The outdoor plaza of Giorgio’s restaurant, across the road from Malvern town hall was packed on Monday morning. A semi-circle of white, plastic chairs were all taken. A wider crowd of people had joined around them, standing, leaning on walls, sitting on steps, some even perched above in the terraced garden. Banners fluttered in the wind and protest signs on sticks jutted out above the grey haired heads of an ageing crowd. Jon Faine – Melbourne’s master of morning talk-back on ABC 774 had called for a ‘Snapshot of Higgins’, and the constituents had come out to have their say, or at least the retired portion of the community.
Gathered around Faine at a fold-out table under a fold-up tent, were the three major candidates for the federal seat: Dr Katie Allen for the incumbent Liberals, Jason Ball for the rising Greens, and Fiona McLeod SC for the ALP. Each candidate would receive five minutes of Faine’s focus; a Melbourne political version of Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame.
Up first was Allen, the recent replacement for the incumbent Kelly O’Dwyer. Despite her impressive medical career, the doctor is a relative political novice, bringing with her only a thumping loss in the state seat of Prahran for experience, and with Faine it’s a rollicking ride:
‘When you lost the contest for the state seat of Prahran, you blamed the “federal fiasco”, were your very words…’
‘If you’d have been the representative for Higgins in the past twelve months, would you have voted for Peter Dutton, Scott Morrison or Malcolm Turnbull to be Prime Minister?’
Perhaps Allen did learn the art of politicking in her run at Chapel Street, because she ducked and weaved through the more pointed inquiries with the vague answers of a veteran. What we did learn about her is that she’s an ‘economically dry, but socially progressive Liberal,’ but don’t call her a moderate. We also learned that she can tell a joke, her line about the Liberals being a faction-less party got the biggest laugh of the morning.
Next up was Jason Ball, the Greens candidate who gained a 14 per cent swing in 2014, and who was met with the loudest applause. Climate change is key to Higgins. According to Roy Morgan polling (2018) 67 per cent of people in the electorate have it as their most important issue headed into the election, making it the most climate conscious seat in the nation. The crowd may not have been a fair representation of the entire electorate, but they hung on his every word. Ball knows what to say: Newstart, Adani and an overall ‘drumbeat for change’ were all on the menu. Recent Greens internal issues were ‘teething problems’ of a party back on the rise.
Seated on the Glenferrie Road edge of the crowd, among dog-walkers checking out the commotion, anti-Adani shirts were commonplace. The protesters making their mark on the audio-event with their ‘honk if you oppose Adani’ sign.
The chorus of horns wasn’t the only time that road played a role. During Ball’s time on air, a pro-Liberal vehicle — half truck, half screen, rolled by: A BILL AUSTRALIA CAN’T AFFORD, emblazoned in all caps. Intentional? You be the judge.
Coming up third was Shorten’s last minute swap for the race, Fiona McLeod. Despite her impressive resume and media savvy, it was tough sledding initially for the silk, having to explain why she didn’t live within the electorate, and why she only became an ALP member a week before her nomination.
The answers? She’s lived on the edge, and she’s always held progressive views. Plus, her grandma grew up just down the road… Those hiccups aside, McLeod finished saying that ‘it is time for the people of Higgins to have their say in government,’ which to the outside ear may sound like a very brief explanation of how democracy works, but in this context brought a cheer from the crowd.
Overall, Giorgio’s did great, everybody bought coffee, but that wasn’t the point of the exercise. Perhaps the caffeine did help in engaging the crowd for the comments portion of the show, where climate change and general disillusionment with government took the front seat and franking credits and taxation never really got a showing.
If this Jon Faine “Higgins bonanza” was a barometer for how this seat is going to play, it could turn out to be murky and marginal at best.