Just to the right of former MP Tony Abbott’s office on Sydney Road Plaza is a narrow arcade leading to Market Square and the local library. I had just finished distributing a letter asking voters to consider putting Zali Steggall first on their ballots and had ducked into the arcade when I saw him. He was in silhouette, but the physique and the gait were unmistakable. I remember thinking how lonely and peculiarly muscle-bound he looked. We approached each other, I with my #Vote 1 Zali button, he emerging from the shadow, and passed without speaking. I was shocked to see him, and he seemed surprised to see me.
This was the man I’d spent weeks campaigning against, the man who denied the impact of climate change, even as storm surges ripped swimming pools from beachfront homes in his electorate; who initiated massive cuts to the ABC, SBS and just about every Australian institution I cared about, including the Australian public service; who stuffed up the NBN and presided over the demise of Australia’s car industry; who established an inquiry into the carcinogenic properties of wind farms, spent millions on school chaplain programs, stalled on RH486 and marriage equality, sent our troops into Syria… I could go on. I certainly didn’t hate the man, but I did lament just about everything he did to this country.
But how was an independent campaign, funded solely by individual donations, if fired by stupendous determination, going to overcome all that? You could talk about David and Goliath, but maybe the more apt biblical reference is to Judith and Holofernes. Anyway, by the fourth day before the election my cortisol levels had soared. Abbott supporters were sporting t-shirts with the endlessly repeated lie printed on it: A Vote for Steggall is a Vote for Shorten. The sight of it on a woman had me stopping her in the street and challenging her: Do you realise that you are wearing a lie? An exchange of words followed and off she went, having proclaimed that climate change was nothing to get worried about; her cousin, a marine biology professor, had told her so. Oh well.
I had just come from a gathering of ABC supporters on the beachfront, at which Quentin Dempster, John Highfield and Jane Singleton spoke about, among other things, the Liberal Party council’s vote in favour of privatising the beleaguered broadcaster, already suffering from the $400 million cut to its funding over the six years of Coalition governance. My tolerance for what Abbott supporters had been dishing out had plunged to its nadir — or so I’d thought.
Right to the end, they kept up the misinformation, innuendos and outright lies. Our letterboxes were stuffed with them. We had letters from John Howard, Scott Morrison, Mathias Corman and Gladys Berejiklian. We had the flyers: Steggall equals Shorten, if you vote for her you risk Labor’s “tax hit” — its “housing tax,” “retiree tax,” “investment tax,” “higher income tax,” “family business tax” and “future debt.” We had robocalls, all of which distorted Steggall’s stated policies. Then Mark Kelly, who everyone knows by now was the prime mover in the Vote Tony Out movement, had the brilliant idea of making artistic use of this blizzard of paper. He went around collecting all the letters and flyers he could find and had an artist make an array of them into a collaged sign.
In a sense, the story of Steggall’s victory is encapsulated in the story of this sign. In a matter of hours, the huge collage, 3.6 by 2.4 metres, was up on a wall in Market Square, embellished with the large yellow words “Lies” and “Fear,” connected by a small “to create” in black. Overnight, the collage was vandalised; the next morning Steggall supporters immediately began pasting the flyers back on, with glue supplied by the cafe next door. Then the police came and ordered the sign taken down because it was “distressing.”
The afternoon before the election, as soon as the children left their schools, the Abbott forces began marking their territories. Photos on Facebook of the Manly Village school showed a long plastic banner taking up as much space on its fence as possible. Where it couldn’t reach, the familiar black-and-red signs — Steggall means Shorten — plugged the holes. I called the Australian Electoral Commission to complain and was told it could do nothing, because political, unlike commercial, advertising doesn’t need to be true. (Correcting this anomaly, unsurprisingly, has been one of Steggall’s policies.) The woman at the AEC took note of the complaint and directed me to the school. The deputy principal there said she didn’t want to be involved.
