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The Independent Member for Lyne
By Rob Oakeshott
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2014 Rob Oakeshott
All rights reserved.
For a candidate with a strong team election day brings mixed feelings, particularly when all is going well. The campaigning and the strategy is done, so in many ways, our job has finished.
On 21 August 2010 our team's focus had turned to the operational side of election day, such as setting up at polling booths, managing any problems, and rostering scrutineers. And, of course, organising a party at the end of the day for the helpers, all 500 to 700 of them. Long ago, we had agreed that I could leave all this in the hands of others.
There is always a bit of polling booth campaigning to do on election day but, in a regional seat like Lyne (based around the northern NSW city of Port Macquarie), the media window is shut on Saturday. The best I could do was to jump into my car and drive around to say thanks to everyone helping out, and to answer last-minute questions from any 'undecided' voters I might happen across. It is one of the easier days of the entire campaign.
In the previous fortnight I had been involved in twelve 'Meet the Candidates' functions. No stand-out issue had emerged, but the National Party candidate — the second for them since I first won Lyne at a 2008 by-election brought on by the resignation of Mark Vaile, the National Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister — tried to hurt me politically on the carbon pricing. I defended my position by saying that both major parties had let Australia down by not doing what John Howard and Kevin Rudd said they would do — introduce a price on carbon with an emissions trading scheme. The fact that I remained a backer of both the science and the economics seemed to be generally accepted as a reasonable position.
I also offered very strong support for the National Broadband Network. Some of the National Party's supporters financed an advertising campaign, 'Granny doesn't need a new Ferrari', suggesting that older people didn't want or need fast and reliable broadband, and that I was campaigning in favour of over-servicing and lavish expenditure. This mostly backfired and was a very patronising misreading of the way older Australians use the Internet. Ironically, an online campaign by older local residents put the National Party in its place.
My campaign also picked up on the national issues of reform in taxation, Commonwealth — State relations, education, Indigenous employment and jobs growth. It also welcomed ideas for reform in industrial relations and occupational health and safety, particularly in support of the heavily burdened small business sector that is the backbone of regional and rural Australia.
And hanging over the 2010 campaign were the continuing clouds of a weak local, national and international economy. The 'Go Hard, Go Early, Go Households' stimulus package put together by Treasury Secretary Ken Henry and then executed by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was still in full swing — an $80 billion package I strongly endorsed and had voted for, which the local National Party was just as strongly against.
All up, the Oakeshott Independent team ran a relatively mistake-free campaign on a very low budget ($50,000). On our rough estimates, we were out-spent by the National Party by roughly 10:1; but this was expected and, as with previous campaigns, it ended up working in our favour as the issue of election spending itself becomes a major talking point.
So come election day, after all this frantic activity, it was hard not to feel a guilty relief as our extended volunteer network was now working harder than ever. The booth captains for the smallest booths had to be up before 6 am, but those in charge of some of the larger booths had to be at it by 3 or 4 am. One friend is renowned for sleeping overnight in his car so he can claim the best spot at one of the larger booths in the electorate. Election day is all about the small advantages, of being able to put your posters and bunting as close as possible to the entrance of the polling booth, about having your how-to-vote card at the top of the pile in the voter's hand so that yours is the last name on their mind as they fill out the ballot paper.
How much of a difference this mad dash on polling day makes is difficult to assess. Some political analysts say that up to one in four Australian voters have not made their mind up when they walk into a polling booth. If true, then having a prominent position for your message at the polling booth — with lots of happy, positive, passionate and helpful people — may well make a vital difference in some elections.
I have always valued this early morning dash highly, and considered the polling booth presence of large numbers of supporters an important part of our successful formula ever since I first became an Independent in the NSW parliament in 2002. Tight rosters for the entire day ensure that twelve volunteers are at larger booths handing out how-to-vote cards.
Organising all of this is a major operation, and is one of the distinct advantages that the major parties normally have over non-aligned candidates everywhere. Our campaigns over the previous eight years had bucked this trend. We had always had really good on-the-ground support and therefore looked like the strongest of all the candidates on polling day.
In 2010, as in previous years, locals of all ages ran the show on the ground. The icing on top of this local base came from family and friends who lived outside the region but were willing to come and lend a hand. We ran an inclusive model — anyone who wanted to help was welcome. Anyone. Current and former members of political parties of any persuasion often wanted to help out, and we would let them.
As one example, at an earlier election my booth roster manager enjoyed telling me he had placed a couple of former Democrats with some former One Nation party members. While I worried about the thought of a riot at that booth, he reminded me to trust our brand, a brand that forced people to give up their previous allegiances for at least 24 hours, and work for the common cause of community building. In the end, he was right. The Democrats and the One Nation mob both reported having an enjoyable day together, and making some new and unlikely friends. My concerns were unfounded.
