What I Learned After Eight Weeks on the Campaign Trail

Basically that Australia is big, and all politicians are human except for Peter Dutton.

by Lee Zachariah
05 July 2016, 12:00am

Turnbull and Morrison laugh about pastry goods at just one of the 10 billion identical campaign events I attended. All photos taken with the author's very own phone.

The 2016 campaign is finally over. And by over, I mean nobody knows who won and we're basically fucked until the next election, which will probably be next week sometime. So before we head back to the polls, I thought I'd run through some of the things I learned as I chased Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten around the country for the past two months.

The view from my dashboard as I cross from SA to Victoria

Australia Is Big

Really, really big. Especially when you're driving across the whole damn thing. If the only way you've experienced the country is by plane, schedule a road trip ASAP. I don't exactly recommend doing the 14-hour drive from Canberra to Adelaide in one sitting like I stupidly did, but there isn't a better way to experience this country than on its back roads. Especially central New South Wales. Do that on a sunny day, and thank me later.

A selfie just before I got a yiros with Nick Xenophon.

Labor and Liberal Politicians Feel No Need to Talk to Young People

The majority of the interviews I conducted were with independents or Greens. With the exception of one Labor candidate (who was not a sitting MP), the two major parties rarely returned my calls, and when they did it was only to fob me off. So while I may have played pool with Ricky Muir, ate yiros with Nick Xenophon, gone on a road trip with Tony Windsor, and gone go-karting with Sarah Hanson-Young , I never got the chance to go skydiving with Julie Bishop or planking with Anthony Albanese.

As of Tuesday Peter Dutton remains missing, presumed re-elected.

Politicians Are Human Beings, Except for Peter Dutton

Look, no matter which side of the toasty spectrum you're buttered on, it's way too easy to demonise the other side. Labor is a handout-happy nanny prepared to destroy the economy for their agenda. The Liberals are cold-hearted austerity-obsessed racists who want to give the lower class' money to multinationals. The Greens are irresponsible do-gooders who want to throw open our borders and destroy everything our diggers fought for.

But the inconvenient truth is that most of these people come across as pretty pleasant in person. There's a good chance the politician whose ideas you hate the most is someone you could have a fairly enjoyable drink with, even if you did talk politics. Obviously, it was easiest to get along with the politicians who gave me the most time, but even someone like Kelly O'Dwyer—who flat out refused to speak with me—still came across as very pleasant, even as she was giving me the cold shoulder. Peter Dutton, on the other hand, didn't give any sort of shoulder at all. His staff wouldn't let me anywhere near him, but hey, that's okay, I bear no ill will. The point is that all politicians are human beings except for Peter Dutton.

Volunteers outside the Parramatta pre-poll.

There Is One Way to Make Politicians Get Along

You know how you've got that friend who's always saying that politicians should work together more, even though we have a democracy largely founded on the principle of them not working together? (If you don't have that friend, then the friend is you.) But if you really want to see bipartisanship, or actually multipartisanship, there's no better place than outside pre-polling stations in the days before an election.

The volunteers who are out promoting their parties and candidates have to spend all day with one another, and bonds quickly form. They may believe strongly enough in their party's positions to stand in parking lots for hours and days at a time, but watching volunteers with the Greens and Liberals hanging out, or Labor and Christian Democrats volunteers chatting with Nick Xenophon Team supporters gave me a nice warm feeling in the part that's usually only brought to life by sausage sizzles.

Around the whole country, I witnessed camaraderie between political opponents that convinced me the trick to making the politicians get along is to make them stand outside for a few weeks with no one else to talk to except their opponents.

An AFP security guy's Matrix-style earpiece at the Liberal election night function. Photo by Nic Bezzina.

AFP Officers Are Chill as Fuck

I don't know if Secret Service agents are as stoic and unmovable as they're depicted on TV, but that's what I was expecting from the Australian Federal Police guarding the Prime Minister. And sure, they seemed to be very focused on their jobs, but more than a couple of times they were willing to crack a joke with the press.

Like when one old man almost walked into the PM's press conference because he was looking for a party. No party in particular. Just any party. The AFP officer politely and professionally directed him away from the press conference, but was also chill enough to grin as the rest of us riffed on this for a minute. This was the most patriotic I felt during the entire campaign.

A Liberal staffer informs a mildly irritated press that the PM won't be talking to us today after all.

The Story Isn't Where You Think it Is

If you watch election coverage on TV, you'll often see the same reporters on the trail with either the Prime Minister or the Opposition Leader. They file multiple times each day, and to the casual observer this seems like where the election is happening. But I did a handful of days on the Prime Minister's bus over the course of the campaign and learned one surprising fact: following the PM around is profoundly uninteresting.

Turnbull obviously didn't travel on the bus, so we only saw him for very short, very stage-managed moments. The few times I saw him give doorstops, he stuck stubbornly to the talking points, regardless of the question. None of this is unexpected, but after a few days of this you start to wonder why you're bothering. I can't imagine what it was like for the journos who spent eight whole weeks on the trail.

Tony Windsor (on right) with locals in a Uralla pub laughs when his ad comes on the TV. "I look like a Toyota salesman."

The Best Stories Are Everywhere Else

I'm not going to get all "the country is where the REAL Australia is," but by far the best stories I got happened I talked to people outside polling booths, or drove around the electorate, or went to town hall meetings in small remote towns. Engaged voters talking about the issues they care about in swing electorates is where some of the election's best stories lie. When there's a surprise result in an election—and there are always surprise results, otherwise we'd be able to predict them all with 100 percent accuracy—it's partly because not enough people paid attention to what was happening on the ground. Or went go-karting with Sarah Hanson-Young.

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

election 2016
what i learned from
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