Michael Johnson is all yellow. A yellow jersey marks his involvement in a 2003 parliamentary rugby game; a yellow baseball cap embroidered with his name sits slightly askew on his head. He matches the National Union of Students activists buzzing around a table behind him; whether by accident or design is unknown. He’s in the Great Court at the University of Queensland, his alma mater, to sign the NUS “Pollie Pledge”.
“There has been harassment,“ he says, his hand gestures indicating a sense of loosely-controlled energy. “One of my supporters had a truck driven out in front of her, blocked her out from the signs, and so that was, yeah, rather unfortunate for Australian democracy.”
The Member for the western Brisbane seat of Ryan is no longer a member of the LNP. He was disendorsed in May for allegedly using parliamentary resources to try to broker a $12 million coal deal with a Chinese company. Johnson maintains his innocence, and is now contesting Ryan as an independent. He’s held the seat for three terms, nine years. He wants another. He speaks confidently. But he has the air of a man who can hear the bell tolling.
It’s Market Day at the University of Queensland, and the Great Court’s sandstone walkway is alive with students checking out stalls for various clubs and societies. “Are you interested in singing….?” says a clean-cut young lad as I whir past the stand for the UQ Musical Society. “Looking for accommodation?” quizzes another. “Bless you for assuming I’m a student,” I think.
I've been given instructions on how to get to the NUS temporary table by Rosa, the group’s local organiser, who’d sounded a pleasant sort-of confused/surprised to take my call. Eventually, I find her sunshine-yellow shirted brigade on the far side of the Great Court, directly opposite the main entry to the Forgan Smith building. Steven Miles, the ALP candidate, is already milling around. It turns out we went to the same high school.
“Oh yes, I remember your face,” he says. We fall into small talk about post-school exploits, before the students beckon us over to their official “Pollie Pledge” signing table, complete with over-sized certificates. Greens candidate Sandra Bayley arrives in a party T-shirt, light cotton skirt, and sandals. I recall seeing her earlier that morning at a meeting of lobby group National Seniors Australia. She’s working key target groups - the young, the old.
I quiz both Bayley and Miles about their “Pollie Pledge”. It’s an NUS election campaign stunt, getting candidates to promise to highlight student issues such as university funding, income support and affordable accommodation. Both are happy to sign their names and pose for a photograph. I ask the NUS spokesman, an intense young man with a rounded face and dirty blond hair falling across his glasses, about whether he’s happy he only got two out of the four candidates to attend.
“Michael Johnson is on his way,” he replies importantly. “Three out of four isn’t bad.”
So the new LNP candidate, Brisbane City Councillor Jane Prentice, is the only one to turn down their request. As I wait for the late Johnson, I ask Steven Miles about whether he has a chance of winning the seat away from Johnson or Prentice. He says a redistribution has put the margin at less than two per cent.
“Certainly the trouble the LNP has had around here has made a lot of people think twice about whether they’re equipped to represent them,” he says. “This seat’s been held by the Liberals almost continually for 60 years, and I know a lot of people feel like they’ve been taken for granted, treated as a bit of a plaything for the western suburbs branch of the Liberal Party.
“Certainly I think people are ready to consider voting for Labor.”
The familiar smell of a sausage sizzle prompts a murmur of hunger in my belly. Miles suggests we walk over and grab one. One of my favourite foods in the world is a barbecued sausage on a slice of white bread, so I agree. We chat about a lack of interest in keeping in contact with our old school as we walk. We buy sausages from a stall with no obvious affiliation for $1.50 each. A man named Reece, one of Miles’ campaign helpers, gets a call from Rosa. Johnson has arrived.
We walk back. Johnson doesn’t stand out straightaway, his yellow attire giving him NUS camoflauge. But gradually the taller figure pacing on the spot becomes recognisable, just as the letters spelling JOHNSON on the back of his jersey become readable.
“Michael, this is Natalie,” says Miles, just as I take another bite of my sausage.
“Sorry,” I mumble with a mouthful, extending my hand. “We’ve spoken on the phone.”
“Of course! Hi, good to meet you,” he bubbles, closing a second hand over mine and shaking emphatically.
He agrees to my request for an interview, and is upfront about running an independent campaign.
“There is a sense of liberation in my team,” he says. “There’s been moments it’s been a bit difficult, when other campaigns have…” He trails off, looking a bit pained, then brings up the alleged harassment of his campaign worker. He doesn’t know who did it, but the suggestion it was the LNP is heavy in the air. Johnson’s disappointed.
“We can have a robust democracy and contest ideas and policies, but we’ve got to have a clean, democratic fight.”
He remains supportive of Tony Abbott, but doesn’t agree with reducing the intake of immigrants. “There is a dumbing down in Australian politics of policies and ideas, and both sides are guilty of this,” he says.
“Reactionary, populist policies don’t make the country prosper, and I think this is a trend in Australian politics.”
Johnson thinks his track record in Ryan is enough to put him over the line on August 21. But he makes a point of insisting the LNP should preference him on the ballot, or watch their primary vote collapse.
“The people of Ryan want to have a change of government. They want the local community to be represented by a Liberal-oriented federal MP,” he says. “If the LNP doesn’t declare they’re going to give me their preferences second, that clearly shows they’re not prepared to give the people of Ryan a Liberal MP. And I think that is politically despicable.”
Johnson also reiterated his view that LNP candidate Jane Prentice – should resign, to show she really is fair dinkum about federal politics. “If I lose on election night, I’ll have to look for a new job… if Councillor Prentice loses, she’ll go back to being the Councillor representing [the ward of] Walter Taylor.”
We end our interview, but Johnson asks if I wouldn’t mind holding the microphone up again so his assistant can take a photograph of him being interviewed. He gathers the students to stand in the background, yellow at the back, yellow in front. Click, snap, done. I offer him my thanks, and suggest I might go off to find Jane Prentice, who Rosa says has been on campus.
“Good idea,” he says, nodding his head. “Ask her if she’s going to resign!”. The yellow cap bounces up and down again, as he turns his attention fully to the students.
I wander across the quadrangle, closer to the humanities library. The smiling face of Jane Prentice stares up at my from sandwich boards. Ten or so young people in blue campaign T-shirts natter happily with each other. Unimpressed students walk past; one is wearing a t-shirt with a cartoon of Tony Abbott accompanied by a derogatory message splashed across it. I assume it’s derogatory; to be honest, I can’t read it. But the blackness of the T-shirt, and the length of the fringe of its wearer suggests he’s not a Liberal voter.
I ask one of the blue shirts if Prentice is on site. “No, she’s gone to a function,” replies an officious young woman with a clicky pen. “Never mind, I’ll try her on the phone,” I reply, moving away.
I notice the Liberals too are running a sausage sizzle. Still pleasantly glowing from my first one, I veer towards it. Their sign says “Sausages $2”.
“Huh,” I think. I walk away, back towards the western side of the Great Court, where I’d purchased my first sausage. “It was so delicious, I had to come back for another,” I say. “And you’re 50 cents cheaper than the Liberals.”