Bill Shorten Greeted With Coffee, Cuddles And Apathy On Election Campaign
I tell a lady in the medical centre waiting room she just missed seeing Bill Shorten and his big red bus. “I’m sure I can get over it,” came her deadpan reply.
The Shorten campaign came to Nowra, in the southern NSW seat of Gilmore. The nation’s travelling press gallery contingent -- some 40-strong -- has squeezed into a small medical centre for a hospitals announcement.
The policy is completely overshadowed, however, by outrage over a front page deemed an “attack” on the Labor leader and his mother -- but on the south coast, on an otherwise sleepy and crisp Wednesday morning, most locals are more interested in catching a peek of Shorten and his travelling entourage.
Or, at least, figuring out why the hell their quiet morning has been rudely interrupted by the clicking and flashes of media cameras.
“Jeeze, you had a few people up there,” said Les, a man in the waiting room of the Grand Pacific medical centre, as journalists and cameramen march down the stairs in single file, an endless line of media spilling out of a meeting room as if from a clown car.
Les and his female companion, who said she’d rather not give her name, said health funding was a big issue for their votes.
“Today he’s seeing a doctor on a telescreen from Sydney because we don’t have them here. That’s pretty common,” she said.
“I find the hospital fantastic, but a lot of people do complain, and sometimes there’s not enough beds when emergencies are on. But it’s not in dire straits.”
Transport is another big issue -- “The only way to get into town is on a school bus if you don’t have a car,” she claimed -- but there’s a more personal reason why she will be voting for Labor’s Fiona Phillips rather than the Liberals’ Warren Mundine on May 18.
“I’ve known of Scott Morrison for years. He was head of Tourism Australia, and I worked in tourism and sat through that ‘Where The Bloody Hell Are You?’,” she claimed.
“I thought ‘Oh god it’s going to get us banned in every country on the planet’, and it did.”
Outside, an older man called Len said he walked past Shorten on his way into the centre.
“I don’t like preachers and I don’t like Liberals either,” he said of Morrison, referring to the Prime Minister by an explicit word not usually uttered in polite conversation.
Len is retired, and while he doesn’t benefit from franking credits, he is happy with Labor’s plan to restrict refunds for people who don’t pay tax. He called the controversial handout “a f**king rort”, the same appraisal he gave for negative gearing tax concessions.
“Why should anyone get paid from the government for their private investments?” he said incredulously.
Gilmore is a tight contest. The former Liberal MP, Ann Sudmalis, quit in the wake of the August leadership spill.
It's an ugly contest laying bare deep divisions in the Liberals; the former endorsed candidate, Grant Schultz, was dumped by head office for high-profile out-of-towner Warren Mundine. Schultz, furious, decided to stand as an independent. Also here is a National candidate, potentially drawing votes from their Coalition partner.
The contest is close -- literally. The offices of the Labor, Greens and Nationals candidate are on the same street, on the same side of the road, within 50 metres walk of one another. Mundine's office wasn't there.
Later, the media bus tumbled out onto the front plaza, completely swallowing up a quiet old couple sitting politely on a bench. They seemed incredibly surprised to be suddenly surrounded with TV stars and microphones.
“They’re all a lot of backstabbers,” said Margaret, of Australia’s politicians in general.
“Malcolm Turnbull had some good ideas but the bastards stabbed him in the back,” concurred husband Len.
They’re undecided voters, without strong affection for either major party. Margaret said she doesn’t mind “either of them”, and added that Morrison was “a bit of a talker” -- but declined to expand on whether that was a good or a bad thing.
As Shorten’s big red bus rolled up, a ripple of excitement went through the growing crowd of curious onlookers, who finally understood what had made their normally quiet shopping centre such a hive of national media activity.
Margaret suddenly got excited. “Should I give him a cuddle?” she asked me, half-joking. I replied, also half-joking, that she would make it on the TV news that night if she did.
“Oh I don’t want to be on the news,” she said bashfully -- but not 10 seconds later, she had bowled up to Shorten, and received a hearty handshake and warm smile from the Labor leader in return.
“Gee, you look the same in person as you do on the telly,” Margaret told him with a grin.
Shorten’s entourage crabwalk inside, ducking into a small coffee shop which is suddenly full to bursting. He sits at a table and makes small talk with a few people, as his minders rush around, quietly apologising to those diners whose quiet coffee date has suddenly been hijacked.
An old man grumbles his way through the crowd, pushing past cameras and sound boom microphones to leave the scrum. Others press their noses against the glass to take photos on their phones.
He heads to the coffee machine and puts together a decent mocha, liberally dusting the top with chocolate dust, then hands it to a cameraman.
I ask Shorten’s media advisors, anxiously watching the whole affair to ward off any potential disaster, if they prepare politicians for these staged photo-ops. I’m thinking of Morrison’s sheep-shearing demonstration, and ask if his team would have trained him in the forgotten art of livestock hair management.
Shorten’s team say no -- he genuinely just knows how to make a decent barista-style coffee.
At the counter, two women named Karen and Kathy are waiting for a table. They are sick of the election campaign spectacle already.
Kathy called Morrison a "shyster"; Karen said she's sick of "all the sledging" in Canberra.
“They should just do it all on TV, so I can turn if off," Karen said.
"Forget the campaign, and save a lot of money."
Josh Butler is on the campaign trail with Bill Shorten.
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