“Old people arrive early,” I am fond of saying to my wife as she persists in the view that it takes at least 20 minutes longer to get anywhere than Google Maps says. As I approach my eighth decade on this planet, I am determined that I should not be taken to be an old person and therefore do my best to arrive to things on time. I was challenged, therefore, when my illustrious editor cautioned me to arrive at the Meet the Candidates Forum at 1830 for a 1900 start. “What am I going to do for 30 minutes?” I asked. “Perhaps nothing,” he replied, “but you will at least get a seat.”
As it happened, he was right. We arrived at just after 1830 to find the Kyla Hall awash will people who reflected pretty accurately the demographic of this part of the Gilmore electorate. That is, old people. All early. My point exactly. I took up a position that I felt would afford me the best view of the candidates and was immediately approached by the Labor candidate, Fiona Phillips, clad appropriately enough in a bright red jacket. She knows how to work a room does this woman. Not like the other candidates it has to be said; inasmuch as I recognised any of them they seemed either not to have arrived or to be talking to acolytes. Perhaps I am wrong.
Playing to a packed hall
I knew that by coming to this Meet the Candidates Forum that I was sacrificing a couple of hours of my life that I would never get back. On the other hand, I could have watched the leaders’ debate or Q&A. Judging by this morning’s press reports I would have still be down a couple of hours of my existence. But I had wanted to come along and see real candidates in action and I was interested to see whether (a) they would answer any questions and (b) whether they would say anything positive. I have to say, and I am unanimous in this view (though you may not be) that the field is not very impressive although two candidates stood out from the pack in terms of their ability to string two words together and to create the impression that they might just represent the constituency they would be elected to represent. One or two of the others seemed only to expect to represent themselves.
The Tuross Head Progress Association performed a great public service by organising this event and attracting 6 of the 7 candidates. But the format restricted somewhat the flow of the event. The questions had been created by some mysterious process by the organisers of the event, The Tuross Head Progress Association. The questions are here so I will not repeat them here other than to say that they were about hospitals and health, the Princes Highway, the protection of waterways, and electric vehicles. There were also some questions from the floor including one about whether we needed a Federal integrity commission that was asked by a self-described “grumpy old man” who perhaps represented, demographically, close to half of the audience.
If a criterion for successful political life is that one should be able to talk endlessly and uninspiringly about anything, whether related to the question or not, then each of candidates would pass. The Nationals candidate, Katrina Hodgkinson, vied for the prize for worst performance. The audience left her in no doubt that simply knocking off Labor wasn’t working for them. In that, she underestimated the intelligence of her audience and she continued to do so by spruiking herself rather than the people that she might represent. Warren Mundine, however, was a fierce contender for the worst performance prize. The job of a constituency MP is to represent the constituency and to do this he or she needs to demonstrate a grasp of local issues. Mundine came across as a Liberal party hack trotting out Morrison platitudes. If the Liberal party has a message, he didn’t get it across. I care not that Mundine has crossed the floor on one occasion; Churchill did that twice and still managed to be a great leader. Mundine betrayed his lack of appreciation of the environment when he said “we’ve got plenty of water in this country to actually do things.” I am not sure what he meant by this.
Neither Carmel McCallum, for the Greens, nor Milton Leslight, who is the candidate for the United Australia Party, were contenders for the worst performance prize but neither were they at the top of the heap. Carmel McCallum is a one trick pony. Admittedly that one trick is climate change which is, in my view at least (and I am writing this), as Greta Thunberg might say, the greatest challenge that we face. On this she is passionate rather than logical but she gave a compelling message. Unfortunately political life is not a one lane highway and she was weaker on the other issues raised and especially under-prepared on health. I thought I could see an economic rationalist, almost of the Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan variety in Milton Leslight. I thought I could see it but I couldn’t quite. He seemed to be arguing the case that one needed a plan and then one should stick to it. He seemed to be arguing that budgets should be set and then we should measure results against the budget. He seemed to be arguing that government is a business like any other. But then he compromised himself by suggesting that water pricing was all about profit. I am not sure that he can have it both ways. But he did say, with amazing discernment, that “water is essential.” Quite so.
Both Grant Schultz (independent, but actually a displaced Liberal) and Fiona Phillips (Labor) were well-prepared and demonstrated that they understood the locality and its issues. Phillips was strong on health and social issues and Schultz strong on the economic opportunities that would arise from better communications (in terms of the Princes Highway). These two spoke to their audience, and attempted to engage with and relate to them. Phillips was commendably brief when the answer was a simple “yes”. I now know that Schultz is a fisherman; he was less inclined to brevity. Either of these would be a solid and reliable MP, which might be the worst job in the world but someone has to do it. Based on the evening’s performances, and in looking for a local member, it’s down to these two.
A Tuross audience is polite and well-mannered and it was difficult to tell whether the audience favoured any one candidate over any other. The audience clapped everyone equally. Two policemen had been assigned to secure the event from unwanted activity. On way out I remarked to them, cheerily, “Busy night, then?” “Mate,” one replied, “we’ve been run off our feet.” A political meeting like they used to be; lots of clapping, some groaning, a lot of hot air and boring platitudes. No votes were bought or sold and everyone went home in one piece though whether they went home any the wiser would be harder to say.