December 2018 – January 2019

Essays

John Birmingham

Rebellion in Dutton country

Peter Dutton’s mobile office, September 2004. © Andrew Zakeli / Fairfax Media

Labor, the Greens and GetUp are preparing for battle in the Queensland electorate of Dickson

Dutton country does the best wild dog signs. They start a few minutes’ drive out of the village of Samford, half an hour from the steel and glass towers of Brisbane. Wild dogs and foxes still haunt the dense bush and small farm holdings that cover nearly three quarters of Peter Dutton’s electorate. The local council runs baiting programs to keep them away from livestock and outside the boundaries of the isolated housing developments that push into the bushland from the northern edge of the Queensland capital.

The warning signs, a legislated requirement, are striking. They’re impossible to miss as you speed along the black ribbon of road from Samford to Dayboro, another village 20 or 30 minutes deeper into the countryside, but somehow feeling less rural than Samford because of all the coffee shops on the main street catering to the weekend tourist trade. You sweep around a lazy curve and suddenly a large wolfish-looking dog snarls at you in silhouette. Even at a hundred kilometres per hour, the eye is drawn to the stark red, white and black colour scheme and the unexpected flash of bared fangs. Thoughts of stopping to stretch the legs or take in the views, which can be stunning here at the edge of a small mountain range, now seem less urgent.

Dickson, the electorate Dutton holds by few enough votes that flipping a couple of streets worth of cheaply built apartment blocks could see the minister for home affairs forced out of parliament, is a huge, sprawling piece of turf for what is – demographically – an unremarkable metro seat. Much of it is beautiful, a weird in-between place where the scrubby drylands of Queensland’s south-east corner start to morph towards the richer, denser subtropical rainforests of the Sunshine Coast. The city seems vastly remote at times, until you hit a crest in the Hills District and there it is on the horizon, a stunning filamentary explosion of shining spires.

Every weekend, thousands of people attempt to escape north to the cool green folds of Samford Valley, merging their vehicles into the crush of traffic on the arterial roads carrying families to Saturday morning sport and feeding the crowded car parks of shopping centres all over Brisbane’s northern suburbs. Digital natives voting for the first time in Dickson might find in their electoral abode a vaguely familiar analogue for a much cooler, imagined in-between place, the city and hinterland of Los Santos in Grand Theft Auto V.

It seems a perverse allusion, but driving for hours around Dickson, I can’t shake it. In 20 minutes it is possible to pass from grimy light industrial warehouse districts to wilderness, to drywall suburban slums, and back into bushland hiding millionaire enclaves of grotesquely expensive but aesthetically worthless contempolonial architorture, all on 1- and 2-acre lots with easy access to the local pony club.

“Yeah,” snorts Mike Myer. “Every third place will have a dressage arena.”

Myer is driving, giving me the grand tour. We met up at the side of the road just outside Samford Village, where a small group of volunteers was waving the flag for the Greens’ Benedict Coyne, preselected to run against Dutton – and all comers, he’ll assure you – whenever Scott Morrison decides to fire up the national barbie for our next big feed of democracy sausage. Myer, a scion of the retail family, is a property developer these days, but of a different ilk, designing and building large-scale projects with minimal impacts on their surrounding ecosystems. I feel his pain as he steers carefully through the narrow streets of a recently built estate where hundreds of houses sit on pocket-handkerchief lots. The identikit properties, which look less like homes than the boxes other, better, homes came in, seem as closely packed as the livestock that once went to slaughter from the old farms they buried here under concrete slabs. It recalls Robin Boyd’s cri de coeur against the peculiarly Australian ugliness …

“But it’s people’s starting point,” Myer says, sounding almost apologetic. “A lot of these families, they’d have teens working on weekends in fast-food joints, cafes and so on. I saw a statistic just a few weeks ago. I think the minister released it. It said 700,000 people have effectively lost $87 a week. That’s nearly $5000 a year. That’s a huge hit for families in this sort of area.” He waves his hand around as we head out of the estate, past a tavern advertising $10 “penny pincher” lunches.

