Last night I was at Petersham Town Hall for a "Meet The Candidates" forum. Organised by the Marrickville Council for the first time, the five candidates for Grayndler were invited to put their cases to the public and answer questions from the floor.
Sitting member Anthony Albanese (ALP), Philip Myers of The Greens and Sue Johnson (Socialist Alliance) were present. Jen Harrison of the Democrats and Stephanie Kokkolis of the Liberal Party didn't attend. Marrickville mayor Morris Hanna (Independent) chaired the forum. About a hundred people were present, mostly middle-aged. The non-appearance of the Liberal Party gave the forum a decidedly left-wing skew, but in this part of the world that reflects the demographics. Not being a regular at political meetings I only recognised a handful of people in the audience, the ABC's Antony Green being one of them.
Each of the candidates gave opening addresses to the forum (in order, Albanese, Johnson and Myers) before questions, or in some cases, rambling rants, were taken from the floor. Closing addresses were given before the meeting closed after two and a quarter hours at 9.15pm.
Albanese, the rough-and-tumble Labor careerist was, in my view, the best performer on display. A seasoned politician and a member of the left-wing of the most right-wing of the parties on display last night, he copped a lot of flak from the floor over ALP policies, especially their stance on same-sex marriage and Senate preferencing. Although not making it explicit, it was clear that there were occasions when he was defending a party line that he personally opposed. In many ways he resembles a young Arthur Calwell, though he'd probably prefer the parallel with one of his predecessors as member for Grayndler, the great Fred ("Give us this day our Daly Fred") Daly.
Sue Johnson is another who impressed personally. A frequent candidate for local, state and federal elections and a union delegate, she appears comfortable with the fact that she will get one or two percent of the vote every time. She spoke of the Socialist Alliance's grassroots activism, especially their campaigns against mandatory detention and the war in Iraq. She accepts the prospect of a Latham Labor government as a better alternative than Howard, but believes that voting for her party will help put pressure on the ALP to deliver the type of government that the voters want.
Myers had the most support from the audience at the start of the evening, and delivered his prepared opening address with a deep theatrical baritone that belied his tall, thin appearance. He was less convincing when it came to question time, appearing unconvincing and "me-tooish" about some policies. He felt the pressure most in discussions of the abolition of ATSIC and of the location for a second Sydney airport.
Going through some of the issues discussed during the evening:
The Greens and Socialist Alliance both oppose tax cuts, indicating a preference to using the surplus to improve public services.
Labor supports consideration of a second Sydney airport in the vicinity of Wilton in the Southern Highlands. The Greens want Mascot airport closed, but have no preference for a location for a new airport - a stance ridiculed by Albanese. "I guess you could parachute into Sydney without an airport, but how would you fly out?" As was disclosed later in the evening, Wilton falls in the electorate of Cunningham, currently held by the only Greens member of the lower house, Michael Organ. Myers: "Well naturally Michael Organ will oppose an airport in his own electorate." The acronym NIMBY featured in Albanese's response. Socialist Alliance also wants a second airport but does not advocate a location. A gentleman from the floor asked about the impact of the Airbus 380 on facilities at Sydney Airport. None of the candidates were aware of the capabilites of the A380 (big enough to seat up to 1000 passengers). All oppose further expansion at Mascot.
Free tertiary education, introduced by Whitlam and withdrawn by Hawke. Greens and SA both advocate its return, Albanese promised the reversal of the HECS increase, the provision of extra University places, and opposing the "privatisation" of TAFE. He avoided addressing the matter of free education.
I heard someone in the audience say "it would be interesting to know if Albanese was the beneficiary of free tertiary education". We didn't find out. Born in 1963, I reckon he was...
Free public health insurance. The Greens and Socialist Alliance say yes. For Labor it's not so simple, but they will, as Albanese says, "re-establish the importance of Medicare".
Indigenous sovereignty and full compensation for past injustices. While skirting the question, Albanese said "white folk have a lot to answer for", that Labor will "endeavour to address Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues", and re-stated the importance of Paul Keating's 1992 Redfern Park speech.
All three supported an official apology to Aborigines. Greens and Socialist Alliance opposed the abolition of ATSIC without the establishment of an alternative. Linda Burney, state member for Canterbury and the only Aboriginal in NSW parliament, spoke emotionally from the floor about the failure of ATSIC. Albanese said that its abolition was supported by most of the indigenous community. Burney also spoke in passing of her concern that Aden Ridgeway would lose his senate seat at the election - a prospect that appears almost certain, given the way preferences between the minor parties are expected to flow.
On the question of preferences, Albanese copped flak over the ALP's decision to give one-third of its preferences to Fred Nile ahead of The Greens. Albo, in a "it's nothing to do with me" fashion, said that he is second preferencing The Greens in Grayndler and putting the Liberals last.
I had a look at the very complicated Senate Group Voting Ticket booklet on the AEC website this morning. For two-third of their preferences, the ALP have the Greens at 12-17, and the Christian Democrats at 33-37. For the remaining third, it's weirder. The lower-placed Greens on the ticket are 44-48, then 49-50 for the two minor Democrats, 51 Fred Nile, 52 John Kaye (Greens #1), 53 Aden Ridgeway (Democrats #1), rest of the Christian Democrats 54-57. It's all hypothetical in my opinion. Keep your eye on Liberals for Forests, who the ALP have at 8 and 9 and are high on the preference lists of most parties.
