June 2022


Teal and loathing: On the campaign trail

By Lech Blaine
Image of Labor Party election-night event at the Canterbury-Hurlstone Park RSL, Sydney

Labor Party election-night event at the Canterbury-Hurlstone Park RSL, Sydney. © Andrew Quilty

The seismic shift that saw voters around the country turn on the Coalition and deliver a Labor victory

Scott Morrison was on a slippery slope from the Promised Land to rock bottom. To win the 2019 election, he invented the focus-grouped “ScoMo” persona: a suburban strongman with a soft spot for fossil fuels, home-cooked curries and speaking in tongues. A vote for him was a protest against inner-city elites. But in pulling it off, the one-trick phoney might have built a coffin for the Coalition.

“I suspect that he is paying a big price for the bets he made on the outer suburbs and regions since the 2019 election,” says Paul Erickson, national secretary of the Australian Labor Party. “Traditional Liberals in the city feel Morrison ignores the issues that matter to them.”

Erickson meets me near the ALP election headquarters in Sydney’s Surry Hills. In focus groups since Christmas, he has witnessed a subterranean earthquake: even Quiet Australians have stopped smiling at their favourite salesman.

“Our strategy is to make dissatisfaction with Morrison intense enough to create a referendum,” he says. “So, when voters go into the ballot box, they ask themselves: Do I really want another three years of this shit? No thanks.”

Erickson is the son of Christian schoolteachers, and a protégé of the Victorian Left. He is the bodyguard preventing Albo from getting into a dick-measuring competition with ScoMo, the locker-room jock of Australian politics. Albanese the street fighter has been caged. The ALP wants women to find their leader sensitive, and for southerners to perceive him as equally worried about them as he is about voters in New South Wales.

“Anthony shouldn’t be seen as just another Sydney-focused, beer-drinking, NRL-loving bloke,” says Erickson. “He presents as a safe pair of hands, not a colourful figure. Leaders who electrify people tend to burn out pretty quickly.”

Morrison tries to electrify undecided voters. He washes a woman’s hair at a salon in Victoria, and plays “April Sun in Cuba” on the ukulele for 60 Minutes. It doesn’t shift the polls. A thinning Albanese receives a glowing spread in Women’s Weekly. His own 60 Minutes interview gets better ratings than the PM’s. In April, Morrison attends a “Pub Test” on the NSW Central Coast, hosted by Sky News’s Paul Murray. The embattled chameleon lashes Albanese for being a fake.

“I weigh about the same size, and I don’t mind a bit of Italian cake, either,” says Morrison. “I’m happy in my own skin. I’m not pretending to be anyone else.”

It evoked a character assassination that Albanese performed on John Howard in 1998. Back then, Albanese was a buck-toothed backbencher with a cheap suit and a hideous tie. His face was no oil painting. His voice was definitely not a symphony. But he seemed completely comfortable in his own imperfect skin, and unapologetic about hanging shit on “the pantheon of chinless blue bloods” in the Liberal Party.

“[John Howard’s] father owned a service station on the street where I now live,” said Albanese. “These were the halcyon days of little Winston’s life – when the working classes knew their place, and when all migrants were British.”

Following Labor’s demoralising loss in 2019, Labor turned to Albanese. The disillusioned mood of the electorate suited his earlier incarnation, the scrappy outsider. He had fought against the council to save his single mother’s flat from privatisation. He had fought against News Corp to save the South Sydney Rabbitohs rugby league club. He had fought against the factions to save the ALP.

Now, Albanese capped his crooked teeth. He lost 18 kilograms. He got a new wardrobe. He polished the speech impediment (so he could more clearly convey platitudes about pragmatism). And he replaced the daggy prescription glasses with a flash pair of black-rimmed spectacles. Colleagues referred to him as Anthony rather than “Albo”.

“You can trim the eyebrows. You can cap the teeth. You can cut the hair. You can put on different glasses. You can give him a ewe’s milk facial, for all I care. But – to paraphrase a gritty Australian saying – same stuff, different bucket.”

This wasn’t Morrison on Albanese, but Albanese on Howard. The 2022 election is a battle between a Pentecostal wowser masquerading as a knockabout bloke, and a left-wing larrikin cosplaying as John Howard.

“Some voters used to worry he’s a nice bloke, but they couldn’t see him representing us on the world stage,” says Erickson. “We stopped hearing that in focus groups. They want to know why the prime minister is knocking him for losing weight.”

It’s early in the year, and Albanese’s small-target personality appears to be working a treat. Labor is a raging favourite with polling and betting companies. My late father – a former professional gambler – had a saying about short-priced racehorses who choked on the home straight: “It was like a giant fucking piano fell on them.”

On the first day of the campaign, a giant piano hovers above Albanese. He visits Launceston in the regional electorate of Bass, one of the dozen or so marginals that may decide the result, along with neighbouring Braddon. Labor strategists are pessimistic about winning the twin Tasmanian divisions back from the Coalition. Albanese tries to work some magic. A reporter probes him on the Reserve Bank’s cash rate.

“Do you know the official cash rate off the top of your head?” she asks.

“Look, we can do the old Q&A stuff,” Albanese replies, clearly not wanting to.

For a politician, press conferences are like being trapped in an industrial bin with a flock of psychotic cockatoos. They are fighting over a hot chip: tonight’s gotcha moment on the 6pm news. The trick to getting your question answered is to squawk and flap the loudest. This has the added benefit of distracting the target from their script. Campaigns are a test of repetition under pressure, not intellect or empathy.

“What’s the national unemployment rate?” asks another reporter.

“National unemployment rate at the moment is, I think, it’s five point … ah, four?” Albanese stutters, tongue poking out. “Sorry, I’m not sure what it is.” All hell breaks loose.

Twitter is split. Many journalists defend the line of questioning while claiming that the gaffe could bring Morrison back from the political abyss. Labor supporters circulate a 2010 Lateline interview with American journalism professor Jay Rosen.

“Horserace journalism is a reusable model for how to do campaign coverage, in which you focus on who’s going to win rather than what the country needs to settle by electing a prime minister,” said Rosen.

Both sides of the fight are kind of right. Many members of the press gallery are seat-sniffing careerists, who would swap their grandma for a gotcha moment. But as it currently stands, the job of the Opposition leader is to win a horserace.

Two days later, Greens leader Adam Bandt delivers a National Press Club address. A journalist quizzes Bandt for the current wage price index.

“Google it, mate,” he says to laughter and then applause. Bandt’s soaring address is uproariously received on Twitter. “Politics should be about reaching for the stars and offering a better society!”

All the media focus has been on the explosive momentum of the “teal independents” in Sydney and Melbourne. Meanwhile, the Greens are aiming to win seats off the Liberals and Labor in metropolitan Queensland, in seats where there are no teal candidates and the Greens have been cultivating support for many years.

“In Griffith in Brisbane, Max Chandler-Mather’s campaign has had over 20,000 one-on-one conversations and, in my view, is on track to win a tough campaign,” says a particularly optimistic Bandt at the Press Club.

The Greens leader claims the party might even pick up Liberal-held divisions of Brisbane and Ryan. His dream for a three-seat sweep seems far-fetched. I go back to my home state for a vibe check.

Paul Hilton is a 62-year-old father of three with a shaved head. Semi-retired, he lives with his wife, Sharon, in an apartment next to Brisbane’s Story Bridge. He is packing up a sleek Ford Ranger for a long weekend of camping on the Scenic Rim.

“I loved Johnny Howard,” he says. “He did a ton of good stuff.”

Hilton’s grandfather – also named Paul Hilton – was a rural Labor MP in the Hanlon and Gair state governments. His father was a trade unionist. Paul Hilton the third started an accounting firm in Toowoomba. He has strayed away from the Labor stable. A bona fide swinging voter, he switched to Howard in 1996. He voted One Nation in the Senate two years later.

“I didn’t agree with her on everything,” he says, “but at least she wasn’t scripted.”

