FOCUS – Election 2006: A TALE OF TWO SEATS
In the final part of a series profiling the safest conservative and Labor seats, Karen Kissane visits the blue-collar heartland of Melbourne’s north – the ALP stronghold of Thomastown.
TONY FIERA is a working man, with a working-man’s derision for politicians with soft hands. They do not understand the realities of a life for men like him and his father-in-law, who spent his working life pouring concrete.
“John Howard has been telling people, ‘You should work longer years, after 65.’ Do you see any people working concrete after 65? They can’t. Mostly their knees and back go; after 55, they’re gone. If you are a person like John Howard, you don’t have to retire. But ask him how many times he’s put petrol in his own car in the last few years.”
Says Tony’s wife, Carmel, equally scornful: “Or dug holes!”
They look at each other and laugh, remembering. Tony says, “We saw him on TV the other day, trying to plant something with a shovel. He could not even scratch the surface. He had no idea.”
The Fieras are an Italian-Australian family who live in a yellow brick-veneer house in Fawkner. Tony, who has a reserved manner and an analytical mind, was born in Sicily and came here in 1984; the exuberant, hospitable Carmel was born in Melbourne of Italian migrants. They have three teenage children, Matthew, Maree and Laura, with whom there is a lot of boisterous banter. They also have a loyalty to Labor that is based more on their world view than on their satisfaction with the party’s performance at either state or federal level.
It is not a loyalty that has been entirely inherited by their children. Their son Matthew, 18, likes to throw mischievous grenades into the conversation at regular intervals but he is not joking when he says that at the next federal election, “I’m going to vote for good old Johnny. Howard’s doing all right at maintaining the country. We’re not living in a country that’s falling apart.”
Matthew’s parents take this news with equanimity. They believe the kids should be allowed to form their own views. Laura, 13, says she has no interest in politics yet but Maree, 16, shares a bit of her mother’s cynicism, at least about the federal leaders: “John Howard is not doing good, like in the Iraq war, and Beazley – it seems like he’s just really desperate to be prime minister. So they both don’t seem good; I really wouldn’t vote for either of them.”
The Fiera family’s mix of political attitudes illustrates many of the phenomena political scientists describe in research about why Australians vote the way they do: the loosening of ties to parties, the passive benefit to an incumbent leader, cynicism about the role of government and politicians, and the primacy of self-interest over altruism.
The Fieras are a typical family in the state seat of Thomastown, the most strongly pro-Labor electorate in Victoria. It contains the northern suburbs of Fawkner and Reservoir and parts of Epping, Lalor and Thomastown. It is Victoria’s safest seat, needing a swing of 31.75 per cent to fall to the Liberals.
Thomastown is the home of the migrant success story, despite its higher-than-average unemployment and lower-than-average income levels. According to Batchelor, 49 per cent of his constituents were born overseas, with Italians, Macedonians and Greeks making up the biggest ethnic groups. They are mostly working people – “they are production workers or transport workers, typically”, says Batchelor. But the seat has one of the highest rates of home ownership in the state, with more than 80 per cent of adults either owning their own home or paying it off.
“They have worked very hard, often in low-paid jobs – labouring jobs, not high-tech jobs – but nevertheless they have placed very great importance on personal security and having a home,” Batchelor says.
Tony Fiera, 52, has certainly worked hard, at first in factory jobs and now in the warehouse and at the front counter of a company that imports Italian machinery for making wine and traditional food such as salami. In his free time, he brews his own beer and grows his own tomatoes in his backyard. Tony came from a soft-left family in Italy and has always voted Labor in Australia but has no idea whether most of his friends and colleagues share his views.
“You cannot tell, here,” he shrugs. “It’s not like in Europe. In Europe, politics is a topic in everyday life. Everybody every day is talking about it. Here, you only hear about politicians and politics when it’s time to vote, the time when you see them shaking hands and kissing babies.”
Carmel’s parents were Labor voters but she takes little interest in politics because she is cynical about it: “It doesn’t matter who you vote for. It’s still the same. Nothing much is going to change.” When she has to pay attention, when she is heading for a voting booth, “I ask Tony, ‘Who are we voting for today, love?’ … Tony’s got more patience for it. I haven’t. It’s all confusing.”
Tony disagrees: “It’s not confusing. If you know what’s happening then it’s easy.”
Carmel protests: “I still don’t know who to believe – ‘Is it true, or is it not?’ ” This does strike a chord with her husband. “The first thing you learn as a politician is to lie. (Both sides) don’t tell you the truth. They cover up for each other and they give jobs to their friends and they try to make it easier for themselves … (Look at) the wheat scandal.”
Such perceptions could be one reason for the widespread lack of interest in politics reported by many researchers. “An awful lot of people have tuned out of politics,” says John Armitage of Auspoll.
Social researcher Hugh Mackay agrees. “This is the era of political disengagement. I have noticed over the last five years an incredible reluctance to talk about politics. I think it’s because people are preoccupied with too much change, too much uncertainty, so we insulate ourselves and focus on renovations and the kids’ schooling.”
Along with this disengagement has come a softening of Australians’ party loyalties. Workers such as the Fieras used to be “rusted-on” Labor voters; now, particularly in growth-corridor electorates, it is not uncommon for people to vote Labor at the state level and Liberal at the federal level. “There is a 15 per cent gap in the support for Bracks compared to Howard in some Victorian seats,” Armitage says.
