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STREETVIEW: On the frontline in the fight for power

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In every election, there’s an air war and a ground war. That’s according to Tom Kenyon, the Labor MP guarding the state’s most marginal seat. In the first of a series InDaily will run between now and polling day, Tom Richardson visits the trenches in Newland to gauge the issues that matter to the voters that could decide South Australia’s next government.

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“I’ve been bitten by a dog once,” Tom Kenyon recalls mid-stride, as he wends his way along Margaret Avenue, one of two cul de sacs off the north eastern artery of Grand Junction Road he is doorknocking today.

“And I’ve been told to fuck off twice – literally twice. I could take you to both houses because it’s so unusual.”

That’s not twice today – it’s twice in 12 years, since the Labor MP for Newland first won his seat in Mike Rann’s 2006 landslide.

Retaining it has been a tough proposition at every election since, and even more so this time round.

Under the new electoral boundaries, it’s a nominal Liberal seat – albeit by a sliver, at 0.1 per cent. The most marginal seat in SA.

But if the voters of Newland are waiting to clobber Kenyon with brickbats, they’re at least being polite about it.

“The most common hostile response is ‘I don’t think so’ and closing the door,” he says.

Kenyon is the first in a series of profiles InDaily plans to run between now and polling day; profiles not of politicians, but of electorates. And of the people who live in them.

It was Kenyon who first proposed we accompany him on one of his regular door-knocking sessions around the streets of Newland. The offer was first extended many months ago, in the midst of one of the Weatherill Government’s occasional controversies. The one in question was significant enough to prompt several pundits to declare it impossible for Labor to survive.

Kenyon’s contention was simple: it’s not something people raise with me when I turn up on their doorstep.

This, then, is the first in a series that will gauge the issues that matter to voters in the seats that will determine the March election – as conveyed to their local members.

In coming weeks and months we will repeat the exercise across the political map, with politicians of different political stripes.

And we start in Newland, the Tea Tree Gully hub that was Labor’s most marginal seat at the last election – the seat that tenuously kept them in power.

Kenyon interrupts his spiel about the rarity of rudeness on the hustings to knock on another door, which is answered by a weary but affable young man wearing shorts and a singlet, who greets him like a minor celebrity.

“I may as well shake your hand – I don’t get a chance to do that too often,” he enthuses.

Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

“I’m Tom Kenyon, I’m your state member of parliament – just knocking on doors to see if you want to talk to me about anything.”

It’s a refrain with which I become very familiar over the course of a couple of hours on a Friday afternoon.

Once the writs are issued next month, candidates will be blazing their election trails in the blazing summer heat. On the day I join Kenyon, we avoid the sun, but instead cop a light drizzle that becomes heavier as we stomp down Gum Tree Drive.

This is, as he calls it, “arch-suburbia”.

“A lot of it is first homeowners, who are moving into a serious home for the first time, but the biggest single demographic in the area is baby boomers,” he explains. He says around a quarter of the residents are from that generation, bought their first home here back in the day and loved the area so much they never left.

Aptly, at the first house we arrive at, the tenant – surrounded by cardboard boxes – looks nonplussed to be visited by their local member, telling him: “We just moved in.”

“Good luck with it all,” Kenyon offers.

Perhaps they will assume it’s all part of the service.

At the next house, a young lady pops her head out from behind the screen door, realises who is visiting and immediately summons her friend who is visiting from elsewhere in the neighbourhood.

She has a tale of woe from a run-in with the local public health system.

“My daughter, who’s now four but she was 14 months old at the time, we were sitting on the lawn, she was having an ice block and just fell over. I thought it was a bee sting or something,” she tells Kenyon.

It was no bee sting, but meningococcal B.

The toddler was rushed to Modbury but was not allowed to stay there “for various reasons”.

“They wanted to send us to the Lyell McEwin, but they couldn’t because they didn’t have a children’s ICU there… the main children’s’ ICU is at the Women’s and Children’s, but that was over capacity, so we ended up put in a ward and isolated.

“You’re closing down things and yet I couldn’t go to the hospital I was supposed to go to, because you’d spent all this money there and didn’t put in a children’s ICU,” she tells the MP.

Her daughter had a number of “painful tests” at Modbury, including a lumbar puncture in her back, which had to be re-done at the WCH because the original case files weren’t transferred.

“It really annoys me how there’s no communication between hospitals,” the woman chides.

“I don’t have much to complain about but that’s one thing that always really sticks in my craw.”

Kenyon concedes the apparent inability to transfer records from hospital to hospital in the public system is “surprising”.

“That’s one of the things Transforming Health was supposed to help with, and it is – slowly,” he notes.

As the mother tells her story, the raucous cacophony of children playing emanates happily from behind the screen door.

