Matthew da Silva

Matthew da Silva

Citizen journalist at No Fibs
Matthew da Silva is a writer and journalist working in Sydney. He has two Arts degrees and worked for almost a decade in Japan, where his children live. He has run the Happy Antipodean blog since 2006.
Matthew da Silva

kerryn phelps

Grassroots activism is reshaping the House of Representatives as Australian communities discover a talent for winning elections in notionally conservative seats. But the candidate must suit the electorate.

Independent Cathy McGowan won the seat of Indi, in rural Victoria, in 2013 taking it away from the Liberal Party’s Sophie Mirabella. In 2016 in South Australia, Rebekah Sharkie of the Nick Xenophon Team won the seat of Mayo. She was forced to resign from her seat as a result of the eligibility crisis – where MPs with links to other countries were found in some cases by the High Court to be ineligible to sit in Parliament due to their holding citizenship of another country – but won a by-election in July 2018 to return to the seat as part of what is now named the Centre Alliance (the NXT had been disbanded). In both cases, the seat in question had been considered a bastion of the Liberal Party. In the case of Indi, the seat had been held by a conservative party for all but nine years since Federation, and without interruption since 1931. In the case of Mayo, Sharkie became the first non-Liberal member to represent the electorate.

What is also true of both women is that they had strong track records in politics and links to the Liberal Party. McGowan had worked for Liberal politician Ewen Cameron in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Sharkie had worked for South Australian state Liberal MP Rachel Sanderson and later considered running as the Liberal candidate in the seat of Shubert in the 2014 state election but decided against it. On top of this type of involvement in public life, both women had worked in other roles in civil society. McGowan was a regional councillor for the Victorian Farmers’ Federation and is a former President of Australian Women in Agriculture. Sharkie had handed out how-to-vote cards for Australian Democrats Janine Haines when she was studying at university, and later was appointed the national executive officer of a not-for-profit. When that role ended, she became a manager at another not-for-profit.

So here we have elections in 2013 in Victoria and in 2016 in South Australia. Now, with the result in the Wentworth by-election in October looking to be strongly in favour of Kerryn Phelps winning the seat, we have another example of a grassroots campaign throwing up a strong candidate with conservative credentials to take the seat away from the Liberal Party.

Phelps differs from the two women whose careers have been sketched above in that she had no substantive connection with the Liberal Party. Instead, she became a City of Sydney councillor in 2016 as a part of the Clover Moore Team but resigned from it after falling out with the lord mayor. She was the deputy lord mayor but resigned from that role in the middle of 2017. As for her participation in civil society, Phelps was elected president of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Medical Association in 1999. The following year she was elected federal president of the AMA. In 2011,in view of her service with the AMA and in consideration of her efforts to promote good health (notably on TV in the 1980s and 1990s) she was appointed a member of the Order of Australia. She is also a professor at the National Institute of Complementary Medicine at the Western Sydney University.

She is an economic dry, being in favour of tax relief for small business and of regulations that favour entrepreneurship. Her positions on other issues, notably climate change and the fate of refugees held on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and on Nauru, have attracted more publicity, but the fact that Phelps supports private enterprise was as big a factor in her electoral success as either of these “soft” issues.

At 3.40pm on the afternoon of the election, Paul Colgan, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Business Insider Australia, tweeted, “All these people who like their martinis stirred rather than shaken coming out of the woodwork now. Fitting, given it’s #WentworthVotes today.” The comment was a reference to the positions on economic issues that had been voiced by Phelps. In most elections, the ALP is the primary candidate against the Liberals, but in this election, because of the high net wealth of the average voter in the division, the ALP candidate was not considered a likely contender, although his preferences ultimately went to Phelps, helping her to gain a lead against the Liberal candidate, Dave Sharma.But the dry tone of Colgan’s comment was particularly germane, I thought as I watched the events of the day unfold on Twitter. He had put his finger on a major component of Phelps’ appeal to Wentworth voters and he had done it in a way that borrowed some of the cachet that the area possesses in the national consciousness.

To understand Wentworth you can do worse than going back to take a look at Malcolm Turnbull’s majority of almost 18 percent. On 26 June this year, at 5.12pm, Stephen Koukoulas, managing director at private research firm Market Economics, highlighted the nature of the beast when he tweeted, “The business acumen & success of Mr Turnbull is truely [sic] admirable. Good on him! He has personal wealth of $250 – $300 million, which means a moderate 6{17ac88c265afb328fa89088ab635a2a63864fdefdd7caa0964376053e8ea14b3} return on investments gives an annual income around $15 million (before tax). He clearly is in not in politics for the money.”

Turnbull is nothing if not a self-made man, although he did inherit a small sum of money from his father, but he’s also a bit different in style from other right-wing warriors like Abbott. Turnbull at least refuses to hide his roots, unlike Abbott who bungs-on a fake ocker accent in order to appeal to the voters of western Sydney.