Hilton might live in the inner city, but he is a long, long way from woke. He sits on four company boards, and is the chairman of the Withcott Group, an agricultural business. His vote should be safe as a house for the Liberal National Party. But the words “Scott Morrison” elicit visceral indignation. Hilton swears that most of the Liberals within his affluent social network are this election’s voters waiting on their porches with baseball bats for the PM.

“I hate that fuckwit,” he says.

Morrison is so unpopular that his attempts to scapegoat trans athletes for electoral gain has actually catalysed surprising sources of compassion. “He’s really scraping the barrel banging on about all this trans shit. I don’t know any trans people, but Jesus Christ it must be tough.”

Hilton’s unit is in the seat of Griffith, the old stomping ground of Kevin Rudd. Labor’s Terri Butler knows she is under serious pressure to hold it. In 2019, Greens candidate Max Chandler-Mather received a primary vote of 23.7 per cent. During the campaign, The Courier-Mail reports Greens polling showing them on track for a further 7.4 per cent swing. Later that morning, a car literally crashes into Butler’s electorate office.

I ask Hilton who he will be voting for, anticipating that he will switch back to his grandfather’s party.

“Mate, I’ll be voting for the Greens,” he says, without skipping a beat. “This young bloke seems pretty good. And I’m just sick of the same old shit.”

Hilton’s wife and three sons will also vote for the Greens. This isn’t some irrational protest voter. He sees pros and cons in the Liberals and Labor. Quite simply, the Greens are the party that best represents his position on climate change. And for a Howard-loving accountant, he is shockingly receptive to economic redistribution.

“Uni degrees should be free, like they were for me,” he says. “And dental should be part of Medicare. But Labor is too chicken to do it.”

It isn’t just middle-aged white people with high disposable income causing chaos for the two-party system. Dylan Rowe, 31, is 6-foot-4 and 115 kilograms. The proud Maori man plays as a forward in rugby union, like Scott Morrison once did. Rowe’s mum is Croatian. His Polynesian dad got deported back to New Zealand when Rowe was six.

“Dad was a petty thief,” says Rowe, cracking up into irreverent laughter.

Rowe was raised by his young single mum in Gladstone, the coalmining hub in central Queensland. He went to a public high school in Brisbane and confesses to being “highly uneducated”. Afterwards, he finished an apprenticeship as a carpenter. But the strapping athlete didn’t enjoy the chauvinistic atmosphere.

“Lots of Quiet Australians in the construction game, bro,” he says slyly.

Now Rowe works as a disability support worker. He claims that regularly spending five hours on a bus with rugby union players has gradually inured him to getting his fingers covered in urine and excrement for a living.

“Once you’ve watched a grown man butt-chug a beer, nothing churns your stomach anymore,” he says. “You can damn near handle anything.”

Rowe was a Labor voter. In 2019, the ex-tradie switched to the Greens. He felt that white Labor politicians too often catered to the lowest common denominator on race.

“It’s hard to explain,” he says. “I don’t want to be an Uncle Tom.”

Nothing has happened in the preceding three years to sway Rowe’s vote back to Labor. “Property prices are fucked,” he says. “Bro, I’ve accepted I’ll probably never own a home. Labor needs to acknowledge it and do something.”

Rowe is worried about climate change, but doesn’t list it in his top three policy issues. He is voting Greens for economic reasons. This should send a shiver down the spine of Labor Party insiders. The Coalition and One Nation came for the ALP’s old base of high-vis white men. Now the Greens are coming for Labor’s low-vis base of culturally diverse service workers. Rowe has a vivid lived experience of soaring rents, stagnating wages and funding shortfalls for disabled clients.

“I want to see something done about the disability sector,” he says.

His rugby union–playing groomsman, Fef, is also voting for the Greens at the election. Rowe is wryly amused by the idea that unwoke blokes – or working-class battlers – won’t vote for the Greens due to tribal loyalties from the 1950s.

“I’m no jet ski–buying, Liberal-voting coalminer,” he says. “But getting covered in other people’s shit seems pretty working class to me, bro.”

In stark contrast to the 2019 election, regional Queensland seems to be relatively relaxed and comfortable. The resource and property sectors have boomed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Farmers received drought-breaking rain.

In coastal Gladstone, 500 kilometres north of Brisbane, Len Taylor speeds up behind me on a maroon mobility scooter with a blue sun cover. The retired carpenter is 85. He has twin titanium knees, hearing aids and fresh stitches in his earlobe from the removal of a melanoma.

“Cosmo’s going to get back in without too much trouble,” he says.

“ScoMo?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he says. “Cosmo. Everyone’s running him down because he ballsed up COVID. But it’s never happened before, at least in modern times. If you put Ben Chifley in, he still would’ve fucked it up. That’s just my humble opinion.”

This sympathy isn’t universal in regional Australia, but negativity towards Morrison is much less relentless than in the cities of the southern states. Nobody denies mistakes were made. Many think that Labor is on a witch hunt.

“All [Albanese] does is mouth off about how bad the other bloke is,” says Taylor. “He doesn’t say what he’s gonna do. I don’t think he’s up to it.”

Gladstone is in the LNP-held division of Flynn. Much farther north, Labor is targeting the seat of Leichhardt. The MP there is moustachioed former police officer and crocodile farmer Warren Entsch, an LNP man much too honest for the front bench. He calls Julia Gillard “brilliant”, Malcolm Turnbull “a hypocritical prick”, and admits that he gets “a bit nervous” about Morrison’s Pentecostalism. Entsch ranks Morrison in the middle bracket of PMs, with Gillard, behind John Howard but well ahead of Turnbull and Kevin Rudd. He believes Morrison can still win.

“The mood towards him up here is pretty good,” says Entsch via bluetooth while driving in Far North Queensland. “The poor bugger has gone through three natural disasters, a world pandemic and a fucking war.”

On a humid evening, Entsch is picking up dinner for his 15-year-old daughter, who has coronavirus. He says a passing truck is plastered with ALP bumper stickers. Greens members wave corflutes. Then he is confronted with one of the ubiquitous yellow billboards funded by anti-vaxxer billionaire Clive Palmer: FREEDOM! FREEDOM! FREEDOM!

 “People have got short memories,” he says. “When [Palmer] was last elected, he never turned up to fucking parliament … The bastard’s barking mad.”

Entsch the freewheeling centrist is under siege from both left and right. Leichhardt – reliant on tourism and farming rather than coalmining – was the only regional electorate in Queensland that swung towards Labor at the 2019 election.

“I don’t think the vote will be for Albo,” says Entsch. “It will be a protest vote against authority.”

For once, Entsch is fretting more about his right flank than the left. Bob Katter, Pauline Hanson and Palmer will fight for disciples at polling booths. The Katter Australia Party candidate is Rod Jensen, an ex–National Rugby League player of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent. After retirement, “Rocket Rod” became a teacher and joined the Army Reserve. He regularly refers to me as “sir”.

“If you’ve seen me out at Aurukun, you know that I’m here to help,” Jensen says. “And if you’ve got time to talk to me, I’ve got time to talk to you. I’m not elevated above you … We walk through life together.”

Jensen’s mother was a nurse. His father worked in the logging industry, before being made redundant. As a teenager, Jensen – who couldn’t read or write – took 30 cents to a public payphone to beg the headmaster of Saint Augustine’s College in Cairns for a scholarship. He bristles at stereotypes within the southern states that the Katter Party are a bunch of gun-loving rednecks in Akubras plotting a holocaust of crocodiles.

“People down south need to come up here,” he says. “They will see first-hand how much we are struggling. Two-wage families can’t make ends meet.”

On most economic matters, Jensen actually sounds more left-wing than the average teal independent candidate. He calls for cheaper university degrees and massive investment into social housing and public education. He believes that the aged pension should be raised by $100 a week via an import tax, and that providing more support to single-parent families would reduce crime.

“I was taught ‘Advance Australia Fair’,” he says. “So, I pray that my children will be able to begin from where I finished, not from where I started. But the way that things are going, they won’t be able to buy their own homes.”

