Tomorrow, voters in the Melbourne federal electorate of Batman go the polls with Greens’ candidate Alex Bhathal squared off against the ALP’s Ged Kearney in what has been an intense and unpredictable campaign.
The 66 square kilometre seat in the city’s northern suburbs has always been a Labor stronghold. Migrants and the children of migrants, such as writer Fotis Kapetopoulos, live in the north of the electorate removed from the gentrified inner-city suburbs to the south where the Greens have strong support.
Kapetopoulos interviewed Bhathal and Greens’ leader Richard di Natale at a produce market in Thornbury. It’s situated between the traditional migrant communities to the north and the more recently ensconced hipsters to the south, and is where the two tribes often meet.
I know Alex Bhathal. We would meet at our sons’ soccer games every Sunday for a season. She also used to ferry young African boys to the games when their over-worked parents could not. She knows the value of sport in increasing acceptance and tolerance – especially in the case of the Northern Falcons club where you’ll find names like Tasso, Mohamed, Con, Maria, Louisa and Li are the norm.
Bhathal is an anthropos, (ἄνθρωπος), a human being. For Hellenes, the word signifies the act of selfless benevolence to anyone that needs it, regardless of politics, faith or class.
“You made my days in soccer more interesting,” says the Greens’ candidate in tomorrow’s by-election she tells me. I used to argue against the Greens back then when I was a Keating-ite and an adviser to a Victorian Liberal Premier.
Now, I can no longer ignore the lack of action on the environment and never could I ignore the treatment of refugees by both main parties since 1997.
I have a deep aversion to the authoritarianism of most of the Greens, but Bhathal and Greens leader, Richard Luigi di Natale, seem to act as counterweights to the intolerance of the extreme left of the Greens.
Like me, Bhathal and Di Natale are products of migration. He’s Italian, she’s Indian, and they know constituents of the federal seat of Batman in Melbourne’s north well. Everyone knows Bhathal, she’s everywhere, and Di Natale is an alumnus of my son’s school, the Catholic boys’ high school Parade College.
I asked Bhathal what the Greens would do to garner support from those in Batman who may be socially conservative, liberal on the economy or rusted on Labor voters.
“I’ve been out on the street non-stop and have been overwhelmed by the support I have received all the way to Reservoir, people are saying they’ll vote Greens,” says Bhathal. “We’re getting more volunteers all the way to north-west Reservoir.”
“I spoke to the St Joseph’s Senior Citizens Italian group and one of our volunteers Leo Zembekis, signed up a good proportion of the room,” she says.
The language most spoken in the electorate after English is Italian, and Italians and Greeks in Batman are traditionally Labor voting.
Bhathal says that Greek and Italian children and grandchildren are voting for the Greens. “Their families talk about politics, so older migrants are starting to look at the Greens as an option.”
However, my cohorts in this northern belt are asset-wealthy, albeit having less cash flow than those living in Melbourne’s eastern ‘burbs. Seventy per cent of all Italians, Greeks, Vietnamese and Arabs in the electorate of Batman own their homes.
A home is a buffer against recession, and as the late, great urban planner Hugh Stretton said, home ownership is the reason for Australia’s economic development and social cohesion.
British sociologist Ray Pahl, went further. He saw housing as production, not consumption. Unlike classical economists and Marxists, Pahl said “emphasis on Max Weber’s trinity of “wealth, status and power’ meant a class analysis that scrutinised urban space and resource allocation, rather than work relations as such”.
Regardless of their relationship to the “modes of production”, when a poor migrant owns a home they transfer class position. Marxists don’t like working class ascendance, and neo-liberals see housing as a way to extort large profits.
“Older migrants own housing, but they see their kids and grandkids unable to afford housing, education and healthcare,” di Natale responds.
But don’t many migrants leverage our family homes, or our parents’ homes, to buy a house and our kid’s house; it’s what we immigrants do?
“Maybe, but when there are four kids in the house everyone cares about housing affordability,” di Natale says.
I ask the pair about the use of negative gearing; it’s a way many seek protection in older age from the lack of a living pension, a low super account, or as a way to augment their family’s intergenerational wealth. It’s the migrant dream.
“I’ve never met an older Italian who is negative gearing,” Bhathal says.
She says she knows many tradies who have made “sensible financial decisions” but asserts that they are concerned that “their kids who will end up in uni or trades will be burdened by debts”.
She says she tells them – and there are many tradies in Batman – “that any existing scheme would be grandfathered, and they are fine with it”.
Di Natale goes on to link conservation and conservatism. “Conservation was a liberal principle aimed at protecting the environment,” he says.
“Conservative people in the electoral – Catholics, Greek and other eastern Orthodox – are the original Greenies. They grow their own food, they are frugal, they want clean air and green spaces,” Bhathal adds.
She sharply counters Liberal Party President of Victoria, Michael Kroger’s sortie suggesting her past actions may be seen as anti-Semitic. He was targeting perceived anti-Semitism disguised as care for Palestinians by Lee Rhiannon who failed to secure pre-selection in NSW.
“I’ve never supported the BDS, ever,” she says.
“Let’s be clear,” di Natale adds, “we set up an Australian Greens Jewish network and we have senior Jewish members across the community doing groundwork, to demonstrate that we support Israel and support a two-state solution.”
“We are critical of the current Likud Government, we are not against Israel,” says Bhathal.
Labor did select a good candidate in Ged Kearney. Far better than David Feeney whose resignation due to dual citizenship debacle resulted in the by-election from hell for them. Their position on Adani is pure spin, and they are even trying to show compassion for refugees without shifting from the current policies. Even former Prime Minister Julia Gillard sent a letter to Batman constituent supporting Kearney, and I had a recorded message on my phone from her seeking my support.
Bhathal is quick to remind me that when Greens supported an “increase Newstart Allowance by $75 per week and Labor opposed it”.
“On the day that Gillard gave her misogyny speech, Labor voted to cutting out a whole raft of single parents’ benefits,” says di Natale.
Tomorrow, I will go to the polls conflicted. I see the Labor slogan for Ged Kearney “ACTION. INTEGRITY. REAL CHANGE.” Yet I can’t help but ask, ‘what change?’ Will Kearney turn on her leader? If she wins, will Batman be forgotten again? I have not felt so conflicted for a long time. Maybe it is time for a change.