POLITICS

A Day On The Campaign Trail With Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon

Train stations, sausage rolls and Sydney traffic.

27/06/2016 3:55 PM AEST | Updated July 15, 2016 12:54
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Lee Rhiannon (centre) with Sarah Hanson-Young and Dejay Tobrek at a press conference in Bondi

It starts at Sydenham train station, in Sydney's inner-west. As commuters park their cars and hurry across the road to catch their train to work, a knot of pamphlet-clutching people in brightly coloured t-shirts mill around the entrance. There's a lone man in a red shirt flying the flag for local Labor member Anthony Albanese, but he is outnumbered by a small platoon of Greens volunteers barracking for two candidates -- Albanese's opponent in the seat of Grayndler, Jim Casey, and NSW Senator Lee Rhiannon.

Just up the concourse, Casey and Rhiannon themselves are awake early, pressing the flesh with the local constituents. Forget the glamorous idea of campaigning you may have from television; the flying around in private jets, the big speeches to rich people over fancy lunches in waterfront function centres, the televised debates or appearances on TV or radio panel shows. This is the decidedly non-glamorous side of the campaigning, the ground game, the one-to-one work that gives our politicians a rare chance to step outside the "Canberra bubble" and find out what actually matters to the average punter.

"That is essential. If your politics is about the common good, the democratic side of involving people, you need to know where people are at. That's the starting point," Rhiannon told The Huffington Post Australia. She has agreed to have us ride shotgun for a 'day in the life' of a politician on the campaign trail.

"I think society would be much healthier if we had the mechanisms, and people had the chance, to have a say in this society."

She says it is difficult to reach voters today, with a growing segment of the population now jaded and withdrawing from the political process, so face-to-face campaigning was an important tool to connect.

"People become quite cynical about it because they think they have very little power. People have often said to me, 'what's the point? I don't have thousands of dollars to support a politician, I can't turn up at the fundraising dinner, they won't answer my phone calls.' People have become deeply cynical about it," Rhiannon said.

"The essence of our democracy is turning people away from something they believe in and want to be involved in, and that's very troubling."

Many politicians talk the talk, but few walk the walk. As the Greens candidates pack up their things and say goodbye to volunteers, Rhiannon moves toward the station gates; she has taken the train out to Sydenham, forgoing the taxpayer-funded car or Cabcharge. I have driven my car, so offer the senator and her staffer a lift back to their office in the Sydney CBD. What would have been an eight-minute train ride becomes a 30-minute crawl through morning peak hour traffic.

"This is the problem with capitalism," Rhiannon muses from the front seat of my cluttered car, far dirtier than a vehicle carrying a federal senator should be. We talk about public transport, congested roads, and the prohibitive cost of getting a train to the airport.

Rhiannon's phone rings. "It's SHY," she tells her advisor in the back seat; SHY being an acronym for fellow Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young. The South Australian politician is coming to Sydney today, and the pair brainstorm ideas for a press conference. A story about Australian cattle being savagely beaten and killed by sledgehammers in Vietnamese slaughterhouses has broken overnight, and the Greens want to respond.

"The hardest part about campaigning is knowing if the tactics you're using are working. An election is about mustering votes, and winning the seat. It's about practical things, like making a judgment where you spend your time," Rhiannon tells me.

"You could do a lot of travelling. Some other parties would say they won't win in western Sydney or western NSW, and ignore them completely, but we we don't do that at all. I've been out there, and will again. Elections are also good occasions to advance what we stand for. We don't see parliament as an end in itself, in terms of just winning the seats we stand for -- it's about looking at the future, looking at social change coming through, to amplify a number of things we campaign on and issues we are committed to."

We arrive at Rhiannon's Surry Hills office, a large modern scene in the centre of town. It's about 9am, and her small crew of staff huddle around for a meeting to brief for the coming day; hanging out at a pre-polling booth, speaking at a union rally, the press conference with Hanson-Young, an event on Sydney's northern beaches with local candidates to mark the launch of an marine sanctuary policy document. A staffer suggests holding the SHY presser outside Malcolm Turnbull's office in Bondi -- Rhiannon is initially hesitant, citing concerns over traffic and timing and diverting from their planned route between the city and the northern beaches, but after another staff member whips out a phone to plot a course with Google Maps and suggests a shortcut to save time, the plan is suddenly shifted. A staffer takes a photo of the senator signing a pledge supporting the Transport Workers Union's "Safe Rates Save Lives" campaign, for posting to her Twitter account.

