Nicholas Bieber lives in a flat next to the Hawthorn Library where he has a few small indoor plants, which he sometimes forgets to water. They flounder, but always come back with a little love. He wishes he had more space to garden. Instead, he compares his clients, those who are struggling to find their path in life, to the garden for which he yearns.
“If you spend 20 minutes watering a plant, you won’t get any more growth out of it if you watered it for six hours, it’s got to do its thing at its own pace. Appreciating those minuscule wins, ‘oh you got out of bed today’, ‘you left your room, you haven’t done that in a month… now we can try and do that again tomorrow’,” says Bieber, a social worker in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.
He is representing the Greens in the seat of Hawthorn in this month’s state election. A blue blood Liberal seat, its left is split down the middle by the Greens and Labor. Last election saw a swing of 4.5 per cent towards the Greens, who took 21.33 per cent of first preference votes – just behind Labor with 24.18 per cent. But in comparison to the 54.5 per cent of first preference votes won by the Liberals, the seat is not one that is likely to be in the ‘winnable’ column on the whiteboard in the Greens’ state office. In 2018, the party is simply looking for miniscule wins. Still, as Sue Pennicuik, Upper House MP for Southern Metropolitan, says, it is important to run in every seat, as it “gives people a chance to vote Green”.
So, Bieber is doing it for the sake of the party, as well as the electorate? Asked about his chances of taking the seat, he is upfront: “We’ve got no chance, but we need someone to at least show that we care.”
The reasons for this loyalty to the party and his willingness to limp behind in an unwinnable race, can be traced back to Bieber’s upbringing. He was a child of a Chilean migrant father in the times of dictator Augusto Pinochet, who ruled the country with an iron hand from 1974 until 1990, following a coup. With a mother who was a social worker at the time of the reforming Australian government of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, this generation of the Bieber family has a tendency to help others and fight for the underdog.
After moving the 210 kilometres from Terang in the Victorian countryside to Melbourne in the mid-90s, Bieber and his sister Emily found themselves in Fitzroy, a suburb with problems related to drugs and violence. According to Emily, it was through watching their mother work that they began to care for the underdog. “It just got into our skin… Watching her interact with those people in a respectful way.”
When no hands went up at the Greens’ branch meeting – calling for volunteers to run for the party in this election – Bieber thought, “alright, I’ll give it a go.”
That was months ago. Now, on a warm Halloween morning, roughly a month out from the election, he sips his latte at Alley Tunes Café, next to Glenferrie Station in the heart of the electorate, and talks politics and life. His points, such as the plant analogy, are often rambling, sometimes there are long silences, he doesn’t mind swearing on the record and readily admits he isn’t necessarily made for politics. “My desire to be a politician is non-existent, but my desire to address the f***ery that constitutes governance is pretty strong,” he says.
Pondering what type of MP he might make, Bieber says that’s difficult to pinpoint, but sharing Hawthorn’s wealth would be a top priority. “You know the Hawthorn area… I reckon things are looking alright in Hawthorn. So my little electorate has got ten of these,” he points at the train station, “lots of those,” gesturing towards the café, “expensive private schools, some good public schools, some swimming pools, sports centres, parks, car parks… bloody Audis everywhere… By and large I don’t know what I can sell Hawthorn. What do they want? An international airport? I hope not.
“What I can sell Hawthorn is to maintain what we have, let’s celebrate what we have — and wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could share some of this somewhere else?”
Bieber says mental health is the issue he knows the most about, not only due to his extensive work in the field, but also from his own personal journey. “My adventure with mental health has been kind of up the shallow end, a bit of depression… that’s passed and I’m a lot happier with who I am now.”
In his line of work, Bieber has seen some dark situations, perhaps that’s why he downplays his own battle and success. As for those around him, they will be quick to tell you just how impressive his turnaround has been.
“Can you cure mental illness?” asks Emily, who also works in the mental health field, “Nicholas Bieber is your best example of yes.”
This campaign can be seen from multiple angles: showing the Greens’ face in an unwinnable race, or the next round in a personal fight. As well, Bieber says it’s about showing others that politics doesn’t take place in some distant and untouchable world of power.
“Politics isn’t Canberra, it isn’t Spring Street, you don’t have to go far… Politics are accessible to everyone and all of the bullshit that politicians do, ‘Oh I wear a suit and a shirt and I’m knowledgeable and powerful.’ No, they are just people, and if you’re p***ed off with what other people are doing, act.”