“And I know, because I started Brumby’s [bakery chain] and grew that, and I know how many young people I helped get through university. And the Sunday work, the double time and a half? It basically paid their way through. To cut their penalty rates was really …”

He trails off, lost for words, as we drive away from the urban fringe back into brute nature, but not for long. We are passing through a liminal space here, a contested perimeter where remnant forest quickly succumbs to the dozer blade. A Bunnings commands the heights of a ridge overlooking vast brown swathes of naked earth, raked clean and ready for the surveyors. The Dickson that swung hard against Peter Dutton in the 2016 federal election is not the Dickson he won from Cheryl Kernot 17 years ago. It is not the Dickson he tried to escape for a safer, more amenable seat somewhere nearer to the coast ahead of the August 2010 election. And it will be yet another Dickson when he tries to retain it some time in the next few months. It is a churning, unsettled arena of hyper-development, urban decay, explosive exurban wealth formation, deep green resistance, aspirational longing, bitter poverty … and wild dogs, stalking the woods just beyond the edge of settlement.

Ali France would like to take it all from him.

The ALP’s chosen candidate describes herself, without affectation, as “a Northside mum with two kids”. The geographical modifier is a Brisbane thing, with residents of the northern capital often sorting themselves tribally by reference to which bank of the river they bunk down on. Like Sydney, but with lower stakes.

The 44-year-old France, who works for a palliative care charity, is a former journalist and a gold-medal-winning sportswoman who rowed an outrigger canoe for Australia at the World Sprint Championships in 2016. She could be a giant-killing candidate on her résumé and personal presence alone, but the backstory to that gold medal sets her even further apart. In 2011 she was pushing her four-year-old son in a pram through an underground car park when a driver lost control of his vehicle, slamming into a concrete post and three other cars. The young mother was caught in the impact zone. She flung her child out of the way but she was crushed between the runaway car and a stationary vehicle. Surgeons amputated her left leg hours later, after two failed attempts to save it.

When people ask France whether she is up for the challenge of taking on a brutish political operator like Dutton, she usually replies that she’s faced bigger challenges.

“After losing my leg seven years ago, I spent a lot of time in doctors’ waiting rooms talking to people and got a real sense that people were struggling and finding it hard to pay for out-of-pocket health expenses.”

She credits her time working for a palliative care charity as further opening her eyes to some of the challenges that people tend to grapple with in silence and often alone, save for the support of close family – if they are lucky enough to have them.

“There’s a lot of vulnerable people in our community,” she says. “And many families who are struggling to keep up with the cost of living. I understand the struggle, and I’ll stand up and fight for them … The things that connect us are my experiences of adversity, of raising kids, of navigating the health system and of trying to get ahead.”

If Dutton falls, it is a near certainty that his slayer will be Ali France. A near certainty, but not a lock. The Greens’ Benedict Coyne will tell anybody inclined to listen that if only one in six voters were to shuffle their preferences to sneak a vote for the Greens in ahead of the ALP, it would break the grip of the old political duopoly on Dickson and send a truly independent voice to Canberra to speak up for the electorate. He maintains this argument with the confident self-assurance and unshakeable trust in ultimate victory of the 7th Earl of Cardigan leading the Light Brigade as they charged into the muzzles of the Russian guns at Balaclava.

Coyne is in some ways the perfect nemesis for Dutton. A lawyer who chose community campaigning and human-rights cases over more lucrative work, he is, like Tony Abbott, an old boy of the Jesuit Catholic school system. Coyne could have gone the way of the Liberals’ most famous seminary student. His family pedigree is a deeper royal blue than the former PM’s, with a father who sat on the executive of the Liberal Party state council in Victoria in the 1970s, and family memories of door-knocking Kooyong for Andrew Peacock. Instead, perhaps nudged off the punishingly straight and ideologically narrow-minded by his old man’s falling out with the party over a matter of principle, a young Benedict Coyne turned green.

“In the late ’90s,” he says, “I was studying at UWA and I heard David Suzuki speak.” Coyne was dating the daughter of the chief justice of Hong Kong, a young woman from a very conservative legal family. Inspired by the Canadian environmentalist, they both deferred their studies and dived deep into campaigning for Western Australia’s old-growth forests. It gave Coyne an early taste for straight up walking into a hopeless fight. Or what most people would assume was a fight. Expecting to find himself an intruder in the logging towns and forest camps of WA’s south-west, the activist instead marvelled at how inviting supposedly hostile territory could be.

