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IV: Winter’s Here – the Cold, and lovely Rita

It’s the day after the day after the Federal election, and I have a few moments to write, but not about that yet. This is about Rita.

It began to cool down about 4 weeks ago. A steel-grey Sunday afternoon in late May or early June. It was a one-off at the time, with sunny days before and after, but this one was the first with that Tuggeranong winter wind ski-jumping off the Brindabellas and slicing through the valley. It was the first day when my knuckles, hands and fingers began to hurt from knocking on (mostly) nice people’s doors and using my phone to record whether they wanted to vote for me (…because most people do, I have to use my phone with my hands out my pockets a lot…*ahem*).

Anyway, it was properly cold outside and I was outside cold, walking from door to door in Monash, talking about myself (which *cough* weirdly never seems to get tiresome), alone because very sensibly none of the volunteers in my team wanted to join me. I was having reasonable success – not the sort of success where it feels as if the whole street must love you and every house you walk up to you will greet you with an encouraging smile, interest and finally a “we’ll vote for you, for sure” and your election is the safest bet since Black Caviar, but better far than those heavy half hours where it seems like no one is home and if there is a person behind the door they are not interested or worse rude or even worse offended and angry that you might want to introduce yourself and ask for their vote (viz; “Please leave my property immediately!”. For real. I should have said something like “Mate, I’m hardly going to pitch a tent here, am I?” instead of “OK”) and not only is your election impossible, but you will be embarrassed, utterly. For me, both of those extremes are rare, and perhaps I am optimistic but it seems the latter is far more rare for me than the former, but regardless, this afternoon was neither of those.

I was having reasonable success. And so, apart from the cold, it was a reasonable day. An ordinary door-knocking day. I must have done what, 30 sessions of door-knocking by then, 100 hours, give or take? And this hour was feeling just like most of the others. It was not, in short, when I expected to experience my campaign highlight (so far).

Her name was Rita. And she is lovely. She lives by herself in a townhouse in Monash, although she will be moving into assisted living before the election, where she has promised to organise for me and whip in all those elderly votes. I knocked on her door and she opened it; short, big and white hair, fizzing eyes and I launched into my spiel, measured so as not overwhelm the old lady; “Hello, apologies for interrupting your afternoon – my name is Taimus Werner-Gibbings, I live in Gowrie and I am the Labor Party’s youngest, newest and most unknown candidate for Tuggeranong in the ACT election in October, and-”

“Oh, yes, Taimus. I remember you. We talked on the phone recently.”

She might have remembered me, and we had been doing some phonebanking a few weeks prior to that, but in all honesty I could not, for love nor money, remember talking to her. And still can’t. But she was definite that we had spoken and, as she invited me in, recalled how helpful I had been on the phone and how somewhat useful had been the advice I offered – which was to call Gai Brodtmann. Which she did. Which paid off, it seemed.

I sat down on the floral couch opposite her favourite chair and the telly which was tuned to ABC News24 and she started to interrogate me in manner that would not have embarrassed the chaps at ASIO. Who was I, why was I running, why Labor, what did I offer, what was my history, what was my future, how was I planning to win election? It was a good 25 minutes of questions, plus a few tangents into her personal history about how she was 82 and had known Jack Lang when she was a youngster, was union to her bones and Labor in her blood. I listened with fascination and answered, as always, with honesty.

I’m Taimus Werner-Gibbings, I want to be useful to the community and am optimistic I can be, I like people, energy/ability/integrity, born in Deniliquin grew up in Canberra moved to Sydney returned, too early to tell, knock on 10000 doors.

We then talked about the federal election – which was only a couple of weeks in at this stage, the many possibilities it promised (including the present result, or lack thereof), and our distrust and disappointment with the conservatives. It was a lovely little chat, the unlooked-for conversation that makes door-knocking my favourite form of campaigning. Then I said unfortunately I had to carry on walking the streets because there is a lot of Tuggeranong and only one of me.

She said that is absolutely what I must do and she apologised for delaying me – “not at all Rita, it was lovely, thank you very much” – and that she would like to donate $100 to my campaign – “….?….” – she wanted to give me $100 and was that OK? – “I…I mean, of course, that’s amazing, thank you” – she had decided quickly during our conversation that she liked the cut of my jib and wanted to help me as much as her poor powers allowed, with a donation and any writing or creative work I needed because she had journalism qualifications and was fine on the internet – “Well, Rita, that would be wonderful, I’m very grateful” – anything she could do, because she really wanted me to be elected, she thought I was a very good candidate with a lot of potential and she wanted a young, good person in the Legislative Assembly.

She gave me $100 – just, you know, pulled two $50s out of her purse – and filled out the donation form. I said thank you a few more times and promised I would return with receipt as soon as possible – “That will be fine Taimus. I look forwards to seeing you again but especially to you being elected!” – I am doing my very best I said and this is a big help and very motivating, thanking her again.

One walks out of a random conversation like that with a very big smile. What a highlight! I tripped through the rest of the afternoon, cold on the outside but now very warm within, and was able to get the receipt back to Rita the next week.

I also wrote her a letter. She said, while reading it, that she was gong to cry. She didn’t. She did say this was the first time in her life she had ever received a letter like this and that she was going to frame it. I don’t mind what she does with it – I just want her to know the impact she has had on me (spot the grammatical error – very disappointing, but I don’t think she noticed. If she did, she was too polite to mention it. The best laid plans of mice and men I suppose). She’s been critical.