On the road during the 2022 election, I eavesdrop on a tale of two Australias. Coronavirus was a catastrophe for the precariat and a windfall for the asset class. The balance sheets of the rich and poor have never been further apart. The gap is growing. Ironically, the wealthiest electorates are the ones plotting the most coherent coup, courtesy of the teal independents aligned with the Climate 200 fundraising group.

“Morrison created a product to chase persuadables in the marginal seats, such as tradies,” says Climate 200 founder Simon Holmes à Court. “It doesn’t appeal to professionals in Kooyong [Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s seat in Melbourne]. But Frydenberg is stuck with the product. That’s left a vacuum.”

Holmes à Court is easy for enemies to caricature as a silvertail. The son of Australia’s first billionaire is slowly savouring a bowl of granola at a cafe in Surry Hills. A buttoned-up blue shirt covered with parakeets is tucked into black jeans. Softly spoken, he is an unlikely assassin in the war against Australia’s ruling class.

“The movement doesn’t finish on election day,” he insists.

Holmes à Court used to be a member of Frydenberg’s Kooyong 200 fundraising club. He calls himself a “political venture capitalist”. The Climate 200 convenor is aiming to raise $10 million for 22 independent candidates, almost all of them fiscally frugal women urgently concerned about climate change. He suspects Allegra Spender would win Wentworth, in Sydney’s east, if the election were tomorrow. And that another five seats – Mackellar (Sydney’s north), North Sydney, Kooyong, Goldstein (Melbourne’s south-east) and Curtin (Perth’s west) – might be won by teals too.

For years, he has been speaking to Ruth McGowan – sister of retired independent Cathy – about gender in politics. She didn’t see a female alternative to the “Top Bloke” archetype: someone instinctively trusted by voters. Now he sees an alternative emerging. Julia Gillard’s leadership template has been liberated from party politics by Cathy McGowan, Helen Haines and Zali Steggall.

“At night, Helen and Zali aren’t at the pub cavorting with staffers,” Holmes à Court says. “I think that there are a lot of people who would much rather vote for a no-nonsense woman than a good bloke. But we will see on election day.”

Jo Dyer is a no-nonsense woman. We meet for a cup of tea. The outgoing director of Adelaide Writers’ Week became a dogged public advocate for Christian Porter’s rape accuser, who committed suicide in June 2020. She notes that the cases of Brittany Higgins and Rachelle Miller – both Liberal staffers – raised accusations of government cover-ups.

“Morrison is the embodiment of the government’s problems,” she says.

In December, Dyer decided to run as a Climate 200–aligned independent in the South Australian seat of Boothby, marginal and middle class. Held by retiring Liberal Nicolle Flint, it is a perennial target for Labor. The election in March of the Peter Malinauskas state Labor government has given renewed optimism to ALP strategists. Dyer noticed a profound shift in the public perception of the prime minister over Christmas and into January. She knows “quite a few” Liberals who handed out how-to-vote cards for the defeated Liberal premier Steven Marshall but won’t for Morrison.

“All the daggy selfies and ridiculous stunts have not only stopped working,” she says, “they actually reinforce the perception of his emptiness.”

Dyer’s preferred outcome is a minority Labor government with a crossbench that can “hold their feet to the fire” on key policy issues such as climate change. Even if she misses out, she hopes that her contribution will swing Boothby to Labor.

“If this government were to be re-elected, what would it be enabling?” Dyer asks. “What kind of new horrors might be visited upon us?”

Michelle Ananda-Rajah is the ALP candidate for the blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Higgins, in Melbourne’s leafy east. She acknowledges that once upon a time, an inner-city elite with her level of income and education would have been a rusted-on Liberal voter. But she viscerally detests Scott Morrison. This reiterates the feedback from university-educated women in focus groups.

“Morrison plays the strongman,” Ananda-Rajah says. “[But] when women like Grace Tame criticise him, you see fragility. To me, he is the antithesis of a strong man.”

The decorated doctor’s preselection would be mind-blowing to the Irish-Catholic strongmen who started the Labor Party. She was born in England to Sri Lankan Tamils and raised in Zambia.

“People told me to go back where I came from,” she says, with a placeless accent. “I was like, where is that, exactly? England? Africa? Sri Lanka? Australia?”

In 1984, when she was 11 years old, Ananda-Rajah emigrated to Sydney. She was politically awakened as a teenager by reading a biography of Steve Biko and Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth. After studying medicine in Sydney, Ananda-Raja moved to Melbourne and did a PhD in the treatment of infectious diseases. She rose to public prominence as an activist for healthcare workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I would describe how Morrison and Frydenberg acted as total treachery,” she says. “It gave rise to the freedom movement and anti-vaxxers rioting, police being spat at, nurses being attacked and abused in hospitals.”

Ananda-Rajah has lived in the suburb of Kooyong – which sits within Higgins, rather than its namesake division – for 20 years. She and her husband have a 17-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old son. In 2019, Labor received a primary vote swing of 8.9 per cent in Higgins. The formerly safe seat, once held by Peter Costello, had become unthinkably marginal. What better way to win over “doctor’s wives” than with a literal physician, whose kids also attend elite schools? Ananda-Rajah has had entire families of lifelong Liberals shyly pledge their allegiance.

“Labor had its cultural roots in the workers’ movement over a hundred years ago,” she says. “But things change. Parties need to be agile … I’m a centrist. And I see modern Labor as a party for the sensible centre.”

Ananda-Rajah sees toxic masculinity as a threat to women and a public-health risk to men. She condemns the Coalition for concentrating on blue-collar blokes in the 25 to 45 age bracket, given that there are 2 million female professionals (roughly half a million more than there are tradies). “Where are women in our economic narrative?” she asks. “We hold up half the sky. But all I see from Morrison are high-vis vests and hard hats.”

For Ananda-Rajah, the 2022 election is a watershed moment. The dramatic emergence of teals has overshadowed the slow yet steady reddening of blue-ribbon Liberal seats such as Higgins and Bennelong (in Sydney’s north). At the same time, Labor plans to sandbag three electorates in the coal-rich Hunter Valley. Albanese is attempting a delicate balancing act between Labor’s white, macho past and a multi-ethnic, feminine future.

“Labor must try to unite inner-city seats like Higgins with blue-collar seats such as Hunter,” says Ananda-Rajah. “If we don’t, our mandate for a transition will evaporate. And we will be back at the Climate Wars 101.”

Daniel Repacholi, Labor’s controversial star candidate for Hunter, is 202 centimetres and 130 kilograms. A fitter and turner by trade, “Repa” used to work in the coalmining industry. The irreverent tradie is also an Olympic shooter and has won gold medals at three Commonwealth Games. His billowing red beard has been trimmed back since he was headhunted by the outgoing Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon.

“I didn’t grow up being told I was going to be PM since the age of 10,” Repacholi says, with a thick twang. “We vote Labor in my family. Mum and Dad were blue-collar workers. One brother is a fitter. The other brother’s a butcher.”

I meet him at the Kurri Kurri Nostalgia Festival. The main drag is filled with grease-emitting food vans and petrol-guzzling hot rods. DIESEL SOOT GETS THE MOOT trumpets the bumper sticker of a four-wheel drive ute. Kurri Kurri, in the Hunter Valley, is also home of the annual Mulletfest competition. One such mulleted bloke wears a matching Parramatta Eels hat, jersey, jacket and trackies.

“Fuck me, you’re a big cunt,” he mutters, looking up at Repacholi.

“Yes, I am!” says the chuffed candidate, laughing heartily.

Repacholi stands outside Happi Chicken smashing a bacon-and-egg burger. He chats to fried-poultry provider Rosa Grine, a councillor from the nearby town of Cessnock, where Repacholi lives with his wife and two daughters. Grine insists that shops such as hers would go bankrupt without coalminers.

“While people want to buy our coal, we will sell our coal,” Repacholi declares. “There’s no doubt about that … We have the cleanest coal in the world. If we don’t supply coal, they’re just going to buy it from Brazil or Mongolia.”

