On the campaign trail

By Rhonda Dredge

The City of Melbourne council elections got underway in October with none of the stunts, meet-the-candidate events or the flamboyant billboards of past contests.

Some are calling it the “sanitised election” with face-to-face canvassing virtually non-existent.

There has been some letterboxing by the Victorian Socialists and The Greens.

But the prevalence of security entrances in high-rise buildings made it difficult for grass roots parties to reach potential voters.

Mary Poulakis and Fiona Sweetman, both local businesswomen in the CBD, have come closest to actually being on the hustings.

Mary runs Harrolds department store in Collins St while Fiona runs a walking tour business, Hidden Secrets, from the Nicholas Building in Swanston St.

The two running partners had a chance to address potential voters at small businesses that have stayed open during the pandemic while they’ve been taking their daily exercise on the streets. 

“I’ve been having four coffees a day,” Mary said. Their aim had been to show the faces behind their businesses, not easy when you’re wearing a mask unless it is lowered to take a sip. 

Both are in favour of a populist style of campaign but acknowledge the difficulty of making connections with voters when they are only permitted to deliver their election material not actually chat.

“I came across a [man at a] mobile repair shop in Lonsdale St,” Mary said. “He had a creative way of trading. I stopped to give him a flyer.”

“He was a young businessman. ‘Is this you?’ he asked. I said ‘yes’. He said, ‘I’ve got 20 votes from family and business.’”

He asked her a policy question that Mary answered, then he repaired the glass on the front of her phone, and she was on her way.

Both Mary and Fiona have stood before to support male candidates in more flamboyant times when candidates were prepared to spend big money to win over voters. 

“I was on the bottom of the Robert Doyle ticket,” Fiona said. “I was there for the numbers.”

Perhaps there’s a new honesty creeping into campaigning that is refreshing. Candidates are expressing their frustration with the process, some problems unique to the CBD, such as the difficulty in getting through to corporates that have temporarily closed during the pandemic. 

“If you don’t get the opportunity to speak freely to people you don’t understand what they’re passionate about,” Mary said. “Otherwise it’s just motherhood statements.”

Xavier Dupe is one of 250 volunteers for the Victorian Socialists who also used their exercise breaks to canvas around Melbourne. 

Xavier was distributing around the Vic Market and he had received a tip-off that the residents of a building in La Trobe St had not received how-to-vote cards so he caught a tram in from Brunswick during his lunch break. 

He’s lucky because the letterboxes are outside the security door and soon the Socialist preferences for Lord Mayor and council are on the top of other election material.

He said he had trouble getting into buildings whereas Australia Post, which has keys or codes, is delivering advertising material while political parties are unable to distribute pamphlets. 

“I’ve been letterboxing behind a postie,” Xavier said, “and I’ve seen him deliver ads for Domino’s.”  

There has been no door-knocking either. “In previous campaigns we’ve done a lot of door-knocking. We reach out like that and have had some success,” he said.

Campaigners are not exactly welcomed by body corporates who plaster their entrances with no smoking, video surveillance and other forbidding signs.

Greens Lord Mayoral candidate Aspara Sabaratnam has letterboxed her own building in Spring St. Bizarrely the letterboxes are in the basement.

“This is an extension of a gated American community like Americans have created,” she said. “You can’t access any other floor. You have to go to the ground floor and ring the door bell.” 

She bemoans the lack of community. “We’ve grown up in a society that wants to keep out unsavoury characters. Some people own a place and only come here every couple of years.”

The Greens have got through to voters by phoning residents on the electoral roll. This takes time. They have to buy the mobile numbers off the census then match them up people on the roll. 

In past elections campaigners have even had conversations with voters over intercom. “It can still be effective,” Aspara said, but she said this form of communication had been banned this year.

“The CBD is not an easy place to crack because of all these impediments,” she said.

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