A family member suggested I read Jan Bowman’s story about Geoff Ebbs, the Green Candidate for Griffith in the 2013 Federal election. I think maybe it was supposed to make me feel better about not winning the seat of Gippsland in the 2013 Federal election.
Truth be told, however, I felt fine about losing because I never expected to win and I barely recognised Ebb’s sentiments. I think there may be some value in reporting my own experience because it’s borne of an extremely different but not uncommon context and I’ve come to some quite different conclusions.
I live in a tiny town called Cabbage Tree Creek, East Gippsland, Victoria. Excluding service industries, the main industry in East Gippsland is manufacturing, followed by agriculture and fisheries. The tourism industry is also significant. Logging has strong historical roots but is in a slow and bitter decline.
The Snowy River runs through my nearest town, Orbost, just before it meets the sea at Marlo and the ‘Mountain Cattlemen’ are to the north. The towns are small and far apart, Bairnsdale is the biggest with a population of about fourteen thousand people.
Rates of high-school completion are three to four percent below the average for rural Victoria, although unemployment is lower than average. Crystal meth is a growing problem.
‘Greenie’ is a term of abuse.
Did I mention it’s conservative? Do I need to? East Gippsland is such a safe National seat neither Liberal nor Labor try very hard, when the election was 29 days away neither had named their candidates.
Of course, there is, technically, the wild and crazy possibility I could win. It’s theoretically possible. Maybe through some transformative event, a perfect preference flow and the benevolent intervention of aliens, the Easter Bunny and zombies. Not likely.
It’s an unhealthy, unhelpful fantasy. Early on in my only other campaign, Federal election 2013, I dared to think about it a bit, secretly, late at night. How naive? How pointless? Gippsland is an incredibly safe seat.
My stated goals, the ones I work to are to keep the sitting member accountable and put forward arguments for alternative policies. I focus on climate change, energy policy, better social services, environmental protection, small farmers and sustainable agriculture and democratic reform.
I don’t expect to win but that doesn’t bother me. I don’t have to win to raise the standard of debate. I dream of reducing the National Party vote because I think it would make them take some important issues more seriously.
In my wildest dreams I help to make this seat more marginal. It would be a public service if this region received more social services funding as a result, for education in particular.
I don’t have to win for running to be a worthwhile thing to do and doing what I think is right helps me sleep at night. Or at least it would if I wasn’t up until midnight most nights doing it.
They’re a loyal and traditional bunch of voters in Gippsland East. In this electorate voters assume that the National Party are still pretty much the Country Party, their party. In fact, their policies supporting ‘free trade’ and foreign investment, privatisation of services, pro-mining policies even pro-fracking, are the opposite of traditional Country Party policies.
When Senator Fiona Nash (National) stopped the progress of regulation for better disclosure of food content labelling, it favoured the interests of food processors over growers.
The recent Coalition report into country of origin labelling will do little to bring clarity or facilitate consumer choice and in effect supports the rights of foreign producers more than local producers.
The National Party support breaking up the ABC.
Although they’re now all retired or dead, I know that one would have had my sport-loving, sheep-and-wheat growing relations grimly contemplating regime change, single handed if necessary. The closure of businesses and the flight of opportunity from small country towns is in no small part due to the unfair advantages being won for big businesses and multi-nationals.
The deregulation agenda favours big business over small and so leads to concentration of ownership, decreased opportunity and decreased competition. The closure of farms is in no small part about the entry of big-ag multi-nationals and unfair competition by the Coles-Woolworths duopoly.
The National Party are voting for things the Country Party fought against throughout its existence. If the Country Party still existed, todays Nationals would be kicked out it.
Voter loyalty remains credible, however, because they sometimes deliver local infrastructure and social projects to country communities and because of cultural identification.
There are two senses in which politicians represent an electorate. The first is ‘standing up for’, as a lawyer, say, represents a client. The second is ‘standing for’, as the part represents the whole. In the later sense the National Party excel. Their candidates typically have, and live, a strong ‘organic’, ‘grass-roots’ connection to their stronghold electorates. The sort of connection that Greens talk about ‘building’, is for the Nats a simple, obvious, historical fact.
As individuals, National candidates are generally, genuinely ‘of the people’. Their family names are often recognisably those of big or significant families or those with deep historical roots. Another part of this ‘standing for’ form representation is sharing the rural communities’ values.
National Party candidates express solidarity with rural values in rhetoric redolent with loyalty to the region and the old days, distrust of outsiders, trust of local knowledge and distrust of scientific experts, tough individualism.
