It was the only local meeting that I managed to get to in the NSW election campaigns. I expected the usual rough and tumble, with plenty of fiery heckling and noisy interruptions. I was not prepared for the quiet forum that was almost as smoothly run as the television or radio debates. It is a sign of the times.
The venue in the electorate of Sydney was the neighbourhood Uniting Church, a fine old stone structure in Paddington from which all Christian images and crosses seem to have been stripped. (There remained a huge old organ which looked unused.) On the walls were rolls of honour from the two world wars, a large painting depicting suffering, and a notice greeting LGBTIQ refugees. A man of God welcomed the audience of about 50 and especially the four candidates – Liberal, Labor, Greens and the sitting Independent. (Christian Democrats and No Land Taxers were not represented.) He urged voters to put their trust in Jesus. He then handed the chair to a local Anglican minister who ruled that he would only accept questions from the floor that were submitted by SMS and were respectful. It all sounded like a write-off. In fact it worked well enough.
The four candidates were given ten minutes each and asked to be frank and open about their public and private lives. None explicitly acknowledged Jesus Christ although they all acknowledged the traditional Aboriginal owners of the land. They all supported progressive causes, differing in details. The sitting member, the Independent Alex Mitchell, was born in New Zealand of Russian and American parents (and speaks with a trace of a New Zealand accent.) He married his German husband in Argentina. He wants to ban greyhound racing and battery chicken farms. He had sponsored a Parliamentary apology to South Sea Islanders (‘kanakas’) for their treatment in Australia. He favours public housing and strong action on climate change. The Labor candidate, Edwina (‘Eddie’) Lloyd said the best thing that had happened to her in her life was being arrested nine years ago on a charge of dealing in cocaine. She is now a criminal lawyer who acts for addicts, refugees and the homeless (many of whom live in the bus shelters and parks of the electorate.) She wants to save public housing in Miller’s Point. The Greens candidate Chris Bentin, is a child of Italian and Croatian immigrants. He married his husband in Nevada. He has sold his car and now rides a bike. He favours light rail in Oxford street. He would restore the taxes abolished by the Coalition and convert the State Education Department’s head office into a city high school. The Liberal candidate Patrice Pandeleos, a child of Greek and Irish parents, favours part privatisation of poles and wires to finance more public assets like roads, schools and hospitals. She has worked for the Dogs and Cats Home in Sydney and for orangutans in Borneo. In 2011 she contested the seat of Heffron against Premier Keneally. She regrets, but supports, the sale of public housing in Miller’s Point – to finance more public housing in the state.
There was much commitment but little passion in the meeting, with only passing references to coal seam gas. There was some disagreement about the lock-outs of pubs and bars in Sydney. (A group sporting t-shirts with the slogan: ‘Lock-Outs Save Lives’ were silent throughout.) There were small differences on how to restore the old vibrancy of Oxford street. None of the candidates brought any pamphlets – deemed essential in the old days but now as dated as soapbox oratory on street-corners. They referred voters to their websites.
Meanwhile on the other side of the Harbour at the Centre for Independent Studies the NSW Treasurer, Andrew Constance, was warning his audience not to rely on Sportsbet in tipping a walkover ($1.05; $9.50) for the Coalition on 28 March. John Stone, former secretary of the Commonwealth Treasury and former Senator, asked a key question but got no real answer: why has the Coalition made no commitment to restoring federalism?
This had been one of Malcolm Fraser’s more liberal policies back in the 1970s before he became a leftie. He called it the ‘new federalism’. It has had little or no attention in the recent tributes. Yet it was the last serious attempt to renew federalism in Australia, to restore some income taxing power – and independence – to the states. As leader of the opposition in NSW at the time I welcomed the proposal and arranged a conference with Dick Hamer, premier of Victoria, to examine it. He was totally against it! He even insisted that I not breathe a word to the press that we had discussed it. Like the other premiers he much preferred to let the federal government take the odium of levying income tax while the states remained free to complain to high heaven about the share of it that they received back from the power-grabbing centralist Commonwealth. The new federalism collapsed. It was soon forgotten. An opportunity to restore a federalist balance was lost, probably forever. Is John Stone baying at the moon?
Neither of the ABC’s major current affairs programs – 7.30 and Lateline – saw fit to mention Lee Kuan Yew or acknowledge his historic achievements in Singapore – ranging from the defeat of communism in the Cold War to creating a spectacular and prosperous city state. Surely loyalty to the ABC staff member gaoled in 2008 on drug charges cannot explain such unprofessional ‘censorship’.
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