September 3, 2013
Gellibrand being the safest ALP seat in Australia, all we voters usually get is some articles in the local paper like this. It’s standard stuff: make a phone call and knock the photos off candidates’ websites. But I had seen a report on nofibs.com.au about a forum in Wentworth, so I got to thinking, if they can have one in a safe Liberal seat, why not here? And why can’t I organise it?
I’ve organised many events and know they all basically run to the same model: Get venue, Promote, Undertake. I contacted both our local councils about getting a room. One said they didn’t rent out rooms, and I am still waiting for a call back from the facilities officer at Hobsons Bay Council. I knew waiting would just string things out, so I contacted a local football club to see if they had a room. The Rocks is a new function centre in what used to be the old grandstand at Williamstown Football Club. Once I described the event, the club agreed to host the event for nothing.
Now it was time to Promote. The candidates were vital in this – their tweeting and promoting the forum no doubt helped to get some people along. I also sent emails to local MPs, federal and state (not surprisingly, none turned up), as well as councillors from the two council areas Gellibrand covers. The details were easy to find on the internet.
The local newspapers were also contacted, but only one of the three followed up and told me they would write up the event. Most of the papers came out the day the forum was held, making the timing tight for publicity.
The Family First candidate sent an apology because of family commitments, as did the Liberal Party candidate. To be honest, we haven’t seen much of the Family First candidate. A few tweets, an appearance on The Project and some Facebook posts is the extent of their campaigning. So, five of the seven candidates confirmed and we moved on to Undertake.
The structure was easy. Each candidate had five minutes to introduce themselves, before taking questions from the floor with two-minute answers, and then a three-minute closing statement. The starting time was 7pm and we were set to finish by 8.30pm.
When the candidates arrived, they picked envelopes containing numbers to determine the speaking order. As it turned out, Anthony O’Neil of the Australian Christians was late, so the Greens’ Rod Swift went first. Next were Tim Watts (ALP), Dwayne Singleton (Palmer United Party) and Allan Cashion (Sex Party).
Rod Swift started off by thanking the area’s traditional owners and spoke of the Greens’ commitment to improvements in health, public transport, transport more generally, education, clean energy and climate, and their wish to make real change. Rod also touched on some policies that had not yet been released or costed.
Anthony O’Neil gave a rundown on the Australian Christians, a party that is not necessarily Christian and not trying to get people to adopt the faith. Anthony also dropped the line of the night, if not the campaign, saying Labor Senator Penny Wong might be a great parent, but she’d never be a great dad. A belief in traditional marriage seems to be the main reason for the party being in existence.
I’m not married, but I do have three kids, and my partner and I have been together for over 17 years now. Years ago, we would have been singled out as being sinners and bringing down the ‘sanctity of marriage’ by living together and having kids outside of wedlock. Here’s the rub – no one really cares anymore that we aren’t married. Gay marriage will be the same. I have close gay friends who might want to get married. It is wrong that they can’t if they want to. If they want to have kids, good luck to them.
Tim Watts spoke of the federal Labor government’s achievements and said he wanted a fairer, more prosperous country. He addressed the issue of raising the tax-free threshold, saying it was something that has been forgotten about. He also spoke about infrastructure including the ALP’s $3 billion commitment to build the Metro Rail Tunnel. He discussed the Regional Rail Link and Labor’s investment in Toyota (which manufactures cars here in Gellibrand), which a Coalition government would not support, which might end Toyota’s manufacturing. Tim spoke very well, as I expected, knowing he has worked for Senator Stephen Conroy and also for Telstra.
Dwayne Singleton from the Palmer United Party (PUP) spoke of his links to the local area and about his father, who was well known in the Williamstown area. Dwayne had previously handed out material for the Australian Democrats and indicated he was a strong believer in third parties. He also spoke about people coming into the electorate and stressed that Tim Watts should be welcomed even though he was from outside the electorate, saying that is the spirit Gellibrand was built on. Dwayne tried to give a rundown on PUP policies, but he was beaten by the clock.
Allan Cashion told the forum the Sex Party was a party for small business, as that is where its founders came from. He said its policies included reform of the Business Activity Statement (BAS) system, drug law reform including an injection room and decriminalisation of some drugs so they could be treated as a health issue. The Sex Party also has a policy of ending tax-exempt status for religious organisations. Only a small party could run with this, and if their lead Senate candidate gets up, it could shake some ‘religions’ quite forcefully.
In questions from the floor, the Greens candidate was questioned quite hard on transport – including plans for funding of the Altona rail loop, a station at Caroline Springs, rail lines to Doncaster and Rowville and high-capacity signalling.
He indicated they would be in the Greens’ transport policy that was to be released during the week. However, only the Doncaster rail and high-capacity signalling are in that policy and they are commitments for part funding, which with a hostile state government are almost useless.
On asylum seekers, the candidates discussed policies for boat arrivals and those who arrive by plane, who gets to come and why, as well as refugee intake numbers. One candidate said ‘the life of someone on a boat is no less valuable than someone in a camp’. Changing demographics in Gellibrand and the arrival of many new immigrants means many people know former refugees and have an interest in their plight. One attendee said it was important not to forget the people in camps.
One audience member said he was going to vote for PUP, as Clive ‘had run a business before’, and the PUP lead Senate candidate for Victoria, Barry Michael, asked Dwayne to explain some policies. Clearly, at the PUP meeting the previous weekend in Queensland a lot of time went into swatting on policy.
Once questions were over, the candidates had three minutes to make a final pitch. It was the first forum held in the electorate – a fact confirmed by Ralph Willis, the MP for Gellibrand in 1972–1998, who was in the audience. For me, it was interesting to see the candidates on their feet. Sure, most of the questions were from apparatchiks from the various parties, who accounted for most of the 25 people in attendance. But if the candidates can’t stand a little heat then they shouldn’t be there.
In a safe seat the candidates really have nothing to lose by taking part. Those from smaller parties find it hard to get traction, and the incumbent can risk looking arrogant if they don’t turn up. Organising the forum was, for me, a chance to promote No Fibs, but more a chance for the candidates to be in a forum with each other and voters.
A number of people on the campaign here in Gellibrand have told me what I was doing as a citizen journalist was a worthy thing. They knew of nofibs.com.au and were impressed with Margo and her contribution to the polity over time. Having Margo’s name attached to what I was doing here in Gellibrand, not just with the forum, gave me credibility and ready established bona fides. No Fibs didn’t embolden me, but it opened up opportunities that I suspect might not have been available if I was just reporting on my own blog. I don’t know where I’ll be in three years, but I hope the idea of the Gellibrand forum continues. From my point of view, anything that allows voters to interact with those who want to represent them can never be a bad thing.
Find more Gellibrand seat reports here.