23 October 2007

Granny Smith and Grandpa Howard

Half an hour before the Granny Smith Festival at Eastwood, the Epping North Public School band played Who let the dogs out and the Liberals seemed to own the Rowe Street Mall. Their blue-on-yellow balloons were everywhere, and handers-out were busy. People politely took balloons, some let them into the air.

Ten minutes before the parade started, Maxine McKew led a force majeure of about fifty volunteers armed with purple helium balloons with her message on it, right up the mall and stood in front of the podium. On the podium was the mayor, John and Jeanette Howard, State MPs and other dignitaries.

McKew's positioning meant that she was juxtaposed with the dignitaries, but not so remote. She and her volunteers handed out balloons to participants in the parade, so that a representative sample of dance-school students, Korean Christian women, rugby players, Girl Guides and other community groups all carried McKew's purple balloons.

A forest of purple balloons was positioned to block the podium. The Liberals' idea of countering this was to block the podium with their own balloons. This rush of political activists blocked the road and delayed the parade - as you read this, you can bet that the AFP is bagging the local police for their absence. Had McKew brought along a few angry ants from the CFMEU or the MUA, Howard could have been in real trouble. It also meant that the announcer could not announce the names of the floats as they came through, which didn't matter as they came out of order and some (such as the local Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays, P-FLAG) clearly made the announcer uncomfortable. Nonetheless, the announcer pleaded with the balloon blockade two or three times to move: both sets of balloons were equally placed to block the podium so neither moved.

The Liberals, who had dominated the morning before the parade, were neutralised. McKew waved to people like she was already representing the place. Her slogan, "A Strong Voice For Bennelong", is what you'd expect of a long-serving local councillor rather than a blow-in from Mosman and the ABC. When the trade union band came along in the parade, they stopped in front of her and she danced: not something you'd get from John and Jeanette, and not out of step with the light-hearted atmosphere of the parade. This held the parade up, which would have caused apoplexy had the announcer been able to see it.

The colour orange was prevalent too, on balloons and on clothing. The union band was festooned in orange as part of the "Your rights at work" campaign. In keeping with the spirit of the festival they had posters with Granny Smith apples, featuring the slogan "Your rights at work: the core issue in Bennelong". Also wearing orange were a surprising number of GetUp volunteers, mostly in their forties and fifties: they seemed to silently answer the question as to where all the moderate liberal and Democrat voters, the "not happy John" crowd, had gone.

The parade ended, and the mayor began a long-winded speech. The place cleared and spectators muttered that the event had been hijacked by politics. Indeed it had: this was the biggest event in Bennelong on the first weekend in the campaign, hacks and flacks had come from all over town and cared nothing of stealing the pale limelight from the Brush Farm Scouts or the local Christian outreach centre. Each major party would be horrified that their activists had turned off local voters, but at the time they were only concerned at neutralising their fellow out-of-towners from the other party.

When the incumbent local Federal MP rose to speak, he was met with chants of "How-ward! How-ward! How-ward! How-ward!", but obscured by balloons. When he's rattled Howard's voice goes up in pitch and volume, flapping his arms like an agitated cockatoo, as none but the activists would stay to hear him in his distress. This may explain why he stayed cheesed-off and rattled in the following night's debate.

Howard is the last of several generations of politicians who learned their craft addressing Saturday morning shoppers from the back of a flatbed truck, dealing with hecklers and attracting passers-by to give them a hearing. Rudd, Costello and others yet to come have only experienced politics through the media. This isn't to say that there was some golden age of speechcraft in Australian politics, or that Howard is some mighty orator - but it's clear that eleven years at the top, of cushy media management and framed settings, have dulled his ability to deal with a bit of chanting and a lot of indifference. He should've been out here six, twelve months ago; it's all too late now. McKew followed the crowds and mingled amongst the stalls: the St John's first aid volunteers, the jam-sellers, the soccer-players, etc.

The local Macquarie Shopping Centre had its balloons around as well, in purple and orange rather than yellow and blue. They knew their market.

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