No sweating the small stuff

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Nine of Fremantle’s 11 federal election candidates fronted voters Monday night. From left: Richard McNaught (Katter’s Australia), Jordon Steele-John (Greens), Owen Mulder (Australian Christians), Teresa van Lieshout (Australian Protectionists), Matthew Hanssen (Liberals), Ron Rowlands (Citizens Electoral Council), Philip Scott (Rise Up Australia), Sam Wainwright (Socialist Alliance), Melissa Parke (Labor). Missing are Vashil Vimal Sharma (Palmer United) and John McCourt (Family First). Photos by Matthew Dwyer

Local issues didn’t get a look-in from a 250-strong crowd at the federal election forum at Notre Dame University Monday night.

Nine of the 11 candidates running for Fremantle turned up to be peppered with questions centred on asylum seekers, same-sex marriage and climate change.

Not one question was asked about local issues.

As candidates were introduced Green Jordon Steele-John drew loud applause while Liberal Matthew Hanssen received a warm greeting. Socialist Alliance candidate and Freo councillor Sam Wainwright was greeted with whoops and cheers but it was Labor’s Melissa Parke who attracted the loudest applause.

This was definitely a left-leaning crowd and, unusually for Fremantle fora, there were plenty of young faces amongst the old stagers, suggesting a generational baton change is underway.

By the end of the 90-minute grilling it was 18-year-old Steele-John who’d won the crowd’s favour. Speaking confidently and rattling off policies and details with aplomb—and ensuring he wasn’t sidelined by questions to the two major parties’ candidates—he was the evening’s star performer and probably left the event with more votes than he’d gone in with.

Following candidates’ opening addresses the microphone was handed to the crowd. Mattie “as in Malcolm” Turnbull had the hall in stitches stating she was from the Republic of South Fremantle. She’d practically leapt to her feet to grill the panel on asylum seekers and to thunderous applause she growled at Mr Hanssen for “persisting to call refugees illegal immigrants”.

The Liberal’s terse reply, “in our opinion they are,” heralded a tough night for Tony Abbott’s man who, despite the hostile sentiment of the crowd, stuck to his guns and pledged to “stop the boats”. He claimed $10 billion spent detaining and processing asylum seekers should instead be “spent on this community”. “A lot of people in Africa are lined up [waiting] and we are trying to form a queue, not have people jumping in.”

Sounding like she was reluctantly chewing on broken glass, former UN human rights lawyer Parke admitted she had difficulties living with Kevin Rudd’s PNG Solution: “We need to approach this based on compassion and reason, fact not fear,” she said. “I support some aspects of the government’s approach but I have severe difficulties with others.”

To that, Freo-based Greens upper house MP Lynn MacLaren tweeted (#freodebate): “Melissa Parke would make an excellent Greens Member alongside Adam Bandt. Her values are hampered by the ALP party machine.”

Mr Steele-John received rapturous applause for proclaiming there was “no crime in seeking asylum”: “The way the system has treated refugees over the last 15 years is a national shame,” he said.

Boos and jeers greeted Australian Protectionist Party candidate Teresa van Lieshout who ended up stating, “Liberal, Labor and the Greens are murdering the citizens of Australia, because of homelessness, suicide and death by psychiatry! People on the left of politics have blood on their hands!”

East Fremantle’s Cliff Collinson wanted to know if Australia was donating its fair share of foreign aid. Groans greeted Mr Hanssen’s answer that Australia—one of the world’s wealthiest countries—should balance its own books first. “Australia already spends $5.7 billion on foreign aid,” he said. “I think we should look after people from our own country before we look after people from other countries.”

Ms Parke, whose international development ministry includes responsibility for foreign aid, said she supported UK Tory PM David Cameron’s comment: “You shouldn’t balance your budget on the back of the poor.”

When uranium was tossed at the panel Ms Parke made it clear she opposed nuclear mining, power and waste dumps. Mr Hanssen said he preferred to develop WA’s gas reserves but noted Australia had a lot of uranium and should be able to mine it. He drew the laugh of the night saying nuclear energy, “is very clean in its own way”.

“Why do we need it?” Mr Steele-John asked. “For jobs? We don’t need it for the energy. WA is the Saudia Arabia of sunlight.”

When equal marriage was raised, the Australian Christians’ Owen Mulder said children did best when raised by a mum and dad. To that, Richard McNaught from Katter’s Australia Party—who hadn’t said a word all night apart from his nervous opening address—noted, “I raised my son by myself since he was 12 and he turned out pretty well.”

Perhaps one of the few times the KAP will ever receive loud applause and cheers from lefties.

As moderator Peter Kennedy closed the forum, sticking strictly to a 7.30pm finish, Mr Steele-John asked the crowd—which seemed to be just warming up—“wouldn’t you like another hour?” It certainly looked like he relished the thought.

by BRENDAN FOSTER

 

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