lake of tears, according to local legend, is now no longer in the electorate. I’d come over on the ferry the previous night, avoiding a trip back through Melbourne, emphasised the separateness of the city’s surrounds, its crab claw peninsulas, the Bellarine doing it tougher.
Passed through Queenscliff, stately and silent as a hand-painted seaside postcard, avoided Torquay, always wise, and hit Geelong, where so much money has flowed in, people may as well be carrying it around in wheelbarrows, like the Weimar Republic. ScoMo is somewhere here today, offering something, presumably to do with mental illness, which is what we do now instead of cars. Best country in the world though.
Captive audience in this narrow strip. The bourgeois-boho-povvo chaos of Rosebud is absent; old industrial area, still in the bones. People line up in silent forbearance, receptive or not to the divining Sarah, as she works the queue, looking for the waverers, the last-minute deciders. She sizes them up, asks them about the issues and no matter what — the Masons are stealing our bodily fluids — has an answer. Our new hydro system will be run by nuns!
Broadcast journalist’s expertise, the mind like a drawer of index cards, and the old circular breathing trick. Every 45 seconds or so, the rasping sound as she pulls in air and continues: the federally funded museum of jazz ballet will revitalise Marshall… But she’s working a line of very plain-dressed punters, half of whom have the red Labor how-to-vote card in their hand, and nothing else. Those are polite.
But they’re not buying. “What do we need? Oh, public transport. If she could get that…” says one voter, of a member who has just secured fast train funding in the billions. “What could she do to get my vote? Bugger all. I like her though.” There are worse epitaphs to have, for a political career. But there are better things than epitaphs to get.
Back in Rosebud, in the shops, one in every two vacant, the cynicism is total. They’re all the same. Who speaks for us.
“What do I want?” says the woman who runs a small and elegant florist, the beachwaves reflected in her olde-worlde windows, the flowers opened wider to the salty air. She’s next to a servo selling flowers from buckets.
“The government should stop running our lives. Supermarkets shouldn’t be allowed to compete with the little guy.”
“Like flowers. Pauline’s the only one I like. What she says. She’s for us.”
“What does she say that you like?”
“That she’s for us.”
Where there was industry once, Geelong, the state’s workshop, the ghost of politics survives. Elsewhere, the country is as fringe-dwellers on the beach, eye on the horizon, looking for the one who will, in the solitary act of representing us, thus represent us. We go to the polls, and the mobility vehicle of history charges on.