ACT News


Bravely battling pokie attraction

Last Saturday morning at the Ginninderra Labor Club (at Charnwood) people had a choice of two competing attractions. They could go to the ''Town Hall meeting'' with dashing young federal member and obvious Labor-leader material Andrew Leigh, the member for Fraser, or they could play the pokies.

The pokies won, easily. The downstairs room representing Leigh's temporary town hall had 150 seats arranged in welcoming rows and there were billboards at the club's entrance announcing that Leigh was gracing the building. But there were never more than 10 people there with him at any one time during their local member's 10.30 to midday gig. By contrast dozens of folk were playing the pokies. The roomful of the contraptions rang to that funny and strangely lovely gurgling, clanging, electrical music pokies emit.

Yesterday, with Parliament sitting, Leigh was at his workplace, in those marble halls, in that a stately pleasure dome where he rubs shoulders with the nation's movers and shakers. But here he was on the previous Saturday keeping his appointment with a very, very few of his electorate's commoners in a windowless (but tastefully-carpeted) underground venue in a far-flung suburb.

As we tenish made ourselves comfortable Leigh, slender and slight in his shirt sleeves and standing and pacing about, gave us, without notes, a run-down on things (especially ''the growing gap between rich and poor'') on his nimble mind.

Then he invited those there to have their says. Over the next hour the articulate ten's comments and questions ranged across a great many topics. Of course, as is always the way at these unrehearsed events, there were a few amateur speeches made. And of course, because we of the lumpenproletariat are not accomplished speech-makers like the smooth, articulate Leigh, some contributors said jumbled things.

So for example the very first to speak, a sixty-something chap sporting exciting braces, offered a miscellany of thoughts, including that we Australians do some things much better than the Americans do and that Tony Abbott is committing Americanisms when he reduces everything to a three or four word slogan.


Leigh, unfailingly patient and respectful and responding to everything said as if it contained pearls of wisdom (how many of us could stand a profession that required us to butter-up every voter?) said that, yes, while there was a great deal to admire about the US, American politics left a lot to be desired. He thought you could see in Abbott's anti-intellectual ways a brutish, Tea Party way of going about things.

One guest asked about rude behaviour by the opposition in the Federal Parliament and told us that when he'd confronted a local Liberal Party candidate (for the Assembly) about this, at Curtin shops, the candidate had replied that it was all Jon Stanhope's fault! We all had a good cackle at that, without quite knowing what we were laughing at.

On the question of asylum-seekers one woman, her heart obviously in the right place, said that instead of allowing poor asylum-seekers to take such risks in small boats, our government should acquire an ocean liner and fetch them safely to Australia in cruise-loads of several hundreds at a time. Another woman in the hall piped up that, yes, she agreed with that. If Leigh MHR saw any flaws in that daft (but idealistic) brainwave (I ached to point out a few flaws in it, such as the hay a gleeful Abbott would harvest from a Labor government suggesting taxpayer-paid ocean cruises for Arabic-gibbering Muslim foreigners that bona fide white Christian Australian battlers in the western suburbs couldn't afford), he, with superhuman politeness, kept them to himself.

Someone in the hall presented the intellectually-stimulating argument, a novel inversion of the usual ''pay peanuts, get monkeys'' scenario, that we would attract a better quality of person to the Parliament if we paid them less. ''That might get rid of the greedy ones,'' the constituent thought. Leigh (whose most violent disagreements with anyone at the meeting were always expressed, crooningly, as ''the discomfort I have with what you're saying'') sidestepped having an opinion on this but did say that in Australia no one becomes prime minister for the money. ''The PM's pay is just below that of the CEO of the Reject Shop,'' he told us.

One of the 10 monstered Leigh for being ''invisible'' in the media and for this somehow being his, Leigh's, fault. At this, Leigh's indefatigable media staffer Louise Crossman, who churns out press releases about everything her boss says and does, short of where he buys his socks, gave a stifled snort of rage. She seemed poised to break the Leigh camp's policy of treating every constituent as a treasure.

''Go for him, Louise! Kill! Kill!'' I whispered to her, anxious for some action to report, but to my disappointment the self-disciplined staffer kept herself on her leash, and so the morning's civility, for which Leigh thanked us all as we left, was maintained.

What a curiously funny old antique form of communications this poorly attended town hall meeting seemed in these times of mass audiences reached in twittering, tweeting, facebooking, digital 21st century ways. But, even though the occasion put me in mind of Winston Churchill's famous thought that ''The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter,'' the canny Leigh must know what he's up to with these face-to-face rendezvous.

Upstairs as this columnist left, dozens of folk who had boycotted the democratic opportunity of the meeting below them, paid rapt attention instead to throbbing, jangling, flashing machines with names like ''Pharaoh's Fortune'' and ''Gold Fever''.