“Westpective” by Peter Dewar

    Peter has always lived here. Writing about the West has opened his eyes to its many heroes.

    It’s a seven hour drive up the Hume to reach our capital, Canberra. A journey Labor MP Tim Watts made after COVID-19 turned a breezy flight to Federal Parliament into a health risk. With our parliamentarians’ welfare in mind, numbers required for the following session were pared down — no need for Tim to repeat that mind-numbing road trip. Not that a long commute could compare to the upheaval being experienced in his Gellibrand electorate.

    In an April episode of podcast ‘Politics with Michelle Grattan’, Tim talks with the renowned political journalist about changes to a politician’s life during the pandemic. We learn how our village is coping in troubled times.

    The Good

    As COVID-19 and it’s economic aftershock paints an uncertain future, health care workers, even supermarket employees, are among those who selflessly soldier on. Tim Watt’s staff might be included on that stellar list.

    According to Tim, electoral staff aren’t in it for the money, and view their job as a vocation. They believe the opportunity to change lives through an intervention with a government agency — say Centrelink or with an immigration matter, the Department of Home Affairs — is the best part of their work.

    But these are strange times, generating an ‘enormous amount of anxiety in the community’, so an electoral office functions as ‘clearing houses for community anxiety’. ‘When people are wound up, it’s the front door of electoral offices,’ Tim explains.

    So the workload has increased in both volume and intensity; Tim’s office has been inundated with calls and correspondence, sometimes from people distressed facing homelessness or a serious health issue.

    In fact, he’s concerned about the lasting effect on staff: ‘And I really think, given the way electoral staff invest in serving the community that in a few months-time, after this is over, after the crisis, we’re going to see a lot of referred trauma,’ Tim says. And has jumped ahead of the curve by arranging counselling for staff who need a professional to talk to.

    The Bad

    With a community in lockdown, the sizeable hospitality sector in the west has been hit hard. People working in the many cafes, restaurants and entertainment venues that we love have been directly effected. In an electorate suffering massive job losses, these are some of the individuals standing at Footscray Centrelink in long queues that have spilled out of the entrance and lined nearby streets.

    Then there have been calls from locals stuck overseas. The charm of an exotic location soon fades for a traveller desperate to get home before losing all control over travel or living arrangements.

    At first, parents wondered anxiously whether schools would be open or not. More recently, working parents have asked for assistance to manage home schooling, so they can continue to meet their work obligations.

    But the most challenging conversations for our federal Labor member have been with small business owners. Those whose heart and soul has gone into a venture, only to have their dream ripped away through no fault of their own. ‘People have mortgages on their houses to support their businesses. ‘They’re really difficult, hard conversations. So, it’s pretty intense at the moment,’ Tim says.

    and the Ugly

    COVID-19 has brought the better angels of our nature out in force. Acts of kindness in supermarket aisles, and streets transformed by friendly chats and a new spirit of cooperation. The dedication of those who staff Tim’s electoral office helps restore faith in our political system.

    Unfortunately, tumultuous times are also a breeding ground for the worst aspects of human nature. Bigotry has reared its head locally. A business was targeted and wrongly accused of hoarding medical supplies, supposedly bound for China. After Victoria Police investigated, it turned out no more than a baseless rumour.

    Tim believes that leaving the community’s appetite for information unmet only leads to a void, which may be filled with misinformation. He’s resolute about the need to keep constituents informed and up to date: ‘I feel as a MP a real obligation to meet that hunger, to provide a single source of truth and authoritative view, saying: this is what we know, this is what we don’t know, and this is what we’re trying to do about it.’

    There may be a worldwide pandemic, but never underestimate the west’s fighting spirit, or as locals like to put it: ‘F**K COVID, LOVE FOOTSCRAY’. Tim and his staff have collaborated with Footscray Traders Association and a local design studio, coming up with a cheeky way to create an alternative income stream for our inner-west haunts. It takes the form of a black tee with that defiant sentiment emblazoned across the chest. Other equally sassy styles can be arranged. It might not be suitable for a visit to grandma on Mother’s Day, but the $30 spent helps keep your favourite cafe or bar stay open.

    To contact Federal Member for Gellibrand, Tim Watts:

    Phone: 03 9687 7661
    Electorate Office Address:
    97 Geelong Road, Footscray VIC 3011

    For more information about T-shirts and fundraising for inner-west venues, contact Footscray Traders Association.

    Peter Dewar
    Peter Dewar
    The west is my lifelong home, and I love writing about its people, history and places of interest.

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