The more she recounts, the more she recalls.

Her daughter had to wait so long her sedatives had worn off, which made the ordeal “more traumatic for her”.

The “overwhelmed” nurse who didn’t want her in emergency or ICU because of the risk of contagion.

The fact the medicos at Modbury didn’t seem to know there was no children’s ICU at the Lyell Mac.

Then, on a roll, she recalls the troubled birth of her son, her eldest child, now five years old.

“He was a prem, and we ended up at Lyell McEwin because he was too young to be born at North Eastern [private].

“I couldn’t even get a private room with private health… I understand it is what it is, but it’s not fun: I’ve just had a 32-week-old baby and [the hospital’s] like, ‘he can stay, but you can’t’.”

“I was already in shock because you don’t have this ‘Kumbaya moment’, and instead you’ve got to go on the ward because he decided to be born on the week everyone decided to be born,” she laughs.

The recollection leads to a more general critique of the propensity to shunt new mothers out of hospital as quickly as possible when, she says, the “baby blues” tend to kick in after three days, when mothers need support the most.

“You have to blame these mums who go in, pop it out and go home and put in on Facebook,” she asserts.

Then there was the time her son “split his finger on the escalator” at Tea Tree Plaza, a stone’s throw from the Modbury Hospital, but “the security guard who helped me said ‘Modbury don’t take kids any more, love’”.

“He believed that, he was like, ‘no, we’ll get you an ambulance’. People just don’t think they can take their kids there… because you closed the paediatric wards.”

Then, she adds: “To be honest with you, I understand why they closed it down.”

“There’d be weeks where my son would be there by himself, and if he wasn’t there, there’d be no-one.”

Kenyon listens. He sympathises when she’s right, he corrects her when she’s wrong.

“A lot of people don’t realise they can go to Modbury Hospital,” he agrees.

“People think we’re going to close it – it’s never going to happen,” he adds, although the perception was surely fuelled by the rhetoric of Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis early in the term, when he suggested a hospital could be for the chop because of federal funding shortfalls.

Kenyon tells the woman “you have more control than you think you do” about when to leave a maternity ward.

“They can’t force you out of hospital,” he insists.

He reiterates that the question of the records transfer is “the big issue, for me”.

“I’ll chase up on where we have kids’ ICUs and records transfers policy, and if I can do that, I think that’s something we can try and fix,” he tells the constituents.

Tom Richardson joins Kenyon as he doorknocks. Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

“It’s common to have a conversation about Modbury Hospital or the health system,” he tells me as we depart.

“If you’re having a conversation, it’s probably because of something like that – something that went wrong for them.”

MPs doorknock their electorates by “CCD” – an ABS acronym for “Census Collection Districts” – about 200 houses per district.

“They’re quite handy for a usable chunk to bite off and chew on,” Kenyon says.

“I might have a conversation about Modbury Hospital maybe with one person per CCD.”

In general, when people complain about the health system it’s because they’ve had a bad experience personally.

“Usually if you’re going to a hospital you’re not well, so something’s gone wrong to start with,” says Kenyon.

“The thing I took out of that [exchange] was they wanted me to know that they wanted the system improved – but they weren’t really angry about it.

“Getting something like that is not necessarily a bad thing… if people don’t tell me when something goes wrong, I don’t know and I can’t try and fix it.

“That’s generally the resolution – and they’re ok with that.”

I ask about cost of living complaints.

“It does get raised – probably power prices would be top amongst that,” he says.

“Like health, it’s regularly raised but not necessarily every time you go out.”

I ask him what issues come up every time.

“Potholes,” he answers.

“Footpaths. Hoon drivers.”

Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

 

Newland may be marginal, but it’s likely to be a traditional electoral battleground. Both the Labor and Liberal vote is high, high enough that Nick Xenophon’s fledgling SA Best will struggle to push itself into second place and snare the seat on preferences.

“I’ve done more doorknocking this term than any term previously,” Kenyon says as we walk.

“But even in the other terms I’ve done it regularly… it’s so much easier without being Minister.”

Kenyon gave up his frontbench role after the last election to devote himself to his family and his electorate.

“Being a minister sucks so much time,” he reflects.

“Media kills you, because you keep getting sucked back into the city… there’s preparation time, follow up – you blow a day apart with media.”

Now though, “I don’t exist to you guys”, he tells me.

“I’m not even here – you’re so focussed on ministers, backbenchers aren’t anyone.”

He is interrupted by the angry barking of a bulldog behind the next door.

The husband and wife who answer together, though, don’t share their pet’s trepidation.

Instead, they share their list of grievances.

The intersection leading on to Grand Junction Road: “That’s a nightmare to have to get across there… I’m surprised no-one’s been killed there”.

The falling tree branches up the road: “They’re just breaking off – if one fell on you, you’d die.”

