On the campaign trail with Walkley Award-winning journalist turned Senate candidate Jane Caro, editor-at-large Gary Nunn discovers how she’s translating her passions as a writer into a platform as a politician, her strategy to capture the teal independent votes in the Upper House and how she plans to tackle the likes of Senator Pauline Hanson.
Senate candidate Jane Caro is standing metres away from House of Representatives candidate Katherine Deves outside St Clement’s Anglican Church in leafy Mosman, part of one of Australia’s wealthiest electorates, on a sunny afternoon less than a week before polling day.
The only thing bluer than this blue-ribbon area today is the glorious autumnal sky.
Deves, in a formal tailored two-piece with large shoulder pads, smiles but looks twitchy and uncomfortable, possibly at the prospect of journalists being present.
Days before she was on the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald, crying to reporter Latika Bouke over backlash to her widely reported opposition to trans women participating in female sports. Political pundits have suggested she was hand-picked by Scott Morrison to rev up the religious vote.
Caro, by contrast, looks in her element: comfortable, confident and energised in a pair of trainers and her campaign sweater. Her conversation with potential voters falls into a natural flow, yet she doesn’t compromise on her authenticity.
“What’s wrong with this girl?” an older man asks Caro, tapping his leaflet for Deves. Caro doesn’t miss a beat.
“The fact she’s demonising a very vulnerable group of Australians. That’s up to you, sir, if you like that sort of thing. I don’t!”
He walks off mumbling, but Caro is already smiling and targeting her next potential voter.
She says the same thing most candidates have said: this isn’t an issue constituents are raising, although Deves insists many women privately agree with her.
The teal of the Upper House?
Whilst not one of the Lower House ‘teal independents’, Caro is marketing herself as a quasi-independent, quasi-teal candidate in the Senate.
She tells one voter that she’s the “closest thing you can get to a Zali Stegall in the Senate” to capture Upper House votes from those voting for this popular independent candidate in the Lower House.
Caro is running for the Reason Party, which started life in Victoria under politician Fiona Patten as the Sex Party, before somewhat neutering its radical name and merging with the Voluntary Euthanasia Party to create a single secular, evidence-based party.
Its progressive policy agenda includes replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, free childcare, an independent ICAC, an Australian republic, pill testing and drug decriminalisation, a four day working week and getting religion out of politics.
What made Caro – a longtime media commentator and Walkley Award-winning journalist – decide to throw her hat in for a political tilt?
In addition to being asked by the Reason Party, she cites her longstanding passion: public education.
“We basically have a vastly overfunded private school sector which educates almost exclusively advantaged children,” she says. “But because it’s run by churches, they get constantly increased amounts of public because of lack of separation between church and state, and the public schools get starved. And sneered at.”
She also mentions the urgency of the need to tackle climate change as a secular-based issue, and the desperate need to listen to the science.
If she’s trying to collect independent voters in the Senate, what’s her response to the Daily Telegraph’s recent front page claiming teal candidates – the vast majority of whom are women – are refusing to say who they’d vote with on certain issues, or reveal how much policies would cost?
Her reply is characteristically candid: “Gee, they can’t bear the idea of women thinking for themselves, can they?
“Let’s be perfectly frank, the teal independents didn’t enter politics to keep Scott Morrison in power. They’re going to support whoever has the best climate policy. Labor’s policy isn’t anything to write home about – but it’s better than the Liberal Party’s.”
To be clear: Caro isn’t one of the Climate 200 candidates funded by Simon Holmes à Court (Reason asked him for funding but were unsuccessful). The party is funded purely by private donations.
“A woman’s lot is to suffer? I don’t agree.”
After a successful career in advertising, Caro has used her platform as a media commentator and journalist to promote feminism. She’s concerned about a word frequency analysis which shows how little each leader has used the words ‘sexual harassment’, ‘gender equality’, ‘women’s safety’ or ‘consent.’
“It worries me,” she says. “Women are the fastest growing group amongst the homeless over 55s. Our financial security is horribly compromised. Nearly one woman a week is killed by her intimate partner. But all of this seems to be just: ‘Oh well. A woman’s lot is to suffer. So there’s nothing we can do about it.’ Well, I don’t agree.”
Caro believes that the “rage that we saw last year” in the March 4 Justice, which she attended, has “found another expression in the selection of the independents, in candidates like me, who’ve said: ‘No, we’re not going to ignore 51% of the population, again.’”
She has recently released her first fiction book for adults, The Mother, which is about coercive control.
A bestseller, it’s inspired by stories such as Hannah Clarke’s.
“It was coming from the idea of how would you feel if you were the mother and grandmother of the woman and children who were horribly murdered? How would you deal with it?” she says.
“People stop me on the street and say: ‘You’ve just described my first relationship.’ And I’ve had lots of emails and Facebook messages and tweets saying thank you for writing it.”
TERFs vs trans women
In the UK, and increasingly in Australia, a cohort on the left is splitting. Some feminists who question gender ideology are being labelled ‘TERFs’ (trans-exclusionary radical feminists).
As a prominent feminist herself, Caro has thought about some the comments made about trans women.
“For a long time, there was a lot of things about being a woman that were unspeakable,” she says. “You couldn’t talk about bodily functions, genitalia or your own life experience. I didn’t find that the transgender community were trying to stop me doing that. My view of feminism is that it is ultimately inclusive, never exclusive.”
Caro is representing the same party as Hannah Maher, who is vying to be Australia’s first transgender parliamentarian.
She says the right does this every election as a wedge: demonises a group of people, whether it be Muslim Australians, Chinese Australians, African ‘gangs’, refugees and now, trans people.
“It’s awful,” she says. “The fundamental principle of feminism is we want to be judged by the content of our character, not the content of knickers. Well, hello transgender Australians, I feel exactly the same way about you.
“Every time I hear someone on the left attacking them, I think: wrong enemy. We need to redistribute power more equitably, that should be our focus.”
“Play the issue, never the person”
The election campaign trail is notoriously tough and this one – with relentless ‘gotcha’ moments from journalists and old tweets dug up to shame candidates – is no exception.
Caro, though – notoriously tough as old boots – seems to be taking it all in her stride. She’s observed very little rudeness and only a few minor incidents. “Always, I’m sad to say, from older straight white men,” she says.
If she wins, how will she keep her cool standing up to people who represent the polar opposite of her values, such as Senator Pauline Hanson?
“I may not keep my cool. Sometimes I lose my temper. I think that’s acceptable,” she says. “I don’t see why we always have to be measured. And I think one of the reasons that some people like me is because I’m not – I say what I think.”
There’s an important caveat.
“I do try to stay calm and respectful. I think it’s possible to be passionate. And I think it’s possible to have a strong opinion and to put it robustly without attacking the person. It’s quite simple: play issue, never the person. Stick to that. But I sometimes fall short of my own high standards!”
And how about someone she’s somewhat closer to politically – Anthony Albanese? Caro calls him the “Joe Biden of this election”.
“He doesn’t frighten the horses. He’s not standing up for some of the things I think are urgent,” she says.
“But strategically I can see why Labor is doing that. The Australian version of Trumpism – Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party – is on the rise. So, I’ll be honest: if Labor pulls it off on Saturday, I’ll be delighted. But I would like to see a progressive crossbench to pull Labor further to the left than they’d perhaps like to go.”
And if she doesn’t win?
Now that we’ve discussed what we can expect if she does win, I have just one further question: What will she do if she doesn’t?
To this, smiling, she gives a one word answer.
Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1.
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