By Jack Sumner
28 July 2013
The worldwide popularity of political dramas Borgen, House of Cards and West Wing relies upon discerning audiences relating to their storylines. The plot outlined below would severely test the credulousness of any viewers.
A prime minister, dumped by his party after he ended its 11 years in opposition, is reinstated three years later and immediately turns certain electoral defeat into an outside chance of retaining government. A successful Australian businessman living in China with his family for eight years gets a phone call from the PM asking him, in Mandarin, to return to contest a seat held comfortably by the opposition. Within a day, the businessman agrees; within a week, with his wife and three young children, he’s back home installed as a candidate and the centre of media attention.
The story is true and Friday’s ABC Lateline presented it very well.
Labor may have a candidate from “central casting”, but he faces a worthy foe. Labor supporters might snigger at Liberal John Alexander’s mission to bring ping-pong to Bennelong, but he has worked hard in the interests of his electorate. “John Alexander is a strong local member,” Eastwood Plaza shopping centre owner Brad Chan told me.
The Liberals have a considerable war chest and the advantage of incumbency. Well-planted corflutes and blue-shirted support teams are already a common sight and will bloom further as the campaign gets under way. Three years as MP will have given Alexander’s office detailed knowledge of the electorate. The Liberals’ “Feedback” database system will have information on voters’ ages, occupations, ethnicity and interests, enabling direct mail and other communication to be well targeted.
To get a better understanding of how Jason Yat-sen Li and Labor might challenge the strong Liberal position, I was able through the good offices of campaign director Amy Smith and media officer Sam Matilla to spend some time with Jason on Friday afternoon. The campaign office on Rowe Street, Eastwood, had opened only that day. The handful of volunteers outnumbered the chairs available. As I waited, Jason’s father, George, introduced himself and soon confirmed his son wouldn’t have a better, more enthusiastic supporter.
In my conversation with Jason, I didn’t ask all the questions I planned, the most important omission being: “When did you join the Labor Party?” However, I established that while Jason had no immediate plans to enter politics before Kevin Rudd’s call, his experience with the Republic campaign and with the Unity Party made it a likely career development. He made the decision quickly, but only after discussion with family and friends.
Now, sitting in the campaign office with a clearer idea of the work ahead, he was feeling a little daunted but hugely excited by the challenge. Jason had read The Battle for Bennelong and recognised the similarities and differences between his and Maxine McKew’s candidacies. He had less time but, like Maxine in her successful bid to wrest the seat from John Howard, he could expect the help of a considerable support team. He anticipated the campaign would rely on tried and tested tactics to engage voters, but no priorities for policy focus had yet been determined.
In eight years living in China, he had kept in close touch with economic and social developments back home and felt no disadvantage or concern about his familiarity with the government’s policies. Jason would be very keen to engage John Alexander in a formal debate.
My early impressions are that Labor is indeed fortunate to have Jason as their candidate. Introducing an ABC Australian Story in 2000, former Nationals leader and Constitutional Convention chairman Ian Sinclair said, ” One of the more outstanding of those young delegates was Jason Yat-Sen Li. Jason showed passion and commitment, intelligence and a good sense of humour and actually contributed to the compromises essential if we’re going to have an Australian republic. Jason to my mind is a great young Australian and you’re about to see his story.”
Jason will not lack support in numbers. Evidence of that could be seen on Saturday as a young and enthusiastic team handed out balloons in Eastwood Plaza. I would suggest an effective campaign might also need a few battle- hardened hands with experience in setting priorities and handling scarce resources. The question being how many of such hands can be spared from campaigns in NSW seats that need to be saved. Anthony Albanese did a street walk with Jason on Saturday and it can be expected that the campaign will not lack support of high-profile Labor figures.
Time is not on Jason’s side. The opposition is ready. Labor isn’t yet. Triage will be needed. What gets priority treatment could be a “life or death” decision. Opposite Labor’s campaign office is Eastwood Primary School – maybe there’s a clue.
Businessman Brad Chan said: ”To select Jason Li was a smart move, but it’s important that he doesn’t take the non-Asian vote for granted.”
Jason’s willingness to debate John Alexander could provide him with a competitive advantage. Aaron Sorkin would have been hard pressed to script the start of this story. We can only look forward to the next episodes.