“I was always amazed going into logging and mining towns, thinking you were going to get beat up or whatever, when you’d get this incredible reaction. I think it was as people became more aware of climate change … I remember in Kalgoorlie, having this line of seven blokes waiting to give me money, because they felt awful about this huge hole they were digging.”

His eyes unfocus as his memory reaches back and he tries to understand their motivations.

“They knew they needed to offset the impact they were having,” he decides. “Let’s put it that way.”

Dickson is nowhere near as openly hostile to a Greens candidate as an outback mining camp could be. Dutton took the seat from Cheryl Kernot after her defection from the Australian Democrats to the ALP. It would be fair to say, however, that until his half-botched attempt on Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership in August, Peter Dutton had not fixed himself deeply in the affections or even the short-term memories of his constituents. Unlike Benedict Coyne and Ali France, he is not a natural campaigner, not what you might call … a people person. The demands of running the home affairs super ministry keep him away from the electorate while canvassers from the ALP, the Greens and the lobby group GetUp run wild every weekend, and when he does appear his profile doesn’t necessarily help. Mike Myer, who lost out to Coyne in a three-way preselection contest for the Greens’ spot on the ballot, muses wryly that on the rare occasions Dutton does visit his own manor he comes surrounded by a phalanx of federal agents providing close personal protection.

Dutton’s lack of name recognition, locally at least, is not entirely his own fault. Dickson is famously known in the psephological trade as one of the most disengaged electorates in the country.

Internal Labor polling, reported by The Guardian during Dutton’s assault on the prime ministership, tagged Dickson as having “one of the lowest levels of voter engagement in all of Queensland”. It is not just barren ground for aspiring parliamentarians. Australia Council research on community engagement found that the good punters of Dickson were 12.9 per cent less likely than average to buy tickets for arts and sporting events, and that when they did open the wallet they spent 7.3 per cent less in total. The discrepancy would be even greater if not for the Eatons Hill pub, an unexpected and weirdly impressive music venue that looks like it materialised five minutes ago in the middle of nowhere. Architecturally striking, at least in context, the hotel and resort complex sits over a retail development, so touring acts like Smash Mouth, Boney M. and Richard Marx can kick back in four-and-a-half-star luxury, confident that the Woolies downstairs has them covered for any last-minute grocery needs.

Dickson’s ennui might partly be demographic. Young parents, of whom there are thousands in the electorate, don’t have time or energy for much of anything beyond school, home and work. The poor, who are mostly the working poor in Dickson, struggle to pull 10 bucks together for that penny pincher special at the local tavern. Meanwhile, the dotcom ghettos of millionaire tree changers around Samford don’t necessarily vote in line with their perceived interests anyway. Standing by the road out of Samford Village one morning with Myer and Coyne and a handful of volunteers waving placards, I note the surprising volume of sympathetic horn action for the Greens candidate from both luxury SUVs and tradies in high-vis.

Coyne refutes the idea that the 724-square-kilometre electorate is disengaged. “That’s not my experience. Door-knocking in places like Strathpine, which is poor and working class, and what you might typically think of as an ALP stronghold, and Ferny Hills, which you’d think of as a little more progressive … I’ve been really amazed about how engaged people have been. You knock on doors and it might be a pensioner standing back behind a locked security grille. But they’ll still know what’s going on.”

They are, Coyne says, critical and mindful.

Ali France has door-knocked and phoned thousands of voters over the past six months, and her reading is that many feel they’ve simply been ignored or neglected.

“They want more money for health, education and TAFE,” she says. “They want higher wages, a reliable NBN, and an end to the energy crisis which has seen power prices skyrocket. After 17 years, Peter Dutton has lost his way; he’s just not representing people in his electorate.”

Both Coyne and Myer bring up one particular point.

Solar panels.

