After 67 Years as a Safe Liberal Seat, Higgins Might Go Green

Lee Zachariah visits one of Melbourne's richest divisions to understand why an openly gay footballer and Bob Katter's estranged gay brother are causing the Libs so much pain.

by Lee Zachariah
28 June 2016, 12:00am

On your marks. All images by author.

Hate crime graffiti. $6000 toasters. Bob Katter's estranged gay half-brother. If you're not paying attention to the seat of Higgins, you're missing the best race in Australia.

Higgins is the inner-Melbourne seat that the Liberal Party has comfortably held since approximately 1473AD—or more precisely, 1949, when the division was first created. It was the seat of former treasurer Peter Costello, who held it for 19 years. Since Pete's retirement, it's been safely held by Kelly O'Dwyer—now the minister for small business.

But Higgins is not a safe Liberal seat anymore, and it's not swinging to Labor. Polls suggest the impossible might be happening, Higgins might be going Green.

When I head down to Higgins' pre-polls in Malvern, the place is buzzing with a sea of colour-coded volunteers, all spruiking their candidates. The Labor volunteers in red, the Liberal volunteers in blue, the Greens volunteers in green. The Liberal Democrats are in, I guess, sadness.

I'd been trying to secure an interview with Kelly O'Dwyer for a while, but multiple phone calls and emails to her team had gone unanswered. Yet there O'Dwyer stood, right in front of me, engaging with every voter heading in to cast their early ballot. I approach and she shakes my hand warmly.

"Hi Kelly," I say. "I'm a journalist. Could I speak to you for a minute?"

The smile doesn't disappear from her face. "No," she says, firmly. "I'm just here talking to the people."

"I'm a person!" I say brightly, holding out my arms a little so she can judge my claim for herself.

"But you're a journalist," she says.

"Sure," I say, "but once you get past that, I'm lovely."

Literally as close as I could get to a photo of Kelly O'Dwyer.

She correctly identifies this last statement as a total lie, so I leave her alone. I figure she must not be talking to the press at all, which is a weird strategy if you're trying to hold onto your seat. On the other hand, it's a wise strategy if losing the seat is deeply embarrassing and your most memorable quote of the election campaign is telling a low-income voter about $6000 toasters.

A Labor volunteer tells me Kelly spent half an hour yesterday talking to a reporter from The Age. "The constituents couldn't get a look in." Maybe it was just me she didn't like.

So I'm left with two major contenders: Labor candidate Carl Katter, and Greens candidate Jason Ball. I run into Katter (Bob's brother) at the station, and ask him if the polling stings a little, seeing that voters might be leapfrogging Labor in favour of the Greens.

"No, it doesn't concern me," he says, "because I know that it's biased, tricked-out polling. It's come from in-house Greens polling, so we take it with a grain of salt."

Footballer, LGBT activist, and Greens candidate for Higgins, Jason Ball.

Later on, I get some time with Greens candidate Jason Ball and tell him that Katter took issue with the poll. "Haha, of course he did," he says.

But doesn't he have a point about it being in-house? I ask.

"It was an independent poll," Ball responds. "It was commissioned by us, but it was done by Lonergan, which is a respectable independent research company. It had a significant sample size, and they randomised the questions when they came through."

The poll says that O'Dwyer is down to 44.1 percent, with Ball on 24.1 percent, and Katter on 18.2 percent. Once you get to preferences, this seat could go any way.

Katter tells me he was contacted by an independent journalist who did some exit polling from the booth. A smaller sample, less scientific, but it apparently showed that Labor was doing better than the Greens. "I've always known that," he says, "from the feeling we're getting on the street, and the support and just the level of interest of people coming in to pre-polling. We're coming in higher, which makes it very exciting for us in Labor, because there's a chance we could knock Kelly off."

Up until recently, Higgins was a relatively pleasant contest. But with the stakes so high, things have become heated. A couple of Greens people tell me about Liberal volunteers literally standing around Jason Ball to stop him from talking to voters, prompting the AEC officials to intervene. Ball, a former footballer, was no stranger to this sort of blocking.

But Ball received a lot of attention when a homophobic slur was spray painted across a business displaying his posters. The backlash against the hate speak resulted in a lot of positive press for Ball, press he says he didn't quite expect. Carl, who is also gay, quietly says, "I haven't run to the media when my signs were defaced."

Carl tells me he's disowned his brother, Bob Katter.

Carl Katter is the half-brother of Bob Katter, the Queensland MP who was recently in hot water for an campaign ad that showed him shooting a gun at Liberal and Labor posters, released right on the heels of the Orlando shooting. Bob claimed he had no idea about the shooting, which most people found hard to swallow. I ask Carl what he thought of it.

"Look, I found it pretty gross. Very distasteful. But what concerns me is his statement that he doesn't watch the media, didn't know what was happening in Orlando," he says. "It's just a blatant lie, and I don't think it's very constructive to lie to your constituent. That's pretty much it for me. I disown my brother."

Disowning your own brother is pretty intense. What's it going to be like if they both get elected and find themselves sitting next to one another in Parliament?

"It could be really interesting," Katter says. "The one thing he and I have in common, aside from the same father, is a passion for people. I can't fault him on that. But I think he sometimes misrepresents his constituents. If I'm fortunate enough to become a representative, the electorate of Higgins needs me to stand strong on a particular issue that might not be the party line, well, that's my job, I'll do that."

"That's pretty much it for me. I disown my brother" – Carl Katter

Katter saying he'll stand against Labor policies if he has to is a significant statement to make before an election, but it's the argument he needs to make if he's going to win over Greens supporters: "It's a no-brainer that someone like me will have a much greater outcome for progressive politics being part of a major party. It can be a waste of a vote putting someone in from a minor party who will be sitting on a back bench yelling out sweet nothings."

"I hear that argument," Ball responds, "and I think you can either be a silence backbencher in Labor, or you can be a kingmaker in a potential hung parliament by getting the Greens in."

Everyone wants their own spin out there. In the lead up to July 2, controlling the message is vitally important. There's no better example of that than a man I see in a distance, angrily refusing a Liberal flyer. Over the wind, I can hear him yelling "I've always been a Liberal voter in the past, but..." and then I miss the rest. He doesn't sound happy.

I approach the Liberal volunteer the man was talking to. "Sorry, what did he say?" Without missing a beat, she replies: "He said the Liberals are great."

Lee is the author of "Double Dissolution: Heartbreak and Chaos on the Campaign Trail," out in October from Echo Publishing.

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