According to the 2016 census, coalmining employs 9 per cent of the Hunter electorate. Of its adult population, 84.5 per cent were born in Australia, compared to 49.4 per cent of Chisholm (in eastern Melbourne) and 43.7 per cent of Reid (in Western Sydney). Those with a university degree total 10.9 per cent, compared to 46.5 per cent of Higgins. Locals might be more trusting of vague promises of a “just transition” from coalmining if the political class hadn’t allowed the manufacturing industry to go bust in the 1990s.

“Politicians don’t give a frig about places like this,” says a cleaner named Shirleen, who is upgrading her vote from One Nation to the United Australia Party.

In 2019, One Nation’s Stuart Bonds – a coalminer – received a primary vote of 21.6 per cent in Hunter. Since 1993, Labor’s primary has declined from 60.6 per cent to 37.6. Repacholi was a “captain’s pick” by Anthony Albanese. The shooter had no previous parliamentary ambitions. He just loves listening to everyday people, who reciprocate the affection.

“I’ll put my hand up and say that I am a bogan,” says Repacholi. “And so are many people in this area. Politicians need to reflect their local community. Just look at Zhi Soon in Banks [in Sydney’s south]. He’s of Malaysian heritage. And that’s great.”

Kurri Kurri is located in the federal electorate of Paterson. At the last election, its down-to-earth Labor MP Meryl Swanson suffered a similarly vicious swing as Joel Fitzgibbon’s in Hunter. This time, she faces a tough battle against the glamorous Liberal Brooke Vitnell, whose husband, Julian Leembruggen, is a communications adviser to Scott Morrison. A staffer for Swanson excitedly divulges their secret weapon: a drink coaster in the shape of Australia emblazoned with the backbencher’s face.

“We’re going to make patriotism great again!” says the staffer.

Repacholi gets a roll from Mr Hoagies Flamin’ Aussie Sangas to reinforce the recent purchase of the bacon-and-egg burger. Swanson interrupts the feed for a photo op. She asks a staffer to snap an image of her stealing Repacholi’s final mouthful of the hoagie roll like a seagull.

“Stand there, Dan,” she says. “I’m going to fight you for the last bite!” Repacholi laughs half-heartedly, before realising that the MP is serious. “We stir the shit out of each other all the time,” Swanson tells me.

A staffer is keeping track of a nationwide ALP leaderboard for doorknocking via an app. Repacholi wants to win the gold medal. He prefers these private interactions to nodding mechanically in the background of press conferences. Repacholi travels to Aberdare, a suburb of Cessnock, and knocks on the first door. Amanda is a single mum in social housing, who moved from Western Sydney because the rent was cheaper.

“The bus services here are pretty crap,” she says. “We don’t have a car. I called up one day to find out how much a cab to the zoo would be. It was $120, or something stupid.”

Amanda lobbies Repacholi to legislate a Timezone games centre for Cessnock. Maybe the bullies at the school would stop assaulting her daughter if they had something better to do. And maybe her daughter would feel less isolated if there were free buses to the zoo, so that she could get away from the house once in a while.

“She wants taekwondo lessons,” says Amanda. “But they cost too much.”

Lots of locals aren’t aware that an election is imminent. But this doesn’t mean disengaged voters like Amanda don’t care about misogyny or the environment. Amanda believes local fathers have taught their sons they are allowed to “belittle” women. She finishes with an unanticipated rant about plastic pollution and animal cruelty. “I don’t get why governments take so bloody long,” she says. “We’ll have everything green by 2050 or whatever. Why? Get rid of plastic bags now. Oh, and the chicken companies hurt animals for no good reason. It makes me cry.”

Repacholi enters constituent feedback into an app on his iPhone and moves on to the next address. A plaque beside the front door provides a stark warning. If you so much as think of knocking on this door to sell religion or any other shit I don’t need, I will kick your arse, it reads. Deliveries are welcome but everyone else can fuck off.

Repacholi chuckles to himself and nonetheless knocks on the door. “That’s good shit!” he says. “These are my favourite people.”

The bearded giant strides on, smiling at Cessnock residents with a cheeky grin that turns their anger or dread into serenity. They see a larger-than-life version of themselves: imperfect and allergic to authority. Repacholi doesn’t visibly cringe upon discovering an avowed One Nation voter. His pitch for their second preference is short and sweet: Labor will protect Medicare and cut GP waiting times.

Lorraine lives in a renovated worker’s cottage. She is the sole caregiver for two young grandchildren (“I lost my husband to cancer last year”) and is a Labor voter. She pledges her first preference to Repacholi at the next election. Yet she expresses a human sympathy for Scott Morrison. “I just think Morrison’s doing a pretty good job given that he’s had a tough couple of years,” she says. “You can’t blame him for coronavirus.”

We walk to the Caledonia Hotel, across the road from the CFMEU headquarters and miners’ memorial. At the pub, Repacholi orders a schooner of beer and a counter meal. An old codger implores him to keep returning post-election. Repacholi promises that he won’t be disappearing, win or lose. Onto his second schooner, Repacholi tells me that this is the clearest difference between himself and Scott Morrison: Morrison would only come to a place like the Caledonia Hotel for a photo op.

“Mate, Morrison isn’t a blue-collar worker’s arsehole,” he says. “People gravitated to him for a while. But now they can see him for the liar that he is.”

We finish the afternoon with a Cessnock Goannas league game. The car park is filled with utes and four-wheel drives. Repacholi is warmly embraced by a congregation of Quiet Australians, who loudly admire his physical prowess.

“At the end of the day, I’m just a fitter and turner,” he tells me, “who is a five-time Olympian and three-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist.”

Repacholi volunteers in the canteen, pouring ladles of gravy across cartons of hot chips. I make conversation on the sideline with five spectators: a father, his adult son, and three other men. They are all ex-Goannas players and coalminers.

“I’ll probably vote Labor, brother,” says a Murri man from Dirranbandi in western Queensland. “I dunno why. I guess I just always have.”

This elicits ribbing from the father and son. The father was born in West Germany. His stepdad was a Cessnock coalminer whom he says was a diehard Labor voter.

“If Bob Hawke said I’m gonna knock down your house, he still would’ve voted for him,” he says. “And if John Howard said I’m gonna build you a new house, he still would’ve voted for Bob Hawke!”

He himself stopped voting for Labor during the Howard years. Father and son vehemently agree that Hunter is under attack from inner-city elites. They are sceptical about the need for vaccination mandates and action on climate change.

“It’s a crock of shit,” says the father. “The climate is always changing!”

Both are intending to give their first preferences to One Nation. Thanks to vaccination and mask mandates, they have lost faith in Morrison, but see him as the friendlier of two devils. Neither of them distinguishes between Labor and the Greens.

“Mate, ScoMo’s a wanker,” says the father. “But Albo’s a socialist.”

“One hundred per cent,” says the son, nodding vigorously. “The election is like asking who would ya rather have a beer with: Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden?”

The son is also anxious about shifting definitions of gender. He accuses “the left” of wanting to obliterate biological differences between his children. And he predicts Quiet Australians will make their displeasure heard at the ballot box. “Can men have babies?” he asks incredulously, echoing the question with which The Daily Telegraph recently tested Albanese. “The left wants to turn boys into girls and girls into boys.”

Albanese attempts to jumpstart his spluttering campaign in Kallangur, up the guts of Peter Dutton country. In Queensland’s Moreton Bay region, the press file off a Murray’s bus into the car park between an RSL and a bowls club. The Labor leader arrives in a BMW. Australian Federal Police officers speak theatrically into their sleeves. Albanese promises funding for an outfit named Disaster Relief Australia.

“Who wants to watch a drone go up?” asks an ex-soldier in yellow boots, as Albanese poses nearby for photo ops.

Reporters record their pieces to camera within earshot of the Labor leader, echoing each other in a form of oral waterboarding. Mark Riley from Channel 7 tries to nail his bulletin as a drone buzzes ominously above a grinning Albanese.

“Voters have marked Albanese down after a disastrous first week,” says Riley.

