The Candidate

A FEW spots of rain on his head. Gerry Parsons sighs and consults his list. Three more streets to go. He checks his map: it looks like a half a kilometre walk.

The rain starts falling more heavily. It’s a Saturday morning, when normal people do normal things, like reading the paper in a warm café, or the shopping, or taxiing the kids to their weekly round of sporting activities. But for Gerry Parsons, this Saturday morning, like every Saturday morning, means door-knocking. Lots of it. Seventy-five thousand voters in this electorate, and he’d like to meet a good proportion of them.

He started at 8.30, and by his estimate, only 40 per cent of doors have opened in the two hours since. He wasted half an hour with that crazy old lady in Barnett Street, the one who thinks her son is trying to have her placed in a nursing home so he can sell the house from under her. On and on, she went — he should have said no when she invited him in, but it was good have been able to sit down for a bit. But he could have done another 10 doors in the time he wasted in that interlude, and now he’s behind schedule. His feet are killing him again, his back is aching, and now it’s raining.

Then, a few houses later, an Indian family had clearly taken pity on the rain-sodden figure on their doorstep and invited him inside for a cup of tea, which Gerry gratefully received. The price he paid was to sit uncomfortably on the guest’s chair while the father harangued him for the next 15 minutes about each and every way the Labor Party had failed small businessmen like himself, while his wife and children sat dutifully in silence. Another 20-odd minutes wasted.

Ewing Avenue. Another of these narrow streets only wide enough for one car to get through at a time when there’s vehicles parked on both sides. Old bluestone drains and an asphalt footpath, a few tired trees swaying among the power lines, but no nature strip.

The kids in the campaign office have tried to get Gerry to use the voter database, just like they tried to get him to use the Twitter account they set up for him one night. You’re wasting your time knocking on every door, they’ve told him. The data base eliminates hard voters for us or them, and identifies the soft voters, the maybes, the undecideds, and the swingers. It can even tell you what issues will ring the right bell with different folk. Number 24? Complained to the council about a cracked footpath: local issues and service delivery. Number 43? Incessant letter-writing to The Age: foreign affairs and human rights. Number 56: signed your petition on uni fees: education funding.

The kids are probably right, but Gerry is old school. He feels uncomfortable with the database, it seems too . . . intrusive. Gerry likes to look the voter in the eye, make human contact and discover what makes them tick. He believes that if only, if only, they’d give him the time to make his case, he can turn them around.

That’s if they’ll open the door.

But there’s 75,000 voters in this electorate, and he’ll only ever get to talk to a small portion of them. Not that that’s a deterrent. But that’s the reason why Gerry is doorknocking on his own on a miserable Saturday morning while the kids who are meant to be helping with his campaign are probably still in bed nursing a hangover, or meeting friends for brunch. They’ve given up on the old codger who won’t listen to their advice. He’s on his own.

I’m going to have to see a doctor about this back, Gerry muses as he approaches the next house, a single-fronted Federation era weatherboard, and knocks.

Sweep the hair back from the forehead, straighten the tie and smile.

GERRY Parsons has been a member of the Australian Labor Party for 41 years. True, his first political allegience as to the Socialist Workers’ Party, who he joined not long after turning 18 and starting at teacher’s college. Yes, but he was young and naïve then. That was 1968, the year of teargas in the streets of Paris and Chicago, and a year after the referendum gave Aborigines the vote. Heady days: the Vietnam Moratorium, green bans, the women’s and gay liberation movements.

He crossed over to the Labor Party after Gough was elected. Who didn’t get carried away with the euphoria of the times? And after the Dismissal, well, there really was no choice but to take up the fight. It felt like a coup had taken place, and if you wanted to make a difference, you had to do more than just vote once every three years.

And that’s where he’s been ever since. He has held ever office position in the Highton branch of the ALP, and passionately adopted every unfashionable, doomed cause since, while embarking on an erratic and Quixotic record of five failed pre-selection attempts at state and federal level. He opposed Hawke on uranium mining, Keating on tariffs and Beazley on refugees. Crean may have had his faults, but at least he was against the war in Iraq. The rest of them? Nobodies, except for Julia. She was a good lass.

