SYDNEY 1983 – When my family and I returned to Australia in 1979 and moved to live at Clareville on Sydney’s northern beaches, one of my first priorities outside work was to join the Narrabeen-Pittwater branch of the Australian Labor Party.
I’d been a member of the ALP for eight years, having joined in strange circumstances in 1971, but had never been part of a branch.
In that year, Tom Burns, general secretary of the party in Queensland, visited Bougainville with a federal parliamentary delegation, which included Paul Keating, recently elected to the House of Representatives.
I had wanted to join the ALP for some time, but wasn’t sure how to go about it. There were no party branches in PNG and, indeed, even to inquire amongst my Administration colleagues – many of whom made Genghis Khan look like Pollyanna - seemed to me a risk not worth taking.
As station manager and news editor at Radio Bougainville I was able to be with the Australian parliamentary delegation during its visit and seized the opportunity to ask Burns how I could join the ALP, who duly enrolled me in the Queensland head office branch as a notional member.
I remained in the ALP for 43 years until 2014, when I quit over the party’s stance on asylum seekers and its overall lassitude on climate change and other reforms.
I hadn’t always agreed with the party, and was never enticed into joining a faction, but I stuck with it for all those years because I regarded it as a driving force for reform and I liked its long suit in social equity and concern.
But the ALP changed down the years to become more opportunistic and risk averse, diluting its mission as a party of principle. And, after the Hawke-Keating era of 1983-96, it also became, cowed and confused by attempts by conservatives to wedge it on racial issues. The party lost its moral compass and it lost me.
Between 1979, when I returned to Australia, and 1983, when I left 2SER-FM, my main pursuit outside broadcasting was branch politics, where I was received enthusiastically by the locals which made my homecoming much easier as I got integrated into the northern beaches community.
I also vastly enjoyed the grassroots participation in policy making and campaigning which, at that time but not so much today, the party encouraged. These days, like the Coalition, it just wants your vote and your money.
Until I joined an active branch I had not experienced hands-on political activity, having been mostly overseas and an absentee member. So, during those four dynamic years after joining the branch, I became a state conference delegate, electorate council president, a local campaign director and eventually a candidate for federal office.
My political colleagues, from both left and right wings of the party, included three figures who contributed greatly to my political education and development as a strategist: Kerry Sibraa, who was to become president of the Senate, state MP Tom Webster and future Pittwater mayor David James. To them I contributed my skills as a communicator.
It was on a ferry trip from Circular Quay to Manly in July 1982 that Webster and James popped the question about me running for parliament at the federal election due sometime in the first half of 1983. We were returning from a Labor Party event and were full of camaraderie and zeal and looking forward to a beer at the Hotel Steyne.
“But of course, mate, you don’t expect to win,” said the laconic Webster.
“A 14 percent swing doesn’t sound that big if you say it quickly,” I retorted. It was a line I got to use a lot as people frequently asked me why I was running in such an entrenched conservative seat.
There were a number of reasons. One was that I enjoyed Labor politics and the openness with which I’d been welcomed into the local branch. I enjoyed the debate, the comradeship and the campaigning.
And, I thought, even though I was running for a seat it seemed almost impossible to win, if I campaigned effectively put in a strong performance against the sitting member, at 38 I might be noticed as a young up-and-comer for future pre-selection in a more winnable seat.
In any event, I knew I had to move on from 2SER-FM – whether that meant moving elsewhere in broadcasting, which really meant the ABC as I didn’t believe commercial radio was my go, or perhaps having a shot at parliament.
So when the advertisement for lecturers at the International Training Institute appeared late in 1982, it occurred to me that I could perhaps laterally arabesque into a halfway house to enrich my curriculum vitae and provide me with time to figure out how my career in broadcasting might move to another stage.
Or maybe I’d achieve the unlikely outcome of winning a seat in parliament. It had been done by others. Why not me? In politics such thinking is known as ‘candidates fever’.
It was mid-afternoon on a Thursday early in February 1983 and the Pacific Islands Monthly lunch at the Occidental Hotel in York Street had reached cleanser stage when a barmaid burst into the first floor room and announced that Bill Hayden had resigned the opposition leadership in favour of Bob Hawke.
Almost immediately after, Malcolm Fraser, believing this was an opportunity to take advantage of Labor turmoil, had called an early election for Saturday 5 March, just four weeks hence.
At the luncheon table – which included PIM editor Stuart Inder, his deputy Malcolm Salmon, my journalist mate from PNG days, Bob Lawrence, and other Pacific islands rogues - the news was received with the special delight journalists always reserve for such momentous events. A few more drinks.
And for me, it also signalled that the campaign proper was on. I’d spent the last half year gradually building my profile in the Mackellar electorate but now the campaign had been dialled up to ten.
When the election was called we already had a long-standing campaign management group and teams in the electorate were halfway through a program to doorknock 2,500 homes, which would be completed by the end of February, impeccably organised by my then wife, Sue.
We were a bit concerned about fund-raising, but the elevation to party leader of Bob Hawke saw people open their wallets and dinners, raffles and donations enabled us to amass a campaign war chest of $14,500 (nearly $50,000 in today’s money). It was more than enough to run an effective campaign. In fact we ended with a $3,000 surplus.
In addition to knocking on doors, we engineered a strong campaign of press releases and letters to the local press and campaign workers handed out policy leaflets to residents in the shopping streets, letterboxed a tabloid newspaper we cooked up under the Northern Beaches News masthead and public meetings.
When the dust settled, Australia had a new government under Bob Hawke but I had failed to win the seat of Mackellar, grabbing back just 6% of the 14% swing required. But I had learned a great deal about politics, a lot about grassroots campaign and made a lot of new friends.
I had also stepped away from 2SER-FM after four years and was about to return to Middle Head and the International Training Institute, where I had been offered the job of lecturer in media and communications.
Ah, I thought, a time of reflection, study, friendly students from Papua New Guinea and around the world and long holidays.
That was not how it turned out. It was to be one of the most turbulent times of my life. And it opened the door to a job I’d long dreamed of but never thought I could achieve.