Watermelon smiles: @stephaniedale22 reports on Forde candidates’ forum


Wednesday night’s Forde candidates’ forum. From left: Blair Brewster, Jan Pukallus, Keith Douglas, Peter Beattie, Bert van Manen, Sally Spain.

By Stephanie Dale

22 August 2013

Well, that’s embarrassing. I’m sitting in the canteen-like barn that is the Logan Rec Club, filling time while waiting for the candidates’ forum to start. Early diners queue to order, half a dozen silent TVs flash Keno, the cricket and the news. It’s a very clean and shiny room, the kind you could hose down without causing much damage – so long as you hosed low to avoid the TVs.

I’m reading a Courier-Mail left on the table, scanning the election coverage. And there find a story about ‘Katter’s man in Forde’ (who is furious about his party’s decision to allocate preferences to Labor in this marginal seat).

Katter’s man in Forde? That would be one Paul Hunter, a man whom I, Forde reporter, have never heard of. I wonder about my sources . . . I tell myself I’ve only been on the beat three days . . . I wonder how I’m going to explain this . . . and kick myself for forgetting to google the ballot draw when I was snowed under last week . . . I know! an obvious one right?

The situation gets worse when I make my way to the Rec Club’s function room. The candidates are making their way to the stage. Six Forde candidates have made the effort to come along – I spot Clive Palmer’s nephew Blair Brewster from his photo, so too The Greens Sally Spain, a drover’s dog could spot Labor’s Peter Beattie (I watch for the ‘watermelon smile’, so described by the Courier-Mail), the sitting LNP member Bert van Manen is next to Beattie, Jan Pukallus from the Citizen’s Electoral Council is there – and who’s that bloke in the middle?

I find out when host Kelly Daniels, editor of the local newspaper The Reporter, who organised the event, introduces the candidates – he is Keith Douglas, from the newly founded Australia Voice Party.

Never heard of him either.

The evening is a snapshot of democracy, in its grassroots madness and glory. The Citizens Electoral Council (CEC) has planted activists around the room, intentionally or otherwise. They are rowdy, they hijack the evening. Their focus on a feared ‘bail-in’ of the banks (raiding Australians’ savings accounts to prop up the banks, aka Cyprus) dominates the audience’s question time.

Their representative Jan Pukallus does a decent job of holding her own with the seasoned players. Her rhetoric about a return to sovereignty is clear – so too her willingness to do more than whinge about cuts to schools and hospitals, thus refining her own leadership skills. As with Brewster, Spain and Douglas, regardless of their views or personality strengths (or otherwise) it take guts to take a seat at the table with the big players in a merciless media environment (nationally that is, in Forde there’s not much media at all – which is why Peter Beattie said he flew to Townsville and why, having recently arrived here, I know he flew to Townsville: there ain’t much in the way of media in Logan City).

A woman stands at the front of the room holding up a small sign that nobody can read. She begins to shout down the candidates, annoyed at being ignored by the moderator despite having her hand up to ask a question. She’s not the only one in the room with her hand up, by the way.

About 80 people are in the room, scattered around large circular tables. Most are middle aged, or older. They quickly tire of the conspiracists. Shouts of ‘how ’bout some local questions’ come from the back of the room. A woman stands and asks determinedly about rumoured cuts to local schools. Most of the candidates stick to the issues – jobs, roads, education. Pukallus has a philosophical alignment of sorts with Australia’s Voice man Keith Douglas.

Beattie outshines them all. He talks in pictures, connecting voters via the images that shape their world. More than that, he’s got a record of previous delivery – the highways, schools and hospitals he funded during his time as Queensland premier are hard to beat.

More than that . . . when the candidates first entered the room, most were invisible to everyone but those who knew them. The exceptions of course were van Manen and Beattie. I spied van Manen at the back of the room. Despite a visit to his office, and several phone calls and emails to his media adviser, I’d not heard boo from his campaign. This was my chance – I walked over, excused myself to the man he was speaking to and introduced myself. I would have shaken van Manen’s hand but he seemed to shrink – in fact he looked so uncomfortable I had to check he was who I thought he was.

“You are Bert van Manen?” I asked. At which point he nodded and his media adviser swooped in. I introduced myself to her, sparing van Manen further anxiety. She was young, though old enough to be annoyed if she knew I thought she was young. A second young woman appeared, to whom I was not introduced. I was struck by their matching jackets – smitten that the media adviser’s mustard jacket seemed to match her hair (the colleague’s jacket was a luminous pink version of the same design).

I asked if we might organise an interview with van Manen. She said he was busy. I said I understood. She said he would have a few minutes after the forum. I said I’d prefer more than a few minutes. She said he was very busy. I said I understood. She said he was in the middle of an election campaign. I said I understood. She said he had to go doorknocking. I said ,well, how about I go doorknocking too. She ignored me. I pitched for 20 minutes of his time. She said he was really, really, very, very busy. I held my ground for the 20 minutes.

Sigh. What the young don’t know about experience and underestimate about age. I have done her job; and (despite forgetting to google the ballot draw) I’ve done my job (the reporter one) for decades; and when all is said and done, the other thing about age and experience is in the end we know it’s all a great big playing field and we’re just out there kickin’ the ball around.

Meanwhile, while van Manen is avoiding risky reporters and hanging back from the crowd, Beattie is shaking hands with everyone in the room, looking them in the eye, saying ‘g’day’, offering them small bites of relevance.

It occurs to me that for a man on a 1.6% margin, van Manen is playing a chancy game.

Things don’t improve for the non CEC-aligned audience. The moderator calls security and the woman with the sign is ejected. This is democracy’s compromise. You have a right to be heard – and so do others. Though not even the woman or her cohorts seemed particularly bothered by her exit – perhaps the noise itself was her point, rather than an incoherent message.


The Star Recruit

When the forum closes, television cameras and voters pounce on Beattie, ‘Labor’s star recruit’. The other candidates are cornered by pundits and supporters as they move about the room.

Not van Manen. He is the first to leave. We cross paths in the car park. He grins, relaxed now. It occurs to me that the appearance of Beattie has rattled him, particularly his right to plan his own future.

I’m surprised to discover that, regardless of  how they vote, the people of Forde will end up with a watermelon smile.

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  1. joy cooper says

    Great article, Stephanie. For someone who now has a REAL fight on his hands to retain his seat, Bert van Manen shows a great deal of reluctance to put his message out. Surely, this alone would show he would not be a tough fighter for his electorate within the caucus room or in government. Do hope word of this gets around.

    The trouble with fringe groups is that they attract a certain type & do tend be all noise with no substance. The hecklers were probably the entire membership of the CEC party.

    Shame there was such a small audience.

  2. John Stannard says

    One of the best reports I have read to date in this election campaign.

  3. Thanks Michael

  4. van Manen would appear to be following the Abbott formula for political campaigning. Dodge and weave through the questions; run around and throw a ball so no-one can ask anything relevant. I remember quite well some of the tactics used by this person in the last election against Brett Raguse. Instead of a man with a background in education we got stuck with a god bothering ex- financial adviser who made use of some of that industry’s best known tactics for personal advancement. “If you can’t beat them, cheat them”, being a firm favourite. Done nothing but shine his butt and hang with the likes of Sophie Mirabella, that darling of the self interested set since. Another good one Stephanie. Keep up the good work. We need reliable people in there mixing it on behalf of a fair democracy. By the way, I like watermelons myself.