ACT News


A long, dusty road to politics

Simon Sheikh has both a social conscience and economic credentials, MICHAEL INMAN writes

SIMON Sheikh first decided to run for politics while travelling through outback Australia.

It wasn't exactly a desert epiphany, more like the melding of a series of revelations, he says.

''It was sitting out in the desert, realising how beautiful our country is but how under threat it is,'' Sheikh says.

''Issues like climate change, the Murray-Darling Basin and the mining boom are all the kinds of things that made me realise, as someone who believes passionately in equality, that this wasn't going to change unless people put their hand up and do the hard yards.

''I never thought I'd be a politician, I never thought I'd be running for office, but the urgency of some of the challenges we are now facing demands public service.''

But it wasn't an easy decision.


In July, the 26-year-old had just stepped down as national director of political organisation GetUp! and, as a consequence, away from the public spotlight.

He quit shortly after fainting on ABC's live Q&A program and cited his intention to avoid burnout as the reason behind the resignation.

Sheikh then embarked on a six-week road trip with wife Anna Rose, travelling thousands of kilometres from Canberra to Broome.

The political ambition occurred while journeying along the endless bitumen of the Barkly Highway, somewhere between Mount Isa and Tennant Creek.

''It's not an easy decision to make because so much of politics today is so public. I'm a private person by nature so to make a decision to open up our lives … was a tough decision.

''It's the price you pay to ensure your values are executed by governments.''

The decision made, Sheikh ventured back to Canberra and signalled his intentions by nominating for the Greens preselection.

Three Greens, including Sheikh, have nominated for a chance to unseat Liberal senator Gary Humphries in next year's election.

Local Greens member Stephen Darwin and Kate Hamilton, a former Leichardt councillor, also put up their hands for a tilt at the Senate.

Ballots last week went to ACT Greens members and the polls stay open for the next three weeks.

Preselection will be concluded by early December. But Sheikh's candidacy didn't go down well among all party members.

Much of the animosity centres on a perceived endorsement Sheikh received from federal Greens leader Christine Milne.

Preselection rival Hamilton took the battle public by calling Sheikh a ''celebrity candidate'' and a ''fly-in fly-out lobbyist''.

But Sheikh says the members will have the final word.

''I don't even think I'm a celebrity candidate, let alone being parachuted in.

''I have a profile and other candidates in the past have as well, but at the end of the day the members are having their say.

''To call it parachuting in would suggest the grass-roots vote isn't happening and obviously that's incorrect.''

Sheikh says it's this grass-roots power that lays with Greens members that attracted him to the progressive party.

''Part of why I chose to join the Greens was because it was a movement of people, it's not just a political party. All of it revolves around the members of the party that share a common set of principles.''

Win or lose, Sheikh says Canberra is now his home.

His wife is employed at the Australian National University and the pair have settled in Narrabundah.

Sheikh, who grew up in public housing in Sydney's inner-west, says he spent about one-third of each year in Canberra during his four years with GetUp! and fell in love with the bush capital for its lifestyle.

Like many who come to the capital for work and decided to stay, Sheikh says the couple plan to raise a family at the foot of the Brindabellas.

He says his new home town is in danger if Tony Abbott becomes prime minister next year.

Sheikh had dealings with Abbott through his work with GetUp! and describes their relationship as ''icy''.

While Sheikh says he can respect the pair share a different vision for Australia, he takes offence at Abbott's continued attacks on the public service.

''But at the end of the day, Tony Abbott is going around Australia selling out Canberra,'' Sheikh says.

''He wants to win votes by saying he'll slash the public service, he wants to win votes by saying he'll scrap action on climate change, he wants to win votes by saying he'll turn back the boats even though he can't.

''Many people in Canberra don't support Tony Abbott's vision for the future and at the end of the day I think they'll realise that a vote for Gary Humphries is a vote for Tony Abbott.''

Sheikh says Canberra will be a sacrifice to Abbott's ambition, with his planned cuts to plunge the capital back into recession.

''Canberra will always be short-changed when they vote for a Liberal Party member, that's because while our politicians might sit in Canberra, they sell out Canberra.

''They're not interested in our lives, they're interested in using us as an example to the rest of the country. They love berating Canberrans, they love berating the public servants.''

Sheikh, a former public servant as an economist in NSW Treasury, says the role of government needs to be protected.

His economic credentials stand out in a party often cast as fiscally irresponsible. He is equally comfortable discussing macro- and micro-economics and is affronted when people assume economics is inherently conservative.

''But the reality is economics teaches you as much about market failures as it does about markets in a pure sense.

''Economics gives you the tools you can apply to whatever your vision is for the community and how it should operate.''

And Sheikh's vision for Canberra is to become a stable, sustainable city. He says he will protect the role of government and the public service, expand public transport and reduce carbon emissions.

Sheikh says, if elected, he'll push for the Commonwealth to split the bill for light rail in the ACT.

''There's a lot of talk about light rail and my view is the Commonwealth should kick in as well.

''That's something I'll be fighting for if I'm elected.''

But first Sheikh must convince his party and Canberrans to vote him into office.

The University of NSW graduate says there are few conclusions to draw between the disastrous ACT election - which saw the electorate dump three of four Greens MLAs - and the looming federal poll.

But he says he has taken many lessons from the examples of ACT Liberal MLAs Guilia Jones and Andrew Wall and Labor's Yvette Berry and Mick Gentleman.

The quartet reportedly door-knocked thousands of Canberrans and leafleted many more.

Sheikh says his time as GetUp! boss, travelling the nation and meeting thousands of Australians, stand him in good stead for the challenge of running for office.

''What wins election campaigns is meeting with and connecting with as many people as possible, understanding what they want and having a plan to deliver that.''