Bill Glasson is already a Liberal National Party hero. The 60-year-old eye surgeon and prime ministerial challenger received special mention and a rousing response at Tony Abbott’s Liberal launch in Brisbane last Sunday.
Glasson and his “gladiators” have been giving Kevin Rudd a run for his money in the normally safe Labor seat of Griffith. A couple of polls have actually had Glasson ahead, although today’s JWS Research poll, published in the Australian Financial Review, has Rudd leading by a strong 57% to 43%.
Glasson himself says Rudd is in front, although he believes by much less than the latest poll.
The ophthalmologist is a rather out of the ordinary sort of candidate. He wasn’t even a party member when he decided to put his hand up to run for office.
His father, William, was a state MP from 1974 to 1989 and a minister in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s government. Son Bill was briefly in the party’s youth section. But later his main “political” involvement was in the Australian Medical Association, of which he was president from 2003 to 2005.
It was in this role that he first had dealings with Abbott. As new health minister, Abbott inherited a crisis over medical indemnity insurance.
Glasson went to see him, with a slate of five demands from the AMA. In their talks, Abbott said the government could meet three of them at once; more work would have to be done on the other two.
Glasson looked the minister in the eye and said: “I reckon I can trust you. Don’t let me down.” Abbott didn’t.
He describes the opposition leader - whose “pollie pedal” he regularly joins - as “a great bloke to work with” and insists he has a “very soft core”.
Glasson comes originally from Winton in central western Queensland, where his family had five properties and ran 40,000 merinos. He was sent to boarding school - “Churchie”, a well-known Anglican boys’ school - in the Griffith electorate and has pretty much lived there ever since, apart from studying overseas.
He says he decided to run for the seat partly because he was “disgusted” about the “last six years with a bad government”. While the government had some good ideas, its implementation had been poor and there had been “loss of trust”. “Trust”, “values” and “loyalty” are words that sprinkle through his conversation.
He has about him a touch of the man from the bush, and goes out several times a year to treat patients in remote Queensland. (Queensland is a small world - Glasson fixed up former Labor Treasurer Wayne Swan’s eyes a few years ago).
Since being endorsed as the local LNP candidate exactly a year ago, Glasson has mobilised an impressive on the ground operation. There are 600-650 “gladiators”, including party members and others who have just volunteered to help.
One of the more colourful is 85-year-old American “Bud”, who stands on the side of the road morning and night, gesticulating wildly at passing motorists.
For months, Glasson worked Monday, Tuesday and part of Wednesday at his practice and devoted the rest of the time to campaigning. Recently it has become a full-time job. He door-knocks relentlessly. Tomorrow he and wife, Claire Jackson, Professor of Primary Care at University of Queensland, will lead 100 “gladiators” in the 10km Bridge to Brisbane race.
Griffith takes in inner suburbs of Brisbane, south of the river. Rudd failed in his first tilt to win it in 1996, a loss that he took hard. He won it in the 1998 election and is now on an 8.5% margin, making it the safest Labor seat in Queensland.
According to the ABC’s Vote Compass - where people can check their place on the political spectrum - Griffith is one of the more socially progressive electorates in the mostly conservative Queensland landscape. (Glasson, incidentally, supports gay marriage.)
Rudd has always been a very active local member, popping up at community festivals, holding stalls at school fetes, giving away 900 “Rudd bikes” for fundraisers, and even happy to join in the odd “Chicken Dance” with primary school kids.
As restored leader, however, he hasn’t been able to spend a lot of time in the electorate. But the family has been mobilised. He said recently: “My wife, Therese, and my daughter, Jess, and others have been out attending to a whole range of things in my local community. But I’m ultimately pretty relaxed about the judgement of the Australian people. Whether it’s in Brisbane or around the country - it’s a democracy, and they make the choice.”
Residents of Griffith this week received in their letterbox a giant fold-out Rudd Report leaflet with 15 pictures of their local member out and about everywhere, and a big map full of symbols of achievement for the community.
From a drive through Griffith today, it looked as though the Gladiators well outnumbered the Ruddites. Glasson had 50 street corners covered. The political battle in this electorate is very visible, with many signs up.
On one street corner, campaigners in “It’s Our Ruddy Future” t-shirts were handing out Kevin Rudd bags (with the “dd” turned into glasses - presumably to fit the nerdy image).
One of the workers said the PM was expected to be campaigning in the electorate early in the week.
Rudd today flew back to Brisbane from Darwin to prepare for tomorrow’s launch in the city’s convention centre.
Rudd is expected to unveil new promises, as he tries to get momentum after a difficult few days, in which the strain began to show at yesterday’s fractious news conference in Perth.
Rudd went into the campaign very optimistic that he could pick up a significant number of Queensland seats. The latest polling indicates that, unless something extraordinary happens in the final frantic days, this hope won’t be realised. But Labor does expect it can hold off the Glasson gladiators.
Glasson repeatedly challenges Rudd to say whether he plans to serve a full term if re-elected and Labor is in opposition. Asked if he’d be up for another run if there were a by-election, Glasson says, “I’d have to ask my wife”.