Within half an hour of arrival, Albanese leaves in a hail of smiles and handshakes. Mick Denton – an oil refinery worker, and Labor’s candidate for the nearby division of Petrie – drives away in a Triton ute with a Redcliffe Dolphins bumper sticker. The press pack file glumly back to the bus. There were no gaffes or decapitations.

“We sometimes forget that Morrison couldn’t give a fuck what journos think about him,” shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers says to me later. “Labor has got to make sure that we have a bit of mongrel, too. And that we don’t assume this is purely a policy contest.”

Chalmers hosts Albanese at a Toll warehouse in the sprawl between Brisbane and the Gold Coast. Chalmers grew up here, in Logan, originally with a single mum who studied at night to be a nurse.

“I believe Anthony is right for the times,” Chalmers tells me. “He is fundamentally humble, but I think that people are hungry for some humility. Labor have got a guy who wants to solve problems, versus a guy who likes to pick fights.”

Suddenly, news crews flock from one end of the gargantuan warehouse to the other. Albanese and shadow minister for industrial relations Tony Burke arrive with a team of staffers. The Opposition leader gladhands high-vis workers.

“Thank you for what you do,” he keeps repeating.

Morrison would probably attempt to commandeer a forklift. Albanese seems sheepish about being the centre of attention, especially in front of such unpretentious people. The gathering is to announce funding for a road upgrade. But Albanese is principally here to reset the campaign. He comes out swinging.

“Whether it’s the bushfires, whether it’s ordering enough vaccines, whether it’s ordering enough RATs … this prime minister is complacent.”

The press conference starts. A switch is flicked. Around me, the drained faces of some reporters are flooded with pain and anger, as if they have been constipated since the first day of the campaign and Albanese is refusing to cough up any laxatives. They barrage him with queries. (“Mr Albanese, can I please ask you, what is your view on transgender participation in women’s sports?”)

Most of the Toll workers are polite Pacific Islanders. They lean against pallets, arms folded and eyebrows lifted towards the inquisition. Albanese straight-bats questions about boat turnbacks and union thugs. Nobody asks about aged care, so he brings them to the subject himself, asking reporters to imagine it was them in a nursing home. They attempt to interrupt for the next question. Mr Albanese! Mr Albanese! He ignores them.

“Aged care workers are despairing,” he says. “This is tough work … They have three buzzers going off at once. Which person do they go and lift? They have people living in their own soil unable to be changed for days.”

This is Albanese’s best performance of the campaign so far. Spit flies. He isn’t trying to be “prime ministerial”. Abstract platitudes have been replaced by concrete images delivered with a bit of passion. It isn’t brimming with Whitlam’s poeticism or Rudd’s programmatic specificity. But he looks and sounds like a man who gives a shit.

“They are literally starving!” he says, about aged-care residents. “You’ll see Scott Morrison doing photo ops every day. Good pictures. I’ve got no doubt they’ll deliver on that. But he doesn’t deliver on his key responsibilities.”

Later, Sky News hosts the first leaders’ debate at the Gabba cricket ground. One hundred undecided voters file apathetically into the Legends Room. Albanese and Morrison shake hands. They are then asked the opposite of gotcha questions by the mob. Catherine has a four-year-old son with autism named Ethan. Given cuts to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, Catherine questions Morrison why she shouldn’t vote for Labor. Morrison responds that he and Jenny are “blessed” not to be in her situation, and that he personally supports the NDIS.

“It’s always Labor that does the big changes that make a difference to people’s lives,” Albanese says. “To make sure that people aren’t left behind.”

“They started Medicare as well,” says Morrison, agreeing. “But it’s always the Liberals and Nationals who have to work out how to pay for these things.”

Australian politics is akin to a tournament of Elvis Presley impersonators. There’s barely anyone with an original lyric on their lips or melody in their fingertips. Morrison is a terrific mimic. In 2019, he looked and sounded like the real thing to swinging voters watching the election out of the corner of their eye.

“There’s two coalitions,” says Morrison in closing. “There’s the Liberals and Nationals. And, of course, the Labor Party will be supported by the Greens.”

As the debate finishes, host Paul Murray stumbles to the back of the Legends Room, like the drunk uncle hanging around at the end of a wedding reception. Everyone disperses. A poll of attendees finds 40 most convinced by Albanese, 35 by Morrison and 25 not persuaded either way. The 2022 election will be decided by a shit fight over the inclinations of the unconvinced.

“I look at both major parties and just see failure, mate,” says Brad, 42, a strapping, double-vaxxed redhead with a goatee and sleeve tattoos.

Brad sits with a neat pile of coins at the Jets Leagues Club in North Ipswich. He works for a sheet-metal company like his dad. His wife, Steph, is a hairdresser. They have two kids and own a home in the seat of Blair, west of Brisbane. In 2019, Brad contributed to the 9.8 per cent swing that nearly fleeced the seat from Labor.

“I was always Labor,” Brad tells me. “But they started sounding more and more like the Greens. And trying to fix every problem with a new tax.”

In 2019, Brad switched to the LNP federally, before siding with Labor a year later at state level. Morrison plans to win outer suburban Labor seats such as Blair to offset the possible loss of metropolitan Liberal ones. He is trying to achieve this with persistent dog whistles on gender and race. But Brad is getting sick of listening to “Blue Suede Shoes”.

“Fuck ScoMo. The Libs have been a bumbling mess. Not getting the right vaccine. Not getting enough RATs. And Labor aren’t much better. People are sick of all the restrictions … I’ll probably vote for an independent.”

In Bundaberg, on the coast 360 kilometres north of Brisbane, homeless men and women push trolleys beside the Burnett River. Many more struggle unspectacularly in the city’s outer-suburbs and surrounding country towns, often with low-paying jobs and no obvious prospect of social mobility. Hinkler – anchored in Bundaberg – is arguably Australia’s most disadvantaged electorate. Since 2019, 7000 welfare recipients under the age of 36 have had their payments rationed in a trial of a cashless debit card.

“It’s a different country to when I was growing up, eh,” says 35-year-old Skye, a mother of five sons, three of whom have disabilities. “Even with two full-time incomes, you still struggle to buy food, electricity, fuel, wifi… Our teeth are buggered.”

I am in Bundy at the halfway mark of the election campaign. It provides an antidote to the head-spinning hyperreality of the media trail. Skye and her husband, Greg, are out the front of the Australia Post. Skye holds an unfilled postal vote. They hail from Macksville in northern New South Wales. Skye shrugs her sunken shoulders, face vacant, when I solicit an opinion of Albanese. At the mere mention of Morrison, her face instantly awakens with anger.

“We were in the fire zone when ScoMo took off overseas,” she says. “My dad was out fighting the bushfires. And ScoMo said, ‘It’s not my job.’ And I said, ‘Well, whose job is it?’ You’d think a leader would want to be here.”

Greg works as a fruit picker – pineapples, lemons or strawberries, depending on the season. Skye works as an aged-care nurse. She describes the routine grief of losing patients who start to feel like family members, while slaving away in an understaffed industry for $22.50 an hour. She hasn’t decided her final vote yet.

“I think that Labor’s got a better approach to aged-care stuff,” she says, twisting a cigarette butt between her fingertips. “But you don’t know if they’re just lying to get votes. At the end of the day, I’ve got no trust in any of them.”

Skye and Greg have only just got back onto their feet. A year ago, they were paying $405 a week for a four-bedroom house in Tyalgum, a village in NSW’s Northern Rivers. The lease ended. They offered $500. The landlord told them that he wanted to do renovations. Skye saw the property listed for $700 a week later. The family of seven moved into a series of budget caravan parks. It cost $480 a week to pitch a tent. They spent nine months homeless and roaming along the east coast of Australia.

“I never thought we’d be in that situation,” says Skye. “We’ve always worked and treated rentals like our own. Australia’s becoming like a third-world country.”

Outside the post office, I meet the mayor of Bundaberg. He grabs me by the bicep like he’s about to take blood. Jack Dempsey has the stomach of a truckie and the front teeth of a street fighter. We go for a cup of coffee.