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Epilogue: If Rita wasn’t wonderful enough, just this week I was looking over this website for the first time in ages, thinking about how I had a little bit of time now to write this post, when I noticed the following comment in response to one of the earlier chapters;

“Hi Taimus, about 8.00pm last night [18/5/16] you knocked on our door in Monash.
We wish to apologise for not inviting you in, but a tall dark stranger knocking on our door for us is a bit unsettling.
Now that we have seen your site we would like to give our two votes to you. We would also like to donate $200 to your campaign.
Keep up the good work and we hope all goes well.
Peter & Robyn.”

I mean, c’mon, the people in Tuggeranong. Just amazing. Why wouldn’t one run for office, if only to give one the excuse to walk around and introduce one to such lovely people? Obviously I replied immediately, appalled at how late I was – over a month! – but determined to make them sure that I was grateful, moved and inspired by their generosity, as well as apologetic for being tall, dark  and unsettling on their doorstep (but not handsome it seems). And then Peter and Robyn introduced themselves to me while they waited in the queue to vote on Saturday and I got to thank them face-to-face. Which was my election 2016 highlight, apart from the bride who voted at 5.49pm…that was pretty cool.

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The Interregnum (basically a place-holder)

VOTERS REQUIRED TO VOTE FOR TAIMUS – 5000 (give or take)

VOTERS COMMITTED TO VOTE FOR TAIMUS – 976 (give or take)

I know, I know, I said no political polemics – only about my experience as a candidate. And I have ideas too, that I want to write to you about. Whether one should bother having a campaign launch, particularly when you raised all your money pretty easily? The difference in volunteerism between the USA and Australia? I will write about them, and soon. Just not right now. I have no damn time, you see. A new job, a federal political campaign, my own political campaign, a 3000 word essay that I have to write for my graduate diploma, Tuggeranong businesses that need to be contacted, some new campaign literature that needs to be designed, a fabulous family that I like to spend time with, when there is only 24 hours in the day – some of which I like to sleep in.

So please accept my apologies and consider the following a little bit of a place-holder until I find an act I can get together and pump out a couple of tremendous posts. It’s a little idea Libby and I had that I think could work in Canberra. I wanted to get it published in a paper to “raise my profile” (which, let’s be frank, needs raising) but I ran out of time and effort, and this page needs an update.

Starting music at the stops

Imagine a warm, late December evening a few years in the future. In purpose-built performance niches the 2020s versions of the Doug Anthony All-Stars or a young, flame-haired flautist from ANU’s School of Music are lighting up Gungahlin, Dickson and Civic tram stations and electrifying the Woden, Belconnen and Tuggeranong bus interchanges.

That would make a difference to our city. It makes a difference in others already.

I discovered this a week before Christmas, when all through New York, everyone was stirring – even at 2.30am in the morning. It was busy; it was energised; it was amazing. But – embodying none of those qualities – my wife and I leant tiredly and emotional upon each other at Times Square-42nd Street subway station’s Platform One.

Time passed. Seconds? Minutes? Then a young man or woman (I couldn’t tell behind the sunglasses) a few platforms over picked up their saxophone and began to play. They played the melodies of classic songs, and recent songs becoming classics – and they played beautifully.

The music misted up the lines, feathering the platforms, while everyone in the station arranged themselves so they could watch and listen. At 2.30am at a public transport stop Libby and I, suddenly electrified, happily heard a concert. It was a moment that felt utterly unique and fabulous.

I don’t know if the musician made much money – I presume they did, but at the time it didn’t feel like that was the point. All I know is that it made the wait an experience. It was the sort of atmospheric, spontaneous moment New York City tapes into your memory for fun.

Over the next couple of days I delightedly discovered that busking in New York Subway stations is a thing…so much a thing in fact that professional performers go underground deliberately because the acoustics are so good.

Music Under New York is an official part of the Arts & Design program run by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. It schedules musical performances in the New York City Subway – giving particular visibility and promotion to over 350 groups and artists who participate. And it’s brilliant.

Over that week in New York we listened to performances from an amazing nine-piece jazz ensemble electrifying Jamaica Railway Station, watched a couple of young but precocious rappers at the South Wharf terminal, and stood still-shocked in Williamsburg by a guy playing a classical-Spanish mash-up on his acoustic guitar.

Could we bring that musical sizzle to Canberra? Should we make it easier for musicians and performers to play at the major public transport nodes? Could we encourage them to do so? From what I have seen and heard, I really think we should and could.

We should build dedicated performance niches at major public transport stops. We could design them with quality acoustics and protection from the winter winds to make it easier for creative talents to practice for them and perform for us.

This idea synchronises nicely with the principles outlined in the ACT Arts Policy 2015, particularly with regards to participation and community access to art. The ACT Labor Government is already taking a very progressive approach to public performance and buskers don’t need licences or permits to perform in public. One of the Government’s arts forums this year will be particularly focused on the music scene in Canberra, which I think will provide a good opportunity to discuss some of these ideas in greater detail.

With a bit of imagination, a bit of organisation, a bit of money and some stylish, modern and practical architecture, music might overflow our public spaces. Performers hone their craft and we build on our city’s development into a cool little capital.

Everybody wins.
Taimus Werner-Gibbings is one of ACT Labor’s candidates for Brindabella in the October 2016 election. His website is www.taimus.org.