By Grant Philpots

24 October, 2013

Margo: The highlight for me of my return to journalism so far has been @NoFibs Twitter-based citizen journo seat reports for the 2013 federal election, and a couple of our contributors want to keep keep reporting on the seat where they live. In this post Grant reflects on his journey in Labor’s safest seat, Gellibrand in preparation for the next phase of his reporting adventure.

I had time on my hands when I saw a tweet re-tweeted by someone that said that Margo Kingston was looking for citizen journalists to cover their local electorates. I tweeted her that I’d do Gellibrand, and after no response I sent another with the tag line of ‘I am not a nut case’ and we had a chat.

I have written before, but it was always in a humourous way, the kind of ‘yeah beer! boo government!’ sort of stuff. I am a huge fan of the US humourist PJ O’Rourke, and although I’ll never reach his standards, I’ve always liked to write.

I already knew that Gellibrand was to have quite a few candidates as I was following them on Twitter. Margo asked for a scene setter piece, so I packed my twin boys into the car for a tour of the electorate, taking photos as we went. They weren’t too interested and promptly fell asleep – somuch for the youth of today and politics.

I knew I didn’t want to do interviews as the local paper can do that. Mind you, that’s all they do in a safe seat. Having my kids with me meant I was a bit locked out of interviewing anyway, so I looked at other ways of interacting with the candidates. Twitter was excellent for this, and so too was simply looking at what they were posting online. Most of the candidates had Facebook profiles, so I easily found out contact details. A bit of time with Mr Google also provided help.

My idea was to look at the campaigns and some issues and comment on them and give insight into what was going on. It was up to me to build trust with the candidates, and I think I managed to do that. I’ve worked in stakeholder relations for a while, so know how to engage with most people. Having Margo’s name associated with what I was doing gave me instant bona fides, which was very handy.

I initially sent all the candidates I could find a letter of introduction explaining what I was doing. I had to chase them for answers, but they were all happy to be involved. For them, there would have been some scepticism of who I was, naturally, but again having Margo’s name attached broke down this a bit. It was unfortunate that I only got to speak to the Liberal candidate on the phone once and in person at the call of the card. Similarly, I only spoke to the Family First candidate via Twitter and email and the Christians Party candidate once. This basically left me with five candidates, really only four – ALP, Greens, Sex Party and PUP Palmer United.

To get the candidates out there I decided to run a forum. Nothing like this had been done in the electorate previously, at least not that former member Ralph Willis could remember in his 20 years as the MP.

It was a great pity that none of the local media turned up. I did send out invites to them, as well as every local MP and Councillor I could get details of. Local Council meetings were on the night as well, but one response from a local MP (Greens upper house) was it.

Two councillors indicated they wouldn’t be in attendance and one local paper as well, but they did promise to publicise the event, which encouraged a couple of people to come along. Maybe the local media didn’t bother because they didn’t organise it, or it wasn’t attached to a ’cause’. However, if I can organise one and get more than 20 people to attend and five of the seven candidates the ptoential is there for something bigger next time.

Being quoted in the local paper was a highlight me, partly because my honours supervisor was also quoted. Without No Fibs being quoted wouldn’t have happened, as I would have just been another blogger commenting on the election.

Mostly I ended up dealing with candidates from the ALP, Greens and Sex Party, because they were more open to what we were trying to do. Clearly the Libs were running a tactic of gagging all candidates, and the Christians were also low profile, Family First couldn’t attend the forum due to family reasons, and the PUP candidate started his campaign started late. However, he did call me up and tell me where Clive was going to be, but I couldn’t get there.

I was also aware that the candidates had a job to do, so I met with them when they were campaigning to be part of their day. Most people will see a candidate somewhere, but that’s it. Giving readers insight into what it was like doing what they are doing was what I wanted to achieve. All the candidates were generous with their time, which was a little surprising to me, as the ALP was always going to win Gellibrand.

My role was reporting the goings on and occasionally the great statements made by candidates. I hope I didn’t do this in a malicious manner, but somethings can’t be hidden. The Tweet from the Family First candidate about her parenting payment helping to pay for her children’s school fees would have to be one of the greatest tweets ever in a campaign.

