On Friday night I went to a meeting at Kiama, in our Gilmore electorate, with local candidates in attendance. It was a successful meeting but also something of a puzzle.
It was not really an election meeting at all, but the inaugural meeting of the new Kiama/Jamberoo group of RAR “ Rural Australians for Refugees’ 87th group. RAR has held many such meetings over the past three years but there were several things about this one, held a couple of weeks before the Federal election, that made it interesting.
The refugee issue has barely surfaced this election campaign. I told you how the lies that were told about ‘children overboard’ in 2001 had come home to roost “that that was one of the reasons why honesty became an issue. But refugee policy has hardly been mentioned.
So I was surprised, first, that more that more than 70 people turned up to a RAR meeting at Kiama Leagues Club on a Friday night. Second, that the candidates “ Liberal, Labor, Green, Democrat and a representative of the Citizens’ Electoral Council “ were there. And, third, the degree of passion and anger that the refugee issue still inspires.
I know the latter shouldn’t be a surprise, given that I get pretty worked up about it myself. But when you are hearing nothing much about refugees in the media during this election, when voters are supposedly concentrating on bread and butter issues like interest rates and Medicare, and are being bombarded with campaign launches and policy announcements, it is pretty amazing how alive the refugee issue still is for so many people.
It’s like a healing wound and every now and then the scab keeps getting knocked off. People are raw from the events of the past three years and, given an opportunity, they let fly. So it was on Friday night.
Gilmore is another of those electorates that stretches in strange directions and takes in odd corners that seem to have nothing to do with the rest of the electorate. Most of it is down the coast “ Kiama, Nowra and lots of small coastal enclaves. But a bit of Gilmore stretches up to the Highlands and takes in Robertson, Moss Vale and Bundanoon.
None of the candidates were invited to address the meeting, but they were enticed along with the promise of being able to say a few words from the floor. Not that they said anything very surprising “ the Greens and Democrat crowed about their refugee-friendly policies, the ALP candidate swore that Labor now had a set of policies that were clearly different from the Coalition’s. As for the sitting Liberal member, well that was a bit more interesting.
The Member for Gilmore, Joanna Gash, has held the seat since 1996. In 2001 she gained the biggest swing to the Liberals in the country “ over 10 per cent. She holds it with a 14 per cent majority.
Jo Gash is a moderate and a decent sort of woman. People used to say of her that she was in the wrong party but they stopped saying that after we went to war in Iraq “ she defended the government’s line as strongly as anyone (even if she did simultaneously say that she was having trouble sleeping at night).
But she is not defending the government’s line on refugees any more. She keeps saying ‘things are changing’ and points to improvements in TPV policy, the fewer children in detention and the preparedness of the new Minister, Senator Vanstone, to respond to individual cases.
Recently, Gash was given an award by the human rights group A Just Australia because of assistance she gave to the case of a refugee family struggling to be recognised by the Minister.
Next week she’s arranging for representatives of local RAR groups to meet with herself and Senator Marise Payne (who isn’t up for re-election.) Marise Payne is one of the Liberal backbenchers who have been fighting hard to have refugee policy changed. It will be good to talk to her.
But locally we’re asking ourselves: why is Jo Gash doing this, five days before an election, when she has one of the safest seats in the country?
Could it be that she and other Liberals are worried by a quiet leakage of support from a normally loyal voter base? A ‘doctors’ wives’ syndrome has been identified “ conservative women, concerned about the harshness and lack of compassion of the Howard government, who may be prepared to change their vote because of it. Perhaps some Liberals are determined to show a more compassionate face than that worn by Ruddock and Howard last time round.
Could it even be that their consciences are getting to them? That they want to be part of a government, should it turn out that way, that they can be proud of?
Whatever the reason, it is heartening to see.
When I lift my nose, is that just the smell of wattle drifting across the paddocks? Or is there a change in the air “ even, perhaps especially – in the Liberal Party?
Will try to write once more before October 9.
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