On the green slopes surrounding the harbour

Turnbull grew up in Vaucluse, which sits in what had been his electorate, and went to Sydney Grammar School. His mother left home when he was nine years old. His father’s apartment, a two-bedroom unit in a typical red-brick block of flats, was about 200 metres up the road from the gift shop my mother and grandmother ran from the time my family relocated from Melbourne in 1962 until the mid-90s when they closed it due to competition from Bondi Junction department stores. Around the corner from his apartment block was Vaucluse High School, a state school that has now been demolished to make way for residential units for the elderly. Across the road from this is the old cemetery and a few streets further east are the cliffs and the ocean, an unbroken field of water, corrugated here by swells propelled by predominantly north-easterly breezes, that stretches all the way to Chile.

Out the front of the apartment block is Vaucluse Bowling Club, where older residents still play games against a backdrop with at its centre the rugged, leafy flanks of the headland where exclusive Mosman sits nestled amid the olive green of the eucalypts. The slopes running down the hill from the bowling club to the eastern shore of the harbour are covered in streets and houses. I lived in one of them, on a blip in the coastline called Gibson’s Beach where the pilot boat used to berth in the days when docks in Sydney Harbour were still a destination for container vessels transporting goods from all over the world. The pilot boat would go out to the heads at all hours of the day and night to guide ships into the harbour. When it returned to its jetty, from my bedroom at the front of the house I could hear the rhythmic soughing of the waves as they restlessly brushed up against the sand.

At the bottom of the garden dad kept his boat. I had mine there too. We would go out in our boats on weekends to race. I sailed my boat in the school competition at Cranbrook, where I had first been enrolled in primary school. Dad raced out of the Vaucluse Yacht Club in Watsons Bay. I loved sailing but I was also good at languages and for the HSC in my final year I got 137 out of 150 in French. I had wanted to drop French and do art, because I was good at drawing as well, but dad had other ideas. I still remember the phone call I made at the time to him as he sat in his office in Waterloo. It was a big office with an en-suite and a desk with armchairs in front of it where people he would meet with sat to talk with him. His secretary was stationed at a desk in an outer foyer behind a glass door in the hallway. The rooms were carpeted with dull blue carpet squares. On the day I called him about dropping French he was firm but calm. Very firm. Very calm.

For dad, going to university was mandatory. He had grown up in poverty in suburban Melbourne and his father, a migrant from Africa, spoke broken English. His mother, Phyllis, had had a child out of wedlock in obscure circumstances. She had been working as a governess in Adelaide, where she had been raised by her grandmother after her mother had died in childbirth, in Sydney, and then she had gone missing one day. There is a record of a report by her family to the Adelaide police. Next thing anyone knew she was living in Melbourne in a boarding house with an infant and no husband. My cousin thinks that my grandfather Joao Luis met Phyllis in the boarding house and, wanting to stay in the country, agreed to marry her and adopt the child as his own. On his daughter’s birth certificate his name is written in the field reserved for the father’s name. Dad never knew any of this.

He left school at 14 because he didn’t like the way he was treated by a teacher and became a carpenter’s apprentice working on building sites. He travelled north to visit his grandfather in Sydney one year when he was 16 and, inspired by youthful animal spirits, dived into the Parramatta River at Gladesville, hit a submerged rock with his head and failed to surface. He was rescued but then went to hospital as he had broken his neck. He spent a couple of years in a brace that covered the whole of his upper body and when he was finally released from this confinement he went back to night school to finish his secondary education. He had been working as a draughtsman and his boss had suggested he become an engineer, which he proceeded to do. He married my mother in 1955.

Education was always an integral part of his life, and through proximity he had come to despise the know-nothing boofheads he found on building sites who had tormented him, just like the street urchins had tormented him because of his name when he had been a boy. He always hated Ginger Meggs. As a young man he loved Beethoven. My inclination toward the arts was fine by him as long as I graduated from uni.

Cranbrook always valued the arts and we had inspiring teachers in the art rooms where there was a fully-functioning kiln so that boys could use their hands to mould objects out of sticky, damp, brown clay that could be fired until they were hard enough to take home to show to adoring parents. The school also had no entry test, unlike the more exclusive Sydney Grammar School.

