A two-month election campaign is a long time, and no doubt an exhausting one, but the audience at last night’s Richmond candidates forum at the Byron Theatre was clearly disappointed that Nationals candidate Matthew Fraser was unable to make it.
Mr Fraser called in sick yesterday afternoon, an understandable situation, but democracy is poorer when candidates, especially key ones, are not available to face the voters directly.
That left Russell Killarney of the Christian Democrats and Neil Smith of One Nation to represent the right wing of politics.
Just how far right became evident by some of their commitments: Mr Killarney wanted to take the fight up to some apparent plans to implement Sharia law.
To be fair, he did support full funding of Medicare and emergency services but seemed to have terrible trouble getting his mouth around the simple word ‘gay’.
One Nation’s Mr Smith, who described himself as ‘a retired engineer and a political virgin’, said he was running on ‘the inadequate penalties for criminals, the size of government borrowings, foreign aid, tax reform.’
‘Pauline’s a bit timid on tax reform. She wants to wait until she gets in until she does anything about it,’ he smilingly admitted.
During the debate Mr Smith was tripped up when he couldn’t nominate a figure or a percentage of GDP for Australia’s foreign aid, despite wanting to abolish it.
At the other end of the spectrum, from the ‘cuddly left’, was Angela Pollard of the Animal Justice Party.
Ms Pollard, who cut her political teeth on the marriage equality campaign, said that while her party ‘doesn’t have policies on everything’ its overarching criteria of compassion and coexistence would determine how she voted.
The format of the forum saw each of the candidates in turn asked a specific question by MC Phillip Frazer, followed by an opportunity for audience questions.
His first question was for the absent Mr Fraser and it was a doozie; he asked it anyway and left it to the audience to judge.
‘At your launch you said, “people are genuinely sick of people working for big business, bank and unions instead of ordinary folk like us”. How can you represent locals “like us” when the coalition you work for represents big business and overseas interests?’
Justine Vs Dawn
But with Mr Fraser absent, it was clear the interest in the room lay overwhelmingly with Labor’s Justine Elliot and her neck-and-neck rival, the Greens’ Dawn Walker.
Ms Elliot is a veteran campaigner and spoke cogently, needless to say, but she also showed a greater willingness to depart from the party line than in the past, especially on the issues of party donations from fossil fuel companies and the approval of new coal mines.
Fossil fuel donations
Mr Frazer’s question to her reflected just this concern among many would-be Labor voters. ‘Do you believe accepting money from fossil fuel companies would have any affect on ALP policies? Doesn’t taking their money encourage the idea that corporations have assumed the right of being financial backers of government systems?
Ms Elliot responded, ‘I agree with just about everything you’ve said. I’ve signed the 350.org pledge in my own campaign, [not to take donations] from CSG miners but don’t think they would approach me anyway.
‘My personal view is I don’t think there should be any form of donations like that across the political spectrum. I personally would like to see a system of public funding for elections. But I feel particularly strongly regarding my campaign and how it’s run, although I acknowledge that may be different to party policy,’ she said.
Each of the candidates were given a brief time to respond to the others’ questions and Ms Walker argued on this issue that, ‘the policy of the two older parties on climate change is weak and confusing.’
‘In one ear they’re listening to community but in other ear they have the fossil fuel industry speaking loudly through the hip pocket. For every $1 donated they get $2k back in subsidies. The Greens don’t receive one cent [in fossil fuel company donations], never will, never want to.’
Ms Walker also spoke persuasively about the emerging role of the Greens in the regions as well as the cities, including her colleagues in state parliament, Ballina MP Tamara Smith and MLC Jan Barham.
Senate voting system
Mr Frazer’s question to her was on the Greens siding with the coalition to pass changes to the Senate voting system weeks before the double dissolution.
‘The Sex Party’s lead NSW Senate candidate described reforms’ primary purpose as being “to wipe out smaller parties.” Do you think Greens under Richard Di Natale have announced themselves as “open for business” with the big deal he would like to make [being] a formal agreement with ALP to govern?’ he asked.
Ms Walker responded that she was ‘very proud a longstanding policy Greens has finally been seen to fruition.’
‘It’s about allowing people to choose who to vote for. In the lower house we’ve got a system where people do need to number every box. The Senate changes were taking that sort of idea to that massive long ballot paper that was becoming unwieldy – people are now able to number 1-6 instead of just 1 and then not knowing where those preferences were going. In many cases that vote was ending up not even close to the original voter’s intention in the ballot box,’ she said.
All candidates agreed that there was a great deal of confusion around the Senate voting rules both before and after the changes. The fact that they were implemented so close to the election was part of Ms Elliot’s objection.
‘The ALP thought it was unfair for the minor parties,’ she said. They are part of democratic process.’
She added the party also had concerns about the potential ‘high rate of exhaustion of votes.’
There’s still some confusion at the booths. The Libs think will be an advantage to them but I don’t think it’s democratic or fair,’ she said.
Some colourful questions came from the floor too.
Former Greens MLC Ian Cohen asked Ms Elliot, ‘Would you prefer coalition government rather than governing with the Greens?’ which leader Bill Shorten has emphatically ruled out.
She responded, unsurprisingly, that she would prefer a Labor government with a majority.
‘Being realistic and honest, we want to deliver real reform, positive policies. We want to form a majority government to deliver and invest in future,’ she said, despite this seeming like a fading prospect.
At the other end of the spectrum, former CDC candidate Vivian Stott asked Ms Walker the most bizarre question of the night: ‘You want to subvert traditional marriage and motherhood… why are you trying to legalise cannabis?’
Ms Walker understandably didn’t know where to begin with this question and in the end uttered some platitudes that clearly didn’t satisfy Mr Stott, who walked off still raving.
A more direct question from Michael McDougall on the subject of marriage equality drew an awkward response from CDC rep Russell Killarney, who said the party supported ‘the rights of people to be gay’ to titters from the audience.
Neil Smith from One Nation was equally mealy mouthed, saying, ‘marriage equality is not something we comment on in regards to our personal opinion. We want to go to a plebiscite and will accept the outcome.’
There were more questions from the floor on everything from climate change and the state of the reef to Gonski and why the Greens don’t have a 10-year education plan, the NBN, and Australia’s defence alliance ‘that attacks third world countries to support corporate interests’.
The responses were pretty much as expected, with Dawn Walker using the alliance question to raise the issue of the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Greens’ opposition to it.
By the end of the forum the audience, which itself was depleted compared to the number of attendees at the 2013 debate, seemed exhausted, while the candidates continued to smile and manoeuvre their way around the crowd. So that’s what it takes to make a politician.
The upside? There are just 10 days until polling day, and it’s all over for another three-ish years.
If you missed it, or want more, there will be a further Richmond candidates’ forum at the Mullumbimby Civic Centre this Sunday, June 26, at 1pm.
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