When I was first approached to seek preselection as a Socialist Alliance (SA) candidate for the Victorian State elections I was filled with trepidation. How was I going to cope with being thrown into the spotlight? But then I remembered that I am a member of Radical Women and could not allow silly fears to prevent me from being an effective working class feminist voice during the state election. Radical Women had prepared me for such a role, and I was ready to take on the challenge of being a socialist candidate with gusto and confidence.
The Geelong Branch of SA chose to contest the seat of Lara, which has a large working class population and many public housing tenants. I was preselected as the SA candidate for Lara in July 2002. Alliance activists hoped that the election would take place in 2003, although we were prepared in the likely event that Premier Bracks chose an earlier date.
We began campaigning well before the poll was called, holding weekly stalls within the electorate. My first formal opportunity to speak as a candidate came when I was invited to address a forum on Alternatives to Mandatory Detention, organised by Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR). The Australian Democrats were expected, but didn’t show up. The Greens put a humanitarian view on refugee rights. But I was proud to unequivocally state, “Socialist Alliance will not be drawn into quibbling about what kind of imprisonment of refugees is acceptable. There is simply no justification for detention.” I later addressed another Geelong rally, organised by RAR to mark the first anniversary of the tragic sinking of the SIEV-X and the loss of 353 lives.
Before the campaign’s “official” kick off, I also addressed a peace meeting, sharing the platform with an activist from the anti-Vietnam war movement. I explained how the capitalist system needs war and outlined the commitment of Socialist Alliance to oppose Bush’s war drive by helping build the biggest, most powerful, democratic anti-war movement that this country has ever seen.
The earliest date on which Premier Steve Bracks could call the election was rapidly approaching. With hours to spare, SA achieved a fantastic feat — state electoral registration! Registration allows the name of the organisation — and, importantly, the word “socialist” — to be printed on the ballot next to each candidate’s name. Comrades and supporters converged for a celebratory fundraiser on 2 November. It was a bittersweet night for me, as my dear Radical Women comrade Delia Maxwell had died that afternoon. Diners sang the Internationale and drank a toast to honour Delia, one of the many people who’d contributed to the success of the registration campaign. It was also a night to say bon voyage to several of my comrades, who were heading to the U.S.A. for a convention of the Freedom Socialist Party.
A candidate’s diary — Week 1: While my travelling comrades are flying over the Pacific Ocean, Steve Bracks makes his announcement — election day is to be 30 November! It will be a short and sharp campaign.
Tim Gooden is our campaign manager, and we’d already worked out an action plan, which we immediately activated. Media releases are sent and a campaign meeting called. It is well attended by comrades and supporters eager, now the date is known, to hit the election trail. On Saturday morning, we grab our card tables, signs, petitions and sign up sheets to record offers of help and head for the local shopping centres in suburban Norlane and the Corio Saturday market. Although we don’t have our election campaign leaflet finalised, we have plenty of materials outlining what SA stands for. We hand out our anti-war fliers, strike up conversations about socialism and receive a good response from many shoppers.
Week 2: The papers ignore Socialist Alliance policies. Only a brief mention in the local paper, the Geelong Advertiser — the mere fact that I am standing in the seat of Lara. It looks suspiciously like the paper is not interested in giving socialist ideas an airing. I send three letters to the editor, addressing issues I believe are important in the electorate. There’s the requirement for more public housing. There’s solutions to the poor state of the health system, especially the urgent need to reduce the long waiting periods for the public dental clinic. Finally, there’s the crying need for increased public transport throughout the Geelong region. My letters — which advocate taxing big business to fund what people need — are not published, even after I ring to complain.
But, we now have our beautiful campaign brochure produced by the State Executive. The flier promotes all five Socialist Alliance candidates. It outlines our demands and hits the spot with slogans like “If you’ve had a gutful of governments that rule for the rich, vote Socialist Alliance,” “Take a stand against the corporate parties” and our popular “For the millions, not the millionaires.” It contains our candidates’ pledge: “we are not career politicians but activists, genuinely representing the interests of ordinary working people.” The campaign brochure invites people not only to vote but to get active by promoting the upcoming anti-war rally.
Because of cost, the campaign brochure is printed in black and white. Socialist candidates don’t have corporate backers and need to be thrifty with the many small donations we receive from low- income supporters. But despite our tight budget, the brochure looks very striking.
We begin letterboxing in earnest! Comrade Paul Johnson volunteers to coordinate this vital task. Saturday stalls continue. I am delighted by the number of people keen to stop and talk about their concerns and to find out what SA has to offer. I’m campaigning at a shopping centre in the poorest part of the electorate. I can tell by the way people are dressed that things are tight. And I have never seen a public phone used as much as the one in this shopping centre — no constant ring of mobile phones here! People are very friendly and interested in our ideas except for a couple of guys who object loudly to our opposition to war on Iraq.
