Former Labor candidate for Bennelong, Lyndal Howison, writes about the ups-and-downs of being candidate for Federal Parliament.
Thoughts from a 2016 Candidate – An Incomplete List of the Things I Didn’t Expect
1. I was reminded of things I didn’t know
A cold suburban train station, about 7:00 am. In campaign mode, but wishing I was wearing Ugg boots instead of business shoes. A short bald 50-something man approaches. ‘If you get elected, don’t forget the forgotten Australians.’ Forgotten Australians? The term rings a bell… I fix my ‘campaign smile’ in place and say ‘Can you tell me a bit more about this issue?’ (Good save.)
The man sighs, seeing through my front. ‘People who were abused in residential care, there’s been an Apology.’ I stay in poli-speak, ‘Oh yes, what’s your connection to this issue?’ He can see that I need educating. ‘It happened to me.’
He goes on. ‘We were very poor, and we lived in a tent by the (name removed to protect identity) River. I guess we didn’t always go to school. When I was six, someone came and took me and my brothers from our parents and sent us to homes. Different homes for each brother. I didn’t know my surname till I was 18. Didn’t meet my mum again till I was in my twenties. It’s affected my whole life; I never got over it because I never knew who I was.’
Oh god. I don’t know if I am strong enough for this. It’s too early, I’m cold and I haven’t had a coffee. This man’s story cuts through and I want to hold him, cry on his shoulder. I’m weighed by the responsibility of hearing this history and sure of one thing only, I will never bloody forget him.
2. Some people think there’s a difference between voting with head and voting with heart
It’s a rainy Saturday morning and our team plus the opponent’s team are squeezed into the small entranceway of a shopping centre, which is the only dry and legal place to stand at this site. Everyone is on guard. My (unpaid, volunteer) team is out-numbered four to one and the other side have balloons. My Mum, a swinging voter, is helping me today because I pleaded.
She overhears one of the younger representatives of the opposing team discussing their principles. Their words are ‘Why should we have to pay for the people at the bottom?’ She is incensed and when she approaches to tell me this story, she is actually stomping her feet.
Hours later she is still repeating the phrase with disgust and incredulity, “The people at the bottom!” I suspect she will never vote for them again. That gives me some pleasure.
The rain continues and we are still crowded under the portico. One of the opposing team is repeatedly shooting me dark looks. I make a conciliatory remark and we get talking. It turns out he used to be a supporter of ours. There’s some murky history but I was not involved and I am able to be kind. He is moved, apparently near tears when he tells me ‘You are a good person, I wish you good luck.’
Later when we’re packing up, he has a moment of high emotion. Wearing the opposing team’s t-shirt, his voice thick with emotion, he pats my shoulder and says “In my heart, I will always be Labor.” This difference between heart and mind is clearly causing him deep grief and I want to shout, “Well just vote Labor!” I resist.
3. I am not very good at explaining that I’m not corrupt.
My street has a Christmas party that has been going for more than 40 years, a precious tradition. It’s December and someone tells someone that I am running. Suddenly everyone is talking about it. My neighbours are divided. ‘Oh that’s a shame. I can’t vote for you darling, but good luck.’
One of my neighbours gets into the Christmas spirits and drunkenly bails me up. I try to deflect his questions, deducing that my impassioned case for social justice would be lost on him. He closes triumphantly ‘Anyway, they’re all corrupt.’ I can’t help but laugh. As my neighbour, he knows where I live, the car I drive. If I’m corrupt, where the hell am I hiding it?
It didn’t stop at Christmas. On the campaign trail I had a dozen people shout as they passed, ‘You’re all corrupt.’ I’m ashamed to say I never managed a decent response. A shout of ‘No we’re not!’ seemed inadequate and also, if applied universally, not quite true. ‘I’m not!’ wasn’t right either, as it acknowledged the general point; not a good look.
The 2016 election result revealed an increasing protest vote and polls show it too; more people than ever believe that major party politicians are corrupt. It was not a criticism that I mastered a response for, when addressing a departing back.
4. I needed to make peace with photos of my face
A very tall older gentleman approaches our team at the shops. ‘Good to see you lot here, now I’ve got a few things to say…’ he commences a lecture of policy advice that is punctuated by ‘And tell your candidate that…’
He is holding a flyer with my face on it, standing next to an A frame with a larger than life print of that same head. His counsel is impassioned, he is a great supporter, and he peppers his speech to me with ‘And tell your candidate…’
After a few more instances of this I lean over gently and point to my head on the flyer in his hand, and smile meaningfully. I don’t mean to embarrass him; I’m just asserting my identity for my own sanity. He departs rapidly.
A roughly equal number of people tell me I am better looking in person or alternatively, looking searchingly into my face, ‘Gee that’s a good photo’ (which I take to mean the opposite). I consciously terminate any connection with the photos for my own sanity.
5. It’s hard to get your armour in the right spot
One of my intelligent volunteers broaches the subject of resilience and ‘armouring up’ for the campaign.
To face many thousands of rejections, you need a strategy for deflecting refusals. People are rarely rude but very often avoidant or dismissive; and first timers can find it quite confronting. My strategy is to externalise; I remind myself that the refusals are not personal, these people don’t know me. I heartily acknowledge the inconsistency whereby positive responses are warmly accepted by me as a reflection on my true self. Yep, that’s the gig.
To manage that you need some armour, but not too much. Just the right amount. One morning a young man approached me and said ‘I thought I would vote for (another party) but then I researched your policies and now I think I will vote for you. And I just wanted to say thank you for all you’re doing for young people.’
My first thought was that he was taking the mickey. Turns out I had my armour at the wrong height.
I took a moment to look into his eyes and I saw he was sincere. I was elated, I wanted to hug him. Heroically, I resisted, and he strode off to continue this day; unaware that he had just made months of hard work worthwhile. That was a good day.