Gerry can remember the heady days of the mid and late-70s, when the anger of the Dismissal saw branch membership booming. Once 140 people had attended a branch meeting; there had been people standing outside the hall that night, what was going on inside relayed to them in Chinese whispers.

But that was a long time ago. The brutal reality is that the branch’s bank balance stood at $133.68 at the end last month, and they had only recruited three new members in the past year. When that 23-year-old woman turned up and asked to join last June, they almost stood up and applauded.

So today, the Highton branch is a motley mixture of stalwarts like Gerry, in their sixties and older, a few ambitious but naïve young would-be apparatchiks installed there by one branch stacker or another, and a group of noisy, argumentative and insane Turks, Greeks and Italians.

Gerry has watched as the Greens have seized control first of the Highton council, then the state seat, and are closing in on the federal seat as well. The area has changed beyond recognition, the old families dying or moving further away from the inner suburbs, the footy clubs struggling to field teams and the pubs filling people drinking boutique micro-brews pour by people covered in tattoos and piercings, as they discuss the latest obscure film from Iran or Poland.

He’s stood alongside the young and enthusiastic Greens volunteers at the polling booth and at the shopping centre, studied their brochures and agreed with them. They are always polite and respectful, but there’s always something in their eyes that says your days are numbered old man.

And now, at the age of 66, at a time in his life when he had given up all hope of ever being pre-selected, retired history teacher Gerry Parsons has found himself the Labor Party’s last hope in Highton: the pre-selected candidate for the federal election. And he’ll be damned if he’ll let the Greens take the seat from his beloved Labor without a fight.

BRUSH the hair off the forehead, straighten the tie, smile.

Whose bloody idea was it to hold an election in the middle of winter anyway? Surely another Tory plot, Gerry thinks to himself as he waits to see if there’s anyone home.

Yes — there’s someone coming. Footsteps, and then a shape through the frosted glass. Gerry’s heart sinks as he realises the shape is only four feet tall. He looks down at the little girl.

“Hello there, is your mum or dad home?”

The girl blinks up at him. “Mum! There’s an old man at the door,” she yells back into the house.

A woman in her early-40s appears. “Jessica, get your shoes on, we’ve got to get going,” she tells the child.

Gerry smiles again. He’s had plenty of practice. “Good morning. I won’t take up much of your time. My name is Gerry Parsons and I’m…”

The woman cuts him off. “I’m sorry, I don’t have time for this right now.” She isn’t rude, but firm. “We’re running late.”

“It’ll only take a minute…”

“No! No time.” She relents. “Here, give me a brochure.” The door slams as soon as he hands one over.

Gerry puts a question mark next to her street number on his clipboard. The notepad is soft from the rain. He looks down the street. It’s close to midday now. Finish this street and we’ll call it a day, eh?

The next house is almost identical. And empty. Another question mark.

When he knocks on the next door, he hears padding footsteps and then barking from behind the door. No-one home. He is relieved. Another question mark.

Gerry moves next door. Christ, he wishes this rain would stop. There’s water dripping off his beard and he’s sure his shoes are leaking.

Brush the hair off the forehead. Straighten the tie. Smile. Knock-knock.

A young man, late-twenties, comes yawning to the door. He’s in a soiled t-shirt and tracksuit pants, socks, stubble thickening on his face.

“Good morning, I won’t take up much of your time. My name is Gerry Parsons, and I’m the Labor candidate for this year’s federal election.”

The man grunts, which Gerry takes as an invitation to continue.

“I’d just like to spend a minute or two discussing with you the issues that are important for this election. I know cost of living is a big pressure for everybody in this area, but when Labor was in government we had a strong record of delivering high growth, jobs and low inflation.”

Promising. The man hasn’t told him to piss off yet.

“And of course, our platform includes record investment in schools, reforming the health system and modernising national infrastructure.”

