James Mathison On Election Campaigns, The Liberal Party “War Machine” And How To Get Real Change
Election campaigns can be incredibly bruising, especially if you’re a first-time candidate. For most high-profile, independent challengers, one tilt at federal politics is enough. Without the support of a party machine it’s hard to find the energy to keep plugging away.
But after his run against Tony Abbott in Warringah during the 2016 federal election, James Mathison is undeterred. Not only is he seriously weighing up running for federal parliament again, he wants to create a new progressive movement by tapping into the frustrations many Australians feel about the current state of politics.
In an interview with Junkee, Mathison opened up on his experience running against the former Prime Minister, being outgunned by the Liberal “war machine” and what Australian progressives can learn from new, radical parties in Europe.
Junkee: Now that the dust has settled on the election campaign, I wanted to ask you how you found the whole experience of running. Was it what you expected it would be like?
James Mathison: I don’t think I knew what to expect, to be honest. I just felt like I had to do it. It had to be done. I didn’t have a lot of expectations. It was way more work, way more intense and way more challenging that I imagined. [But] I think that’s sort of necessary.
Were you happy with the kind of impact that you had on the conversation throughout the whole election campaign?
100 percent. We were stoked. We were thrilled, really. From the number of people who watched our videos to the amount of people under 20 who enrolled to vote this time around compared to last time. From the Greens being second in the two-party to the third in that election for the first time ever, taking 10 percent off Abbott’s vote for the first time ever. To ourselves getting 11.4 percent of the vote in five weeks. There were a lot of metrics that we were stoked about. It just felt like, beyond numbers, we tapped into a sentiment that is running pretty strongly through young people right now.
Given the nature of our electoral system, obviously only people that lived in Warringah could vote for you. The sense that I got was that it seemed like there were young people across the country who were, like, “Why can’t I vote for him? He’s really speaking to something that I am feeling right now.”
Totally. And I think in many ways, that was sort of why I ran. It wasn’t about me. That was a challenge initially — to get people to see past that. It was a focal point for us; a sense of, not hopelessness, but disconnection and I think disillusionment for a lot of people, especially people under 35.
A lot of people are going, “Mate, it’s not all about young people”. There are people who are over 35 and feeling this sense of not being engaged in the process, not being listened to and being frustrated by that. No one in the main [parties] is speaking to that.
Do you think that’s the same post-election? Australian politics is just continuing on that same kind of path?
100 percent. I think you wrote about it, like Scott Morrison [blaming young people for Australia’s economic problems] the other day — it’s continuing this division, you know? We need inclusive solutions.
I wanted to ask a bit more about what you think can be done. But just before we get out of the election campaign, what was the most bizarre thing that you experienced, if you can pick one?
There were a few really surreal moments. I’m not sure if people know how you get the order of how people appear on the ballot. What happens is there is literally like a Club Keno moment where a series of balls are loaded into a small cage and wheeled around. Then candidates are invited if they want to wheel the cage. The balls are being rotated.
Did you rotate the balls?
We tried to. There was one, single-issue candidate in the Warringah electorate who was giving it a go. Tony Abbott did arrive and we didn’t think we would because he’s sort of been through it before and he doesn’t need to go to these smaller formalities of the electoral process.
Every candidate was there, Tony was there. So I was like, I’m probably not going to have another opportunity to roll around a Club Keno cage at the electoral office with Tony Abbott and the Greens and Labor. I wheeled around a cage and it was a little bit of a pulling back the curtain moment, I reckon. It’s all very by the book. It’s all very much orderly but at the same time, there’s quite a lot of comedy to the whole thing.
Tony Abbott is this massive national figure who is responsible for some pretty heinous stuff and then there he is, in a room, with a cage with a ball with his name on it.
That I’m wheeling around! In a sense, if you do get on the top of that list, if you are in a position number one, it’s worth about 3 to 5 percent of the vote. Which, when you think about it, is pretty substantial. A lot of people end up doing just straight down the line. There were a lot of little moments like that where I thought a) It’s fascinating to see that this is actually how it works and be a part of it and b) this is insane.
Do you think if more people went through the experience that you’ve gone through — the whole process of deciding to run and registering and then actually getting out there and selling your message — that would give them a little more faith in politics? Or do you think they would realise, “Holy shit, this is even worse up close than I thought”?
I don’t think it would make people go, “Holy shit, it’s worse”. I would think, people would see that this is not as intimidating as it looks, to get involved. Also, I think people would be a little bit shocked by how much of it is actually branding and marketing to be honest. You might have a great message but unless you get it out there, unless you have the money, honestly, and the people to get it out there, you really are behind the eight ball from the start.
Keep in mind, we had a team that was, in essence, just myself and a campaign manager. This incredible woman from Northern Beaches called Louise Hislop was my campaign manager. In essence, it was her and I running a general election campaign. We got volunteers on the day and in the week leading up to the election. But the night of, I remember being up at 3.30 in the morning going to polling booths, sticking up the odd poster and going to schools just with Liberal Party banners and corflutes and posters. And you’re like, “Man, this is such an episode in branding”. It’s fascinating stuff.
Having a profile is a massive head start in something like this. If you don’t have money, if you don’t have a massive organisation behind you, like a GetUp! or something like that, or a profile, it’s very hard to make a dent. You are up against a war machine.
There’s calls from some people to reform the way things like donation laws work in Australia to even the playing field a bit more, so independent candidates can stand a better chance against parties. What do you think about that?
