Thursday, March 15, 2007

Interview with Edward Mandla

(QP Note: This interview was published in this week's SX - and is available online here - but to my disappointment was significantly edited. So here is the piece I originally submitted.)

There’s little doubt the NSW Liberal HQ has done its homework selecting Edward Mandla as the party’s candidate for the State seat of Sydney: powerfully built, exfoliated and moisturised skin, distinguished grey hairs and a handsome smile, he may well be an ideal Daddy fantasy for many of the otherwise politically-ambivalent twinks residing in and around Stonewall.

Stonewall, in fact, is the place where Mandla recently gained some notoriety, launching a fundraiser in one of Sydney’s most famous gay bars without actually addressing any gay and lesbian issues in his speech! He points out that he was there as part of Shadow Mental Health Minister Judy Hopwood’s launch of the Opposition’s $396 million, 4-year mental health policy, and also to address the issue of ice usage around Oxford Street, which is of concern to the gay and lesbian business owners in the area.

Mandla cites Labor’s failures in mental health as one of several reasons for him to have decided to throw his hat into the political arena, and becoming Member for Sydney would be a commendable addition to his already impressive resume. As Immediate Past President of the Australian Computer Society (ASC) and current director of Smartforce Solutions, Mandla’s IT career spans over two decades and includes regular lobbying for the IT industry. His vision – and he proudly considers himself a ‘big picture’ man who operates on envisioning how the world may look in five years’ time – is for IT to advance to a point where people can spend less time at work and more time with their family.

The father-of-three identifies as a strong family man, but his concept of family is vastly different from the usual Liberal Party ‘family values’ proponents. Unlike former Prime Minister Paul Keating, Mandla believes ‘a man and his dog’ does constitute a family, and that the current definition pushed by his potentially federal counterparts, of the ‘traditional’ – and very heterosexual – family, is in need of a shake-up. Which is important, since adoption and family law remain key areas in New South Wales where queer people have not made the same gains as elsewhere.

But Mandla is adamant: ‘total equality’. And he is the ‘crusader’, the ‘champion’ to shake up homophobic attitudes in a party not renowned for ending discrimination against queer people and same-sex couples. He’s not prepared to concede that the NSW Liberal Party is under siege from a rise of what former Liberal MLC Patricia Forsythe publicly identified as ‘extremists and zealots’, an ultra-conservative ‘Christian’ faction led by bitterly homophobic former Opus Dei member David Clarke. Mandla counts himself as one of a dozen new candidates willing to bring progressive ideas and attitudes, and has confidence in his ability to ‘unite’ people with disparate views. The Liberal Party is not so much the ‘broad church’ John Howard likes to market it as, but ‘a high-rise building in the CBD in which every part of society resides’ – including, apparently, gay-friendly IT gurus.

But doesn’t this stand in contrast to Young Liberal federal President Alex Hawke’s assertion that only those with conservative values should be part of a conservative party? ‘Alex Hawke should get a life’ is Mandla’s quick response, in one of his more abrupt, unqualified statements.

So just how gay-friendly is Edward Mandla? His ‘entire campaign team is gay’, including his campaign director, of whom he sounds particularly proud. He identifies ‘hundreds’ of gay and lesbian friends, including ‘lonely older gay men’ whom he speculates might not be so lonely now had they had the opportunity to commit to one another via civil unions years ago. Consequently, he’s strongly in favour of such unions for same-sex couples and guarantees to be vocal in his support should he pull off the minor miracle of knocking Clover Moore out of the seat she has held for nearly 20 years. He informs me, however, that his many gay and lesbian friends in the community aren’t talking to him about ‘gay and lesbian issues’, such as discriminatory laws – ‘they’re talking to me about land tax!’

This may explain why the words ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ don’t in fact appear anywhere in the Liberals’ 2007 State election policy platform. It seems as though the gays and lesbians Mandla is primarily listening to are the Fruits in Suits, rather than the lobbyists or activists in cargos, or indeed the everyday queer couples concerned by Howard’s inaction or Clarke’s rising star.

It’s not a lack of understanding of, or sympathy for non-land tax-related issues faced by queer voters every day that informs Mandla’s position, however, so much as a resolute conviction that equality will be achieved for gays and lesbians – it’s a done deal, primed to be signed off. He offers an optimistic time-frame of ‘five to ten years’, even under Howard and/or Debnam governments, by which time equality will be achieved. There’s even a bold assertion that civil unions will happen under a Liberal government sooner than a Labor government, due to resistance in the latter from old-school Catholic unionists.

Which brings us to the Iemma government. After 12 years of an administration that, even by its own admission, ‘has more work to do’ – a euphemism, perhaps, for wasted opportunities, economic mismanagement and prolonged incompetence – why are the Liberals not streaks ahead in opinion polls? Mandla is actually encouraged by the Liberals’ current underdog position. ‘I just love those polls – we’re exactly where I want us to be. People are becoming more and more angry that the government could be returned, and increasingly I see people who have never voted Liberal, who may secretly do that for the first time. I love it.’

Mandla reserves his strongest political criticisms, however, for Clover Moore. Though he admits he once held this ‘folk hero’ in high esteem as a social champion during the formative years of her political career, he argues that, as both the Member for Sydney (formerly Bligh) and the city’s Lord Mayor, she simply doesn’t have time to ‘chain herself to trees in Rushcutters Bay’ – or represent her constituents – as she used to. He believes that, despite Moore’s obvious and sustained popularity, she has lost hitherto held respect since taking on two jobs, and he claims through his door-knocking to be tapping into a well of disgruntled voters who supported Moore at the last election but now seek instead a ‘full-time’ member –conveniently, Mandla’s slogan for this campaign.

