It was a stroke of rare serendipity. Walking along an Ultimo street, Verity Firth is telling me of the warm reception she has received from the community as she contests Labor’s community pre-selection for the electorate of Balmain.
Non-Labor members have been switched-on and interested in what she has to say. And then, as if staged by Firth herself (she stresses several times that it wasn’t), a middle-aged man unlocking his front door stops us to wish her well and promises his support.
Firth is seeking to regain the seat she narrowly lost to the Greens’ Jamie Parker in 2011. We meet the day after former premier Barry O’Farrell resigned in dramatic fashion over misleading testimony he gave at an ICAC hearing. Firth doesn’t see Labor’s return to government as easy or imminent but she does believe the corruption inquiries will change the way politics is played in this state, flushing out not just bribery but the predominance of backroom handshakes and influence-peddling.
“I think those days are well and truly numbered,” she says. “ICAC has been very important for political culture in NSW.”
Firth’s rival in the pre-selection contest is the ambitious mayor of Leichhardt, Darcy Byrne. Some argue Labor needs fresh faces, untainted by the activities of Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald, and that returning the former member for Balmain would indicate that the party hasn’t moved on.
But Firth says that as a prominent voice of the party’s Left faction, she was unaware and indeed locked out of the shady underbelly of the Right’s machinations.
“I’m actually so angry with them, because they have destroyed the work of a lot of good people,” she says.
“I’ve never had a conversation with Eddie Obeid in my entire life. The only conversations I ever had with [corrupt former minister] Ian Macdonald while we were in government were big fights over his crazy plans to put Disneyland at Glebe Island and all these insane things.”
When Labor was defeated in 2011, Firth was the minister for education, which is clearly her passion. Since losing her seat, she has spent three years as chief executive of the Public Education Foundation, campaigning for better funding and providing scholarships to students and teachers. It was Christopher Pyne’s attack on the Gonski school funding model which prompted her to contest political office again.
“It was then that I really realised why it is that you need to be in government. You need governments that are going to fund the services that we need.”
Firth says she is confident of success in the community pre-selection and hopes to be welcomed back by her old constituency. She points out that in 2011, when ALP members with previously comfortable margins lost their seats, she came close to re-election.
“The reason was that the electorate differentiated me. They knew I had been fighting the good fight.”
Ensuring that young families have access to adequate schools and childcare are among the fights Firth intends to take up if she returns to parliament. Protecting open space is also one of her priorities, as well as expanding affordable housing and offering greater protection to people who are renting.
“Australia actually has very weak tenancy laws compared to overseas. We need to start thinking about the 40 per cent of people in the inner city who are renters,” she says.
Such concerns are also relevant in Ultimo, which is now part of the Balmain division, following a redistribution. Firth says she loves the suburb, in which she previously lived, for its vibrancy and location, but she says its connection to the CBD could be improved.
“There’s a sense that – particularly with the Darling Harbour development – once again they just want to create a wall between Darling Harbour and Ultimo. And I think that there’s a lot more clever, interesting things we can do to seamlessly integrate Ultimo into the city.”
Ultimo residents can also vote in the community pre-selection. Postal votes must be returned by April 30, and polling booths will be open on May 3.