“The Labor movement ensured that my parents had a fair go and were able to make a success of their lives here. I want to be able to offer that to other people”
The 43rd Australian parliament wasn’t noted for its internal courtesies, but if there was a poll for an individual MP’s demeanour during that besieged administration – the federal member for Hindmarsh might well win by a landslide.
Steve Georganas has the kind of gracious, unassuming attitude other politicians would do well to emulate. Not that he’s anyone’s wallflower. A staunch ally of Julia Gillard in her thumping 71-31 annihilation of Kevin Rudd in the February 2012 leadership ballot, Georganas switched his allegiance to Kevin Rudd in June’s ballot.
It was a move he and MPs like him had a particular reason to support: self-preservation.
Behind the scenes he reportedly told colleagues, “she deserved 12 months to turn things around”, but a politician’s just-desserts and what they end up getting are poles – or should that be ‘polls’ – apart.
Once a very safe Labor seat, the electorate of Hindmarsh has sat on a knife-edge as far as its politics are concerned since boundary changes in 1993.
With Labor in polling free-fall during the last days of Julia Gillard’s reign as Prime Minister, you didn’t need a masters in political science to predict it could easily fall to the Coalition – unless the cavalry, in the form of Kevin Rudd – came to the rescue.
If Rudd’s resurrection was aimed at saving the Labor Party’s furniture and more, Hindmarsh was just the sort of seat that could be saved.
While Prime Minister Rudd’s honeymoon is over according to the polls, the straight-talking sitting member for Hindmarsh is, as ever, stoic about his situation.
“It’s always been a hard battle,” he says. “I just continue to work as I always have, to deliver for the electorate. I’ll leave the polling to the pollsters.”
Born within the electorate in Mile End in 1959, Georganas contested the seat first at the 1998 and 2001 elections, before winning it by a whisker in 2004, when he defeated the Liberal candidate by just 108 votes.
In 2007 he retained the seat, picking up a five per cent two-party swing.
Three years later he achieved 44 per cent of the vote – compared to the Liberals’ 39 per cent – a margin of some 5000 votes.
Having previously worked as a taxi driver and in the insurance industry, Georganas worked on the staff of Senator Nick Bolkus, and later as an adviser to SA’s state government before his election to Federal Parliament.
His leanings to the left were instilled at an early age, picked up along a familiar path.
“Both my parents were working-class, blue collar workers. They came out here with very few English skills, and worked in the lowest paid jobs and the hardest industries,” says Georganas.
His father worked first for General Motors Holden and then on the railways – and it was Labor – with its progressive views on social justice – which the young Georganas saw had the greatest effect on his parents’ lives.
“I could see the differences. The Whitlam government provided for my family in terms of equality, recognising multiculturalism, putting services in place.”
The success of traditional migrant communities in Australia, Georganas puts squarely down to Labor’s intervention in the post-war years.
“It was due to Labor governments – such as Ben Chifley’s in the 1940s – who ensured that migrants would be on the same conditions, the same working rights as everyone else.
“The Labor movement ensured that my parents had a fair go and were able to make a success of their lives here. I want to be able to offer that to other people.”
The lot of Australia’s original migrant generation – and what politicians can do to ease their burden – is an issue understandably close to Georganas’ heart.
He says that Labor’s plans for the elderly show one of the biggest policy divides between Labor and the Coalition.
“One of the biggest differences is in relation to pensions,” he says. “We’re the only party that has ever increased the pension beyond the normal cost of living increases.”
Labor’s work on aged care reform, he says, is testament to its commitment to Australia’s nation-builders he says.
“We have a policy for aged care, and we have a policy for multicultural aged care – to ensure culture and linguistic diversity is taken into account.”
With 1000 Australians every week turning 65 years of age, and traditional migrant communities ageing much faster, Georganas has been a vocal advocate for finding new and sustainable solutions.
It’s a stance that should ring a chord with the Hindmarsh electorate – with more than 30 per cent of its population having been born overseas and a high proportion of elderly residents.
“The Greek and Italian populations are the fastest-growing elderly groups, much faster than any other communities,” says Georganas, who, as chair of the government’s Health and Ageing Committee, made recommendations to Labor’s ambitious aged care reform package announced last year.
The government’s $3.7 billion reform package – which was welcomed by both the industry and consumers – includes means-testing of home care from July 2014, as well as extra funding to fight dementia and attract workers to the aged care sector.
Georganas says he’s proud of his party’s record in this area “but more needs to be done”.
He cites Labor’s track record in easing cost-of-living pressures – to those most in need – as another major point of departure between Labor and the Coalition.
“The assistance payments for pensioners and low-income families is a big difference between us, and the schoolkids’ bonus separates us from Abbott. He’s already said he’s going to take that away if elected.”
On his own patch, Georganas says Labor’s track-record on infrastructure is proof of his ability to deliver to local people’s needs.
“When I look at my electorate and see what has been delivered since Labor has been in, and I compare it to the Howard Coalition years – when they were only handing out flagpoles to schools, that was their big infrastructure project – we have delivered on infrastructure.”
Georganas points to the building of the $9m King Street bridge (that ended a 15-year battle to connect Glenelg North peninsular residents to the city) as typical of what he has been able to deliver for his constituency.
Multimillion dollar support for community resources in Adelaide’s west – Surf Lifesaving South Australia, the South Australia Football League, and Adelaide Shores recreation reserve – are, he says, further examples of how federal Labor has met local infrastructure needs big time.
Is Labor’s three-word election slogan ‘A New Way’ intended to quietly sweep under the carpet Labor’s less attractive recent history?
Absolutely not, he says. “I think we’ve been a great government. We got through the Global Financial Crisis, we’ve created infrastructure, and we’ve created nearly a million new jobs.
“I’ll be promoting the past, but we have to meet the challenges of the future,” he says.
“What are those challenges? The economy, China is slowing down and the ‘New Way’ is about meeting these new challenges.”
“We have to prepare ourselves now in the way the Hawke-Keating governments did in the early 1980s, to set the foundations. It’s a question of vision” says Georganas.
“Kevin Rudd has already said he wants to sit down with all the unions and ensure we have an accord – as was done in the 1980s – to pave the way for the future, to ensure foundations are laid down now for the new technology that will emerge, to be part of the Asian economy.
“All these things are important and if we don’t lay down the foundations over the next few years we’ll miss out.”
And what final message – other than ‘vote Labor’ – does Steve Georganas have for those who will decide his political fate on September 7?
“Look at the track record. My priority has been to deliver for this electorate and that’s what I’ll continue to do,” he says matter-of-factly, before offering one final piece of advice. “Don’t risk it with someone you don’t know.”
This special news feature is the third in a series of articles in the run up to the 2013 Federal Election profiling prominent Greek Australian politicians. Next week Neos Kosmos talks exclusively to Liberal Senator for New South Wales, Arthur Sinodinos AO.