"I enjoy seeing how hard people work," the senator says of her small team of staffers.

"There's people there early mornings to late at night. Differences will fall away as human beings get working together in a creative way, for something that is important."

Photos and newspaper clippings from Rhiannon's past adorn the walls. There are pictures of her at union rallies and marches; a Daily Telegraph front page from 1998 (cover price, 80 cents) where she is quoted as a spokesperson for a group of protesters who climbed a crane; stickers and slogans and posters from over the years which paint a picture of the Greens' path from a minor fringe party not that long ago to a true third political force in Australia. A former member of the Socialist Party of Australia, she entered politics after raising three kids and spending a life rallying around causes, from the anti-apartheid and anti-Vietnam War fights to environmentalism, civil rights, democracy and animal rights. Rhiannon has been a Green since the 1990s, first sitting in NSW state parliament from 1999, and entering the federal Senate in 2010.

We walk through the rain to a pre-polling centre a few blocks down the road, Rhiannon taking her place on the pavement among the corflutes alongside volunteers from other parties in lurid shirts -- purple and blue and red, and even a man wearing a foam costume meant to be the sun. She personally takes over from another Greens volunteer, to hand out how-to-vote cards and information as voters run the gauntlet to enter the polling place, flanked by sandwich boards bearing the faces of Albanese and Plibersek and Turnbull and other local candidates.

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Rhiannon at pre-polling in Sydney

"Voting today?" Rhiannon asks almost every single person who walks past, offering papers into their hands, chatting, talking up the Greens.

"You're very good at this," says a young man in an orange Christian Democrats shirt. "That's why you're a senator, I guess."

Half an hour later, we're in a cab to the waterside precinct of Pyrmont, where Rhiannon will address a rally held by the Australian Maritime Officers Union, who are protesting the availability of overseas workers to get 457 visas to work as ship captains and deck officers. They claim it could lead to a low-skilled worker accidentally releasing an oil spill into Sydney Harbour. Rhiannon's staffer says she usually accepts most invitations to address or attend events, especially unions. The senator speaks passionately and without notes, the seasoned patter of a veteran of union and issues rallies. We bundle quickly into another car, across town to Turnbull's office to meet Hanson-Young.

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Rhiannon speaks at the AMOU rally

The hastily-convened press conference meant there were fears no media would actually show up, but TV cameramen arrive just in time. Rhiannon and Hanson-Young exchange pleasantries, as they meet local candidate for Wentworth (and Turnbull's challenger) Dejay Tobrek. The senators say their piece outside Turnbull's building, pose for a quick photo in the leafy park opposite, and split up again. We jump in Rhiannon's trusty station wagon, which a staffer has driven over to Bondi, and head over the Harbour Bridge to Collaroy, north of Sydney. None of us have eaten much during the day, so Rhiannon implores her staffer to pull over at a service station so she can buy a packet of chips. I sit quietly, munching a luke-warm sausage roll in the back seat of a federal senator's family car.

"When you get into campaigns, your social life largely ends," Rhiannon says of the election trail. She has three kids.

"I haven't seen many friends for quite a while. I stay in touch with my family regularly. I miss them, and that's something I'm very conscious of. I didn't see them last weekend, probably wont see them this weekend. I feel for all my colleagues on family stuff. I know MPs get bagged out when they say they're resigning for 'family reasons' but sometimes I can see that can be true."

Election campaigns are full of early starts, late finishes, travelling, planning and little down-time. How does she keep sane and focused on the trail?

"I catch up on sleep when I can. I think I'm good at clocking off. Having raised three kids, I learned that when you have a weekend off, you regard it as two weeks off. So when I have an hour off, it's like a whole weekend," she laughed.

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With the local candidates at Collaroy

We meet the Greens candidates for Warringah and Mackellar, Clara Williams Roldan and Mike Hall, at a golf club in Collaroy. Local media wait to chat with and photograph the trio, to hear about the Greens' marine sanctuaries plan. The candidates then discuss election strategy over coffee inside the clubhouse, talking pre-polls, volunteers, phone banks and corflutes. The veteran Rhiannon gives advice on how to finish strong.

A long drive back to the city ends our brief day on the trail with Rhiannon. She is probably going to retain her seat in the Senate, but she tells us through the day that she is not taking it for granted -- and she won't hold a grudge if she doesn't get the required votes to return to Canberra.

"It's a really good situation to be in. We're privileged to have these jobs," she says of the regular job application process that is running for re-election.

"You're there to represent the public, you should be working for the public. If you're given public resources, you need to be accountable."

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