Iam back in the Canberra bubble, if only briefly. This morning I left Wagga Wagga and tomorrow I’ll arrive in Batemans Bay, on the NSW south coast, before heading up towards Sydney.
But in the meantime, I’m in the nation’s capital, which opened its first light rail line a week ago to much fanfare.
The new tram runs from the centre of town to Gungahlin in the city’s north.
Having taken three buses, two trains and one ferry so far, who could resist adding another form of public transport?
So, on a trip to the end of the line and back, I ask voters whether they feel like they’re living in a bubble.
The first man I talk to says he works in Parliament House in a technical role and doesn’t give much away for that reason, including his name. He says he sees the politicians up close and has no time for either Scott Morrison or Bill Shorten.
Angela Plant, waiting at Gungahlin for the tram, says she hasn’t decided who to vote for, but values the environment and hospitals.
She doesn’t think the city exists in a bubble.
«It feels like a normal city. I love it here and I’ve lived here for eight years,» she says as she runs for the tram.
Margaret Langford, a retired teacher, who has lived in Canberra for about 50 years and is testing out the tram with her family, cares about climate change, refugees and education.
«I think I’m probably the typical Canberra voter,» she says.
She does not hold back on Scott Morrison: «I think the current PM is a bully. I really don’t like the way he speaks to people.»
But she doesn’t think Canberra is a bubble.
«No, it’s just the place where we live. We have nothing to do with the politicians here,» she says.
Her adult daughter Kate Langford disagrees. «I do think there’s a bubble,” she says. «There’s a fairly homogenous demographic.» Most Canberrans, Kate says, hold progressive values.
On current polling, Kate looks correct. At the federal election, Labor is expected to pick up the third lower house seat the ACT has gained as its population grows.
After more discussion, the mother and daughter end up agreeing. Canberrans are broadly progressive, they conclude, but the new suburbs outside the city centre are more diverse, and parliament has little direct impact on their lives.
«It really wouldn’t matter to us if Parliament House wasn’t sitting there, if it was somewhere else,» Margaret says.
Kate agrees, but then remembers a time last year when her son went to a special sitting of Parliament last year and sat just metres away from the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader. It’s not an experience that most kids in Wagga Wagga, where I had travelled the day before, get to enjoy.
1464.3 kilometres down, 3087.6 to go.
Leg 5: Drugs and drought in Wagga
Crime, Gemma says, is the first thing she would fix if she was prime minister.
«I just had to buy an $80 lock for my meter box,» she says.
I ask Gemma, who is working at the front desk of my motel in Wagga Wagga, why someone would want to break into a power meter.
She says there have been reports of thieves turning off the power to shut down alarms and break into homes, motivated by drugs. But, she says, she is also «a bit paranoid».
Maisie, working at the shopping centre in town, shares Gemma’s concerns. Her car was stolen recently.
«I’m on my second car. I’m like, ‘Don’t take it again’,» she says.
For someone like Maisie, who grew up in the countryside outside Wagga, locking doors and taking security seriously is a change.
The Riverina region is in the highest band for amphetamine possession and use rates in NSW last year, along with other areas like the Hunter and Murray, according to data from the NSW Government Bureau of Criminal Statistics and Research.
Not everyone agrees with Maisie and Gemma. My cab driver Abraham, who has moved to Wagga from Sydney so his wife can work in the local hospital, says drugs were a problem a few years ago but that things have subsided.
Jan, who I meet on the train from Wangaratta, sees another side of the issue. She’s sitting next to me, travelling home from a visit to see her daughter in Melbourne, and we speak for most of the trip.
She’s working in aged care, as she has for more than 20 years. Recently, Jan got a promotion from «wiping old people’s bottoms» in a nursing role to running activities for the residents at a retirement home in town. It’s a job she loves, along with the people she looks after.
I ask how old most of her patients are, expecting her to say somewhere between 70 and 90.
«It really depends on the condition they’ve got, darl,» Jan says. «There’s alcohol and drug-induced dementia.»
That means some of Jan’s charges are much younger.
How does that translate into politics? For Jan, it doesn’t. She thinks she’ll probably vote for Bill Shorten. «Who is Scott Morrison?» she says.
It isn’t that she doesn’t know who the Prime Minister is, she just doesn’t have a sense of what he’s like as a person after seeing so many leaders come and go.
Substance abuse is far from the only concern in Wagga.
