An ageing white Holden Commodore flies past Beck Sheffield-Brotherton and one of the high vis-clad passengers hurls abuse through the open window, his words lost in the noise of the car’s engine. Beck, Greens’ candidate for Tarneit in this year’s Victorian election, is walking along the grassy edge of an arterial road in outer west suburban Hoppers Crossing with her campaign manager and husband, Bro. Strapped to his back is a home built frame, made from parts of a hiking pack and some timber, holding a printed sign with a huge professional-looking photograph of Beck, promoting her campaign.
Beck is wearing a similar sign, promoting Greens MP Huong Truong’s campaign for re-election to the Upper House for Western Metropolitan, the sign so big that all that is visible from behind is a pair of legs.
Beck and Bro laugh off the insults. “If we can’t get their vote then at least we can annoy them with [our campaigning]” Bro says. “It’s great exercise,” adds Beck, a keen walker. “I’ve pretty much walked everywhere in this electorate, which I don’t think the other candidates would have done.”
They round a corner and walk undisturbed for a few moments before another heckler drives by. This time the driver’s comment, “f***ing Greenies” carries through the air and Beck cannot mask a slight wince. The abuse reminds her and Bro of their campaigning for marriage equality in the lead up to the 2017 marriage law postal survey. As they covered the kilometres, walking with signs reading “vote for equality – toot for love”, they counted around 1200 toots. “Only a couple dozen people called us faggots and things like that,” says Beck.
When she first moved to the area in 1983, there was an empty paddock down the road from her first house in Hopper’s Crossing, where she would take her kids to see the new lambs each spring. Now it is the site of the Pacific Werribee Shopping Centre. The massive complex, which opened in 1985 and was redeveloped last year, towers over the suburb and Beck says that it is now the main social centre of Tarneit. The electorate stretches between Hopper’s Crossing and Laverton North, reaching out past Truganina to the paddocks between Melbourne and Geelong, which are certain to be overrun by rapidly expanding residential development.
Bro is a seasoned campaigner, an environmental activist from the late ‘60s who cites “all the big ones” as the issues he has been involved in. He joined the Greens in 2003 to try and make a change through politics and has run for the party across all levels of Government, with no success. Beck has a less storied history as an activist, coming from a working-class family in New Zealand before moving to Australia and putting much of her energy into her family. “I didn’t have any time to think about it then, I didn’t even drive when we first moved [to Hopper’s Crossing],” she recalls. Since joining the Greens in 2007 she has stood for former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s federal seat of Lalor in 2010, as well as managing local, state and federal campaigns. The upcoming election will be the 18th time she will have manned a polling booth.
Beck is comfortable and relaxed when talking about climate change or social issues such as marriage equality, about which she speaks with passion and conviction, her back straight and eyes unwavering. These are the issues that she knows and cares about. But once the conversation turns to other issues facing her electorate – race, crime, education – Beck’s gaze shifts down deep into the remains of her latte. Her responses are frequently vague – “it probably affects some people in the area, but not everyone”. Surprisingly she makes no mention of refugee or immigration policy, a key issue for the Greens, despite the number of migrants in Tarneit’s population rising to 16 per cent above the state average in the past 17 years. Beck does not think the community has changed very much since the ‘80s, except “now you’re much less likely to bump into someone you know”. She seems keen to avoid misrepresenting the views or experiences of the Tarneit electorate, often concluding a point by saying “but I can’t speak for everyone”.
Beck does not have much hope for the Greens’ prospects in what she calls the “outer suburban non-winnable seat”, either in the upcoming election or the more distant future. She is even reluctant to say that the party has a better chance of overcoming Labor than the Liberal Party does. Since a more than 2 per cent swing towards it in 2006, the Greens’ vote in the electorate has stagnated at just under 9 per cent of the overall vote, and Beck has no overwhelming ambition to increase it. Instead her priority is to “make (upper house seat) West Metro a safer seat for the Greens and elect Huong Truong”.
Moreland Councillor Natalie Abboud is no stranger to unwinnable campaigns, having run under those conditions in a state and federal election for the Greens. She says the Greens’ pre-selection process is a vote by branch members between party vetted nominees. The Greens’ Wyndham branch refused to disclose how many other nominees Beck ran against for pre-selection. Natalie says there is still plenty to gain: “Being the underdog is a great place to be…you can make bold statements and be noted for that kind of thing”.