We end the second week with a campaign launch in a local park. It is a beautiful day for a BBQ, and campaign supporters relax and reflect on what we’ve achieved. The media is invited, but the by now familiar pattern is repeated. However, I get a call from a reporter at home. The next day a tiny article is published.
Week 3: Letterboxing is a top priority. The electorate is huge, and campaign volunteers wear out some shoe leather! We paste up a poster which has a huge photo of me along with our demands about health, education, housing and transport. While I’m out campaigning I come across some posters of me pasted up and down the street. I have a quiet giggle to myself. I can’t help but reflect that if anyone had suggested to me five years ago that this is what I would be doing in 2002, I would have said “No way!” But, as the old advertising slogan goes, “You’ve come a long way, baby!”
I can’t attend the ballot draw. John O’Brien, another stalwart campaigner, agrees to go. He breaks the good news — I’ve drawn the number one spot! Our next task is to decide our preference flow. We hold a meeting.We decide to give the Greens our first preference, then Labor and to put the Liberals last.
There’s more letterboxing to do. I grab my brochures. I come across an older woman working in her garden. She’s keen to know what I’m distributing. I introduce myself and she tells me that I’m the first politician she’s ever met. She wants to know more about SA and we strike up a conversation about what socialism would be like. She likes what she hears. Our gardener has a general disquiet about the way the world is heading and thinks socialism offers solutions which make sense. It’s meeting people like this woman that really adds meaning to our campaign work.
I keep meeting wonderful people who are interested in my ideas, but the frustrating lack of media coverage continues. The local community paper is doing a feature on the candidates for the seat of Lara. They request a photo of me. We send it promptly. The paper comes out — no photo and only two lines at the end of the article. Tim rings to find out what happened, only to be told that the paper didn’t have enough room. How lame is that?
Week 4: By now I’ve really got the hang of what campaigning is all about. The routine is much the same — more letterboxing, more street stalls and more exciting discussions with voters. But this is the home run! We have to organise to get as many of the polling booths staffed as possible. We ring our supporters and all the people we met who have offered to help. People are organised into teams and allocated booths.
The electorate is a mix of suburban North Geelong, the township of Lara, rural areas and a small slice of outer suburban Melbourne. We staff six booths in Geelong and two in Lara. Our persuasive how-to-vote cards advocate the need for a fightback in the interests of the majority. They ask voters to “vote for a socialist alternative today, but join the movement for real justice tomorrow.” And they advertise the anti-war rally the next day. The excitement mounts as we pack the campaign kits for polling day.
I’m reminded of the value of alternative and community media when I’m interviewed for The Pulse at Geelong community radio. I speak about the history of SA, the role of Radical Women as a women’s leadership organisation and get to address some of our policies on local issues. I’m on air for fifteen minutes — at last, the opportunity to use the media to promote our ideas!
I decide it is time to just turn up at the Geelong Advertiser offices and demand to be heard. They’d run articles sympathetic to the Greens with the headline “It’s not easy being Green.” I find a reporter who’ll speak to me and I tell her “If it’s not easy being Green, then try being Red!” I talk about our demands to fully fund health and education; grant land rights to Indigenous Australians; the need to reverse privatisation and our opposition to attacks on unions. I outline our efforts to mobilise support for the No War rally on the 1 December. I’m wearing a red shirt and have a No War on Iraq poster. At last, I’m photographed with my poster! Is this finally an opportunity to actually get some of what I stand for in the mainstream press?
I grab the Geelong Advertiser the next day and flip through. Yes, there is a small article! But they’ve cut out my anti-war poster and don’t mention what I stand for. I fume — you just can’t win with the mainstream press! But, at least the headline is appropriate: “Brigitte sees red!”
At last the big day arrives — Election Day! Our supporters have rallied to staff polling booths. Radical Women comrades, Debbie Brennan and Espy Acosta, come down from Melbourne to help out. I start the morning at a Lara booth. Then I collect the sandwiches and check out all the other booths, visiting the campaign workers, delivering refreshments and meeting voters. Every person who volunteered to assist Socialist Alliance has shown up on time for their polling duty — what a team! So I head back out to Lara to finish the day.
It’s 6 pm and the booths close. Time for our election night party and BBQ. We watch the results of the Bracks Government landslide and especially in the Geelong district, where all five seats have gone to Labor. Our SA comrades in Melbourne are polling between 1% and 2%. I’ve done well polling about 2.7%. This is a pleasing result. I’m very tired and don’t stay late at the party, as it’s a big day tomorrow — the No War on Iraq rally in Melbourne. I arrive home and quietly reflect on the campaign. I believe we did the best we could, given our resources. Would I do it again? You bet! I learned to sharpen my communication skills and to articulate socialist policies in a concise manner. I was out there putting theory into practice.