Coyne says that Dickson has the highest concentration of PV solar panels in the country. Driving through the electorate, whether in poor suburbs or country estates, it’s impossible to miss the rooftop acres of dark grey photovoltaics soaking up the rays.

“The thing that amazes me about the electorate and how Dutton has managed to hold it for 18 years,” Coyne says, “is he’s been the worst representative, if you look at his voting record. He votes against the interests of his constituents time and time again … He’s continually voted against renewable energy, whereas the market in Dickson has seized on it. His unrepentant voting against penalty rates on the weekend punishes all the hospitality workers out here.”

The most visible sign of the minister listening to the cares of locals might be an actual sign: a billboard near the train terminus at Ferny Grove. An image of Dutton grins a little awkwardly on the billboard, asking constituents whether they would like more parking at the train station, a big park-and-ride hub for the new housing estates salted throughout the bushland in the southern reaches of the electorate. Ferny Grove’s car lot is overcrowded, and it’s the sort of problem a diligent local member would make his or her own.

And a diligent local member has.

The state Labor government announced earlier this year that they had sold the air rights over the station to a private developer who would build a modern, eco-friendly commercial-residential precinct there.

The plans for the $750 million project include up to three times as much parking as currently exists.

At the time of writing, Dutton didn’t seem to have noticed that his chosen local issue no longer existed.

It’s not a good look for a man balancing on a razor-thin margin, and the people arguably most responsible for turning his safe seat into a very marginal prospect have no intention of letting anybody forget that.

Dutton went into the last federal election holding a comfortable margin of nearly six points. Doubtless the ALP’s Linda Lavarch worked hard to unseat him, but the swing against Dutton was outsized and unexpected. Like a number of other insurgencies that cut down leading figures in the hard right of the Liberal Party, such as Andrew Nikolic in Tasmania, the rebellion in Dickson was sparked and fanned by an outside group.

GetUp.

The grassroots collective did not target Dickson because it was marginal. They went after the sitting member because he was, to them, intolerable.

Ellen Roberts, whose full-time job is strategising GetUp’s Dickson revolt, is the group’s organising director in Queensland.

“I was here for the last federal election campaign,” she says. “The first one in which we focused on Peter Dutton. It was the first time we’d done a number of things, including focusing on the hard right of the Liberal Party. Our analysis was that they were really dictating policy.”

Somewhat surprisingly, she says that GetUp’s million-plus membership, which massively dwarfs the combined rolls of the mainstream parties, was very comfortable with Malcolm Turnbull’s original small-l liberalism. But the lobby group’s hive mind, like the rest of the country, quickly concluded that the Abbott rump of the Liberal Party would never let Malcolm be Malcolm, leading to a new tactic in Australian electoral politics: choosing targets purely on the basis of ideology.

“Once that influence is removed from Australian politics,” Roberts explains one afternoon over coffee in Brisbane, “everything has the opportunity to shift to the left, including the Liberal Party. Ours is an electoral agenda – we obviously care about electoral outcomes – but it’s part of a bigger view about that particular force within Australian politics, and Dutton is definitely a big part of that.”

GetUp, which had previously been known for letter-writing campaigns and skywriting stunts, poured money and resources into Dickson to grind away at Dutton’s margin, but most importantly it spent time there. More than 17,000 volunteer hours during the two-month election campaign.

Having helped to carve 5.1 per cent off Dutton’s margin, they didn’t leave with the job half-done. Every weekend small groups of canvassers fan out through carefully selected streets to talk to the locals about their concerns.

I join half a dozen of them at a pub on a stormy Sunday afternoon, sitting in on their debriefing after a couple of hours of door-knocking. Unlike Ali France or Benedict Coyne, GetUp’s canvassers don’t have to ask for a vote. They don’t have to sell a slate of policies. They do one thing in particular and they do it very well.

They listen.

Working in pairs, tracing a path through the electoral map laid down by arcane data analytics, they seek out “conversations” rather than conversions.

Most of the debrief at the Petrie Hotel consists of recounting the topics and “depth” of conversations held over the previous two hours.

“You talk about Dickson being disengaged,” Ellen Roberts says, “but this is the stuff that’s gonna reach people, right? You walk up to their door and have a conversation. They may not engage with a piece of direct mail, but a face-to-face conversation? That’s different.”

