“It’s only with Batman as a candidate that Labor could manage to keep the seat of Batman,” a friend told me a few days ago. True, one has to admit it is impossible not to think along those lines, given the political climate in the inner north electorate of Melbourne and the neighbouring areas that have been swept by the Green vote in recent years.
It would be great for Labor’s chances if Ged Kearney, the newly-nominated Labor candidate, managed to ensure an outcome similar to the superhero’s ventures.
Batman is just a fictional DC Comics character, Kearney however, is not, and seems to be Labor’s only hope: to become a super heroine in her own right with some very important notches on her belt.
She leaves the union movement carrying the legacy of the battle she has fought and won against the then-Howard Government’s Workchoices policy in 2005 not to mention her ongoing struggles as head of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF Vic Branch) to ensure a ‘healthy’ nurse-patient ratio in Victorian hospitals.
Her belief is that “hard work and integrity can bring results”. This is probably why she huffs and puffs when I remind her that she has another three weeks of election campaigning ahead of her.
“I moved into Batman when I was 15,” she tells Neos Kosmos.
“I’ve lived here, in Martin Street, for over 30 years. I had my four children in Batman. They went to school here. As a nurse I worked for most of my career at the Austin Hospital [in Heidelberg]. I had to sell my house and buy another one and I bought a house just across the Merri Creek which is the border. You do not think of electoral boundaries when you are buying a house,” she says answering the recent attacks about where she lives.
While she explains that politics is a new thing for her, she admits that she has often considered it in the past.
“The work I did in the union movement and as a nurse was an advocacy role. You know, advocating for decent healthcare and workers’ rights, for all those important social institutions that we love like Medicare, public education, superannuation, and all these things. I think that advocacy aspect and the policy development aspect is what really appeals to me and I was very involved in developing good public and industrial policy, at the ACTU [Australian Council of trade Unions] and ANMF. So politics seem a logical step,” she says.
She comes into the 17 March by-election on the back of the Northcote state seat lost to the Greens last year, and the departure of sitting member David Feeney – a not so likeable Labor MP who during the previous federal elections managed to win Batman thanks to the distribution of the Liberals’ second preferences.
The Batman by-election will be contested by 10 candidates. The consequences for the Labor Party if Batman goes to Greens cadidate Alex Bhathal are immeasurable; a once safe Labor seat surrendered to the insurgent rival (not one of the two major parties) would not only be a dismal result in itself for Labor, but an ominous portent not only for federal Labor but state Labor and their prospects in the upcoming November election.
Kearney understands this. She also appreciates a good fight; she played an integral part in many of those.
“I think the people of Batman are looking for a very strong progressive person to represent them in parliament,” she muses.
“A person who can actually make real change, a person of integrity. My background as a nurse and all the work that I have done for the workers and the trade union movement I hope will prove to them that I have been a fighter for really important social causes. I am also a carer and I understand how to care for a community as well. For all those people that moved away from Labor, I hope that they would see in me someone who would be a voice that shares their values not only in the Labor caucus but also in a party that can form government.”
HEALTH, EDUCATION, JOBS
The parade of Labor fed-stars, the likes of Jenny Macklin, Penny Wong, Tanya Plibersek, has become a daily reality.
In the meantime, Kearney continues door knocking, hearing out voters from all walks of life, all ages, and ethnic backgrounds.
“Batman is a beautifully diverse community,” she stresses.
“For all its diversity when you are walking down the street, you realise that the issues that concern people are the same for everyone: proper funding for primary and secondary school, or wondering if they can take their kids to a bulk billing clinic and they have to fork out a lot of money. Community health centres, for example, and things like public transport and jobs.”
Labor’s Batman campaign is focused on national and traditional ALP issues – jobs, education, and health. Neither Labor nor the Greens have a realistic chance of enacting their promises during this term of parliament but Labor is a government party and the prospects of governing the country after the next federal election are high.
In its bid to win Batman, Labor pledged $40 million for the extension of the Gilbert Road tram line, plus $2 million towards an LGBTIQ health clinic as part of redeveloped Your Community Health Centre in Northcote, as well as a pledge to reverse funding cuts of $183 million from Victorian public hospitals.
“Labor is the party that delivered Medicare; that delivered a public housing system; that has been 100 per cent committed to protect Medicare. Your readers remember that,” says Kearney.
“The Liberal Government has ripped billions out of the health system so it is no wonder people are feeling the pinch, no wonder they feel that the queues are getting longer,” she continues, emphasising that the federal government has said that they are going to increase the Medicare levy for everybody in Australia.
“Labor will not do that. In the meantime the Turnbull Government is going to give massive multinational corporations $65 billion in tax cuts, while at the same time they are saying to every day working people ‘hang on come here, we are going to charge you for your healthcare system’. That is not something Labor will do.”
She talks passionately for the health system, a system that she knows like the back of her hand.
In fact, Kearney recently met with Greek elderly groups to discuss the issues that concern them.
“They were very concerned about the pensions,” she says.
“They were raising the fact that the Turnbull Government is going to diminish their pension if they go to their home country more than six weeks. Labor will oppose that. I remind everyone that the Greens supported the government in cutting pensions to about 300,000 people. Their stance shocked many people. I mean why would you attack the most vulnerable and the needy to fix the bottom line when you can go to the corporations, the rich end of town to do that? The Greens surprised us a couple of times. They also supported the governments’ cuts to Gonski, the school funding.” [Ed. As reported in media after the Senate vote in 2017, the Greens voted against the Coalitions’s package on the grounds the extra $50 million for the Catholic sector amounted to a ‘special deal’, the government secured the 10 crossbench seats they needed with independents and minor parties].
While the Liberals have decided not to contest the seat of Batman, an ultra conservative will. Kevin Bailey, a former SAS soldier, is running with Cory Bernardi’s newly established party the Australian Conservatives.
Politics is a numbers game, which is why Bailey might end up being the kingmaker of this contest.
Both Kearney and Bhathal know that the distribution of his party’s preferences may eventually decide the winner.
The stakes are high and the end justifies the means for some.
Kearney, however, does not fall under that category and she made that clear last week during our interview.
“The whole thing with preferences for me is just noise. I want to win the primaries. That’s what I am going out to get.”
They say a week is a long time in politics; not without reason.
Ten days ago the ‘game’ seemed almost lost for Labor, but a recent Lonergan Research poll published in The Age suggests that if elections had been held last weekend Labor would have won it.
In a phone poll reaching 700 voters in the electorate, Labor led the Greens 53 points to 47 in a two-party preferred contest; numbers that satisfied the Labor camp leaving some members picturing Kearney in a black bulletproof suit and cape saving Batman from the ‘Green villains’.
Will their trip down fantasy lane intertwine with reality?
To be continued in next week’s episode.