This spectacle, we soon learned, was being replicated throughout the electorate. Steggall volunteers were told not to put up any of our signs because unless we spent all night guarding them they would only come down. The Liberal Party hired security guards to ensure their own remained; needless to say, we couldn’t afford that. Then, early next morning news came over the radio that there had been an incident up at Balgowlah Heights, where a sixty-two-year-old man had begun tearing up the huge plastic banner with a corkscrew, only to plunge it into the stomach of one of the security guards as he was being stopped. The man was arrested, and Abbott used this as yet more evidence that he was being victimised.
Later in the day, in my turquoise Zali #1 t-shirt, and armed with sunscreen, sunhat and snacks, I walked the six blocks to St Mary’s Catholic Primary School on Whistler Street for my three-hour shift handing out how-to-vote slips. In 2016 this booth voted Greens, so it was friendly territory. That said, most people didn’t let on what they intended. Apart from one incident (a volunteer had parked her bike with a Vote Tony Out bag hanging from the seat, and a man walking past spat into it) and the fact that the Abbott stalwarts kept to themselves, everyone was helpful and sociable. The sausage sizzle was right behind me and a wedding took place in the church. But by the end of my stint I couldn’t have guessed what the vote could be. The worry was that Steggall hadn’t directed preferences, which meant disaffected Liberals might have given her their first vote and Abbott their second. There was also the risk that the progressive vote would split. And as I walked home I spotted Christine Forster turning into the Corso. She was with friends and she seemed to be smiling.
Well, we know the rest. Half of Manly and from suburbs beyond were upstairs at the Novotel waiting for the count, but when Antony Green announced she’d won, and Abbott was finally toppled from his seat, it was hard to take in. It was only a little past seven, and there was Antony Green saying that Steggall had a 45 per cent primary vote and Abbott hadn’t a chance. It was exactly as Mark Kelly had predicted would happen if we got people to stick to the discipline, putting Zali first and Abbott last. But Zali had insisted we go high when they went low, and with all the negativity thrown at her most of us imagined that if we won at all it would have to be close.
But no, it wasn’t at all close, and the room erupted, and kept erupting every time the news came up on the screen. And when Steggall climbed up on the podium and declared in a voice croaky from speaking, “Warringah has voted for the future,” the room erupted again and again. It was a landslide. But then, as the night wore on and the national picture sharpened, the euphoria diminished, like the air slowly seeping from a balloon. I took hold of Tom Kenneally’s hand as we sadly agreed that even if we’d won the battle it looked like we were losing the war.
One thing’s for sure — even the national result can’t take away Steggall’s achievement, or the power of a grassroots movement when it really gets going. What happened was a landslide, as much a miracle as Morrison’s. At my booth at St Mary’s alone she got 584 votes to Abbott’s 395, with more than 90 per cent of the preferences going to her, and this was a fairly uniform outcome throughout the electorate. At Manly Village school, a booth that has normally gone heavily for Abbott, the outcome was similar, even with Christine Forster as his booth captain. And one has to say that, his sister aside, he had some doozies come to assist him. Concetta Fierravanti-Wells? Teena McQueen? Be serious — this is Warringah.
Yes, this is Warringah. Where people, if anything, were turned off by the bullying and the overkill with the letterboxing and the signage. Where people, Liberals among them, care enough for their environment and the future of their kids to say goodbye to the man who for years had been standing in their way. As things have panned out, Zali Steggall has a hard job ahead of her, and I’m sure she’s sorry Kerryn Phelps has gone. Yet the presence of this “moderate with a heart” could help swing the government towards renewables and greater humanity — and she’ll be sitting alongside Indi’s Helen Haines, who was swept into parliament by a similar grassroots movement.
Meanwhile, Mark Kelly’s collage has been restored and is back in its place on Market Square, with a slight if significant change in the wording. Instead of “Lies Create Fear” its bright-yellow letters announce “Love Wins” to the passing trade. Who knows how long it will be allowed to stay there, or how Zali Steggall will fare in Canberra, but I have a hunch she’ll be there for a while. •