“This is new Hartley.”
Vincent Tarzia surveys his domain, the northern boundary of the electorate he has held for four years since he displaced Labor frontbencher Grace Portolesi. It was one of three ALP seats that fell the Liberals way in 2014; they needed six to form government.
The fledgling MP’s cause was helped by a boundary redistribution that shaved almost two per cent of Portolesi’s already tenuous margin, making it notionally the most vulnerable Labor seat at the last election.
A subsequent redistribution should have further bolstered Tarzia’s prospects of retaining the seat – until one of his more prominent constituents, SA Best leader Nick Xenophon, set his sights on the lower house. That prompted Portolesi’s return to re-contest for Labor, as the north-eastern bellwether suddenly became the most-scrutinised seat of the 2018 election campaign.
Welcome to the new Hartley.
“Another day in Paradise,” Tarzia jokes as we drive around the perimeter that divides his seat and neighbouring Morialta, where his friend, colleague and regular squash combatant John Gardner is set to face his own challenge from SA Best.
The Libs are spending up big in Hartley, a fact that sums up the campaign. In the usual scheme of things, an Opposition is wont to pour its resources and lavish pledges on seats it doesn’t yet hold. Now, it’s just trying to nail down the furniture.
In addition to campaign resources, there has been a succession of local sweeteners thrown on the table: if elected in March, a Liberal Government will undertake a $1.5 million upgrade of the Campbelltown Soccer Club and revamp the Hectorville sport and community club’s change rooms. If elected in March, a Liberal Government will fix the troublesome intersection of Silkes Rd and Gorge Rd, a notorious accident hotspot. If elected in March, a Liberal Government will build a $7.5 million multi-storey Park and Ride at Paradise Interchange with more than 300 car parks.
If elected in March…
This is the second of a series InDaily is running in the lead-up to polling day, intending to profile not politicians, but their electorates, and the people who live in them.
In every campaign, as Labor marginal seat veteran Tom Kenyon said last month, there’s an air war and a ground war.
“The air war is pamphlets, advertising – it’s a B52 that flies in and bombs the crap out of everything – that’s Nick Xenophon’s game,” he told us.
“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.”
Vincent Tarzia will certainly hope so.
When I started petitioning canny Liberals for suggestions as to who would make a good subject for this series, two names kept coming up as standouts in the door-to-door ground war: Tarzia and Steven Marshall, the party leader.
“The aim is to knock on at least 50 to 100 doors a day from now till the election, and on a good day we’ll get up to 200,” the member for Hartley tells me as he alights on Silkes Road, armed with locally-honed propaganda and “Sorry I missed you” cards.
“I generally doorknock every single week… obviously now I go every single day, but there wouldn’t be a week that went by I wasn’t doorknocking.
“It’s definitely the best way to keep in contact with the electorate – and people appreciate it.”
He insists he “really enjoys” getting out and about with constituents – even when the temperature is nudging 40C as it is today.
“If you don’t like it you probably shouldn’t run for the lower house in a marginal seat,” he points out.
“I’ve had some close calls with dogs, but it all comes with the territory doesn’t it?
“It’s a good way to keep fit and work off the cake and coffee.”
On his daily rounds, Tarzia is offered plenty of cake and coffee.
Italians, he notes, “express their love through their hospitality”.
According to the MP, “still well over 20 per cent” of Hartley’s constituents are of Italian origin.
In terms of country-of-origin, the fastest growing ethnic group in the area is Indian, which comprises about eight per cent of the electorate.
Perhaps it’s cynical to presume the ethnicity of the candidate is a factor, but of course, both Labor and Liberal hopefuls are of Italian descent. As was the previous Liberal MP Portolesi once displaced, Joe Scalzi.
I can’t help but ask the obvious question: how many Greeks live in the area?
“A few hundred,” Tarzia notes earnestly, evidently missing the pointed reference.
“It’s not as high as Italian.”
Labor has recruited another practiced ground-war campaigner. Last week, Portolesi announced her own $1.5 million commitment to Campbelltown Soccer Club, pledging a new artificial pitch and upgrades to fencing, lighting and the female changerooms.
On the day I go doorknocking with Tarzia, Xenophon is usurping the Premier’s ‘JayBus’ tour of the regions by announcing a new SA Best candidate in Whyalla.
While he’s doing that, Tarzia will knock on 100 doors in Hartley.
The air war versus the ground war.
“You’re only as good as your next one,” Tarzia assures me as he works door to door along Silkes Rd, spreading the word about the Liberal pledge to fix the intersection.
“You might have seen our promise to upgrade this intersection if we get elected in March,” he tells one woman.
“You can’t really turn right so it’s quite dangerous.”
“Oh, I had no idea that was in the works,” the resident beams, taking a proffered pamphlet and agreeing the right-hand turn is “a pain in the arse”.
“Well, it’s time for a change of Government here,” Tarzia offers hopefully.
“It’s been here a long time.”