Benedict Coyne professes a similar fondness for personal dialogue, recalling one particular exchange in a logging town at the height of the conflict over Western Australia’s old-growth forests.

“I was in this one town, very old logging town, generations of forest workers. This old lady came up to me, happy to talk as long as I wasn’t a ‘greenie’. I said, no, I’m a conservationist. So then we had this fabulous conversation about how technology and corporatisation had cost jobs in the industry. We talked about corporate downsizing, outsourcing, the so-called economic efficiencies driving jobs out of the market.”

GetUp’s crew at the Petrie Hotel does not report that level of super-woke policy sophistication.

One canvasser, Mary, reports “four meaningfuls”, as in meaningful conversations.

“A lot of people were very focused on local issues. There were quite a few families, and they were very fixed on putting shields on roadway lights because they beam directly into the bedrooms and keep their kids awake. There were lots of questions about transport. Kallangur appears to feel neglected because of North Lakes and Redcliffe getting all the amenities and facilities. So if you have a young child and you need to get to the station, there are no amenities for anyone, let alone for those with disabilities. It was really basic stuff affecting their quality of life, and they didn’t think a federal politician was going to change that. There was a sense of powerlessness.”

Mary’s canvassing buddy, an engineer called Frank, interrupts to make a clarification. “When we told them the seat is very marginal – ‘1500 votes, and you could be one of them’ – then whoa! ‘You got my vote.’”

The granular detail collected by Mary and Frank and the other GetUp members was not simply a litany of local complaints, although that sort of on-the-ground intelligence is hugely valuable to political parties. They also compiled more subjective data on whether GetUp should make return visits to a particular address and the likelihood of deeper engagement if they did.

The end goal, of course, is to flip a vote away from the sitting member.

It was easy to see why GetUp has become such a menacing phantom within the imagination of conservatives. These happy few, hunkered down with light beers behind the poker machines at the Petrie Hotel, are nothing like the caricature of GetUp members as rabid, lentil-eating revolutionaries. Frank, a migrant from the former Soviet satellite state of East Germany, is one of three successful businessmen there today who has independently decided to lend their considerable talents to the defeat of Peter Dutton.

Asked whether Labor is coordinating with GetUp, Ali France answered a different question. “I’ve door-knocked and phoned many thousands of Dickson residents,” she said, “and very few have raised GetUp or the Greens with me. I am solely focused on our ground game.”

Benedict Coyne, with the harder climb from a likely third-place finish, was less circumspect. There is no formal coordination of their efforts, he says. GetUp has always favoured the ALP.

“The long game is to put a good effort in, build a movement, and get people out there and amongst it. We’ve had huge support within the electorate and from around the country from people who really despise everything that Peter Dutton has come to symbolise about what is toxic and wrong with politics in Australia, and how it urgently needs to change. And when it is changed it will benefit everyday Australians.”

At the end of the GetUp debriefing, I ask all of the insurgents whether giving up their time to work against Dutton gives them a sense of agency.

Frank is the most empathic.

Once upon a time he would have been a natural recruit for the Liberal Party: a successful businessman, an engineer, a CEO, and a man with a life story that made him naturally wary of the left and authoritarians in general.

“I grew up in East Germany. All I wanted was to get out. You couldn’t campaign against the government, you would be locked away, so you were left with passive resistance. But then in the autumn of ’89 it was amazing to see how people power got bigger and bigger, and then, boom, the Wall was gone. A demonstration on Thursday, and then on Saturday the Wall is gone. So it is possible.

“Rather than sitting in front of the telly and getting angry, it is liberating to be among like-minded people. I am in business, and there I have to be careful what I say, but here I don’t have to hold back. You can see what GetUp has done in other areas of the country, and we can do it here. That’s what makes me angry sometimes, when GetUp is described as crazy left-wing activists. Am I a crazy left-wing activist? No. We’re ordinary people and we can make a difference.”

John Birmingham

John Birmingham is an author, a columnist and a journalist. His books include He Died With a Felafel in His Hand and Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney.

@JohnBirmingham

December 2018 – January 2019

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