On a warm Sunday afternoon in February, Labor volunteers are canvassing the streets of Newtown, a freshly created state electorate where their party is doing battle for the hearts and minds of NSW’s most progressive voters.
Among the red shirts is Penny Sharpe, their candidate for the seat and a veteran of inner west Labor politics. As Sharpe politely knocks on doors her young volunteers talk politics; one boasts that as a child she threw a bowl of spaghetti at the TV when John Howard’s face came across the screen, another says he got involved to help fight neoliberalism – he’s intrigued by the rise of Podemos and Syriza in Europe.
Just days out from the NSW state election, the battle for Newtown has become an intriguing fight itself, especially given the result of the Queensland and Victorian state elections.
Despite failing to pick up any seats, the Greens won their highest ever share of the vote in QLD when the state unceremoniously punted the Newman Government in January.
Two months earlier they showed what this kind of support means when concentrated in inner city electorates. Not only did Ellen Sandell win the party its first ever lower house seat in Victoria, but Sam Hibbins clawed over the line to overtake Labor and unseat the Liberals in Prahran.
In 2013, Adam Bandt held his federal seat of Melbourne without Liberal preferences.
After these bouts, the focus turns to Newtown, which could either consolidate or frustrate the Greens inner city march.
The party already holds one lower house seat in NSW thanks to Jamie Parker, who snatched Balmain from Labor in 2011 but now as an almighty fight on his hands to fend off former MP Verity Firth.
Judging by the energy around the two campaigns, it’s Newtown the Greens are more enthusiastic about. Lose it, and they’ll likely end up with no representation in the NSW lower house.
After the redistribution that created the seat, the Greens start with a nominal 4 per cent lead, but that’s based on a 2011 election at which Labor faced a furious electorate determined to punish them for years of corruption and leadership instability.
If the Greens are to resist the state-wide swing back to Labor they’ll need to make sure Newtown’s diverse, trendy, politically conscious voters know Penny from Jenny.
ON THE same weekend that red shirted university students are going door-to-door for Labor on Newtown’s eastern fringe, Jenny Leong is meeting with her team in their modest office HQ. Leong beat former Marrickville mayor Fiona Byrne for Greens pre-selection almost a year earlier, and has been building her campaign ever since.
Eight weeks out from the election, the Greens were busy preparing for their own doorknocking assault. The aim was to get Leong’s name out and come back with information about voters; who they are, what they care about, whether they might vote Greens.
Chris Kerle, a 27-year-old volunteer interested in climate change policy, decided to take the plunge.
“This time I kind of thought I’m going to push myself to do the scary stuff because they always want doorknockers,” he says.
Both Labor and the Greens say the electorate is particularly switched on, and that the anti-politics supposedly ascendant across Australia shows no signs of taking hold in the households they have been contacting.
Even though the Liberals aren’t a major force in the area, Kerle knows not everyone in the seat will be voting Greens or Labor on March 28. One day when he was doorknocking a teenage boy answered.
“We were talking about ICAC, and he’d never heard of ICAC before, and so I was just filling his head with how evil the Liberal Party is and as we were walking away someone came up and was like, um, you know who’s house that is don’t you?”
The young man was apparently Tony Abbott’s nephew, son to the PM’s sister Christine Forster, who lives in the electorate and is herself a Liberal member of Sydney council.
It might be easy for the Greens to separate themselves from the Baird and Abbott governments, but their real challenge is to remain distinct from Labor.
Leong, who went to university in the area and worked globally for Amnesty International, sees her backstory as a key difference.
“Having been a campaigner with Amnesty for many years I’ve seen the way you achieve social change is actually by relying on a whole range of tactics,” she says when we meet for coffee on King Street. Failing to live up to the myth of the electorate, neither of us order a latte.
“Campaigning requires an integration between public pressure, community activism, parliamentary action, all of those things integrated. So to me the idea of seeing Newtown as an opportunity to have progressive representation in our NSW Parliament is part of a broader agenda which is actually about social change and activating the community.”
Leong’s campaign has gone hard on housing affordability, opposing the WestConnex project, and privatisation and sell-offs.
But a few key issues that could have been wedges in the area have, to some degree, been blunted.
