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Charlie Lewis

You never know your Hasluck: can Labor pry away Ken Wyatt’s seat?

The Perth hills glow under grey skies. What looks under the blazing, sapping sun to be a fairly uniform knot of thick forest suddenly comes alive, luminous with subtlety and variety — the full spectrum of greens, the blackened trunks deep and rich, the odd explosion of red or gold leaves, all as distinct and wedded as the instruments in an orchestra. Which is just as well, as the weather is fantastically miserable on the morning I head there. 

I meet Tania Lawrence, Labor candidate for the seat of Hasluck, in Mundaring. She’s at a pre-poll centre between a small, new-looking bar called Hemmingway and a little cluster of shops. The “Hills” is a loose term Perth locals use for the Darling Ranges east of Perth and some of the surrounding hinterland, taking in communities like Mundaring and Kalamunda. 

It may be the simple physical reality of the hills themselves, but these places feel like bounded, centred communities in ways that the stretch of Great Eastern Highway which takes you there never does. The great flat expanse out towards the airport, residential areas crowded by motor lodges, places to buy lighting or furniture, business suites with small accountants and places to get your security guard certificate, fast food joints, politicians’ offices — places no human would ever be unless they specifically had to or were stopping there on the way to somewhere else. 

So it’s kind of perfect that as I get there, the Greens pre-poll guy, having established I’m not there to vote, points to a Labor volunteer, “That’s Tania’s dad. He’s also my neighbour. I wanted to put a Greens placard out the front of our place, but my wife said we couldn’t, to preserve the friendship,” he says, and laughs.

It’s not a great day to see Lawrence the campaigner. It’s a biting-cold Friday morning, so the best the team can hope for is the odd young parent or pensioner coming back from the shop; slow-moving prey for slow-moving predators. The only live one we get while I’m there is an older Asian lady, whom Lawrence approaches and asks if she’s there to vote. She says yes, but politely informs her, “I’m voting blue”. Without a flicker of change to her tone, Lawrence directs her to the Liberals’ how-to-vote cards — the Liberal Party volunteer, the same vintage as Tania’s dad and his neighbour, doesn’t even have to get out of his folding chair.

Apart from old communities of the hills, after a redistribution Hasluck now includes the Vines, Ellenbrook and the greater surrounds — gleaming new suburbs, too new for anyone to actually be from there. Then there’s the traditional heart of the electorate, the industrial areas around Midland, Guilford and Midvale and then the Swan Valley and its vineyards, wineries and breweries nestled in the bends of the upper reaches of the Swan River.

The diverse interests of the seat means neither party has been able to take it for granted. It swung between the majors for its first three elections, before Ken Wyatt, the first Indigenous man to win a lower house seat, won in 2010 — he’s been there ever since, growing the margin in his favour, a process that was slightly aided by the latest redistribution. But WA Labor has identified Hasluck as one of the seats back in play in 2022.

I’d first seen Lawrence at the Hasluck climate change candidates forum on my first day in WA, and she tells me climate change is one of the biggest issues voters raise with her.

“It’s a big issue in the hills, but it affects the surrounds just as much. We’ve had two major bush fires in the past 12 months. Ellenbrook, the Vines, right through to Brabham, they were all on evacuation notice at two or three in the morning, with the embers coming down the hill. So our lives in the hills are more immediately under threat, but it affects everyone.” 

She acknowledges that for some, the climate change issue has been effectively defused by Morrison’s announcement of net zero by 2050.

“Up in the hills, there’s certainly a big traditional Liberal base and no doubt, those people will feel that box has been ticked,” she says. “But I think anyone really engaged with this topic, if not for themselves but for their children, will interrogate it and see that he’s held up a blank piece of paper.”

Speaking to Lawrence, I wonder whether she’d read Bernard Keane’s early criticism of Labor Leader Anthony Albanese’s lack of a joined-up narrative — she clearly wants to talk about issues and policy solutions as multifaceted and interrelated.

So a question about what the issues facing Hasluck are prompts a long answer that winds through aged care and housing, each attached to a specific example of a constituent and how this policy affects them, and then ends on how effective education and training can impact action on climate change, the cost of living and local manufacturing.

“The flip side [of questions on climate change] is jobs, and the missed opportunity around jobs and local business manufacturing,” she says, which leads to education and jobs. “Midland Tafe will become the trade renewable centre, with wind turbines being the first focus. That’s going to create the pipeline for people to get jobs.”

“So whether you’re looking at it from a climate change perspective, a cost-of-living perspective, a jobs perspective, that’s what we’re trying to get across to people…”

It’s a pitch from a candidate very much aimed at a swing seat — Lawrence presents as much as a pragmatist as an idealist. Her background (small business, policy adviser in WA state governments from Richard Court through to Colin Barnett, Woodside energy for a decade in business growth and crisis management) doesn’t feature much you could use to scare a wavering small-c conservative. At one point she announces, “I love business! I love entrepreneurs, I get super excited when I meet entrepreneurs”. It was the only time in an otherwise highly focused interview I remember thinking, “Wait, did I ask about that?” 

Indeed, in an interview with the local Echo News — one of a cluster of hyper-local media that’s only just survived in the area, including Chidlow Chatter and WA’s very own boy journo Owen Briffa — Lawrence identified integrity in government, climate change and local jobs as her biggest priorities. All of which sounds… a bit teal?

“I feel respect for anyone running on their own ticket, but I’m a pragmatist too, and I believe in the potential of Labor to deliver across a whole range of policy areas, not just climate change or integrity, but a whole range of other areas that are incredibly important,” she says. “So I’m very keen to be part of that team who actually has a seat at the table, rather than perhaps trying to influence around the edges.”

But it is noteworthy how she describes her role if she wins, regardless of what happens on the weekend:

“I would hope if I’m successful I’ll be able to do my job and hold the ministers — who I hope are Labor ministers! — to account on what we are endeavouring to achieve for the country.”

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