Matthew Fiera fits this category. He is growing into an “aspirational” voter; he has just bought his first car for $12,000, half of which he paid for out of his own earnings from a part-time job (his parents matched his savings dollar for dollar because they wanted him to learn that he has to work for his goals).
Matthew is doing his year 12 exams. He aims to be a civil engineer and jokes that by 30, he wants to have made his first million and to own a high-rise apartment at Docklands and a car for every day of the week. “Everything comes with hard work,” is his mantra.
Despite his support for Prime Minister John Howard, when he votes for the first time in the state election on November 25, Matthew says he will probably vote for Bracks. “He is doing a sufficient job at the moment and I see no need for a replacement. Besides, there’s nothing in particular that attracts me into voting for Baillieu.”
Matthew’s preference for political stability is also part of a more widespread phenomenon, according to Hugh Mackay, one that benefits an incumbent political leader. “Australian electorates, both federal and state, are notoriously inert,” he says. “They are very reluctant to make changes. Going back 50 years or more, it’s extremely unusual to see a one-term or even a two-term government.”
At the same time, though, in another way Australian voting patterns have become more fluid over the years. Brian Costar, professor of Victorian parliamentary democracy at Swinburne University, says we now have more swinging voters. This is assessed by research in which voters are asked whether their identification with a particular party is not very strong, strong, or very strong.
“The big fall is among people who used to say ‘very strongly’. They’ve fallen from 33 per cent in 1967 to 18 per cent in 1990, which is the latest figures I’ve got,” Costar says. “Whereas people who say that they are ‘not very strongly’ identified has risen from 23 per cent in 1967 to 35 per cent.
“So party identification has weakened over the past 30 years but not as much as in other countries such as the US and Britain and parts of Europe.”
Even Tony Fiera, who has always voted Labor, is feeling jaded about his party. “I think that here in Victoria Labor has become a little bit slack. It just blows with the wind. It does nothing so that it cannot make mistakes … They charge us tax like everybody else, but in return I would like to see social things like roads or schools.”
The Fiera children go to a Catholic secondary school, Penola College, not for religious reasons but because Carmel and Tony did not have faith in the academic standards of the local state high schools. “We should not send our kids to private school,” says Tony irritably. “What’s the reason? The public schools were not good enough.” Agrees Carmel: “They’ve slacked off. And there’s more rules at a private school, and they give them goals and values.”
BUT Tony’s disaffection does not extend to contemplating voting Liberal in the state election. “Baillieu, what has he done? He’s worse than Jeff Kennett. Jeff Kennett had good ideas; if he kept his mouth shut, he would still be premier, but the problem with him was he did not appreciate what he had.”
Tony Fiera did not like many of Kennett’s reforms, though: “He didn’t do any good for us. He took away two days of public holidays, sold the schools, and holiday loading was struck off, and so was civil court claims if you had an accident.”
Carmel is worried about the effect industrial relations changes are having on family life. She and Matthew and Maree all work at Kmart part-time (jokes Tony, “We’re taking over Kmart, starting at the bottom!”). Carmel, 43, likes her job and is chuffed that she has been chosen to run the store’s Christmas gift program for poor children. But she says that when she was young there was much more time for family life: “Now, with this seven-day trade, there’s nothing. I’m working on weekends and so are the kids, so you can’t say, ‘Right, let’s have a family Sunday together’, like the old family lunch or picnic. We have to write it on the fridge, ‘What time are you working?’ ”
They may not put it quite this way, but the Fieras have a strong sense of social justice. It’s as if their traditional Italian attitudes about the importance of family and community are projected onto the broader canvas. Matthew, asked about what worries him most, says without hesitation: “Probably the lack of understanding in the world, the inability to see eye to eye. There’s so much war, so much hatred. If the world keeps deteriorating the way it is now, I can’t even imagine bringing up my kids and trying to explain why (terrorists) take so many lives.”
For Carmel, the most troubling thing she sees on television is Third World poverty. “All those poor countries, these poor kids with flies eating them and no food and no housing and no clothing. Nobody should be in that situation.”
Closer to home, Carmel worries about society’s failure to care for its seniors: “They should have more nursing homes for the elderlies, look after them. They have done so much, sacrificing their lives, working in Australia.”
Tony agrees: “Respect for the oldies comes first of all, but governments don’t take care about you after you finish paying tax. They use you and then throw you away. If you don’t have super or savings, they make you live on about $15,000 a year – if you can. There are all these dirty hospitals where you have to wait six months for an operation. Older people, they need more care.”
So, here’s the big question: given all these concerns, do the Fieras vote for what is good for themselves and their loved ones, or do they vote for the greater good? Is there a place for altruism?
Carmel says with determination, “Family first. It would depend on how it would affect us and our children.”
Young Matthew, like so many teenagers, would like to have his cake and eat it too. “I would be altruistic,” he grins wickedly, “as long as me and my family are part of that group (that would benefit). I would vote for the common good, provided we’re in it.”
SITTING MEMBER Peter Batchelor, (ALP), Transport Minister
SWING REQUIRED 31.75 per cent
– $700-$799 median weekly family income (state median $800-$899).
– Highest proportion of people speaking a language other than English at home (65.6 per cent, state average of 20 per cent).
– The seat with the highest proportion of people with no qualifications (68.4 per cent, average 53.7 per cent).
– 10 per cent unemployment (state average 6.8 per cent).

First published in The Age.