For a start, Labor leader Luke Foley had a miraculous turnaround on same sex marriage, indicating his support just over a month out from polling day. This would have been a hard one for the Greens to gain mileage on given Sharpe is in a same-sex relationship, and has inserted her family narrative into the campaign. But it’s equally hard to believe Foley’s flip had nothing to do with helping the Balmain and Newtown campaigns.
Sharpe has also managed to mitigate the impact of a major policy difference. When Labor announced its position on the massive WestConnex road project, it confirmed it would not support the segment that would most directly impact Newtown. The Greens oppose the plan in its totality, but Labor’s stance may take heat out of the issue locally.
On Sharpe’s end, there is the promise of a new inner city school. She sees jobs, the environment, and planning growing cities as the major issues facing the state.
“There are a lot of levers in the state that we can pull to improve and address issues around climate change and the environment; land planning, national parks, energy policy, there’s a whole lot of things we can do in that space,” she says.
Sharpe does also have a slightly hackish resume, and has been involved in Labor politics since the age of 19, though Leong is no political outsider either. She’s run for the federal seat of Sydney twice, and managed the NSW leg of the Greens 2013 federal campaign.
Sharpe takes issue with Greens policies, but the ultimate difference for her appears to be power, both the ability to wield it and the responsibility to use it.
“If Labor forms government I will be a senior minister,” she says. “I’ll be able to bring Newtown into the centre of government and get things done. I think contrast that to if Jenny was to win – she’ll be one voice in the parliament lobbying either side of politics to try to get things for this area, and I think that’s the big difference.”
Sharpe doesn’t see a lot of difference otherwise.
“In terms of conviction, I mean I don’t really know Jenny very well, but I suspect if you ask us, we would probably agree on about 95 per cent of issues. I am a lefty within the Labor party. The reason why I’m in the Labor party, though, is that I seek to form government, because I see that’s where you actually get things done.”
Sharpe told me this some weeks ago, and perhaps she has a clearer view of her difference to Leong now. That said, her campaign seems to have been more focused on eradicating perceived differences between herself and Leong than overcoming them. This week she literally described herself as a ‘green’.
“I am considered a green within the Labor Party,” she told Guardian Australia. “If you want to use that term.”
Labor are extremely unlikely to form government on the weekend, but the Sharpe line of reasoning is still effective. If the electorate is satisfied the two candidates are more or less the same, why not go for the one who can influence the opposition and, one day, the government?
“I would say that the thing that you hear often from Penny Sharpe and other members of the so-called Labor Left is that they are strong advocates for a progressive agenda inside of Labor,” Leong retorts.
“The reality is, when people go to vote on the 28th of March, they aren’t voting for an advocate inside the Labor party, they’re voting for someone who will stand inside the parliament and represent their values when they vote… and that’s the huge difference.”
Labor’s binding caucus has forced Sharpe to take positions the Newtown crowd would no doubt object to.
In January last year, Labor helped pass Coalition legislation introducing mandatory sentences for one-punch assaults and lockout laws. Not only did this remove judicial discretion, it also caused problems for Newtown’s nightlife and the queer community.
“People are aware that Labor will not oppose the legislation but I place on record some concerns about mandatory minimum sentencing,” Sharpe said at the time. “There is no evidence that mandatory minimum sentencing will have an impact on alcohol-related violence.“
Like the rest of her party, she voted in favour of the bill.
If the polling is anything to go by, Newtown voters are not too uncomfortable with this sort of compromise. A March 19 ReachTEL poll put Penny Sharpe easily ahead.
The NSW elections have been a dull affair in many ways. But the result in Newtown is worth attention.
Leong is a strong candidate, and far more accessible than Greens elders like Hall Greenland, loved by many in the party but hard to pitch to an electorate. She has the politics, but delivers it in a more broadly consumable form, often falling back to the (sometimes vague) language of human rights and grassroots activism.
A defeat for the Greens would be a significant setback. If Labor can overcome Leong, they may have found a strategy to halt the Greens’ advance into other similar seats.
Both campaigns are being run by relatively young staff, and there’s no love lost (a mischievous Penny Sharpe cornflute poster has been nailed up right outside Leong’s office, while young Greens have been busily trolling the facebook pages of Labor candidates when they mention WestConnex).
After a long build-up the only certainty is that tomorrow will be a nervous weekend in Newtown.
Images courtesy of facebook/ Penny for Newtown and Jenny for Newtown campaigns.
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