STREET LEVEL: Stories from the political trenches
“You meet a lot of dogs.”
The canines of Hawthorndene erupt in a cacophony of barking as the member for Waite wends his way to another front door.
The MP’s approach sets one off, which triggers a chain reaction along the street – the perpetual soundtrack to his afternoon door-knocking expedition.
Since a 2016 redistribution, Waite’s geography has taken in two distinct zones, effectively ‘up the hill’ and ‘down the hill’.
The zone Duluk is traversing today is the former, and while it’s Liberal country it’s not Liberal heartland.
In 2018, he won the Hawthorndene booth with 762 primary votes, but Labor’s Catherine Hutchesson (466) also polled fairly well, with the help of preferences from the Greens (214) and some run-off from SA Best (268).
After preferences, Duluk won the booth with 53.8 per cent of the vote – the 3.8 per cent margin below Waite’s nominal Liberal margin of 7.6 per cent.
But then, Duluk isn’t the Liberal candidate this time round.
The circumstances of that are well known – in late 2019, as a highly-touted minister-in-waiting, the Right-faction stalwart’s drunken behaviour at a parliament house Christmas function saw him exiled from the party, and ultimately charged with basic assault against SA Best MLC Connie Bonaros – a charge of which he was ultimately acquitted.
But when the moderate-faction-run Liberals still stalled on his return to the fold – and after further allegations were aired under parliamentary privilege by Greens leader Tammy Franks about his behaviour on the fateful night – Duluk formally split from the party to contest Waite as an independent.
While the episode has diverted political observers in recent years, it doesn’t appear a factor on the hustings on the day InDaily visits Duluk on his rounds.
Up and down the block, across several engagements with punters ranging from the indifferent to the engaged, it is never brought up. Not once.
“I think people know that the election is about issues going forward… and I think that’s what people are interested in,” Duluk tells me between houses when I ask him whether the episode is ever raised with him.
“If people want to talk about any other issue – I’ve always been upfront.”
People are, however, happy to chat about the overall political scenario.
As an incumbent independent with a Liberal bent, Duluk has an easy way with constituents clearly aligned with his former party.
“It’s a bit worrying,” says an older lady who appears up for a chat about the way the election is headed.
“I think he’s going to win it on his physique,” she adds of Labor leader Peter Malinauskas, whose pre-campaign dip in a North Adelaide pool has remained a talking point ever since.
Then as a surreptitious footnote, she notes that as far as physiques go, she could do worse.
Which, in a nutshell, sums up the response of plenty of conservative-leaning voters in the neighbourhood: they don’t actually mind the Labor leader.
And moreover, they think he’s going to win.
“It’ll be close won’t it,” nods Duluk in reply.
Duluk, it turns out, goes back a long way with the Labor leader.
They were both involved in Adelaide University student politics at the same time, and both played in the uni football team.
Although, he concedes, “Peter’s a better player than me.”
I point out that the selling point of Malinauskas’s ‘all about Pete’ campaign ad is that he’s a “pretty average footy player”.
“Well, I’m below average,” Duluk says.
The woman, whose husband is nodding along in agreement in the doorway, says she’s inclined towards “that Liberal candidate”, former Adelaide City Council deputy mayor Alexander Hyde, although “I don’t really know him”.
“Which is good, I’m not complaining,” Duluk laughs.
“As people know, you can put me first and put them second – and get the best of both worlds, if you like.”
Duluk’s preferences were highly sought-after in the recent round of horse-trading – Labor insiders believed if he could be convinced to put his former party further down his How To Vote order, it would open Waite to a genuine contest.
Hutchesson is contesting again for the ALP, while the Greens always poll strongly – and the addition of another high-profile independent, Mitcham mayor Heather Holmes-Ross, has further clouded the competition, with five candidates with a reasonable prospect of garnering at least 10 per cent of the vote.
Hyde is the candidate to beat, but Waite’s nominal Liberal margin is, while safe, hardly commanding.
In the event, though, Duluk and his former party agreed to swap first preferences – a decision whose wisdom was emphasised on the hustings.
“I want to see the preferences,” an elderly lady tells him from behind her screen door.
“I think preferences are going to make a big effect on who gets in, and that’s what I’ve got to think about.”