“Can I grab a flat white,” he says, “with… what’s the other milk?”

“Skim?” asks the waiter.

“Nah, not skim.”

“Lactose free?”

“Nah, bloody um…”

Dempsey’s chubby cheeks are clean shaven. He appears to have a speck of blood on the shoulder of his white-and-purple striped business shirt.

“Soy?” asks the waiter.

“Soy!” says the mayor. “Yeah, that’s the one. My body’s a temple.”

We take one of the cafe’s booths. The ex-copper and former Liberal National police minister is running as an independent against his arch nemesis, the sitting LNP member Keith Pitt, whom he repeatedly refers to as “the minister for coal”. In 2019, Pitt won a two-party-preferred result of 64.5 per cent. One Nation got a primary vote of 15 per cent, and the United Australia Party 4 per cent.

“People in Sydney and Melbourne think regional Queensland is all about coal,” Dempsey tells me. “But Bundy isn’t a coalmining town!”

The biggest bee in Dempsey’s bonnet is the cashless debit card. He joins its critics in claiming the measures can prevent women from fleeing domestic violence.

“It could be you or I tomorrow,” he says. “We could have an injury and lose an income. As a country, we shouldn’t be putting people into a box that says you’re a gambler, or a drug addict, or an alcoholic. That’s not a fair go.”

The issue hits close to home. Dempsey grew up in a council house near Ipswich. He had an Irish-Catholic dad with a disability, who introduced his three sons to pugilism. Jack was an undefeated junior state boxing champion. He dropped out of school at the age of 15 to provide for his family, working as a labourer and concreter.

“I remember walking barefoot to the shops to pawn dad’s lawnmower for 20 bucks for groceries,” he says, eyes wet and voice breaking.

Dempsey joined the police, and eventually found himself the father of five in Bundy. He ran for the Nationals in the state seat of Bundaberg, one of Labor’s safest for a century. He claims Labor had taken the area for granted. After becoming police minister in the Campbell Newman government, he was punted by voters three years later with a 20 per cent swing. The experience left him disillusioned.

“The Nats used to represent country areas,” he says. “In Queensland, they’re very much beholden to the coal industry and big business now.”

On Bourbong Street, 52-year-old Shirley pushes a pram crammed with two grandkids. She also helps care for an adult son with a disability. Her daughter Rebecca is 26 and a single mum of four.

“I don’t pay much attention to the politics, to be honest,” says Rebecca. “I just take a risk with my vote and hope that one of them will help us.”

Rebecca lives in a home supplied by Regional Housing, a not-for-profit providing emergency and long-term social housing. The rent on her dwelling is nevertheless calculated according to market value. The post-COVID property boom in Bundaberg is causing chaos for the thousands who don’t already own a home. “I was paying $287 a week,” she says. “Now they want to charge me $355 a week, ’cause market value or some shit. My income’s not going nowhere.”

Rebecca has been on the cashless debit card for three years. Rent is automatically deducted. She spends week after week haggling over incomprehensible deductions and arrears, and is visibly at breaking point. “It feels like I’m being targeted,” she sighs. “I don’t do drugs. I don’t do alcohol. I don’t smoke cigarettes. I don’t gamble. Why should I be on it?”

Rebecca would appear to be the key target audience for Jack Dempsey. But she doesn’t draw a clear connection between the cashless debit card and the Coalition.

“Keith’s pretty good,” she says. “He cares about people. He helps us.”

Rebecca and Shirley agree with Len Taylor in Gladstone: Morrison is copping too much grief.

“It’s very stressful to be PM,” says Shirley. “He’s doing his best with it.”

Many low-income locals suffer an allergic reaction when I simply utter the word “Labor”. And so it goes for Rebecca and Shirley. Their faces cringe with a mixture of incredulity and fury, as though I spoke an obscenity.

“I couldn’t care less about Labor!” says Rebecca, looking at her nodding mum for reinforcement. “They don’t care about people like us. I put them last.”

Rebecca and Shirley aren’t anecdotal outliers. The ALP’s 2019 election review found low-income voters in outer-suburban and regional Australia swung heavily towards the Coalition, especially in electorates with high unemployment rates. Even intergenerational welfare recipients are losing faith in the Labor Party.

“Labor hasn’t done much for Australia,” says Shirley. “I mean, they gave us extra money. But that didn’t help much in the long run. Just put us more and more in debt. At least the Liberals and that are trying to get us out of it.”

Anthony Albanese tests positive for coronavirus two days after the first debate. Labor supporters swoon over his campaign replacement Jason Clare. His deep voice has gravitas. His handsome face switches between sincerity and incredulity at the right cues. The MP for Blaxland looks and sounds “prime ministerial”, a media-class euphemism for being a photogenic white man.

Labor chooses to launch Albanese’s resurrection at Optus Stadium in Perth, the first campaign launch in the west since John Curtin’s in 1937. The first speaker is Zaneta Mascarenhas, an engineer and the candidate for Swan, held by the Liberals on 52.7 per cent. Mascarenhas wears an orange blouse and white blazer. Her parents are from Goa, India’s former Portuguese colony. They emigrated to Western Australia via Kenya. The daughter of a fitter-and-turner father and a kindy-cleaner mother, Mascarenhas was bumped as the preselected candidate in 2019 to make way for the daughter of Kim Beazley.

“I was born in Kalgoorlie,” she tells the gathering, “and grew up in Kambalda, a nickel-mining town … Steelcap boots on a mine site. That’s how I started my career.”

Kevin Rudd sits in the front row. He is the only living person who has led Labor to government from Opposition. Whitlam, Hawke and Rudd – all three radiated blind faith that they were the best person to run the country. This is a quality shared by Scott Morrison, but not by Albanese.

“Labor is led by an honest man,” says Clare. “[Morrison] is all tinsel, no tree. Nothing about this bloke is real except his ability to let you down.”

Premier Mark McGowan receives a rockstar reception, though the idea that he might convert four or five federal Liberal seats to Labor has recently dwindled in the media. The cult of McGowan is a true testament to the siege mentality of Western Australians. The saviour of the “cave people” has the charisma of a history teacher. His speech is followed by a TV ad for Albanese narrated by Russell Crowe, whom Albanese knows from the star of Gladiator’s days financially saving the South Sydney Rabbitohs.

“We can do so much better,” says Crowe.

Albanese enters the room to “Sounds of Then (This is Australia)” by Gang Gajang. He shakes hands with foe Bill Shorten. He gets a hug from Kevin Rudd, for whom he was the numbers man. Keating claps mechanically, like a toy monkey banging cymbals together. Albanese waves at a baby and kisses Penny Wong on the cheek.

“My fellow Australians, in just 20 days, you can vote for a better future,” says Albanese. “You can choose cheaper childcare, stronger Medicare and fixing the crisis in aged care. Or you can have more of the same: neglect.”

There is no Hawke-like sense of inevitability, just an honest toiler trying his best against a persuasive snake-oil salesman. Progressives are obsessed with messiahs. But Albanese is rarely compared to John Curtin or Ben Chifley, two true believers from humble origins who were less physically and orally imposing than Robert Menzies. Perhaps Albanese’s no-frills leadership style is a return to normal, not an exception.

“Vote for hope and optimism, not fear and division,” he says.

Gang Gajang blares back into the room. Wong strides on stage. “You did great,” she reassures her nervous mate, who gives two thumbs up to the crowd.

Afterwards, Mascarenhas fondly describes Kambalda to me as an egalitarian melting pot. Her mum, Maria, volunteered as a lollipop lady. The family were devout Catholics and hoarders. When someone new arrived in the one-company town, her parents provided them with a home-cooked curry and a piece of furniture.

“I fucking love Australia!” she tells me. “Seeing other countries operate gives you perspective. I’m glad we’ve got superannuation and a good minimum wage. I’m proud of Medicare and the NDIS. But I want to make Australia better.”

When Mascarenhas was 15, global commodity prices tanked, and her dad, José, was made redundant from the nickel mine. The breadwinner was finished up at 56. At night, he wept while apologising to his daughter.