The man yawns again, absent-mindedly scratches his groin.

“So what are you selling mate?”

Gerry’s heart sinks. “I’m not selling anything, I’m from the Labor Party . . . the ALP . . . to talk about the election.”

“The election? Nah, fuck that! I never bother — just get my name ticked off to avoid the fine. You’re all the same, in it for yourselves.

“Nah, fuck off. You’re wasting your time.”

He slams the door. Gerry starts to back up the path, when the door opens again. The young man looks at him closely, the anger gone from his face.

“Mr Parsons? Yeah, it is you . . . you taught me in year 11. Tom. Tom Karkas. You don’t remember me? Yeah, well I wasn’t much chop at history.”

Gerry doesn’t know what to say.

“Look, I’m sorry the way I just spoke to you. But you’re still not getting my vote. Good luck.”

And he slams the door shut again.

Gerry tries to put an X next to his street number on the list, but his notepad is now too wet for his pen to work properly.

Tom Karkas. Never thought he’d come to much.

IT wasn’t every day you had a visit from the state secretary of the party. This was an auspicious occasion for the Highton branch — the most significant since Gerry had organised that guest lecture by the president of the ACTU five years ago.

The state secretary. This was a big deal. His office had rung Gerry the day before and said he wanted to drop in for a chat. Gerry wracked his mind: what had he done wrong to deserve this?

The state secretary arrived in his white Camry bang on 7.30pm. He was very young and very short, turned out in a sharp suit and tie, neat as a pin from the part in his glossy black hair to the immaculate shine in his shoes. He was still new to the job and Gerry hadn’t met him before.

Gerry was slightly suspicious of the state secretary; a natural instinct he felt towards anyone from the Right. But he was quickly disarmed by his friendliness and candour.

“Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the many, many years of tireless and loyal service Gerry has given to the Party,” the secretary began. “It’s people like him who make this party tick.”

He leapt to his feet and applauded Gerry loudly, looking around the room until everyone else did likewise.

“Gerry, you are a True Believer. Thank you.”

All Gerry could feel was the blood thumping in his ears. He tried to say something but there was a lump in his throat, so he just nodded.

“Now, as you’re aware, the Member has been thinking of retiring,” the secretary continued. “This has caused a bit of a problem for us so close to the election. And frankly, the internal polling tells us that without his personal following, this seat is likely to fall to the Greens.”

He paused for effect and looked around the room.

“This has always been a Labor seat. And we’d like to keep it that way.” He looked directly at Gerry who began nodding furiously.

“But unfortunately, the Party isn’t overly-endowed with resources. We have to be very strategic how we allocate our funds, and our best, most talented candidates. We need to concentrate on winnable seats, those that are held by the Liberals which can help us to win back government.

“I’ll sure you’ll agree this is the right strategy . . . Gerry?”

Again Gerry nodded.

“Now, the people of Highton deserve a strong local candidate. One of them. Someone who understands the local issues. They don’t want some stranger to be parachuted in by head office. Do they . . . Gerry?”

Gerry nodded again, but he was confused.

“So I’d like to make a suggestion to you tonight. If Gerry Parsons was to nominate for pre-selection, he would have the full backing of the state executive. No ifs or buts. And I can guarantee a smooth passage to pre-selection.

“Now, given our straitened circumstances and the strategic and financial priorities I have just outlined to you regarding our marginal seat strategy, the state office will be unable to provide significant assistance to the Highton campaign.

“But with a strong local candidate like Gerry Parsons, you won’t need it! So what do you say Gerry, will you nominate?”

Gerry looked around the room. Judy looked like she was going to cry and Frank nodded at him seriously. Gerry stood up.

“I would be honoured to.”

Afterwards, as they walked to the car, the state secretary confided with Gerry.

“Look mate, everyone appreciates the sacrifice you’re making here. But we have to cut our losses; no point throwing resources at a seat we can’t win, and it’s not like the Greens are going to support a Liberal government in Parliament are they? Just give it your best shot. Mate.”

