Meet Evan Hughes, Running Against Malcolm Turnbull In Wentworth

"Let's call Wentworth a 19 percent marginal."

13/05/2016 4:10 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:52 PM AEST
Fairfax Media
Evan Hughes, running against Malcolm Turnbull in Wentworth

Imagine running as a Labor candidate in a seat that has never elected someone from your party in 115 years. Then imagine your opponent is the Prime Minister, the most popular one in years. Then imagine that candidate is Malcolm Turnbull, the Silver Fox, arguably the most assured and confident politician in the parliament, who has held his seat by crushing margins since assuming the electorate in 2004.

That is the mountain looming before 30-year-old Evan Hughes, the ALP's candidate for Wentworth; but if he's worried, he doesn't show it.

"Let's call Wentworth a 19 percent marginal," he says with a grin, scooping up a forkful of quinoa salad when The Huffington Post Australia catches up with him for lunch in Sydney's Martin Place.

"Even though it's a seat that will take a monumental task to win, I think it's worth putting every available ounce of energy to do it."

Hughes lives at Woollahra, not far from Turnbull's palatial, waterfront Point Piper mansion. He works in the finance sector -- "capital raising for boutique funds managers and offshore funds managers," he says -- and is taking a few days off work each week to door-knock, letterbox drop and generally campaign for the Labor cause in the bluest of blue-ribbon Liberal electorates. A Labor member has never held the Wentworth seat since it was established at Federation in 1901, and Hughes is the latest ALP faithful to put in a showing against Turnbull.

But while he is mounting a valiant attempt to bring down a sitting PM and emulate ABC journalist Maxine McKew -- who stole John Howard's Bennelong seat at the 2007 election -- Hughes is respectful, reverential even, of Turnbull and references him often during our lunch.

"Everyone makes the joke that Malcolm Turnbull used to run around Sydney Grammar at 15 and 16 telling everyone he was going to be Prime Minister. I'm sure you could find my Cranebrook mates who would say the same about me," he said.

"I've been interested in politics since then. I was very pro-republic when I was 14, and Malcolm Turnbull's part in that was very important."

Hughes comes from a prominent art-dealing family; his father Ray was a well-known gallery owner in Brisbane and Sydney, and Evan studied art history at Cambridge University. After closing the Ray Hughes Gallery in Surry Hills in 2015, Evan began devoting his waking hours to the Wentworth campaign, and mounting a fight against a man who won the seat in 2013 with 67 percent of the two-party vote.

"You ignore who the person you're up against is, when you believe in what you're doing strongly enough," Hughes said.

"I believe very strongly in good schools for my two boys, I believe very strongly in the best possible allocation of federal finances to schools and hospitals. I don't do it to fight the man, I do it to fight for the cause. That sounds a bit naff, but when you've got little kids, everything gets put into perspective."

Hughes talks about what he calls the "old Malcolm" and the "new Malcolm" -- the "old Malcolm" who famously supported action on climate change and crossed the floor to controversially vote with Labor to institute an emissions trading scheme, who supported marriage equality and other more socially progressive causes, versus the "new Malcolm" who has railed against Labor commitments to reinstitute an ETS if they win the July election, and who has committed to a plebiscite on marriage equality while refusing to scold conservative Coalition colleagues critical of LGBTI issues. He has even made 'I Miss Malcolm' one of his campaign slogans.

"For once, the people of Australia have a major party willing to take bold action, and instead of saying there won't be a carbon tax, we're saying there will be a price, it will float and we have serious action," he said.

"I'm proud of that. Mainly because it's what 'old Malcolm' would have stood for. So at least if you would have voted for 'old Malcolm', at least you can vote for those policies at this election."

Hughes said he grew up with Turnbull as his local member, and while he respected the man and his achievements, he was disappointed in how he had acted since assuming the mantle of Prime Minister.

"Everyone in Wentworth, in NSW, in the country who is a progressive, had a stockpile of hope for what Malcolm might do, and in six months, he has incinerated that stockpile," Hughes railed.

"Others might say, he could restore that pile and deliver on the promise of action, but the fact is he has given us no evidence... I don't think we can trust in the old Malcolm anymore. People believed he might change the Liberal Party, but I think it's becoming evident that it's the Liberal Party that has changed him."

He said he would be having some fun through the campaign, already taking minor digs at Turnbull through social media, and running light-hearted slogans and campaign material; including his 'Make Point Piper Great Again' line, an ironic reference to Donald Trump's own slogan.

He said he would push against Turnbull on issues including marriage equality and action on climate change, and would not simply be a "seat filler" as the Labor candidate. Despite living in an upper-class electorate, coming from a famous family and occupying a high-flying finance job, he said property prices and negative gearing were a major concern of his.

"Even though I'm in the most negatively geared electorate in the country, where negative gearing is accounting for the most profits in the country, I'm more than happy to say I'm firmly in favour of Labor's negative gearing changes," he said of his party's policy to limit the tax write-off to new homes.

"Why? Because I'm a 30-year-old, many of whose peers could not fathom entering the Sydney property market while competing against people buying their fifth and sixth apartments. Mr Turnbull has forgotten in this electorate, there are an enormous amount of young voters who can only get into the market if, as he said, their parents are wealthy enough and generous enough to give them money."

"That's an awful way to run economic policy, and what might have been a glib remark on radio did resonate with a lot of people I know who work in very good jobs and still can't afford to buy properties that are $600,000 over where they should be."

Hughes is taking days off work to doorknock and drop fliers into letterboxes through the electorate, and hopes to put in a competitive showing.

"We've done a fair bit of doorknocking, which is bizarre for a candidate in, let's call it a 19 percent marginal. We've done doorknocking from Paddington to Vaucluse, and I can tell you, you get the odd lady in the garden who thinks you're insane... but I haven't had the door slammed in my face yet," he said.

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