The creek at the end of the street: “A disgrace, it’s a disgusting huge pool in the summertime, it needs to be tidied up.”

Kenyon assures them: “That’s a council thing.”

“So I’ll write to them – they own the creek so I’ll yell at them,” he jokes.

He leaves his card and points out his office number.

“Oh, so we just call you? That’s excellent,” beams the lady.

“That was quite normal, way more normal than the hospital conversation,” Kenyon tells me as we depart.

I point out that instead of writing to the council, he could just summon his electorate officer who is helping him doorknock the precinct and also happens to be local councillor Lucas Jones.

“We try to separate that out,” he says.

“I try not to talk to him about council… they have their job and I try not to interfere in that.

“I tell them when there’s an issue – there’s branches falling on the creek, that’s a council thing so what I do is write to the council. They’re relatively responsive.

“But it doesn’t sit well with me to say ‘I can’t help you at all’.”

Modbury Hospital.

It goes on.

One woman wants to know who Kenyon represents.

“I’m in the Labor Party – for my sins,” he tells her.

She tells him she thinks most politicians “go in for the right reason and just do what their party wants them to”.

“It’s so rare to get told to get rooted,” Kenyon assures me.

“They’ll tell you they vote Liberal, but they’re still glad you turned up.

“Most people think there’s no point being rude because someone turned up at their front door to ask them about the way the place is running.”

*

“The thing about Newland,” says its MP, “is I don’t have those big strong booths… it’s a fairly homogenous electorate.”

“I don’t have great booths and terrible booths, I have booths that are better and worse.”

And what about the ‘big’ issues, the ones that so distract the media day to day?

“If it’s in the paper that day, they might bring it up,” he says.

“A few people did raise Oakden, for instance.

“But it wasn’t common.”

I ask how much of his time on these jaunts is spent defending Government policy, as opposed to chatting about local issues.

“It’s a really interesting question, actually… if you’re looking at Modbury Hospital, that’s a defence of policy, and mostly it’s the individual’s experience of the hospital.

“The O-Bahn was the other one – a number of people were saying ‘you’re spending this much money to save four minutes’, but anyone who used it in the peak times was pretty happy with it.”

As far as Kenyon is concerned, there are two options: “You can either just say, ‘look I’m completely behind it’, or try and change it.”

“You’ve just got to make your assessment.”

With the O-Bahn, and Adelaide Oval, he backed the policy.

On Modbury, he says, he tried to change it.

“I think we went a little too far in the changes we made to the hospital, and we just needed to work within government to try and get that pulled back a bit,” he says.

The nuclear waste dump was another, given Kenyon was one of Labor’s most enthusiastic proponents for high-level storage.

“People did raise it – some for, some against,” he says.

“I did tell them I thought it was a good idea. But I would lay out the thing: ‘We’re talking about this… at the moment the Labor Party is opposed to nuclear waste and nuclear power, and if we had to vote on it now I’d vote with the party – but I’m trying to change the mind of the party’. In the end we decided not to do it.”

*

“People have a good bullshit meter,” says Kenyon.

“If you try to slip and slide too much people pick it up… they have an understanding of the complexity of the problem, that it’s not just black and white, and for the most part people are reasonable.”

Is there never cynicism that he’s turning up on the doorstep two months from polling day?

“You get the occasional comment, but for the most part people aren’t even thinking there might be an election on,” he says.

So when does that fact click?

“Once the posters go up.”

Anywhere where the ground war is dominant, SA Best is going to struggle

“There’s an air war and a ground war in every campaign,” Kenyon tells me.

“The air war is pamphlets, advertising – it’s a B52 that flies in and bombs the crap out of everything.

“That’s Nick’s game.

“But the ground war is door-knocking, street to street, that kind of stuff. And that’s not going to be their strength… it takes time. You can’t roll out an electorate-wide campaign in a few weeks.

“Anywhere where the ground war is dominant, SA Best is going to struggle.”

Kenyon thinks a personal vote can account for anywhere from two to three per cent “up to, say, six or seven per cent”.

Judging by past results, his own personal vote is more in the latter bracket.

“I didn’t expect to be drawn into people’s personal lives,” he reflects on his tenure.

“And that’s sort of what that personal vote is – interactions you have with people sometimes, and the reputation that builds around that.

“I didn’t expect, for instance, to be friends with any of my constituents when I first got elected – but you do build up friendships with people. Probably not that formally, but you know them very well.”

He tells of a lady named Peg, in her late-80s when he first met her, with whom he got on “really, really well”.

“I used to go round to her house and have a cup of tea, we could chat about stuff – not necessarily politics.

“She died a few years ago – I went to her funeral, and was genuinely upset about it.

“I didn’t expect that.”

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