I think that the transparency needs to be upped in many ways. I think you’re always going to be out-resourced by those parties. But it’s possible. The fact that small independents do get up — your Wilkies and your Cathy McGowans can get up — shows that it’s possible. It’s just a mountain.
I’d do it again in a heartbeat. If Abbott runs again, I’m going to go again.
Defnitely? You’re going to run next time around if he’s still there?
100 percent. If he runs, I’ll definitely run again in Warringah again. I just think he’s so dangerous. But if he doesn’t run… Outside of the Greens, I don’t think there are really strong and really organised, progressive political voices in Australia. I feel like with One Nation having a strong voice there’s definitely space for that.
Is that something you might be interested in building up?
Yeah, imagine if GetUp! was a political party. They would do very well. They would do really well. I definitely thinks there’s space for that and whether I’m involved in that or whether we can try and work out a way… I think in the next two years one of the things we’ll learn about is how to organise activism rather than just trying to get people behind an idea just using social media. I really think if you’re smarter, you can control the conversation a bit better.
Say things don’t really get better and Abbott drops out. Would you be interested in being involved in creating that sort of organisation and maybe running for the Senate or something like that?
That’s sort of what I’m thinking. People are like, “How are you different to the Greens?” I think the Greens, in many ways, have ambitions to be that legitimate third party and I think in doing so, they have to be a bit more careful with their message. At the same time, they also have this perception problem among part of the population.
Whether that’s true or not, I think that’s hard them for cut through. I don’t think you’d be taking away. So much of what we saw in the US with Bernie Sanders, and what’s happening with Five Star in Italy and Podemos in Spain, it’s really progressive, organised movements.
When you say that the Greens are “trying to be a third party”, are you saying they are becoming too much like the establishment? When you look at examples like Five Star and Podemos, they’re very much outside of the existing political system. Is that the challenge you’re saying the Greens have got now?
Yeah. That’s the challenge for anyone today. What am I representing? What is the story I’m telling to people? I think for a lot of people who vote Green, they are like, “That is my best progressive option”. Whereas I think there is room to be the truly progressive option in the federal system. [Nick] Xenophon is sort of like, ‘We’re in the centre. We want good outcomes. We’re not striving for anything extraordinary. We think it’s important to have a strong centrist movement.’ And that’s the space they fit into.
The more that the hard right of the Liberal Party basically hold the country back, the more this bubbles away in many, many people. It feels like there’s something … there’s a groundswell of people who do not feel like there are political voices on the same page as they are.
In terms of issues, what for you is the biggest challenge facing Australia?
I think [it’s] this sort of double-speak on the environment.
Greg Hunt has to sneak through this covert cap-and-trade system — this almost invisible carbon tax in many ways. It just shows the sort of duplicity that exists, not only for the Australian people but also to other members of their own party in order to get things through, to appease an element of the party. And it’s always, always the same group.
It’s always the hyper-conservatives who slow down everything. From marriage equality to climate change to the humane treatment of refugees to having some sense of understanding what the Safe Schools program is about. It’s always that 25 percent of the party holding back 100 percent of the nation.
For me — and I’m really passionate about this, almost above everything else — the environment is the top, but above almost everything is mental health. These fucking band-aid solutions we have about trying to address it… We have never known more about mental health. We have never had more money spent in that field yet we see kids cutting themselves at school, we’re seeing suicides as the highest killers of adults under 45 in this country. Not cancer, not road accidents, but suicide. We’re seeing anxiety and depression off the charts.
There are wonderful things being done by the government but we need to address it at a holistic level, not just a case of “someone’s sick, let’s organise and spend money so they get help”. We need to be investing in the grassroots measure; in schools, giving people tools to deal with what is becoming a very high-pressure, high-stress life.
The purpose of our event, Junket, this weekend is to get young people together to talk about a lot of the things we’ve been talking about — the challenges facing Australia and how we can work together to address some of them. How important do you think things like that are to making Australia a more progressive, inclusive and generally better place?
I think they are enormous. I cannot encourage them more. The reality is, I think we have this mentality: when something which needs to addressed on a national scale or within our community, we try and get our local member involved. We try and get someone who is in a position of power to try and get things changed. But if I’m honest, we’ve almost got to abandon that model.
Change has to come from us. With stuff like climate change we can bang our heads up against a brick wall forever, going “Let’s have some proactive policy on this.” And if it doesn’t happen, we should be like, “Okay, how do we pull the rug from underneath the big polluters ourselves?”
That’s a good example of “Right, the government’s not doing it. How do we take things into our own fucking hands?” I think well-organised, well-informed passionate young people can create those sort of changes. They can’t just be ideas. This is what I’ve tapped into. How do we get organised? How do we use our interconnectivity, our energy, the enthusiasm that we have?
Remember, I’m getting towards 40 so I’m not a spring chicken anymore but all of these things that I feel are important, I think resonate with people who are not only 38, but 28.
I honestly believe that’s the next step for young, passionate people who want change. Not to go, “Okay, what can we ask of them?” No, it’s like: “What can we do ourselves?” It’s about truly understanding activism and community-building; knowing how much power you can create yourself once you are really schooled in those tools.
It seems like that’s what we’re seeing. We’ve got lots of people who are really passionate and enthused and have really good ideas. But the step that seems missing is: how do you organise those people to actually fight and win and get things happening?
100 percent. The hard right and the conservative side have got big business. They’ve got lobbyists. They’ve got News Limited. They’ve got wealth to push their case. But they don’t understand technology and social media the way young people do. It’s about understanding: “Right, how do we utilise this? How do we organise ourselves so that we are a real force?”