“I’m incredibly passionate about action on climate change,” she says. “But I want to make sure that people like my father receive a just transition.”

Mascarenhas received an equity scholarship to study chemical engineering at Curtin University. Her university sweetheart, Sam, is the son of a Uniting Church minister. Her first boss on a Western Australian mine site was an ex-bikie from Ballarat who had converted to Buddhism. Mascarenhas later became an expert in calculating the greenhouse-gas emissions of the big emitters.

“I’m a white-collar professional who has worked on the mines for 12 years,” she says. “I’m a country girl who lives in the city. I am a dinky-di Aussie, and I’m also the child of migrants. You know what the word is? Duality.”

Mascarenhas is perhaps the closest that I have come to uncovering a politician who encapsulates the contradictions of modern Australia. Predictably, the media try to pigeonhole the climate-change specialist as an inner-city elite.


The newspaper reveals that the Labor candidate had previously volunteered for the Climate Reality Project, which endorses carbon pricing. Mascarenhas believes that the hatchet job will be a net benefit in an electorate with an appetite for climate change action. The front-page splash was Maria’s proudest moment as a mum. She stopped reading after “STAR LABOR CANDIDATE”. It was the talk of Kambalda.

“You can be pro-mining and pro-action on climate change,” says Mascarenhas.

She describes the existence of “McGowan Liberals”: lifetime Liberal voters who experimented with Labor at the 2021 state election. Labor won 53 out of 59 seats. Doorknocking during this federal campaign, Mascarenhas wasn’t expecting to come across anyone voting Labor for the first time. She swears that there’s plenty around.

“West Australians are incredibly parochial,” says Mascarenhas. “You’re either with us or against us. And Scott Morrison was against us.”

Eleven weeks since the floods, Lismore in northern New South Wales remains covered with mud. Houses are gutted and cars upside down. Piles of rubbish smother the front lawns. The obliterated city is filled with skip bins and safety fences. On the first day of pre-polling, Nationals MP Kevin Hogan’s electorate office for the seat of Page is empty. The doors are open. The smell of mould is going nowhere.

“There’s a sense of grief and hopelessness,” says Hanabeth Luke, the teal independent candidate for Page. “Ninety-three per cent of people who have applied for flood funding with the NSW government haven’t received anything.”

Luke is handing out how-to-vote cards in an Akubra at the Southern Cross University in Lismore. A coastal management expert, she works as a lecturer in regenerative agriculture. We duck inside a classroom. Luke connects the dots between local cataclysms and global weather patterns. She eviscerates the federal government for using the pandemic as an alibi to funnel money to the gas industry.

“It’s just dinosaurs clutching onto fossils, mate,” she says.

Luke has a famous history of calling bullshit. In October 2002, she travelled to Bali with her first love, Marc Gajardo, a Cornwall mechanic. One evening at the Sari nightclub, the DJ played “Believe” by Cher. Luke – then a 22-year-old applied science student – excused herself from the dancefloor.

“A thousand tonnes of fertiliser went off about 10 metres away,” she says. “I hit the roof. And somehow wasn’t broken. Then I tried to find Marc.”

Luke was photographed half-carrying 17-year-old Tom Singer out of the club. The next day, those images had been splashed across The Australian, Time magazine and The Times, and she was suddenly “the Angel of Bali”. She found her boyfriend. “He was in the morgue.” Singer later died in hospital.

The Bali bombing was proffered by Tony Blair and John Howard as part justification for the invasion of Iraq. Hanabeth Luke had post-traumatic stress disorder. She wrote a public letter titled “Not in my name, Mr Howard”. ITV invited her to England for a television debate with Blair.

“I knew that every single bomb dropped was going to kill someone with a mother and a father,” she says. “The waves of grief just keep going forever.”

The face of the anti-war movement then vanished from the public sphere to anonymously surf waves in Western Australia, like a character in a Tim Winton novel. But she decided to go back east to continue her studies.

“It seems to me that what’s happening now is what the climate scientists predicted would happen in another 10, 20 years’ time,” she says. “They are saying cyclones will come as far south as Coffs Harbour in the near future.”

Luke has two children and volunteers for the marine rescue unit. Her schoolteacher husband is a volunteer firefighter. Their extended family was directly threatened by the 2019–20 bushfires.

“It was terrifying,” she says. “A pyrocumulus fire was creating its own weather system. We had 16 climate refugees in our house that night.”

Luke teaches a unit on building resilience in a changing climate. During the COP26 climate conference, she was brought to tears by pieces of student assessment about the lived experience of drought and bushfires. Barnaby Joyce was then acting prime minister of Australia. Luke heard him on the news arguing that farmers couldn’t afford to commit to the reduction of carbon emissions.

“I literally stood up from my desk,” she says, “and said, ‘You are wrong, Barnaby Joyce. You are not speaking for farmers. You are captured by the coal and gas lobby. Someone needs to stand up for the regions, and it’s not you.’”

Luke’s campaign launch was meant to be on February 25. She cancelled it, as the drains in Lismore were bursting. Two days later, Luke emailed the state minister for resilience and emergency services, warning that a big flood was coming. She also called the federal agencies in Lismore.

“It’s just a matter of sitting and waiting as there are no evacuation orders,” a spokesperson told her. “We are having another meeting at 9am.”

By 9am, Lismore was under 12–15 metres of water. Residents were waking up with floodwaters rushing into their bedrooms.

“The failure to be prepared for this beggars belief,” says Luke. The next day, she and a marine-rescue skipper named Kira commandeered a tinnie to rescue the elderly from rooftops. They were part of a fleet of improvised rescue vessels. The school in Evans Head on the coast was turned into an evacuation centre. Stranded families camped in tents. Fights broke out between disturbed dogs. The elderly and mentally ill had lost their medication, and heroin addicts their methadone supplies.

“I have expertise when it comes to complete chaos,” Luke says. She helped allocate registered nurses to the elderly, and schoolteachers to the children. Authorities arrived. They tried to stop the rescue missions. Luke and co ignored them. Floodwaters subsided. The road opened. Three truckloads of supplies arrived.

There was little relief for the unprecedented number of the homeless. Families are still paying mortgages for homes shelled of bathrooms and kitchens. The lucky ones with insurance are spending $10,000 a month on campervans. Luke was in the room when Morrison staged an ill-fated visit to Lismore.

“That perception of him as ‘Scotty from Marketing’ is very strong in this region,” she says. “Why did it take 10 days to call a national emergency?”

Luke is remarkably chipper for a survivor of terrorism. A university colleague recently resurveyed climate-change scientists around the world. Their disposition has improved since the last study four years earlier. Countries are belatedly taking action to prevent the worst-case scenarios. Luke doesn’t believe that Australia is one of them.

“People are realising in their millions that coal and gas are not the future,” she says. “But at the current rate, Australia is going to win the wooden spoon.”

On the hustings for the seat of Reid in Western Sydney, the feuding rival candidates hand out how-to-vote cards 20 metres from each other. It is exactly a week before the election. The sitting Liberal MP, Fiona Martin, an alpha female, wears brown boots. The ALP’s Sally Sitou – the daughter of Laotian refugees who fled to Australia during the Vietnam War – wears blue chinos with white sneakers. She is short and has a sunny disposition.

“My dad worked in a factory that made automotive parts,” she tells me under a gazebo. “My mum worked in a factory that made telephone handsets. They were able to buy a place in Cabramatta. I wonder if that would be possible if they came today.”

There is tension in the air. Twenty-four hours earlier, during a radio debate on 2GB, Martin mistook Sitou for Tu Le, the Vietnamese-Australian replaced in preselection by Kristina Keneally in nearby Fowler. A truck flashes by with a graphic of a flabbergasted Sitou after the clash.

“I just wish she would admit it was an honest mistake,” Sitou tells me.

The Coalition’s battle for Reid – held on 53.2 per cent – was already difficult enough, thanks to Morrison and Peter Dutton’s rhetorical war with China. According to the 2016 census, 18.2 per cent of Reid has Chinese ancestry. “Both parents born overseas” applied to 64.1 per cent of adults. The electorate is sensitive to racial profiling.