NOW, three months later, standing soaked in a rainy street on a Saturday morning, Gerry Parsons, 63-years-old, the endorsed Australian Labor Party candidate for the federal seat of Highton, wonders why he is here.

Why had he spent those hundreds, possibly thousands of nights in interminable branch meetings, negotiating amendments to the party platform that would never be adopted? Why had he attended dozens of state and national conferences, listening to meaningless debates about obscure party rules and then voting as the faction ordered anyway, while the real decisions were made behind closed doors, beyond the reach of the ordinary members? Why all those early, pre-dawn mornings, rising in the darkness on election day to erect the bunting on the best spots outside the polling booths before anyone else got there? Nights spent stuffing envelopes in the Member’s office, and weekends wasted gathering signatures on petitions at the shopping centre.

Why, when he spent at least part of every day cursing and bemoaning the drift of the party away from everything it had once stood for to become something he barely recognised? Why, when he had to support and cover for a long line of egotistical, brain dead, pompous candidates, who knew and cared for none of the party’s history and traditions?

Why, when he shook with frustration and anger at every outbreak of treachery and infighting, corruption and sheer bastardry in Canberra or on Spring Street?

After the branch meeting had finished, he and Frank had adjourned to the Castle for the usual post-mortem, and Gerry had confessed his mixed emotions.

“All those years when I put my hand up, and every time my pre-selection was overturned by the state executive. And now they’re desperate, they come to me with cap in hand because they don’t want to waste promising candidate. I tell you, Frank, sometimes my loyalty to the party really is tested.”

“It’s a poisoned chalice they’ve handed you, Gerry, no doubt about it,” Frank agreed. “But you’ve got to give it your best shot.”

“Loyalty’s an undervalued currency, Frank, it’s true — but I’ll never desert the party. Not like him.”

The words had hung in the stale pub air and Gerry could only lament that Gordon wasn’t here to help celebrate his pre-selection after so many previous attempts. But of course, Gordon was gone. Gone for good.

When he got home that night, the humiliation had been deep.

So they’d carry on: good old, loyal, stupid Gerry and his little troop of arthritic pensioners and bleary eyed university students.

But then he remembered the enveloping excitement and relief the night Gough was elected in 1972, and vowing on the spot to join the Labor Party; and the flood of activity that had followed as Gough had set about making up for two decades of lost time. He remembered that furious 25-year-old man who had spat out “Shame Fraser Shame!” as the new, unelected Prime Minister’s car passed in the street. And the joy — again — he had felt when Hawke was elected and the hated Fraser was gone, at last. Keating’s victory in 1993, when anything felt possible. And 2007! They even voted out Johnny Howard!

And he looks down at the pile of flyers in his hand with his photo and the words “Gerry Ryan — Labor Candidate for Highton”, and his chest swells with pride. He can even forgive the typo on the inside left page.

He takes a deep breath. Push the hair back off his forehead, straighten the tie and smile.

PERHAPS fatigue is setting in. His mind has been wandering and Gerry realises he has been walking aimlessly for the past few minutes. He is under strict instructions from party headquarters to keep to the list of addresses they have given him, not to waste any time on houses identified as decided or rusted on to one party or another.

He looks around him and slowly begins to recognise the street he is in. It is a street he has avoided for some time. And now he finds himself outside that house, a non-descript single-fronted weatherboard terrace like most of the others in the street, but to Gerry this house has special meaning.

He stands in the rain thinking and then, decision made, pushes through the gate, averting his eyes from the green triangle in the window and raps on the front door.

“Gerry!” Olivia’s face is wide with surprise and warmth, and Gerry can’t help but smile. Whatever had happened, it wasn’t her fault. Her expression moves from delight to concern.

“Gerry, you’re soaked,” she purrs in a brogue as warm as the day she stepped off the boat from Glasgow. “Get inside out of that terrible weather. You poor man.”

He hesitates. He knows he shouldn’t be here, but some supreme being has forced him to this point, looking for answers.

