FROM STREET MARCHES TO THE HUSTINGS

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Odds on, this person will help shape our future inner-west. Peter Dewar interviews the new state Labor candidate for the seat of Williamstown.

Melissa Horne, our new Labor candidate, walks me down the hallway into the living area of her renovated Seddon home. Lots of timber and light with an unobstructed view of an expansive outdoor space. Warm, airy. She offers me a freshly-brewed coffee when a cheerful voice sounds from another room: ‘I’ll get it.’ And partner, Alex Lovelock, jumps in to help.

The interview – aka chat after boys are home from school – is an opportunity to get to know the candidate chosen by factional bosses to represent the electorate of Williamstown in November’s state election.

This occasion is not lost on me. Not everyday are you privy to the first steps in a political journey.

Make no mistake, Melissa has big shoes to fill. The sitting member for Williamstown, Wade Noonan, retires after ten years battling for an electorate previously represented by Victorian Labor royalty … names oozing with gravitas like Kirner and Bracks.

She certainly brings the right pedigree. You’d be hard pressed to find purer Labor DNA than Melissa’s. Her parents, both teachers, were active in their school community. Later, Melissa’s father Bob left his high school post for federal politics.

Bob Horne was the sort of breed to be found late in the day chopping a trailer of firewood for a needy Hunter Valley household. Back home, after a shower and dinner, he’d set off – there’d be campaigning or a branch meeting to attend to.

So, it comes as no surprise, after growing up in such a civically-minded household that a ‘sense of always wanting to give something back’ seems natural for Melissa.

Coffee. Alex, sporting stylish black-framed glasses, sits down outside with us and joins in the conversation. Alongside Melissa, whose splash of distinctive orange hair will make her hard to miss on the campaign trail, they look the picture-perfect progressive, inner-city couple.

‘Community’ is a theme that pops up frequently in conversation. Sixteen years ago the two moved from Canberra, choosing Seddon because they loved the community feel of the inner-west. Melissa’s political aspirations come down to, ‘making the community the best place it possibly can be’.

Just as the word ‘community’ risks turning into a cliché, Melissa surprises. In a free flowing discussion on Williamstown, it’s clear she’s genuinely attuned to our collective well-being. ‘That in itself helps connect a community,’ she says, referring to Williamstown Hospital as a ‘vital piece of community infrastructure’.

Melissa started her working life in the ALP’s national office. She then took up senior roles in both the government and corporate sector for more than 15 years. Her most recent position as stakeholder director with the Level Crossing Removal Authority may be telling with a move into state politics. ‘Seeing and living’ the eight kilometre rail extension to Melbourne’s north was an experience that has equipped her with knowledge that can be applied advocating for the inner-west: ‘I think it is a skill set I bring.’

Melissa has a proven track record advocating for causes close to her heart – like education. ‘Making sure there is good quality education, you know, public education that’s accessible for all the community is something I passionately believe in …,’ she says.

There are hearty chuckles recalling decades-old memories of early days in a group agitating for a local secondary school. Street marches were held; a giant cake was built out of polystyrene – all part and parcel of creating public awareness. Melissa became president of the group, SKY high, who then worked with state government members to shape a policy outcome.

She’s obviously delighted at the recent announcement: additional funding has been allocated to the Footscray Learning Precinct for three campuses – effectively a new local high school.

The opportunity to represent her electorate feels like ‘the next possible extension’ of community activism to Melissa. Transport is a looming issue that has been raised in conversations. Further investment in sporting facilities is an opportunity. Melissa believes the west has been well-served by an Andrews’ government, pointing out commitments to Footscray Hospital redevelopment, Footscray Learning Precinct, the Westgate Tunnel Project and the Level Crossing Removal program.

But for a new candidate, who knows full-well the meaning of ‘if you want represent it, you have to be part of the community’, the months ahead will be devoted to visiting schools and community centres, getting around meeting people.

Melissa is intent on understanding the issues that confront her electorate.

‘Alright,’ Melissa says, looking at her watch. ‘Sorry, I’m going to have to go … the pressure of the next thing.’

The end to our conversation is sudden. Mind you, there’s something strangely comforting about a politician who values their time. Still, there’s one subject I must get a response to: the planned Ferguson Street crossing removal in North Williamstown. Potential election headache for Melissa.

Melissa is aware of concerns, but rightly points out detailed work to inform the final decision on the crossing won’t be completed until 2019 – after the election. Fair to say, her attitude, consistent with Labor policy, could be summed up as follows: every single crossing removal, regardless of the final design, ultimately improves congestion and safety.

Not that all of her electorate will agree.

I’ve got a fair idea of what the local group opposing removal of the crossing will have to say. But I enquired anyway. In essence, their response follows these lines. The Level Crossing Removal Authority’s own studies show an increase in traffic and only minor travel-time savings for motorists after crossings have been removed. The final design should not replace one set of problems for another.

Couldn’t think of a better test of a new candidate’s political smarts than the challenge of a contentious issue.

State Labor has a buffer of over ten percent in Williamstown. While Melissa should be safe, you can bet the upcoming election is going to offer a fascinating insight into the transition from grass-roots activism to mainstream politics.

I’m cheering for her. Not that she necessarily wins my vote, but if sincerity of approach, experience in advocacy, and a genuine willingness to listen is anything to go by, we need more politicians like Melissa.

But who knows what toll a relentless schedule, intense scrutiny and party machinery will extract. Then again, maybe I’m walking out the front door of a future state premier’s home – the electorate has produced one or two.

As for whether I’m invited in for coffee in years to come … well, we’ll see.

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