THOMAS FRENCH – Labor WA
Wanneroo, nestled on the hillside by lake Joondalup, used to be the middle of nowhere...
Now it’s the high water mark of the modern Australian dream. Fresh tar, round
concrete gutters, high Colorbond™ fences and two-car-garages right up front. Gently
sloping driveways, front yards landscaped by Bunnings that flow into neat green nature
strips. 25kms north of Perth, now part of the greater metro, a suburb that bloomed in
six years. The street lights flicker on.
In the living room Thom watches television. Tony Abbott has added more flags and is
gearing up to make another captains call. Thom shifts in his seat, agitated, he starts
arguing with the TV, the swearing begins… His wife Siobhan, grimaces slightly, she
has seen this development many times- the more flags, the more outrage, the more she
fears for the television. On this one occasion though, something will be different.
Something will change. She ventures to suggest something that might be throw away in
many other households. “Why don’t you do something about it!?”
The swearing stops, Thom looks at his wife for a moment, years of political interest and
armchair criticism merge into a response “maybe I will”.
Driving the 55min trip South of Perth to the company workshop, Thom wears a rough
clipped beard and sharply styled undercut. The workshop builds iron ore crushers and
conveyors that are freighted up North to the Pilbara. On the passenger seat, beside the
high-viz vest, is a copy of Kerry Obrien’s Keating. The 2004 model ford falcon sedan
changes lanes across the heart of Perth- the Arctic Monkeys play curtesy of Spotify
“And it don't take no Sherlock Holmes~ to see it's a little different around here”
The idea is still humming in Thom’s head. He’s been reading Cicero, “Who benefits?”
Thom is interested in ideas, WA is changing, the music stops for a moment, his smart
phone buzzes, an email. He sips his coffee in thought at the red light. It can wait.
Thom first went up North to the Pilbara in June 2014, a commercially qualified
“sparky” wiring up ready-made conveyors on a trade assistants wage. “Well alright
you’ve given me a foot in the door, I’ll go, I’ll go from there. I was like if I do a month
or two and they see I’m not terrible we’ll sort this out.” Two months went by, two
swings on a four to one roster, when the third month came around Thom was fed up. “I
cracked it and I joined the ETU and the Labor party the same day.”
The Electrical Trades Union website says; If you've ever had a problem at work, you'll
understand why unions exist. If you don't have problems at work, it's because unions exist.
“The ETU looked after me,” Thom says, “that got sorted and I ended up doing another
4 months up there.”
Thom comes from a strong working class background, growing up, his old man John
supported the family painting houses. Later in his teens, country towns, rural schools,
triple J radio after school, cricket and four younger brothers. Thom’s mother Mary ran
the family pub while John propped up the bar. Mary was renowned for her strictly nononsense-but-fair approach to the played out dramas of a small country town. Come
Friday night after work, she was the life of the party, everyone bought Mary a Baileys.
Being hard working, rising middle class, Thom’s family weren’t really very political.
One afternoon when Thom was ten, John said the only words either parent ever said to
him about politics, “we vote Labor, they look after us.”
Thom has always loved politics, as an eight-year-old he remembers Keating challenging
the Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke for the leadership- “They were on the same side,
I didn’t understand.” He is still gripped by the intrigue and frustrated by the infighting,
passionately citing Wayne Swan preserving Australia’s triple A credit rating through the
GFC. “They couldn’t even use him, the treasurer who got voted number one by the
IMF in the world, for his handling of the crisis.”
Hospitality nurtured Thom, using what his strong publican mother taught him he
navigated some dark days bartending on work choices “as a subcontractor”- for twelve
dollars an hour, a syndicate of lawyers owned that pub. He pushed through to thrive
pouring beers and talking to punters, even owning his own pub for a while. Challenges
faced over the bar means he will talk to anyone, “the best conversations come with the
people who don’t share your view.”
On smoko at quarter past twelve he thumbs the smart phone, among a few texts from
Siobhan, there’s that unchecked email notification. It’s from the party;
Subject: expression of interest to run in the next federal election.
Thom opens it excitedly, here’s my chance.
Hi he types I am interested in applying for preselection, my name is Thom…
It’s been a strange and fast transition for Thom, from that moment in the living room,
to delivering his maiden speech to the WA Labor executive assembly this month. He
has met a lot of people, shook a lot of hands, but this is only the beginning.
Thom is running for Pearce. Pearce electorate was created in 1989. It’s outer urban
North Perth meets rural fringe. It’s coastal and remote inland communities. It’s farming
and tourist towns. It’s new urban developments at the crest of WA’s mining boom. It’s
old and new. It’s Wanneroo and Swan, Chittering and Gingin. It’s the third largest
electorate in WA after the mega electorates of Durack and O’Connor. It’s a microcosm
of greater Australia, complete with an air force base. “It’s diverse but it’s probably the
second safest liberal seat in WA, after Julia Bishops seat (Curtin).”
Thom is running against Christian Porter, Social Services Minister in Malcolm
Turnbull’s Liberal cabinet and a sterling example of rusted-on-conservative. Porter’s
favourite ice cream flavour is vanilla. Pearce is named after a Labor founding father, Sir
George Foster Pearce; yet it has never been held by a Labor candidate.
Thom is calm and open about what is coming his way. The odds are stacked heavily
against him, but is not one to shy away from a good fight. He encourages you to get
involved. “Something needs to change and when you’re a safe seat nothing gets done. I
think we can change that.”
The drive back home to Wanneroo always takes a bit longer. There’s a long way to go,
to get things moving in WA, but there’s a change in the air. Instead of arguing with the
TV there will be a new brand of Labor on the road, speaking to the people of Pearce
and their future. “The Australian dream used to be, own your own home. Now Scott
Morrison says it’s to get ahead, but what does get ahead mean? To get ahead of
somebody else, it’s at the cost, at the expense, of somebody else. This is not what
Australia is about, you need to keep Australia fair.”
Most importantly, if Siobhan asks Thom to do something about his TV rage. He can
now say “I am,” could we say the same thing?