As I read media releases and twitter feeds of some local National incumbents I’ve often been irritated by the near absence of policy issues and the focus on small town events and things. But celebrating small town events is a demonstration of being one of the people and in effect is saying that they understand and they’re listening. It is a legitimate part of democratic representation. Only a part; and I’d still maintain that the absence of policy is reprehensible, but it is a particularly important part of representation in rural areas.
The very fact of being a critic, in opposition, works against the electorate’s commitment to their towns, to loyalty and tradition. Outsiders being critical offends people and is resented. As a Greens candidate I’m in the dilemma of every newcomer to town; I’m an outsider without local knowledge, the ‘blow in’, the unknown, a risk, nobody knows if I’m trustworthy.
The National Party regularly characterise greenies as outsiders, ‘city people telling us what to do’, ‘extremists’ threatening ‘our way of life’ and ‘our values’. Frustratingly, if they use these rhetorical tropes effectively enough, they often avoid addressing an issue at all. The fact they’ve avoided the question goes unnoticed in a sea of heads nodding in agreement and murmured ‘ah ha’s.
It is difficult to draw the Nationals into a policy debate when dismissing their opposition is such a useful strategy for them.
I research my press releases carefully, but I know that because I’m the Greens candidate, much of what I say will be disregarded or distrusted by the majority of readers.
It doesn’t matter, for example, that Christine Milne’s ‘Our Food, Our Future’ agriculture policy was perhaps the most thoughtful, pro-farmer statement on the subject by anyone in last year’s Federal election.
When I attend a meeting about the threat of fracking in a small town, the meeting organisers invariably politely ask that our association should not be too close in case that undermines the main objective. A too close association with the Greens may mean some farmers will not attend meetings.
Some farmers are gob-smacked to hear the National Party have consistently voted for fracking and think it must be a little mistake that just needs to be cleared up. It isn’t about the issue it’s about suspicion and trust.
Trust is by its nature conditional. Trust is always earned, usually gradually.
The second thing the National Party gets right is that they are focused on local issues, local infrastructure and local businesses. These things matter to rural people as they’re going to have a direct impact on their quality of life. Policy changes and initiatives are more diffuse in their effects if they reach rural towns at all and if they do, are more likely to be ineffective or have unintended consequences.
Urban types take note: Rural people are parochial for sound empirical reasons.
This was always the Country Party’s strategy, to trade their independence for the privilege of being close to power and in this way influence policy and deliver services to rural areas. National Party influence on policy has diminished, however, as their electoral base has become smaller. To a lesser degree, so has the flow of services, as the seats they hold are all now very safe seats and electoral strategy has increasingly been to distribute services not according to need but according to marginality.
The money for businesses, community projects and infrastructure that does enter rural electorates through National Party lobbying is very much appreciated. From a distance it may look like a cynical exercise in vote buying but it’s much more.
These deliver to National candidates significant party promotion opportunities that speak to the electorate and demonstrate service to the community in a tangible way. Small amounts of funding and attention mean proportionately much more to an isolated rural community. The politician that provides these services has done something solid for the community, something they’ll see almost daily, use often and that becomes part of town history. These ‘small things’ matter. We dismiss them at our peril. To dismiss them is to dismiss the town, its’ people and their aspirations. It’s what small town people expect from city types. The problem for Greens candidates is to become part of the community and to demonstrate commitment and service. I think the answer is local council.
The story of Greens attaining office in Victoria starts with local government councillors. A few, then more, then some Mayors, then some senators. Many of Victoria’s senior Greens of today went through this process and have served as councillors. There are a lot of Greens in local councils in NSW. There’s much to recommend this as a strategy for the Greens in future but especially so in rural areas.
It’s not an unrealistic aspiration, unlike most State or Federal seats. Local council is an excellent training ground. In the process the candidate will have to develop a support base. It’s a good way to live our own rhetoric about being a grass-roots organisation, acting local and thinking global and there’s certainly no lack of issues at local Government level that could use a Green viewpoint.
As a whole of party strategy it could be a means to build professional capacity. What may be most important, however, is that if Greens obtain office in local councils it provides an opportunity to develop a relationship with the electorate and demonstrate a commitment to serving them.
Nothing builds trust like service and delivering services well requires a deep knowledge of the community. A focus on local government is appropriate to Greens philosophy in that it is ‘grass roots’, it is ‘the community’, acting local and thinking global, politics on a human scale.
Greens have a good record in local council. Once a Council has elected a Green member there is a strong statistical tendency for Greens to be elected to that council in the future. If it became apparent to rural communities that a Green in power doesn’t presage the collapse of civilisation, that what they do can be positive, that our policies are far from extreme, if the mythical stereotype was disproved, then we’d also remove from the hands of our detractors what has been their most powerful weapon.
It would be worth doing just to see what would happen to the National Party if they were forced to talk about policy.