When I was growing up a coarse piece of doggerel circulated on the buses and trains we boys caught home from school: “Get a woman if you can, if you can, but if you can’t get a woman get a Cranbrook man.” We hated this slur on our honour, which was particularly loathsome as none of us had had any say in the decision that had led to us attending the school, but looking back I now hold it up as a point of pride because it showed that the school’s emphasis on the “whole man” was as foresighted as it was fun. I had friends who lived in nearby Paddington, including Barnaby, the son of the painter Charles Blackman. I would go and stay the night at his house on a dark, leafy street laid out east-to-west and when we felt inclined we could go up the road to a park and play at being NRL footballers. We tackled and passed the ball and feinted passes like the pros we wanted to be like, all the while delivering a running commentary of the performance out of our mouths for our own enjoyment. Another friend, David, lived with his mother and sister in a terrace house further down the hill. His father had been a cricketer for Sri Lanka and David was very gifted at sports. On some Friday nights if I stayed over, David and I would go to a local community centre where pool tables were set up for local kids to use and the stereo played the Bee Gees loudly. Stayin’ alive!

The eastern suburbs had other things that distinguished it from the sterile, conformist north shore, Abbott’s heartland, that we loved to hate. Jews lived in the east, in houses on streets stretching from Bondi and Dover Heights to Rose Bay and Vaucluse. They had the Hakoah Club in Bondi for socialising and a synagogue where they could walk on Saturday mornings to pray and listen to their rabbi. In Double Bay there were cafes with tables where people could easily go and find people they knew to talk with, or to make appointments to meet with friends.

In mum’s gift shop where I worked most holidays for pocket money doing routine things like wrapping gifts, making change, putting new stock away on the storage shelves out back, and serving customers, the two women in my family had their regulars who would come in for a chat during the week when they had free time. They considered these women to be their friends. When mum got home and it had been her week to work in the shop, and when the family was sitting around the dinner table in the evening, with mum at the north end of the table, dad at the south end and my brother at the west side (with me at the east side) she would tell us what they had been up to, who had fallen out with whom, and who had come in that day. Just gossip. Out the big front windows behind mum’s chair you could see the pilot station and the beach, with the rest of the small village strung out behind it along the echoing shore.

The shop itself was on the corner of the suggestively-named Petrarch Avenue, a short street that connects New South Head Road and Hopetoun Avenue, two long roads that lead to South Head. I don’t know who chose the name of the street but the name of the suburb, Vaucluse, is also redolent with meaning for those versed in western civilisation, for it was in the southern French region with that name that, living with the exiled papal court in the later Middle Ages, the poet Francesco Petrarca (1304 to 1374) had written the love sonnets he is still famous for today. William Charles Wentworth (1790 to 1872), on whose land the suburb was ultimately built, and whose name was adopted for the federal division Turnbull represented in the Parliament in Canberra, was a colonial humanist and statesman, and his mother had been a convict. He gave the area its name because of the importance of the poet to western culture. Petrarch was notable because for the first time a major literary practitioner had written exclusively in the vernacular, in Italian, eschewing the distant Latin of the academy and the Church, a language removed from ordinary people by the formidable barriers set up by university education and the money that it cost to attain.

Civil society provides an answer to stale party politics

So when Turnbull enthusiastically supported the “Yes” position in the same-sex marriage plebiscite, it was entirely unremarkable for me. Likewise, it was unremarkable for me the other day as I was watching the by-election unfold, when Liberal MP Craig Laundy, who was in the area on the day, tweeted at 9.29am, “Bloke pulls up at a polling booth in a black BMW X5, gets out & and puts up a @GetUp sign …..”Phelps’ progressive stance on social issues is all of a piece with the profile of Wentworth, and the fact that she did best in the oceanside polling booths (Bondi, Bronte) and in the booths in Darlinghurst and Paddington, attests to the fact that although people who live there might be economic dries they are progressives when it comes to social issues.

Civil society is everywhere all the time even though we don’t often pay much attention to it. There is not much money involved (no salaries, small budgets) so there are no commercials promoting volunteer firefighters in the bush, the bodies corporate that help run our apartment buildings, the parents’ and teachers’ groups that help schools to be the best places they can be, the football and cricket teams that form the superstructure for society in rural areas, or the residents’ action groups that protest against overdevelopment in suburban areas in our cities. But some jobs are just too big for one person to do alone. They require an articulated and general response that harnesses the talents of many individuals united by a common purpose. Civil society is where people get together and organise to do things together,and in the form of campaign teams it has been at the core of the success of the three women I talk about in this story. But the other prominent takeaway for me when I look at these success stories is that the people who were chosen to run in these elections were not only well-qualified for public office,their personal views matched the electorates they aspired to represent.

My title is an admittedly lame joke based on the name of arecent movie, ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’.At the March 2018 Academy Awards Frances McDormand won the best actress award and Sam Rockwell won the best supporting actor award for their work in the movie. It also points to suggestions that have been circulated about the electorate of Warringah, for which Tony Abbott is the federal member of Parliament. If smart, economically dry women can take Victoria’s Indi, South Australia’s Mayo and NSW’s Wentworth away from an ever-more polarised Liberal Party, where ideologically-pure neoliberals appear to be pitted in arunning battle against more moderate MPs, which other Liberal-held seats might be ripe for the taking by qualified independents?