She fixes him with a steely eye through the metal grille: “I want to know who you’re going to give your preference to.”
She tells him she senses a mood for change but “doesn’t really want Labor in”.
The MP assures her: “I’m putting the Liberal Party at Number Two, so if you vote for me at one and I don’t get in, it will go to the Liberal Party.”
“It’s getting interesting with all the candidates,” she observes.
Duluk assures her that the Liberals are likewise “putting me at number two on their How To Votes”.
“We’ve all made up,” he beams.
Duluk will be hoping his record as a local MP will stand him in good stead.
But as one of his former party colleagues has observed, even if you manage to solve a constituent’s issue most days – and they reward you with their vote – that’s still only little more than 1000 people over a four-year-term. In a seat of around 25,000.
But for now at least, Duluk’s independent status is proving a handy selling point.
“Good luck in the election,” says one punter as he answers his door.
The constituent himself is casting his vote early – he’ll be spending polling day on a golfing holiday in Queensland.
“Tough life,” sympathises Duluk, before asking conversationally: “Who’s going to win?”
“Labor are,” the man sighs.
“They seem to have got the momentum going, I think… but you never know. It could swing back the other way.”
Duluk pounces with his pitch, borrowed from another one-time Liberal who moved to the crossbench – Democrats founder Don Chipp: “That’s why we need a good independent, to keep the bastards honest – on both sides!”
“I agree,” his interlocutor nods.
It sounds like a sale.
The only way to know will be on polling day, of course – or more likely some days after, given the prevalence of pre-poll and postal votes and the inevitability of preference flows playing a major role in determining Waite’s fate.
Duluk is no stranger to campaigning: before he shifted to Waite after the boundary chance, he won neighbouring Davenport in a hotly-contested by-election after the retirement of long-time MP (and one-time Liberal leader) Iain Evans.
Before that, he was the party’s candidate in an infamous 2014 campaign in Fisher – the seat was easily retained by long-serving crossbencher Bob Such, a one-time Liberal who – with fellow independent Geoff Brock – then wielded the balance of power.
But Such’s subsequent illness saw Brock alone decide who would form government – opting for Labor, which held 23 seats to the Liberals’ 22.
Ironically, it is now Duluk who is hoping to hold the crossbench balance of power as a former Liberal.
And he’s not alone – with fellow former Libs Dan Cregan, Troy Bell and Fraser Ellis joining him on the crossbench, for a variety of reasons, along with ex-Labor veteran Frances Bedford and Brock himself, who is facing off against Deputy Premier Dan van Holst Pellekaan after a boundary redraw moved his Port Pirie base into the neighbouring Stuart electorate.
“We’re in a good position, with the independents in parliament at the moment,” he tells one voter who’s up for a chat.
Notably, he points to the parliamentary inquiry that ultimately cost van Holst Pellekaan’s predecessor as Deputy Premier, Vickie Chapman, her job – at least for now – as a shining example of crossbench success.’
“We made sure we got the right outcome on the Kangaroo Island timber issue,” he argues.
The constituent, a firefighter, has a list of government gripes – from a stalled pay deal for his profession to local traffic snarls – a constant complaint among Hills residents.
“If the current Government’s returned, and this place has a Liberal member you’re not going to get that representation,” Duluk argues.
“The Labor Party aren’t going to win the seat of Waite, so you’re better off with an independent.”
It’s an angle he hammers home repeatedly on his daily rounds.
“If you look at the polls, I think it’s probably going to be a change of party,” says one lady in response to his opening gambit about the state of play.
“Is that good?” Duluk inquires.
“And is our community going to be well-served to have an independent member if that happens?” he continues.
“I guess so, yes.”
“Yep – keep the bastards honest,” Duluk nods.
If political pundits have obsessed over the Waite MP’s fate with his former party, it’s telling to note that it’s been a passing concern at best for many voters.
One woman tells Duluk she has “a big focus on health” because “we’ve got a little person [in the family] with anaphylaxis”.
“So the ambulance thing is a big one for me,” she says, also citing more step-down beds to “take out some of the pressure on Flinders”.
“That’s probably our biggest thing,” she says.