Meeting the candidates certainly cemented who I was going to vote for. I don’t really like parties who make promises that will never be achieved. Being a fan of participatory democracy, I like the ‘more the merrier’. Which is fine, until things are said to get a cheap shot, or to promote something that will never happen. To met, this is a particularly low form of politics and does nothing but disenchant those who vote for them. And when challenged in future, something like ‘we tried, but couldn’t make it happen’ will be said. Smaller parties are doing this in order to get noticed, but that’s all it does, get them noticed. I would be very disappointed if I voted for a party based on a policy could never happen.

Submitting articles for editing was a frustration, but this is part of the process of journalism. I put what I thought were a few humourous lines into my writing to lighten things up, and these were often removed. One article was listed as I wrote it, and about 10 minutes later it was edited removing the humour. Having a personal point of view was also important to me, as many readers wouldn’t have had the experience that I got with the candidates, and sometimes this was also edited out. We are Citizen Journalists not journalists, so our points of view and slant of what’s going on should have been left in as long as it wasn’t hurtful, nasty or going to get the site into trouble.

The candidates would retweet the articles to their followers which was great. One candidate didn’t when I was a bit critical of some things that were said at the forum, but importantly he still spoke to me and invited me to his election night party.

I only attended two of these, the Greens and the ALP. I was going to write this up, but didn’t. The ALP event was a mixed event. Although they were happy to have the candidate elected, they lost government. Victorian ALP Senator, Stephen Conroy, was in attendance, the first time he was seen on the campaign trail. I don’t think anyone got a photo, but the previous two members for Gellibrand where there, Ralph Willis and Nicola Roxon, who between them have held the seat since 1978.

The Greens event was a bit more hyped. They were hoping to knock the Libs out of second place on first preferences, but this didn’t happen. They were also hoping to get a local Gellibrand resident, Janet Rice, elected into the Senate. This did happen. So the great seat of Gellibrand has two Senator residents now and will most likely have two Senator offices. Not many other seats can boast this. The local racists and nut jobs will be spoilt for choice when it comes to an outlet for their invective.

I did Tweet the new member for Gellibrand about what the process was now for him. I don’t know if once elected he gets the keys to the office, a new phone (his was pretty wrecked), a better laptop, and a vote in caucus. He didn’t get back to me, so I still don’t know, and neither would 80+{17ac88c265afb328fa89088ab635a2a63864fdefdd7caa0964376053e8ea14b3} of his electorate. Some sort of follow up article would be good and I know some of the other contributors are thinking the same thing. I will write something. Being on good terms with the candidates helps, and I am sure they would contribute to a follow up. Those candidates that I did have most contact with thanked me for my contribution to democracy in the local area.

Clearly the mainstream media don’t have the time to dedicate to covering election campaigns. They are interested in elections, not the campaign. My interest has always been in the campaign, what it is like to be on it, what the candidates do, who they are and what they are like. This is what I will focus on as it is what interests me.

The conversations with Margo I had were great and I appreciated Margo taking time out to talk to me. Something like a Google Hangout with the other contributors would be good going forward. The Facebook page for seat reporters was a great way of communicating.

My reasons for participating in the project was to put myself out there a bit after looking after the kids for the past 12 months – and to be part of the election. Mostly I wanted to meet those who want to represent me. The candidates are simply normal people who want to make a change. I might not agree with the changes they want to make, but they are doing more about it than me. Thanks must go to Margo, Tony and sub editor Julie Lambert for putting this together. It couldn’t have been easy working with us, and editing the wordy articles – this one excepted!

I’ve worked in MPs offices, and the number of thank yous you would receive would be outnumbered by requests by about 20 to one. It is a thankless job. Having to turn up to events on weekends, after hours and having to deal with the public and their myriad issues. Want a pay rise? Prepare for the whingers. The electors have no idea the hours that MPs put in. I’ve also been in Parliament House when it is sitting, and 12+ hour days are the norm. If you’ve been there, you also realise that Canberra is not the most exciting of places.

Being away from home for a good proportion of the year, working long hours for 11 months of the year, getting little to no thanks and having to deal with almost constant requests for your time and knowledge, it’s little wonder politicians of both persuasions turn grey.

Being an MP is not respected in Australia. I am surprised that they don’t become cynical and bitter. I’ve been called both these, and I’m not an MP. Maybe they are on the inside, but those I’ve met aren’t. How they avoid slipping into the Satre line of ‘L’enfer, c’est les autres’ when dealing with the racists and nut jobs is beyond me.

Many aren’t cut out for politics, but those who choose this life should be respected even if we don’t agree with them. Taking part in this project has helped me to cement that view.