A Liberal’s ‘royal tour’ ELECTION 2000

Louise Asher is deft at the art of instant rapport. She listens as the grandmotherly women in the frock shop criticise the demands of “those pinkos” in the Police Association for more police.

She chuckles with them about what a “character” that funny fellow Jeff is before lightly turning the word on its head: “You wouldn’t like a leader of the state who didn’t have character, would you?”

Then one of the women rummages under a counter, producing a glamorous newspaper picture of Felicity Kennett. She holds it up, wordlessly. Ms Asher instantly senses her cue. “Isn’t she beautiful?” she says warmly, and they all beam in shared womanly admiration.

If Ms Asher’s electorate campaign sometimes feels like a royal tour to a province of devoted subjects, that’s because her preselection for the blue-ribbon seat of Brighton has effectively made her a Liberal Party princess.

Hell will freeze over before the women in that frock shop would abandon the Liberals, and they are far from alone. Brighton’s margin of 18per cent makes it the safest Liberal seat in Melbourne.

But Ms Asher is still out there campaigning almost every day, trying to make her face as well-known as that of her predecessor, the retiring Treasurer, Mr Alan Stockdale.

Mr Stockdale launched Ms Asher’s campaign this week. He strode into her small, hastily rented local office several minutes late – not long after she phoned to check that he was on his way – barking, “Where’s the little worrywart? Expected me to be right on time, did you?”

Ms Asher, 43, the Minister for Small Business and Tourism, smiled and accepted the rebuke.

Mr Stockdale proceeded to inform the dozen or so party faithful present that she was one of the party’s bright young stars. Ms Asher praised his contribution over the years. The baton was duly passed.

Ms Asher is currently the upper house member for Monash. Brighton offers her a safe seat in the lower house, the house of government and the place she needs to be if she is to become a senior minister.

During the preselection process, her private life was subjected to public scrutiny on the basis of her five-year relationship with the National Party MP Ron Best (both are single). Unnamed sources suggested Brighton delegates were “concerned” about this supposedly irregular arrangement. “Everyone in the press, everyone in the Parliament knew that we were going out together,” she says now. “As I said to someone, if that’s the biggest piece of dirt that anyone can find on me then I’ve lived a very pure life.”
Mr Kennett has described her as a potential future leader but Ms Asher says she has no such aspirations; it would mean losing what is left of her private life, too high a price.

Louise Asher does her homework. She has ready responses for most of the problems she encounters in walkabouts. The deli owner who lost a fortune when he was forced out of a retail tenancy? Ms Asher has changed the law to give small businesses greater tenancy rights. The liquor shop manager who is worried about competition from supermarkets? Ms Asher has capped their share of the market at 8per cent each to protect the little guys.

Where does she live in Brighton? Well, she was born in Brighton and her family lived here for 100 years before that, and she’s house-hunting now.

Further along is a conservatively dressed elderly woman who looks like she might be an easy mark. But she accepts the handshake stonyfaced and says grimly, “I’m a member, and I’ll be out there working for you, but I’m very disillusioned. Planning!”

Ms Asher promises her things will improve. “Well, it had better be better!” the woman retorts.

Then Ms Asher makes her one slip. She introduces herself to a middle-aged man who says briefly, “Labor.” “Really?” she says archly.

The woman behind him, his age-pensioner mother, stops and turns on the minister, enraged. How dare she question such a choice by someone in his position? He has schizophrenia, he’s on a pension, he wanders the streets with nothing to do since the Government closed down the big public institutions, his rent has gone up again and she’s had to sell her house to try to support him as well as herself, “which I’m finding damned hard!”

Ms Asher quietly tries to protest that the Government has massively increased mental health funding, but another tirade begins on how it is nowhere near enough.

The mother stalks off to see her son’s psychiatrist. The minister retires to her chauffeur-driven car. Some gaps cannot be bridged.

First published in The Age.