Nick Carroll: A Surfer's Party?
COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL
Damien Cole Is Running for Federal Parliament, Is He the First of His Kind?
“I’m not a politician,” says Damien Cole, “I’m a community representative.”
Damien is a 32-year-old surfer from Torquay. Last year, almost out of the blue, he ran for Victorian State Parliament as an independent.
This year, he’s doubling down. Come the Federal election in May, if you live in the area, you’ll see Damien’s name on the voting sheet. “I’ve seen how a team of determined people can make a difference in an electorate,” he says. “I guess I feel like it would be irresponsible to all the people who helped me out not to keep going.”
Damien ran for the State seat on a platform seemingly out of the major parties’ reach: youth, community, and environmental action. He ended up with a primary vote of 7.65%, but Damien insists he was going for the win. “I had this great team and I was just throwing myself into everything. Everyone around me was like, Calm down! I felt I had to go full-on.”
He says it’s the same thing this time: “I’m in it for the win. I know the odds are stacked. I’m up against two big machines. We’re trying to establish two things. One is, get elected. Two is, use the election as a vehicle for change.”
How stacked are those odds? Damien’s electorate is Corangamite, an old school fishing, farming and heavy industry seat (it includes Geelong, one of the old Australian car industry HQs). The seat looks notionally conservative, with a median age just over the Vicco average, a high rate of home ownership, and an Australian-born population of 81.3%, way higher than the national average. But it’s in rapid flux. Tourism is a bigger and bigger piece of the economic pie, and the population’s increasing fast.
The seat is held by Liberal Sarah Henderson, Assistant Minister for Social Services, Housing and Disability Services. Henderson took it from Labor’s Darren Cheeseman in 2013, but a recent re-distribution has made it the most marginal Liberal-held seat in the country.
This makes it ripe for the national trend toward independents, which is being called out as a likely major feature of the approaching election.
In other words, Damien’s in with a shot.
He readily claims the influence of his parents, Maurice and Anne Cole, in helping form the basis of his thinking and approach. Maurice is an activist by nature; he helped found Surfrider Europe with Tom Curren and he’s been shit-stirring the Surf Coast Shire and others for years on behalf of the local surf community, trying to reduce the non-surfing footprint on the Bells reserve.
“I’d like to think I’ve learned from my dad and learned to harness that kind of energy,” says Damien. “But Mum has also played a huge part. She really taught me a lot of empathy for people. I’m a bit of a bull in a china shop, but I’m looking out for the china.”
He describes his primary issue as the “climate emergency…that’s what we’re in. We’re going to have to do a lot in order to deal with it. A 25% target for renewables by 2030 is not enough. We have to do more and we’re going to push on that.”
He also hopes to build connections between local activist groups up and down the Great Ocean Road. These groups are cropping up in response to concerns they feel are being ignored by Canberra. As we talked on the phone, he was on a drive down to Colac to get to a local meeting on the Equinor Bight oil and gas drilling project, which stands to impact the coast in the event of a spill.
It strikes me as we talk that not so long ago, Damien – a young-ish surfer with a degree in environmental science and an activist independent agenda – might have been considered somewhat of a ratbag. That was surely true of the surfers who arrived in places like Byron Bay and Margaret River and even Torquay a few decades back. Coastal towns back then were deeply conservative, and the big coastal seats were held by the old Country Party or the Libs.
But we’re all surfers now, and coastal politics may be changing. The Parliament’s current best-known surfer is Warringah member Tony Abbott, who famously described climate change as “crap”. He holds one of the Liberal Party’s most comfy seats, but is now suddenly under serious pressure from, guess what, a younger independent candidate who’s big on climate change.
Damien seems to recognise this change. “Communities are disengaged from big politics. It’s been going on a long time and it’s not surprising, considering what we all see of politics as usual,” he says.
“Every coastal town is dealing with similar issues. Over-development, climate change and rising sea levels. We’ve all been going it alone, trying to reinvent the wheel, but we’re fighting for the same things. We’re better off if we can come together at times – still look after our own places, but join on common issues, we can be a bigger voice.”
Almost like a Coastal Party? “A Surfer’s Party!” Damien says, and laughs. Maybe he’s joking, maybe he’s not.
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