In previous campaigns, we had developed a ritual where someone would drive me around the booths, and we'd stop and hand out drinks and food to our team. It was important to go and shake everyone's hands at the booths, including those of the opposing booth-workers'. It was a sign of strength to smile and say to them,
'Well done and good luck'. It was all mind games, and lots of fun. Anyone worried about sledging on the cricket field should help a local candidate for the day at an election. You see the best, and worst, that Australia has to offer, and hear some of the best, and wittiest, sledges. And as voting is compulsory, you see everyone. I can't think of any other event where all of this happens in just one day.
Now that I was married with kids, our routine had changed. A friend with a mobile coffee van would whip around as many booths as possible and provide drinks and food with the help of a few campaign workers, then Sara-Jane (my wife) and I would drive our own family around to say g'day and thank you on a completely separate route. I always felt slightly useless and indulgent doing this drive — a bit like the Queen waving out of her window — but our people seemed to be genuinely happy that we made this effort, and they appreciated seeing me after they'd been telling voters repeatedly what a good bloke I was. So most of the sixty-eight booths would get coffee and food, and/or the Oakeshott family, at some point during the day. If it was one or the other, I am sure the coffee van was their preference!
But some booths would always miss out on the Oakeshotts and, as much as we tried, there was just no logistical answer to that. Getting to sixty-eight polling booths across 11,000 square kilometres just wasn't humanly possible within the ten hours they were open. Because people, quite rightly, wanted to have a chat when they managed to get hold of me, I was doing well to get to about twenty-five booths on election day. With driving, parking and chatting, that works out at just under three booths per hour. Twenty minutes each!
* * *
At 6 am on Saturday 21 August, the first reports come in. With all our booth captains rising early, we hear they have mostly claimed the prime positions. The early birds have caught the worm again!
Unlike in previous years, there is only one dispute at a booth over position. It seems everyone is within the Australian Electoral Commission legal requirements of 1.5 metres from the polling booth doors, and no posters or bunting are attached illegally to any property such as telegraph poles.
We are off to a flier, unlike 2008 when we had the mini-disaster of someone just not turning up to a remote booth. I am convinced that it is the passion on election day, which builds up from the final two weeks of the campaign, that has always allowed us to succeed on a comparatively small budget. When well co-ordinated, the sheer weight of community power will beat the lazier option of the big advertising campaign every time. Tapping into community power is much harder to do, and takes time and effort to co-ordinate, but it is a beautiful thing to see when in motion. Cathy McGowan, the new Independent MP for Indi, is the most recent example of this power. For me, it was my sole ticket to success.
It is now mid-afternoon, and the children, dining out on junk food at each booth visited, have started falling asleep in the back of our car. It has been a long day for them, and Sara-Jane and I decide to drop them at home. I continue driving around alone for a few hours before the booths close and the result is known. It is a time to reflect in silence. The calm before an unknown storm. Whatever the result, it will be controversial in some way. There is every chance I may have no job, and no pay, by midnight. They literally cut it off that quickly if you lose! You have to mentally prepare yourself for any result, but you have to keep your 'game-face' regardless.
It is now 6 pm and the polling booths have closed. The babysitter arrives and our family heads down to a local pub for the election-night party. Dribbling in from their duties throughout the electorate come exhausted, but exhilarated, friends, family and supporters who have helped out since the early hours of the morning, and for the many weeks previous. A friend has developed some neat, purpose-made spreadsheets and graphs that quickly break up the local results as they come in. Scrutineers are ringing in results; the graphs go up. Sunburnt and tired, we all stand around with cold beers swapping stories and analysing the day.
It is clear we are down slightly on the high-water mark of the stunning 2008 by-election result with less than 50 per cent of the primary vote, but it is also clear that we've had another outstanding, and important, win against the usual big-spending National Party scare campaign, with its special emphasis on the evils of carbon pricing. Just after 7.30 pm, I jump up on the table and claim it early. The party begins in earnest.
It is an enormous sense of relief when the result becomes clear. The room is now well and truly full, and the beers are flowing. No-one is paying too much attention to the TV, nor the national result. I've done a few local TV and radio interviews and many of the local journalists have stuck around, or come back for a beer once their stories have been put to bed.
At around 10 pm, a few people indicate that the national result could be close. I start to throw one eye the way of the national TV coverage. It is increasingly clear what is emerging. My media man, Garth Norris, throws me the work phone; ABC-TV's Kerry O'Brien is on the line. I agree to do a live on-air interview.
The party continues while I stand on the balcony of the pub, on the other side of large glass sliding doors. I do this so I can hear the questions. Instead, I've put myself in a fishbowl. Supporters are pulling faces and trying to make me laugh as I do the live interview with a beer in my hand.
