Meet Three Unlikely Tasmanians Campaigning For Change

“We live in a community, not in an economy.”

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Last week, Junkee sent a small delegation down to the marginal Tasmanian seats of Bass and Braddon to investigate how regional voters feel about the upcoming election.

Many of the issues young people lament in Northern Tasmania will feel familiar to anybody who grew up in rural Australia.

A stressed mental health system, systematic underemployment, and a lack of opportunities for young people serve as massive barriers to rural voters across the state. 

Scott Rankin Is An Unlikely Politician Dedicated To Inclusion

The seat of Braddon in Northern Tasmania covers the small town of Burnie, the hometown of the notoriously straight-shooting Senator Jacquie Lambie. 

Most of the other members contesting the seat are just as unlikely as well. The popular Labor challenger Chris Lynch is an ex-sound technician and musician who performed under the moniker ‘Mr X’ throughout the ’80s. 

The independent candidate running for Local Party, Scott Rankin, is another unlikely artist who has found himself standing up to run in this year’s federal election.  Rankin is a playwright and theatre director, who describes himself as being passionate about inclusion. He recently launched his campaign via a ten-minute, one-man performance set to Midnight Oil’s song ‘Burnie’. 

While this election marks Rankin’s first experience as a politician, he’s no stranger to implementing programs for social change.  Over thirty years Rankin has set up several different not-for-profit organizations, including Big hART which tackles which uses art to tackle social injustice, earning him Tasmanian Of The Year in 2018.

Speaking with Junkee, Rankin laments the rhetoric of economic management in politics. Despite the government spending over $5000 per voter in Braddon, he says that the abandonment of young people is one of the biggest issues for his electorate.

“We live in a community, not in an economy,” Rankin told Junkee. “What happens is, (people committed to the economy) start to lie, saying unemployment is four percent when in east Wynyar and Ulverstone that number is way up in the teens.

“You get a job for an hour and you’re out the door as a statistic. We are actually lying to promote the idea that we live in an economy and that’s all that matters.”

 “You get a job for an hour and you’re out the door as a statistic.”

Tasmania also struggles with digital literacy, with both the state and the electorate of Braddon ranking last on Australia’s digital inclusion index.

“If you don’t have a digital education, you’re in a lot of difficulties in terms of your life opportunities,” Rankin told Junkee.  “We have to see digital as an essential service, not as a sort of hobby add on or something to make Mr Bezos rich. It is actually the same as health  because it affects all your opportunities.” 

Another insidious problem for his electorate is climate change, with rising water levels threatening much of the lower coastline that encapsulates many small towns in Braddon. 

“A lot of these places will be gone in, in not that many terms of government unless there’s action immediately,” Rankin told Junkee. 

Climate Change Is Biggest Threat To Health

Junkee met up with the Green’s candidate for Braddon Darren Briggs in the coastal town of Penguin, roughly ten minutes to the east of Burnie. 

“People see bushfires, droughts, floods, the big events, but I think smaller little things are more subtle,” Briggs told Junkee.

In our interview, Darren casually points out a break-wall over the road from us which was recently installed as part of coastal remediation measures which cost taxpayers $6.5 million. The official reason given by the council for the expensive development? “Sea level rise and predicted climate change.”

“Climate change is already costing us a fortune,” Briggs told Junkee. 

A GP for over twenty years, Briggs says he has witnessed patients struggle in Tasmania’s health system with long admission times while practices faced understaffing and high patient loads. 

“The health system’s at breaking point.”

“The health system’s at breaking point, every day I see that, be it in the emergency department or in general practice,” Briggs said. “There are some great services around. Absolutely. But they’re struggling as well.”

Briggs told Junkee that he is advocating for more mental health services to be covered via Medicare, along with an increase in the number of psychological reviews available to each patient. Describing himself as an “accidental politician”, Briggs says that he was convinced to join the Greens after providing consultation on how the destruction of old-growth forests in Tasmania would have on public health.

“That’s why I’m here for my kids, because (climate change) is the biggest threat to our health. It’s the biggest threat to our economy and our security,” Briggs told Junkee.

Through his work as a doctor, Briggs says that he regularly speaks with young people who express anxiety about the effects of the changing climate. “I’ve had kids saying that they are scared for their future, anxious around droughts and fires.”

Kirsten Ritchie Is Fighting Homelessness In Northern Tasmania 

Kirsten Ritchie welcomed Junkee into her ad-hoc office based out of an industrial estate in northern Launceston.

Amid a statewide housing shortage in Tasmania, Ritchie’s not-for-profit organisation Strike It Out helps provide resources such as food and bedding along with accommodation, medication, and even mobile phones. Ritchie says that her work with Strike It Out started after being left frustrated by the lack of support for young people experiencing homelessness in Launceston.

“I was probably not in good space myself. I was at home and I was lying on the couch, reading a Facebook post of a young man who was hungry on the streets of Launceston,” Ritchie told Junkee. “And he was saying how hungry was and I just was like, that’s not good enough. So yeah, I jumped up and went and got food and I loaded my car up with a whole lot of camping gear, stretcher beds and blankets and sleeping bags.”

During these impromptu missions handing out food and clothing, Ritchie was amazed at the number of people she encountered sleeping rough across the city. As she realised the extent of Launceston’s problems, Ritchie scaled up her operations to meet the challenges that push people into homelessness in Tasmania.

Despite her efforts, Ritchie told Junkee that Tasmania’s housing crisis has been steadily placing financial pressure on locals.

“We’ve heard of people that been hit with an $80 to $100 dollars increase per week in their rent. Like that’s just ridiculous, that’s taking the food out of their mouths,” Ritchie told Junkee.

Just this year, Strike It Out constructed portable storage lockers to help Launceston’s homeless safely store their belongings. Despite resistance from the local council who struggled to find a location for the portable lockers, the reception from the community has been overwhelmingly positive.

“They’ve got a safe space for their belongings, you know, they don’t have to leave them on the street. Weather elements as well, you know, if it gets wet, then soaks through everything and yeah. They’re loving it and also yeah, less stress on their backs and necks and everything.”

After the success of their portable lockers, Strike It Out is additionally working on a solution for those sleeping rough in Launceston. Kirsten showed Junkee a series of portable sleeping pods mounted on a trailer, which will offer ten privately enclosed sleeping quarters.

“They just wasted so much money, all just going down the toilet and it’s not good enough.”

While Kirsten is excited to see how the community reacts to the sleeping pods, she’s also frustrated with how the Tasmanian government has wasted time and money trying to tackle the city’s homelessness crisis.

“To me, they just wasted so much money, all just going down the toilet and it’s not good enough,” Kirsten told Junkee.

Calling out the city’s safe spaces program, which used $21 million to accommodate homeless people in hotels for short term stays across the city, Kirsten said that once the contract expires in June the community will have “nothing to show for it”.

“They could have spent $21 million on buying hotels in each little town here in Tasmania and had something to show for it. If you’re gonna do something, you’ve gotta plan. You’ve gotta invest. Like this is everyone’s future. We’re paying for that.”

Charles Rushforth is a staff writer at Junkee. Follow him on Twitter.