Next door, a man answers the door in a singlet, and pleads ignorance of local issues because he has only recently moved in.
“Welcome to the area,” Tarzia beams.
The man adds: “I’m from Playford, so…” The unspoken conclusion sounds a little like: “I vote Labor.”
“You try and be respectful for everyone, even if they’re rusted-on Labor,” Tarzia tells me as we walk.
“The further south you go, traditionally has been more Liberal but… every house is important,” he says.
“In a three-way contest, it could all come down to preferences so you fight for every single resident, and you try to help the best you can for all of them.
“But a lot of people, they aren’t really politically switched on.”
As in Newland last month, if people have grievances, they are local ones.
We take a reconnaissance to visit an elderly lady with a “footpath issue”.
The issue appears to be that cars repeatedly mounting the kerb as they turn left has demolished the corner of the sidewalk outside her house.
Tarzia got onto her on his daily round of phone calls the previous evening.
“When it gets too hot, like in the 40s, I like to make phone calls… last night I made about 60 calls,” he tells me as we approach the front door, which is decorated with a sticker depicting Christ and the Virgin Mary.
Another sticker on the wheelie bin out the front spruiks the long-defunct Adelaide radio station KA-FM.
The woman has no English, and no-one present to translate, but Tarzia is conversant.
“Having another language” is a big advantage in a seat like Hartley, he tells me.
“I was born here, and my parents were born here, but I did make a big effort to learn the language… and people appreciate you going to the effort of learning their language.”
After a brief chat to the resident, he explains that her other complaint is about leaves dropping onto the footpath from overhanging trees.
Her husband died three years ago “and he used to do a lot of the cleaning and sweeping of the footpath himself”, but these days the debris just builds up.
Tarzia’s role now is to refer the issue to the local council.
“They should be able to deal with that quite quickly,” he said.
The woman invites us in, despite her air-con offering little respite – her son is due to come round and fix it later this afternoon.
But we continue on our way.
Time is of the essence in door-to-door politicking, and it’s a fine balance.
If someone invites you in, they probably already vote for you, and your time is more valuably spent with people who might vote for you, but are yet to be convinced.
Tarzia has a “20-second rule” between ringing a doorbell and deciding a house is unattended – as most are during the day.
In that case, he writes a handwritten apology on a leaflet bearing his electorate office number and slides it under the door.
“Is that Phil?”
“How are you mate,” says a confused resident.
“How’s George going?”
“Good – he’s getting married this week…”
The man, it transpires, is the brother of one of Tarzia’s schoolmates at Rostrevor, where he was once head prefect.
He too is only relatively recently arrived back in the neighbourhood, and has no major beef with the infamous intersection, “but I know a lot of residents have been complaining about it for a long time”.
“For a lot of other people, it’s an issue,” he agrees.
This, then, is the Liberal campaign in Hartley; it’s not nation-building stuff, it’s helping to fix footpaths, install traffic lights, get parked cars off suburban streets.
And, of course, plug the “It’s Time” mantra.
“Yeah absolutely, a change of Government is a big thing definitely,” Tarzia says of his salesman’s shtick.
“But also ‘Brand Liberal’ – and ‘Brand Tarzia’.”
The MP is getting a receptive response to his intersection selling point.
“You know what, I really do,” says one woman when asked if she has an issue with Gorge Road.
“It’s impossible to turn right – sometimes I just turn left!”
“Well, that’s what we’re going to do if we’re elected,” Tarzia says proudly, pointing to his handout.
“Excellent – good luck with that,” beams the resident.
“I doorknocked the whole electorate last time round and then we were given two new suburbs – Newton and Paradise – in the redistribution, so for a couple of months I doorknocked the new area as well,” Tarzia tells me as we wend our way down Silkes Rd.
He stops momentarily to ponder a sign on a gate that says: ‘No hawkers, no canvassers, no religious callers, thank you!’
“It doesn’t say ‘No Politicians’,” he reasons unconvincingly, and strides inside.
At 90, Mrs Fry is one of the seat’s oldest residents and, according to Tarzia “the fittest 90-year-old in my electorate”.
She first moved into the area in April 1965.
“We built the house and added and added,” she tells me, after we find her at the end of her long cemented driveway.
There are a lot of cemented driveways in Hartley.
She and her late husband were married for 64 years – “we just got on with each other, that’s all”.
“I’ve got a big family – five great-grandchildren, 11 grandchildren, and they’re married, all but a couple of them,” she beams.
“I only vote for Liberal.”
Tarzia is hand-delivering a birthday card, which might be for my benefit but is evidently doing his standing no harm with Mrs Fry either.
It’s a standard gesture, apparently, for any resident who turns 80, 90 or 100.
Tarzia keeps a well-resourced database.
Knocking on doors near Paradise Interchange, he knows which residents have vocally lobbied for the Park and Ride.
The Park and Ride was a Labor promise at the last election, and one of the first abandoned after the death of its failed carpark tax.
“People remember that,” Tarzia earnestly insists.
