I Asked Canberra’s Waiters What They've Learned About Politics By Serving Politicians

Apparently they're polite and unmemorable, which most felt was reflective of Australian politics in general.

May 13 2016, 12:00am

All images by Ashley Goodall

"Never trust anyone who is rude to a waiter," is an oft-cited way to judge character, often used as dating advice. But it's as good a way as any to pick the country's leader, especially if we value empathy in the political class.

I visited a number of food and drink places around Canberra, from high-end restaurants to mid-range eateries, chain cafes, and independent bars. I wanted to find out what the politicians are actually like as customers, and how the people who serve them plan on voting. Heavy tips wouldn't go astray, even if the age of entitlement is over.

But the news was the same across every venue: when pollies come in for a meal or a drink, they're well behaved. This is good news for anyone busting tables at $17 per hour, but bad news for an ethics-free reporter keen to ferment gossip. "They're too visible," one restaurant owner tells me. "They can't act up when they're in public."

All images by Ashley Goodall

All of them refuse to have their photo taken. Even with the guarantee of anonymity, few of them declare who they'll vote for. They're not being diplomatic; most seem genuinely unable to make up their minds.

One owner of a medium-sized restaurant says that both sides frustrate him. All he wants is for one of them to pull their finger out and do something, although he doesn't seem to know what that something might be. I run through a list of policies, but he shrugs most of them off. He has no key issue in particular, he's just sick of the fluff.

I wonder if this is the mindset that's led to the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and to the oft-repeated suggestion that Bernie fans will vote for Trump if Bernie doesn't get the nomination. Are people so frustrated with politics that they just want a revolution, no matter what that revolution is for? This guy doesn't look like he's agitating for revolt, but I could see him going with anyone who promised an overthrow of the system.

Another restaurant owner is only vaguely aware there's even an election on. She's so busy, she only has five or ten minutes each morning to look at the news, and willingly admits that she's not up on the issues. But she tells me Scott Morrison is very polite in person.

Not to be rude about it, but the cheaper the place, the less likely you are to hear stories about politicians in the flesh. The owner of a bar-bistro says they don't get the politicians (they always eat a few doors down at a swankier place), but they do get a lot of their staffers. Younger people with less money to splash around.

He says that being a small business owner he's a traditional Liberal voter, but he feels it's time for a change. He says it shouldn't be time for a change just yet, but it is. But he is very undecided, and says his key issues are health and education. Those are the areas most likely to sway him.

When you get to the kids who wait the tables, the conversation shifts. The outlook between employer and employee is quite different. A young waiter at one newly-opened café is undecided. And, he reveals after a few minutes, that he's actually not enrolled. He didn't register at the last election because neither side inspired him. It's the same this year, too. He's just waiting to be wowed.

He cares about health and carbon emissions, but his wedge issue is education. He's passionate about the Gonski reforms. "They're important," he says. But he's still young and wants to study more, and studying is expensive. It's hard to tell how engaged he is, because I have to do a lot of prompting to get him to this point, but given how he sparks up when we get on to the topic of university fees, it sounds like the party that promises the most affordable education will win his vote.

An another café, the barista has just turned 18. She's been following the US election more closely than the Australian one, she admits. Donald Trump's speeches scare her. But it's the theatricality of America's election that's caught her interest. Australian politics is too bland, she says. When Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten stand next to each other, you can't tell them apart.

I see her point. It's fun for Australians to look down our noses at the clown car that is the 2016 US Presidential race, but she's absolutely right about this: there's no mistaking Donald Trump for Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. Whereas you could have Malcolm and Bill in the same police lineup and easily finger the wrong guy. So to speak.

Who would she vote for if it was wide open? Who in politics would get her excited? "Christopher Pyne," she says. "He's got youth appeal. He's really funny when he's on The Project."

She's very keen to talk politics, but I haven't got a sense of who she would actually vote for if she gets enrolled in time. "Malcolm's doing an okay job," she eventually concedes. "So long as nobody sledgehammers him in the back, like with Rudd and Gillard."

I remind her that Malcolm did exactly that to Tony Abbott. "Oh yeah," she says, recalling the long-distant memory of last September. I'm not making fun of her: this is key. Labor is still shaking off its reputation for chronic instability, even though the two parties have done a complete switch.

The owner of another upscale restaurant tells me the MPs and Senators who come in are always very good customers. "No dust-ups between opposing sides?" I ask hopefully. He laughs, then pauses for a moment, perhaps imagining the rise in business resulting from such an incident.

He's always been a Liberal voter, and will definitely be voting for the party again this year. He says they're the safest hands for the economy overall, and stresses that this isn't just because he's a small business owner. He's talking big picture. They're just better managers.

Was he impressed with last week's Budget? "No, not hugely excited," he says. "I was surprised there wasn't more in there before the election.

"But it was fine."

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