It’s Saturday afternoon in Melbourne, and the weather is typically indecisive, swinging between teasing sun and recidivist clouds. With apprehension, I enter Victoria Gardens in Prahran where a picnic for the Higgins campaign is forming and I am to meet the candidate, Jason Ball. My cynical ignorance conjures up a mental image of tedious political gadflies at a picnic, but my eye catches a tender scene instead: a single trestle table heaped with various contributions from the volunteers, sushi, watermelon, strawberries, ice cream, prawn rolls, quiches, cheese and salads.
Colourful blankets provide an intimate gathering spot for new volunteers, still unsure of their commitment and seasoned volunteers, some laying out name tags and pens, some checking through lists, others eager to introduce life in the Greens, previous campaign schools, upcoming events, names, persons-in-charge of who what where.
A volunteer explains to me that Jason has a head start in media coverage because of his early announcement of candidacy. Yes, I nod, recalling his story that has already made its rounds nationally. Starting out as a country footballer for Yarra Glen, he became the first openly gay Aussie rules footballer when he came out to his club in 2012. He then began campaigning for diversity and LGBTI inclusion within sport, founding the Pride Cup, a footy event celebrating LGBTI identity and contribution. Since then, he’s been sharing his story with the wider community through schools and organisations such as beyondblue.
Meet the candidate
Jason casually appears at the picnic, dressed in a blue cotton shirt and khaki trousers. One immediately gets a sense of earnestness from the Higgins candidate. Plate in hand, he eats a bean salad while talking intimately with volunteers, one-on-one, never more than two at a time.
Four newcomers each tell me that they are here because of him. One, who met Jason through football, describes him as a great guy. Another, grappling two gurgling babies in his arms, wants to ensure a positive future for his children. None of these supporters have ever participated in a political campaign before, but guided by their personal impressions of Jason and his work in the community, want to get involved as well.
People are drawn to Jason’s campaign because of their personal identification with his values and principles, which are no mere political rhetoric, but a living, everyday practice. “In my family we’ve always been involved in the community,” Jason tells me, as he invites me to sit down and talk on a park bench away from the crowd. “I grew up in the bush. From a young age, I was involved with tree-planting initiatives and I cared a lot about protecting the bush and conservation.”
However, it was his experience with homophobia that ignited his political activism. “For me, being personally discriminated against as someone who is gay was definitely the impetus for me to get politically involved. In leading campaigns to challenge homophobia and promote equality, the next step from there was mental health. That felt like a good foundation to that advocacy.”
True to the nature of volunteerism which edifies the mind and ignites the spirit, Jason recognises that each issue is a portal into other urgent social problems. “Becoming an ambassador for beyondblue and then working in the mental health sector is a way for me to broaden my reach - not just ensuring the mental health of younger kids who are gay but all kids who are struggling for a whole range of reasons, for whatever reason that they find themselves marginalised in society and their mental health suffers as a result. That felt like a worthy endeavour.”
Knock, knock, knocking
There’s a distinctive combination of fearlessness and humility in his approach. Recalling his early volunteering experience in Adam Bandt’s 2010 campaign, Jason says, “At first, door-knocking was a really challenging concept. I thought, am I going to have doors slammed in my face, am I going to have people getting angry at me for bothering them, people are going think I’m trying to sell them something. Those were quickly diminished when I actually did it. What I found was that … 95% of the time they’re interested to hear what you have to say and they want to talk, they want to share. The biggest role in door-knocking is listening and you know, that’s actually pretty easy to do. … That turned out to be actually really fun.”
Finding in the Greens a community of like-minded individuals who are working towards the same ideals gives Jason the confidence and enthusiasm to speak out and influence others. “Volunteering for a political party for the first time might feel daunting … [but] I would say don’t be afraid to wear your politics on your sleeve.… [B]ecause I’ve been willing to talk about my politics openly and get involved and be proud of that has actually brought a lot of people around me on that journey too. Don’t hide it,” he advises new volunteers. “I haven’t found it to be a stigmatising endeavour at all, if anything it’s been a sort of wonderful way to connect with other people in my own circles who share my own values who had no idea that we could work together on a project like this.”
We sit there for a while, amidst dappled sunlight and laughter from the others nearby. We talk about Bob Brown and Harvey Milk and their pioneering contributions to social progress. They inspire Jason because they champion the local as the cornerstone for wider lasting change. Jason says, “The grassroots element of his [Milk’s] campaign and his life is something I think that’s strongly reflected in the Greens and is something I want to be able to emulate.”
As we part and Jason happily returns to sit and talk with the other volunteers, I can’t help but imagine the rich directions his campaign will take in the coming months.