“Come on, come on. Warm up.”

Gerry places his flyers and clipboard on the small side table inside the front door, shakes himself off and follows her down the hall.

“Will you have a cup of coffee,” she asks him over her shoulder.

“Actually, have you got anything stronger? Whiskey? To warm me up . . . ”

“Of course.” Did she wink?

While she fusses over the drink, he examines the living room. The gas heater is glowing orange in the fireplace and newspapers are scattered all over the couch, as always. It hasn’t changed, the scene where so many plans were hatched.

At Olivia’s bidding he awkwardly takes a seat, whiskey in hand.

“Is he . . . ?”

“He’s home,” she says.

He hears footsteps in the hall and seconds later, Gordon is at the door. He must have heard the voices in the living room for he doesn’t seem surprised to see Gerry on his couch, drinking his whiskey.

“Been out begging for votes, have you?” Gordon says. “A lot of good that’ll do you.”

“Shitty day for canvassing,” Gerry says. “But my strike rate’s been pretty good today. Even met one of my old students.”

“Good for you.”

“And then I found myself in your street so I thought I’d just pop in to say hello.”

Olivia is standing awkwardly at the door.

“I know you’ve got business to discuss, so I’ll leave you to it,” she says.

Gerry is confused. After so many years in a joint struggle, so many years of shared sacrifice, toil, joy and disappointment, together, devoted to the party, it is him, Gerry, who should be angry. It is him, Gerry, who should feel betrayed. And yet, all the resentment is coming in the other direction. He tries another tack.

“So . . . are you campaigning for the Greens now?”

“Don’t be stupid.” Gordon moves over to the table and pours himself a whiskey, continuing talking with his back to Gerry.

“The candidate, Rashmi, she’s great, Gerry. Young, and so smart. She’s Sri Lankan — or her family is — a lawyer, human rights advocate. It’s a well-oiled machine, no doubt, enthusiastic, focussed.

“I agreed to put the sign up, but I’m out, out for good. Politics is over for me.”

And Gerry remembers the old Gordon, the Gordon who was always there for the party, who never shirked a task and always kept everyone else’s spirits up, no matter how bad things got. The Gordon who would always forgive the leader and the Caucus for the latest atrocity, who was prepared to overlook the sell-outs and the petty factional deals because, more than any of the rest of them, Gordon really was a true believer.

His politics had been born in the shipbuilding yard on the Clyde where he had begun his working life at 15. No, it had begun earlier, at his grandfather’s feet and around the kitchen table where socialism and loyalty to Celtic had been the two guiding beliefs in life. Gordon had brought his socialism to Australia, transplanted it in the Labor Party and the union in the tram depot where he worked for 40 years.

The big man had always been the hardest working and most reliable branch member, the first to arrive and the last to leave. He never missed a stall or a doorknock or a fundraiser. He knew all the gossip, and would always argue for Labor with strangers and for socialism with other party members. He was a hard man, intimidating, and rarely lost an argument.

And then abruptly, seemingly without explanation, six months ago Gordon had resigned his membership and disappeared from view. Gerry had tried calling him, had come around to the house several times, just to get some kind of answer. But to no avail. Gordon had put the shutters up and cut all ties with his old friends in the party. Until today, and Gerry is determined he won’t leave without an answer.

“I know why you’re here, Gerry,” Gordon says. “I know you’ve tried to contact me. I know you want an explanation.

“Well, it’s simple. I got sick of apologising. Sick of apologising for a Labor Party that isn’t the party I joined. It isn’t the party of Chifley, Whitlam or Keating. It’s been taken over by a crowd of power-hungry wide boys who are in the pockets of property developers and media moguls and I just don’t belong in it any more.”

Gerry doesn’t understand. They had both expressed similar views to each other dozens of times before, but neither had ever seriously contemplated leaving the party.

“I can see you’re confused, Gerry. Fair enough. But do you remember when the government was about to deport that baby girl, send her back to the detention centre on Nauru? Do you remember?