At a new townhouse next door to an old Housing Trust unit, a man earnestly invites us in from the heat.
He is exuberant about the Park and Ride, although “I would have preferred it over the road, not by the creek”.
Nonetheless, “I think it’s going to be so successful – it will bring more people to the interchange,” he enthuses.
As it happens, he tells us, his daughter works for a senior federal Liberal, whom she often tells: “My mum and dad vote for Nick Xenophon, because he did a favour for my sister in law who had mesothelioma and passed away.”
“But we’ve moved on from that now,” he adds.
“And we’ve got a very good local member.”
Another door down things don’t go so well.
A car pulls up the driveway as we walk past, so Tarzia hangs back waiting to pounce. A young woman alights, and starts unbuckling her infant in the back, but when she spies him approaching, leaflet in hand, she recoils.
“Oh my god – NO,” she yells.
And then, just in case her response was mistaken as a general dislike of politicians, she adds: “No, Vincent Tarzia!”
“No, because Vincent Tarzia doesn’t pay attention to shit.”
He tries to suggest she contact him at any time and he’d be happy to help with her concern, when she cuts him off again: “Actually you’re not, because you don’t actually answer.”
As we depart, Tarzia seems slightly crestfallen by the ferocity of the exchange.
“I’m not sure what that one was about,” he assures me.
He says about one doorknock in 40 goes awry, but “I’ve ever had that reception before”.
“We haven’t had any doors slammed in our face… it’s extremely rare. Most people are pretty pleasantly surprised that you actually knock on the door.”
After about 20 minutes, he brings it up again, telling me: “I’ll certainly follow up that lady from before.”
“We’ll check the contact history, and work out what we’ve done for her… she might be just not a Liberal.”
Fortunately for Tarzia, the elderly lady a few doors down avowedly is a Liberal, and her only grievance is that we’ve caught her in the middle of gardening.
“I’ve got dirty hands,” she laments when the MP proffers a handshake.
After spruiking the Park and Ride, Tarzia asks if there are “any issues on your mind in the lead up to the March state election”.
After a thoughtful pause, the lady decides: “No – everything is going ok as far as I’m concerned.”
And adds: “I’m sorry my hand’s dirty. Come for a cup of tea sometime.”
“I always vote Liberal,” she calls out to us as we descend the driveway.
“Lovely, thank you very much,” Tarzia calls back.
“We need you to keep doing that, ok?”
As we drive back to his office, the member for Hartley fields calls on his mobile that come up under the moniker “Tarzia Train Line”.
“Every call to the campaign line goes straight to my mobile,” he explains.
Most of them are from residents he has cold-called, who respond to his greeting with a confused: “I had a missed call from this number?”
Tarzia introduced himself and explains “we were just calling to let a few residents know if elected to government we’re looking to …”
“Um, hang on for a second please,” says the caller.
After a brief exchange in Italian with someone on the other end of the phone, they make their apologies and leave.
Nonetheless, Tarzia insists the campaign line is “a way you can stay in touch but also campaign well beyond 9 to 5”.
He proudly points out local landmarks as we drive, telling me where to get good pizza and explaining “a lot of this land in Paradise was old celery market growers” back in the day.
And then we pass Nick Xenophon’s law-firm, ironically a stone’s throw from Darley Road.
It occurs to me that not so long ago Tarzia was just another ambitious young politician awaiting the traditional upward trajectory of a long career – until the day everything changed.
“The sixth of October,” he nods, without missing a beat.
It’s as if the date is burned on his brain.
Once the elephant in the room is brought up, it’s hard to ignore.
“I think the thing that’s really quite appalling is the sense of entitlement he has,” Tarzia says.
“He thinks he can run as a commercial law firm, manage his properties, run a federal campaign, run a state campaign and be a marginal seat candidate, which is certainly a job that requires over 80 hours a week.
“And all I can say is a lot of people will see through that.
“I’m 100 per cent dedicated to this seat and the people in it and always have been, and I really love the community, where my family has been based for a long time.
“But we don’t underestimate any of our political opponents.”
Tarzia made the first-18 Aussie Rules team at Rostrevor “but my football career ended there”.
Still, he’s not averse to a sporting analogy for the challenge ahead.
“We’re in the fourth quarter, and we’d like to think we’ve kicked a few goals and we’d like to think we’re a few goals up halfway through the last quarter,” he muses.
“I sincerely think we’ve really, genuinely worked as hard as we can.
“There’s only so much I can control… we’re out here doing everything we can to hold this seat for the party.
“You hear different numbers, but I think incumbency [is worth] at least a few per cent… I think the good thing from our point of view is we always worked really hard every day, I always expected a hard fight.
“And that’s a good base to launch a campaign from.”
Make your contribution to independent news
A donation of any size to InDaily goes directly to helping our journalists uncover the facts. South Australia needs more than one voice to guide it forward, and we’d truly appreciate your contribution. Please click below to donate to InDaily.