Does he believe he can beat Clover Moore? ‘I think I’m narrowing the gap. But I have a $50,000 budget – money I raised personally – and I’m up against her 90k-a-month public relations budget. You saw what happened in Mardi Gras, that’s what I’m up against. It’s hard.’

Still, Mandla exudes all the confidence one would expect from a highly successful, self-made businessman, and it’s difficult to doubt his conviction that the only way the Liberal Party will improve for the better over its otherwise appalling history on GLBTI rights, is for ‘new blood’ to join up and, over time, chip away at entrenched homophobic belief and policy. ‘These things don’t happen overnight’, which is certainly true, but they also shouldn’t take 11 years, which is how long queers have had to wait and are still waiting for their government to address discriminatory Commonwealth legislation. Perhaps if Mandla isn’t successful at the State election, we might see him later in the year going up against Tanya Plibersek for the federal seat of Sydney? ‘I see politics as a long-time spectrum, and I’m in the very, very early stages’. When pushed for a yes or no answer, he assures me that ‘he won’t go away’. Who knows? Maybe if he’s successful then, he might be the one person able to succeed where Warren Entsch, Malcolm Turnbull and others appear to have sadly failed in their attempts to bend the Prime Minister’s ear on formally recognising same-sex unions.

For now, however, the focus is firmly on New South Wales, and the many and varied people – including queers – living in one of the most diverse electorates in the state. And with accusation from his staff that the queer media give the Liberal Party a ‘rough time’, what is the one key, unedited message Edward Mandla wants to get across to SX readers?

‘Call me!’ It’s an open invitation as the man is keen to consult with his prospective electorate – so go nuts, everyone.

And as a final suggestion: ‘Don’t be afraid to put a 1 in the Liberal box, even if you’ve never done so before. You don’t even have to tell anyone – just make sure you do it.’ It’s an approach that’s eerily similar to the Liberal position on gays and lesbians generally – it’s ok, just do it in secret and don’t frighten the horses – but it’s the never-voted-Liberal-before people frustrated either by Clover Moore, the ALP or both, on whom Mandla is banking to get him over the line. And with him in the party as new blood to inject fresh ideas, the Liberals can only improve.

I’m not sure he’s convinced me to put a 1 in that particular box – even covertly – but I must admit, I’d be keen to see him in the bear pit of state politics, just to see if he could stay true to his admirable convictions. He’s offered a lot of guarantees about what he could achieve in the Liberal Party – and indeed, in government – and though I might not share his faith, this is one time where I’d be happy to be proved wrong.


At 16/3/07 8:38 am, Blogger Ross said...

Great, just what the Libs need, another Georgiou-type mole. Did he mention if he's a Hicks groupie too? A Liberal proclaims progressive attitudes and talks about "total equality" to gay activists, both of which equate to leftism and are against most Liberal voters' view.

If Mandla's looking to pick up disillusioned Left votes he'd probably be more suited running as an Indepedent, rather than pretend to be what the non-Left prefer, - moderate -, only to turn them off later and have them change their votes next time.

P.S. By the way, excellent piece there, Sam.

At 16/3/07 9:28 am, Blogger Denys said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 16/3/07 9:53 am, Blogger Sam said...

Poor ross - doesn't leave you with anybody left to vote for, does it (except of course Fred and Gordon in the Upper House :-))

Thanks for the positive feedback too, much appreciated.

At 16/3/07 10:03 am, Anonymous Adrian said...

Mandla reminds me of John Brogden -- at least in his relative youth and his socially progressive credentials. Did he come across that way to you during your interview, Sam?

It was JBro who copped Alex Hawke's holier, more-conservative-than-thou ire. Look at how JBro's party treated him: bitterly scorned even more by far-right elements within his own party than by the public.

At 16/3/07 10:47 am, Blogger Sam said...

A little bit, Adrian. I think he'd been well-coached in saying the right things to the right audiences - right down to having his media woman hand-holding by his side.

If he does win - not that I think he will - he might learn the hard way about the genuine dangers of the Clarke/Hawke element, just as Brogden did.

At 16/3/07 11:10 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mandla will be lucky to come fourth in the seat he's running for - after Clover, the ALP, and Chris Harris. As such, his preference suggestions are probably the most valuable thing about him.

At 16/3/07 12:52 pm, Blogger Denys said...

I can't imagine that there is a need for a progressive liberal in the current Liberal Party. Good luck mate.

"Ice usage... is of concern to the gay and lesbian business owners in the area". What about the rest of us in the community.

"His 'entire campaign team is gay'." What an amazingly diverse community we have. I shake my head as I try to understand this. Don't tell me they are monarchists too.

I'll just stay over here on the left. That is further 'left' than Labor who are really only left of the middle. Oh, never mind.

A friend was at the Save the Reservoir rally when Clover turned up towards the end and promptly gathered people around for a photo op and then promptly left. In the words of Gretel Killeen, "It's time to go - CLOVER.

Great article Sam. Thanks for the unedited version.

At 16/3/07 2:41 pm, Anonymous marcelproust said...

My, you have allowed yourself to be charmed, Sam.

At 16/3/07 2:56 pm, Blogger Sam said...

I prefer to think of it as being even-handed and having an open mind, marcelproust.

Daddies have been my type since about 19.

At 16/3/07 2:57 pm, Blogger Sam said...

Grr - "have" = have NOT.

At 29/3/07 10:01 am, Anonymous Fred said...

How do you feel about Mandla including the text of your article on his campaign website? He did the same with one of mine without asking permission.


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