“Well here was the chance for Labor to stand up for what was right and human and moral and oppose the deportation. To join the blockade outside the hospital. But instead we had that joke of an immigration spokesman on the television news assuring us that a Labor government wouldn’t be blackmailed; a Labor government wouldn’t soften; a Labor government wouldn’t do deals with people smugglers. All the same bullshit we’ve heard time and time again for the past 15 years.

“And I thought to myself, I can’t do this anymore. I can’t pretend that things will change. I can’t continue being a hypocrite. The number of discussions we’ve had over the years reassuring each other that change had to come from within, that you could reform the system from inside the system, that the party needed to keep the good people prepared to fight to the good fight. And nothing has changed.

“So that’s why I resigned.”

Gerry’s eyes drift to the kitchen. Through the door frame he can see the table where they had spent so many hours, the house full of other true believers, talking, arguing, cajoling, reminiscing, singing.

Gerry feels deflated. He knows he should challenge Gordon’s reasoning, explain to him, like a child, that the Greens are a protest group, but they will never be able to form government, that all Gordon is doing now is throwing rocks from outside the glass house.

He gives it a go.

“Politics is compromise,” he begins. “You taught me that, Gordon. You told me that it is only those parties that can form a government that can make real change. There’s no purity in impotence, you told me.

“Sometimes you have to give up a little to get there, you told me.”

“Listen to yourself,” Gordon interrupts. And Gerry is aware of his own despair at how clings to old clichés like a child to its mother.

“I’m not a robot,” Gerry insists. “I’m not one of the wide boys. I’ve been a member of the party almost as long as you — I can see its faults. But Gordon, you have to keep believing. You have to be in the same room to be able to make change.”

But Gordon is shaking his head. “No, you’re not a robot . . . you’re worse. You’re the type of dumb fool whose loyalty they take advantage of and use as fodder for their own warped ambitions. And so was I.”

But there is a logic to Gordon’s argument that Gerry can’t overcome.

All that is left is to appeal to the heart one last time.

“Well, I will never give up,” Gerry says. “I gave a commitment many years ago, and I will never desert the party. Labor has given us too much over the years to walk away just because the going is tough. You might feel morally superior in some way I can’t understand, but I just feel sorry for you Gordon. I feel sorry that loyalty means so little to you. But most of all I just feel disappointed.”

He swallows the last of the whiskey and lets its warmth spread across his chest. He wants to get going now. But first he needs a piss.

Hanging on the toilet door is a Leunig calendar; Gerry’s bathroom has the same calendar, open to the same poem about the futility of war. Him and Gordon had always got a good laugh out of Leunig.

Gordon is waiting at the front door. The anger has gone from his eyes, replaced with a gentle weariness.

“What has your loyalty got you, Gerry? All those years of loyalty, the days and nights of volunteering you did for the party, and all you ever got back from headquarters was contempt. And after all of that, you’re rewarded with this doomed shot at the election. How will it feel to be the man who let this seat slip from Labor after so many years? To be the patsy? Will your loyalty make you feel better then?”

“I know it hurts to admit it Gerry, but our time has come and gone. The tide has moved on. And so have I.”

Seeking to avoid eye contact, Gerry looks back one last time down the hall towards the kitchen which had been their war room for so many years.

“After all you’ve said, how can you still have that on you wall?” Gerry says, indicating at the framed ‘It’s Time’ poster.

Gordon’s big hand is on Gerry’s back as he opens the front door for him.

“It’s not me that’s changed, Gerry — it’s the party.”

THE rain outside hasn’t weakened. Standing on the doorstep, watching the water pour down out of the gutters and into the drains, Gerry shivers.

He looks down the street, and examines his list. Maybe eight more houses to go.

Sweep the hair off the forehead, straighten the tie, smile.

THE rain outside hasn’t weakened. Standing on the doorstep, watching the water pour down out of the gutters and into the drains, Gerry shivers.

He looks down the street, and examines his list. Maybe eight more houses to go.

Sweep the hair off the forehead, straighten the tie, smile.

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