Straight after the interview, Julia Gillard's chief-of-staff rings. It is Amanda Lampe, chasing Tony Windsor and Bob Katter's phone numbers so she can line up a call from the PM sometime soon to all three of us. But those phone numbers are in the back of my car on the other side of town. I am happy to go and get them.
It is a quiet and peaceful walk after a long day, and a long campaign. There is a sense of anticipation about what is emerging nationally, so some quiet time and a walk is welcome.
By the time I get back to the pub, more and more revellers have abandoned the usual election night partying, and begun to digest the national broadcast. The serious and the silly start to split into two groups. Both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott make their election night speeches. Both have direct and personal messages to the cross-benchers. We are sensing the significance of the moment. My lasting memory of that night is of a well-oiled mate from my rugby days standing under the big-screen TV as the Labor and Liberal leaders gave their election night speeches. He is entertaining the crowd with a mix of dismissive, crude, and sometimes funny commentary on it all — a bit like listening to a rough version of Roy and HG with the sound down on the footy. 'They're all just trying to knob ya off, Oakey', 'Go with Abbott — his daughter on the right looks hot', he says with many, many variations on the theme.
Most people are now realising I will have more power than normal, and they are talking options. An expanded hospital, an expanded airport, a quicker Pacific Highway build and better university access are all priorities. A publicly-funded brothel is the suggestion from the silly corner.
None of it mattered at this point. The beer was free and national events were still not being taken too seriously. What I didn't know at the time was that my mum was expressing concern to anyone who would listen. 'I'm worried about Rob,' she told anyone who was in a state to listen. Likewise, the partners of my paid staff were also showing apprehension.
Campaigns are an adrenaline rush, but they have collateral damage. By their nature, they are selfish exercises and are terrible for partners and families. After forty consecutive days of campaigning work — day and night — they wanted their loved ones back home. The emotional roller-coaster of a tight parliament had begun early, and very close to home.
Personally — after nearly not standing for federal parliament at all in 2008, and again in 2010, and having now promised Sara-Jane that this would be the last time — I was experiencing a mixture of fascination with stubborn disregard at national events. While I didn't like my traditional feeling of relief being crashed by outside events, I was also genuinely fascinated by the novelty of this different post-election moment. It was a whole new adventure for me, even though I wasn't in a position to know what this adventure involved exactly.
'Who rings whom?' I remember asking my campaign manager, just before Prime Minister Gillard left a short message of congratulations on my phone, saying she'd ring later to talk about unfolding events. 'Well, that answers that,' I say as we both reach for our beers with a smile.
Three days earlier, ABC management held a board meeting at Port Macquarie. At the evening drinks function, Managing Director Mark Scott joked in his welcome speech that the only reason Port Macquarie was chosen was because I was going to hold the balance of power in three days time, and the ABC wanted to get to me first. I have called him 'The Oracle' ever since. In that same week journalist Glenn Milne predicted a 'hung Parliament', saying that there would be an extraordinary 68 years of parliamentary experience among the three Independent MPs who might hold the balance of power — Tony Windsor, Bob Katter and myself.
But apart from these two fleeting references, I had never given serious consideration to the possibility of a one-seat parliament. I had been working to be the Independent Member for Lyne, and nothing else. Now, though, I had no choice but to be the two-time Melbourne Cup winner — to Think Big.
Excerpted from The Independent Member for Lyne by Rob Oakeshott. Copyright © 2014 Rob Oakeshott. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Table of Contents
PART I SEVENTEEN DAYS,
1 Election day,
2 Days one to two,
3 Days three to five,
4 Days six to ten,
5 Days eleven to sixteen,
6 Day seventeen, decision day,
PART II LEARNING THE ART OF POLITICS,
7 Shadow Minister for Gaming and Racing,
8 NSW parliament,
9 Political footsie,
10 Entering federal parliament,
PART III 'LIFE BEING HUNG', THE FORTY-THIRD PARLIAMENT,
11 Starting out,
12 Pokies reform,
13 The moat people,
14 The Carbon Emissions Trading Scheme,
15 Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal Australia,
16 The media,
17 The Wilkie impasse,
18 The Bali Process Bill, 2012,
19 Of miners and deep sea trawlers,
20 The twentieth anniversary of Mabo,
21 The wood waste debate,
22 The curious case of Peter Costello,
23 Strengthening the institution of parliament,
24 Same-sex marriage and the Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse,
26 Education reform,
27 Reform keeps coming,
28 Communicating with Julia Gillard,
PART IV FINALE,
29 The time has come,
30 Goodbye to all that,
PART V SOME THOUGHTS FROM THE DEPARTURE LOUNGE,
31 That's politics,
32 Questioning the norm,
33 The road to reconciliation via a republic,
34 In praise of doubt, in search of progress,
Appendix Speech in Dhanggati language,