Albo couldn't help himself in having a go at The Greens over preferences, saying that Kerry Nettle was elected to the Senate in 2001 "on One Nation preferences".
Preservation of Tasmanian old-growth forests, a central cause celebre of the Greens, and supported by the Socialist Alliance. Albanese said "watch the campaign launch on Sky Channel at 12.oo tomorrow" (it's actually on Sky News at 1) and said, as he did several times through the evening, that only major parties in government can make genuine change. Make of that what you will.
On the question of mandatory detention, The Greens support a maximum of fourteen days in hostels while applications are being processed. Albanese stood by his personal record as a founding member of "Labor for Refugees" and said that a Labor government would process "90 per cent of refugee applications within 90 days".
One of the more entertaining moments of the evening came later on when a gentleman asked what Labor would do about the political prison being built on Easter Island. Albanese: "I think you mean Christmas Island, and it's a refugee processing centre", being built there because it is close to Indonesia, closer in fact than to Australia. "No it's not" said gentleman from the floor. "Yes it is" said Albanese.
The man was right, of course. Easter Island is nowhere near Indonesia...
Policies for assistance to people with disabilities. Labor and The Greens have some, Democrats, Liberals and Socialist Alliance have none. Sue Johnson said that she would look into that and rectify the SA's disability policy.
Same-sex marriage. The battleground we were all waiting for last night. Greens and Socialist Alliance are in favour of legalising same-sex marriage. (Myers, although it was not mentioned last night, is openly gay - this was stated in a Greens press release a couple of weeks ago.) Albanese said that Labor would give gay/lesbian/bi/trans/intersexual couples all the same rights as heterosexual defacto couples. That is, everything, except legal marriage.
Albanese spoke of how he had tried to get a bill into Parliament giving same-sex couples equal superannuation rights. He said that Labor will conduct an audit of all Commonwealth legislation once elected, to eliminate all discriminatory provisions. He said that not one person had approached him about legalising same-sex marriage before the issue came up in parliament.
After Sue Johnson pointed out that Mark Latham had been critical of the ABC for depicting a lesbian couple on Play School, Albanese said that Latham had testified in court as a character witness for John Marsden. I think this was meant to demonstrate that Latham is not a homophobe.
Anthony Albanese defending Mark Latham. Amazing. That's politics for you.
Quote of the day from AA: "I don't know any gay or lesbian couples who want to get married."
Overseas aid. All agreed that Australia's contribution, as one of the world's richest countries, was pitiful. Labor pledges to raise the level of foreign aid to the international benchmark of 0.7% of GDP. Philip Myers was unaware of the benchmark, when told what it was said "Yes we'll give 0.7% of GDP too."
Industrial relations. Greens and SA support repeal of secondary boycott provisions. Albanese discussed IR policy without answering the question.
Albanese stressed the importance of engagement with Asia, as begun by Paul Keating, and ridiculed Howard/Downer's "pre-emptive" strike proclamations. He invited everyone to read page three of this week's "Inner-Western Courier", which features a visit to the electorate by shadow foreign minister and Mandarin-proficient Kevin Rudd.
As the Labor Party bovver boys in their luminous orange shirts and baseball caps became more vocal and obnoxious, the highlight of the evening above all else came when Greens MLC and former Marrickville deputy mayor Sylvia Hale took the microphone to ask Albanese a question. We never did get to hear the question. After five minutes of preamble which seemed to have more to do with State ALP matters, Hale uttered the words "Carmel Tebbutt". Albanese sprang up, outraged, and said "I will answer questions about federal politics but I will not answer questions about my family". This is despite the fact that Ms Tebbutt, AKA Mrs Albanese, is a member of the State upper house and a minister in Bob Carr's state government.
Before Hale could resume her soapbox, Mayor Hanna ruled her out of order for talking about state politics and taking too long to ask a question, and asked for the next person to take the microphone. Morris Hanna applying the gag to Sylvia Hale. I bet he would have loved to have done that when they were on Marrickville Council together.
In closing statements, Johnson acknowledged that a vote for the Socialist Alliance would filter to The Greens and then to the ALP, and that a Latham Labor government would be better than the Howard government. But a vote for the SA would send a message to the Labor Party about the style of government the voters want.
Albanese spoke of how "only the major parties can form government". Absurdly, he went on to invoke the name of Ralph Nader, repeating the fallacy that votes for Nader cost Al Gore the 2000 US Presidential election. Apart from the totally different electoral system in the US (ie, no preferences), it was the millions of people who could have voted, but didn't, who could have given Gore the presidency.
For all that was said and done through the evening, I still score Anthony Albanese as the candidate I will be voting for on October 9. Though I have misgivings about the Australian Labor Party which I have supported in every federal election since 1977, I believe that Albanese as an individual is a very good politician and shadow minister, and one of the more progressive members of the parliamentary ALP. I believe he would make a good deputy Prime Minister some day.
There were a few things not covered. No one talked about just when the troops should come home from Iraq, no one mentioned Israel and Palestine, or Darfur, or Nauru. No one mentioned childcare, or mature age employment services (and I blame myself for not getting into the long queue and asking about that one). But a worthwhile evening, and full credit to Marrickville Council for putting it on. But, oh for a right-wing voice or two to provide some comic relief...