But asked who she thinks will form government, she sympathetically tells Duluk: “Unfortunately I think Labor will come through with that a bit more.”
“You know I’m independent these days?” the MP inquires sheepishly.
“Oh,” she says, “I didn’t realise that.”
“So you don’t have to vote Liberal,” he assures her. “You can vote for me!”
So how does the seasoned campaigned know when he’s won a vote?
“Well, the most obvious one is when they tell you,” he laughs.
“I always think it’s a positive if they don’t tell you to f*** off,” he jokes.
Another seasoned campaigner, ex-Labor MP Tom Kenyon once told InDaily he had been hit with the f-bomb just twice in 12 years, noting that people are generally pleased to see their political representative at their doorstep.
It was Kenyon’s assurance that in every campaign “there’s an air war and a ground war” – and an invitation to join him on the latter – that inspired InDaily’s Streetview series before the 2018 poll.
“The air war is pamphlets, advertising – it’s a B52 that flies in and bombs the crap out of everything,” said Kenyon, now overseeing the revived Family First.
“But the ground war is door-knocking, street to street, that kind of stuff.”
That year we visited members and candidates from all sides of politics.
In 2022, we will focus on crossbenchers – the hopefuls who could yet play a major role in determining SA’s political fate.
But they have to be returned first – and Duluk concedes the tea-leaves are hard to read.
“Most people don’t give it away,” he said.
“People are pretty polite… people do appreciate being knocked on the door and the opportunity to connect. It’s a very community-oriented way to do local politics.”
He says his “gut’s always been with doorknocking, that it’s not about pushing too much”.
“If they want to tell you their concerns, they will,” he says.
“But it’s not about you, it’s about them.”
The Liberals’ ground-war last time round was bolstered by a data software tool called i360, bought at great expense after it was used in successful US Republican campaigns.
The Libs aren’t using it this time, but their MPs still have access to electorate data that Duluk concedes would be helpful to his efforts.
“I never really used i360,” he tells me.
“My feeling has been that when you doorknock, you just want to have conversations with people… for me as a local member, it’s never been about that level of micro campaign.
“Sure, it’s handy – but you’re spending all your time on your phone [adding and checking data]… and half the time people aren’t home anyway.
“Is that the best use of your time? I don’t know…”
Still, he concedes, “all MPs are entitled to the electoral roll, so you still have all that data”.
He says he’s also “fortunate to have a lot of local volunteers running a good metro campaign”.
Many of them are likely to be members of his former party, local branch members who have remained loyal to their MP – or who are backing both his and the Liberal campaign.
“If people want to talk to you they will, if they don’t, they don’t – nothing’s changed,” Duluk says of the campaign grind.
“Because I know what I’m doing, I just do it… I’m just reinforcing that I’m local, approachable and community-minded.”
Because of Waite’s geography, there are distinct issues – he effectively represents two discrete electorates.
“Up the hill, roads are a really big issue, along with environment and open space,” he says.
“The other really big one here is bushfire exits.
“Down the hill, it’s heritage and planning – there’s a lot of subdivision in Clapham and Lower Mitcham… and trucks on Cross Rd is the other really big one.”
While in Hawthorndene many residents seem resolved to a change of government, Duluk says the people “down the hill don’t want Labor”.
The Liberal margin in the Mitcham booth in 2018 was more than 13 per cent.
Duluk has an easy way with constituents.
One fellow tells him they have crossed paths in his role with the local football team.
“How’s preseason going?” the MP asks.
“Good – we haven’t lost a game yet,” the man jokes.
He tells the MP about his gripes with the school run.
Every voter has a different theory on a Hills traffic solution, and on which roundabout needs attention.
Then there’s the issue of the local shopping precinct, whose lack of planning has left it a “dog’s breakfast”, according to Duluk.
“We clearly need a community masterplan for the whole precinct,” he says.
He signs off with a familiar refrain.
“It’s going to be an interesting one isn’t it?” he says.
“It’s always advantageous for our seat to have the balance of power – it did well for Brock; it did well for Karlene Maywald. It will do well for Waite.”
On my way back down the hill, I have plenty of time to muse on the afternoon’s interactions as I sit in the traffic banked up at the Blackwood roundabout.
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