“I think Chinese Australians have seen that Morrison and Dutton are willing to make them collateral damage to try and win an election,” says Sitou.

Labor has always had a good feeling about Chisholm in Melbourne, held by Liberal Gladys Liu on 50.6 per cent. Now it is optimistic that Jarome Laxale – a former mayor in Ryde, a suburb of north Sydney – can overcome a 6.9 per cent margin in Bennelong. In 2016, 21 per cent of adults there had Chinese ancestry. Popular incumbent John Alexander has retired.

“The Liberal candidate is a hard-right libertarian freak,” says a Labor Party official about Simon Kennedy, Morrison’s captain’s pick for Bennelong.

Kennedy joins anti-trans activist Katherine Deves in Warringah. The duo has added to the perception in Sydney’s highly educated seats that Morrison is prioritising culture wars – and potentially a literal war with China – over economics. In 2007, Sitou worked on Maxine McKew’s successful attempt to unseat John Howard from Bennelong.

“Many members of the Korean and Chinese communities remembered the comments Howard had made about Asian Australians,” she says. “They don’t forget.”

In 2019, a majority of Chinese Australians voted for the Liberals. Many in Sydney were still disillusioned with Labor over comments from NSW state leader Michael Daley about Asians taking jobs.

Andrew Pham was born in Vietnam to Chinese parents. In 1978, he and 11 siblings arrived in Sydney as refugees. He worked in a factory like Sally Sitou’s father, before going into real estate. We have lunch on the deck at the RSL in Burwood, a suburb where 45.1 per cent of adults have Chinese ancestry.

“Sometimes, I like Labor,” he says. “Last time, I like Liberal.”

I have found Australia’s bellwether voter. Pham leans Liberal on economics and Labor on foreign affairs. He calls Keating “a patriot” and mentions that Rudd has better Mandarin than him. But he also used to vote for Howard.

“Howard was a wise guy,” he says. “At least he treated China with respect.”

Since voting for Fiona Martin in 2019, Pham has begun to doubt that Morrison is so wise. Pham vows that Australia is the best country in the world, and that he doesn’t feel some blind tribal loyalty to the birthplace of his parents. But he is extremely worried that the Coalition’s lack of diplomacy will continue to adversely affect the economy.

“Morrison and Dutton make out that China [will] invade Australia tomorrow or something,” he says. “To create a fear. There’s no need to do that.”

Pham doesn’t know Anthony Albanese from a bar of soap. But he is a massive fan of Penny Wong, and intuitively trusts Labor to repair the relationship with China. The final tipping point was Morrison’s profligate spending promises in the budget.

“Usually, Labor spend a lot of money,” he says. “This time, Liberal does! We have to pay back the debt. There is no such thing as a free lunch.”

Pham lifts his breathing mask to utter this final line cold-bloodedly, before subsequently insisting that it is a cultural custom for him to pay for my Huon River salmon fillet. The Bellwether of Burwood is officially switching back to the ALP.

“Morrison [will] stab your back in a minute,” he says. “Like with Turnbull.”

At the Canterbury RSL in Marrickville, the Labor faithful watch the ABC’s Antony Green on the big-screen TV with anguish and déjà vu. A young woman bites down on bloodless knuckles, like she’s watching a home video of her own childbirth.

“This all feels like a hallucination,” says James Jeffrey, Albanese’s curly haired speechwriter. He looks seasick, yet the ground is stable.

The Liberals are getting smashed by the teals. But Labor’s national primary vote has gone backwards. They are losing to the Greens in Griffith, Brisbane and Ryan. Gilmore could also go. Majority government doesn’t seem possible. Independent Dai Le – who arrived in Australia as a refugee in 1975 – is thrashing Kristina Keneally in Fowler. How could they allow themselves to dream again?

“The characterisation of issues affecting Aboriginal and LGBTI people as ‘woke’ has been really difficult to live with,” says Nareen Young, a close friend of Albanese. “Particularly given what’s happening with trans kids. You worry about them.”

There are a few bright spurts. None of the supposed “Red Wall” seats have fallen. Dan Repacholi gets a swing in Hunter. Bennelong, Brisbane and Ryan look tight but not impossible. Labor is ahead in Boothby, Chisholm and Robertson. Michelle Ananda-Rajah and Sally Sitou are winning in Higgins and Reid. Faces half-lit in the TV glow transmute from defeatist to delusional again, true believers through and through. Now, all their chips are on the west.

“I fucking love you, Mark McGowan!” shouts a middle-aged man who would donate a kidney to the Western Australian premier in a heartbeat.

The swing is on and, holy shit, it’s bigger than anyone predicted. Swan, Pearce, Hasluck and Tangney all fall to Labor. Zaneta Mascarenhas is going to Canberra. So is dolphin trainer Sam Lim. Moore – a seat no one mentioned – hangs in the balance. The cave people have delivered for Labor.

“I might need to gravitate to water,” says a giddy Jeffrey.

Mobile service in the room is overloaded. Nobody really understands the full gravity of what is happening, except that Scott Morrison is going to lose, and parliament will get an influx of socially progressive and ethnically diverse women. A majority might be tough. But Albanese is probably prime minister. This goes from pipedream to dead certainty in what seems like 15 minutes.

“It’s a relief,” says a beaming Nareen Young. “I’m full of hope. I don’t think that we should underestimate the basic decency of ordinary people.”

The Liberals look set for their lowest haul since 1946. In this media landscape, Australians don’t vote for action on climate change by mistake. The forces opposed to progress won’t go away. Nor will the human instincts that reward them. Sans Morrison, the Liberal brand remains formidable. But it is difficult to see them winning back voters in seven teal electorates by lurching further to the right. And it is easy to imagine Labor losing more seats to the Greens if it doesn’t take serious action on housing affordability and emissions reduction.

“When you change government,” says Young, “you change the country.”

Actor and Labor supporter Rhys Muldoon vigorously gives the finger to big-screen footage of Dave Sharma’s concession speech on Sky News. Albanese’s arrival seems imminent. I go to the toilet. “That was the best piss of my life!” says a Labor fan on the way out. Journalist Chris Kenny pulls up a few urinals down. Back outside, the crowd chants: ALBO! ALBO! ALBO! ALBO!

Penny Wong moves through a sea of red shirts like Moses. The Labor faithful goes apeshit. Wong is set to be the first Asian Australian to be foreign minister, and surely not the last this century. She looks like her face might break from glee.

“A government for women,” Wong says to screams of delight. Surely four words have never been filled with a greater amount of subtext.

When Albanese enters – Gang Gajang again – the déjà vu in people’s eyes has been replaced by astonishment. A serious leader starts by acknowledging Australia’s traditional owners. He commits Labor to the Uluru Statement of the Heart, making special mention of Labor MP Linda Burney. Anxiety from the campaign has evaporated. Tonight, he looks and sounds like a prime minister.

“It says a lot about our great country that a son of a single mum who was a disability pensioner – who grew up in public housing down the road in Camperdown – can stand before you tonight as Australia’s prime minister.”

Albanese didn’t allow the struggles of his mother – or the grief from her untimely death at 66 – to smother him. He kept plugging away at Morrison, the embodiment of born-to-rule smugness and cruelty. Now a Camperdown houso is running the country. How much the new prime minister must want to get on the blower to his mum and let her know that he fought the Tories and won.

“Together we can end the climate wars,” says Albanese to new jubilation.

Reporters had thought Albanese’s media performance more important than his tactical and strategic judgement, or his civility. Their views seem less powerful now. The humble son doesn’t air grievances or wax too lyrically. He leaves breathing space for the nation to imagine that the election was about them.

“We have made history tonight,” he says. “And tomorrow, together, we begin the work of building a better Australia. A better future for all Australians.”

Lech Blaine

Lech Blaine is the author of Car Crash: A Memoir and the Quarterly Essay Top Blokes: The Larrikin Myth, Class and Power.


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