Walking down Broadway in the heart of the city, Tanya Plibersek is in her element.
It’s a bright and busy Friday afternoon. The Federal Minister for Health and Medical Research arrives at her Chippendale office and, promptly, makes the short walk down to Victoria Park, while casually but accurately describing the Federal Government’s $3.2 million plan to help sufferers of arthritis.
The federal election campaign is in full swing, but the cross-country jet setting and non-stop media appointments do not appear to have fatigued Tanya. She is alert but relaxed.
Sitting down on a park bench in the shadows of the University of Sydney, Tanya relays her thoughts on the changing demographic of the city during her 15-year tenure as Member for Sydney.
“Sydney has always been a seat where there has been a lot of movement of people,” she says. “I think on average we would see a change in about a third of our electors between each election, so I’ve always been used to welcoming new people to the electorate and establish contact with people when they move in, and try and stay in touch with the new people moving into the area.
“In general people want to live in the inner city because they like variety in life and a multicultural community – a community that has got all different sorts of people living in close proximity. The demographic has shifted a little bit but in its essential quality, this is still an electorate that is diverse and happy with its diversity.”
The 43-year-old lives in Rosebery and regularly walks to her Chippendale office. It takes 45 minutes, but it is time well spent.
“There is still a very strong working class community in the inner city,” Tanya says. “We have still got a lot of public housing and public housing tenants. We’ve got people who have lived in communities like Erskineville, Glebe or Balmain for generations.
“They have always been Labor communities and a lot of people are very proud of that and identify strongly with it. It’s the same as they support Souths – vote Labor and barrack for Souths or the Tigers.”
Tanya enjoys rugby league. She is a one-eyed supporter of the South Sydney Rabbitohs, who she predicted would beat Manly in their match last Friday night. They did, but the matter of the Labor Party winning the September 7 election is more pressing.
While Tanya is expected to easily reclaim the seat of Sydney, the Coalition has taken a clear two-party preferred lead in the opinion polls, despite Opposition Leader Tony Abbott trailing behind Kevin Rudd as preferred Prime Minister.
“People have had the opportunity to watch Tony Abbott over decades in public life now,” Tanya says. “He said some things at university and early in his career. I wouldn’t want to be held account to everything I said when I was 20 years old either, but it didn’t stop there – as recently as this week he was talking about a candidate [Fiona Scott] having sex appeal. The idea that he has seen the error of his ways – I just don’t think he gets it.
“He has got into so much trouble in the past, you would think he would be a bit more careful. He’s only got two women in his cabinet – it’s a real surprise to me. I just don’t see that he has really improved that much over time.”
The lack of affordable housing in Sydney, and decrepit state of what there is, is at the forefront of urban Sydney voter concerns in the prelude to the election. Speculation surrounding the possible demolition of Millers Point public housing has been rife in light of the State Government’s $1 billion-plus Barangaroo development.
As a former Federal Minister for Housing, Tanya is aware of the broad community fears.
“I’m very opposed to any sell-off of public housing in Millers Point,” Tanya says. “One of the things that makes our city great is that it’s a diverse community. If you have a place where only wealthy people can afford to live, it will be a poorer community for all of us. What we’ve done federally to try and support people who find it hard to find affordable housing is to introduce the National Rental Affordability Scheme, which is a way of building more low-cost accommodation and we’ve got 1,000 units approved in the area of Sydney.”
Tanya says the Coalition won’t help residents find affordable housing if elected to government.
“They just don’t care about it,” she says. “They had 12 years in government where they didn’t do anything on affordable housing. That was my first portfolio when I came into government – they had done literally nothing in 12 years.”
Federal Greens candidate for Sydney, Dianne Hiles, criticised both Labor and the Coalition for pursuing a “negative” asylum seeker policy in exporting boat people to Papua New Guinea. Tanya understands the argument, but doesn’t agree.
“I find it very troubling,” she says. “It’s certainly not a position that I made easily or that any of us made easily. I understand what Dianne’s concerns are. What I can’t go past, though, is the hundreds of people that have drowned coming to Australia.
“I haven’t heard yet from the Greens any ideas they have about reducing the number of deaths for people who are risking this incredibly dangerous journey. I get what she’s saying, what I don’t get is the next stage in her thinking.”
Asylum seeker policy is clearly a topic of consternation and emotion for Tanya.
“I know that people are being lied to,” she says. “They are being told this is a safe journey, it’s easy, it will be a nice boat and it will be very comfortable. They hand their money over and they are taken out on a small boat to load up to the boat that’s coming to Australia.
“We know that hundreds have died. We don’t know how many we’ve lost that we don’t know about. I get particularly upset when I see bodies being carried out of the ocean. I do think that we have some responsibility to try and discourage people from taking a journey in that way.”
During speculation for the Labor leadership in June, which saw Rudd depose Julia Gillard as Prime Minister in a factional coup, speculation surrounded the future of the party and who is best placed to take the helm. Tanya’s name was mentioned as a future leader, especially in light of the fact she did not become embalmed in either the Gillard or Rudd camp. The wife and mother of three quashed the rumour.
“I spend half the year away from home already,” she says. “I don’t want it to be 360 days out of 365. I think Julia did a fantastic job and I’m sure that we’ll have another woman prime minister in my lifetime. I don’t doubt it, but it won’t be me.”
However, there is little doubt Tanya will be re-elected as Member for Sydney next month.