Childcare and penalty rates get a mention from voters, and the drought is at the top of people’s minds. Maisie names it her biggest concern. Other shopkeepers on the main street do the same.
Even in Wagga, where so many depend on the agricultural economy, politics remains a multifaceted game.
1220.7 kilometres down, 3331.2 to go.
Leg 4: Disengagement and dissent on the V-Line
The 12:05pm V-Line train to Albury-Wodonga is initially a bad place to discuss politics.
Noah, an abattoir worker on his way to Seymour, about 100 kilometres north of Melbourne, asks me who the current Prime Minister is.
As the train winds its way north from Melbourne through Cathy McGowan’s rural seat of Indi, Jacob and his wife tell me they simply don’t vote.
But as the train rolls on, eating up kilometres in my journey up the east coast, I meet some more engaged passengers.
Dylan, 24, gets on the train at Seymour and says he cares about mental health, drug issues and pay. He tells me, with some trepidation, that he voted for One Nation at the last election.
Dylan isn’t sure who he’ll vote for this time but he wasn’t turned off One Nation by the Al-Jazeera report in March that appeared to show One Nation party operatives seeking money from the American National Rifle Association.
«I laughed at it a little bit,» Dylan says. In any case, Dylan has nothing against guns.
«People say ‘guns do this, guns do that’, but it’s the mental state of the person and what has been around there to help that person with whatever issues they’re facing,» he says.
With the way Dylan sees the world going, he reckons owning a gun might not be a bad thing one day.
But what makes One Nation particularly appealing for Dylan is that they seem to be outside regular politics. With a partner, stepdaughter and a baby on the way all dependent on Dylan’s income, he values a party that seems to offer something outside the status quo.
In the line for a snack at the dining car, I meet Branka.
She has voted Liberal since arriving in Australia from Croatia during the Cold War. Branka and her husband associated Labor with communism, which they had fled, and voted accordingly.
As Branka and I speak, a young woman with green hair walks past.
«The Liberals are scum,» she says.
«How rude,» says another woman sitting next to us. Branka seems more confused than upset.
I track down the woman with green hair in another carriage. Her name is Shilani and she’s 18, travelling home with her dad.
Shilani is articulate and informed. She knows the local council makeup and the Greens vote percentage at the NSW state election. She got her father involved in the party.
«The most important policy issues for me are climate change, asylum seekers, basic human rights, queer rights and animal justice,» she says. «Overall, I think the Greens have a real vision for Australia and it’s the kind of Australia I want to live in.»
With some time to relax, Shilani says her jab at Branka was not the sort of thing that would change the older woman’s mind.
«I know it’s not constructive, and I normally wouldn’t go off at people like that,» she says.
At the same time, Shilani is at home with her views.
«Honestly, I don’t have much time or respect for the Liberals or for people who vote for them, even though that’s a lot of people,» she says.
Shilani’s interaction with Branka was fleeting and wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t there, but it seemed to encapsulate the generational divide underlying this election.
1020.6 kilometres down, 3531.3 to go.
Leg 3: Veganism and faith. A day in Melbourne
Getting off the Spirit of Tasmania from Devonport at Port Melbourne, I am followed by a continued sense of motion in tune with the swell in Bass Strait.
It is a dizzying feeling.
And so it is to be a media consumer this election: across Melbourne, with its battleground seats such as Macnamara, Flinders, Chisholm and Kooyong, advertisements blanket the streets.
At one junction, the incongruous pairing of Clive Palmer and Adam Bandt smiles down at voters.
So how do voters process this flood of information? Four people I speak with have similar answer, referring to singular principles.
For two of the people, it is their Christian faith informing their outlook on this campaign, for two others it is their veganism.
«Anyone can do whatever they want, but I just don’t understand how you can f—ing eat animals. They cry!» says Dan, who works for a clothes label on Collingwood’s trendy Smith Street.
For Dan, veganism is intimately linked to environmentalism.
«It’s about having world left,» he says.
His answer is the same as that of Mohit, who I had met standing on the top deck of the Spirit of Tasmania watching the sunrise.
«For me, one of the prime things is cruelty to animals,» Mohit had said.
Neither Dan or Mohit are militant vegans. They aren’t the sort to join the protests that stalled the Melbourne CBD in early April or berate friends at a barbecue, but each is appalled that Prime Minister Scott Morrison is so dismissive of a choice that is so important to them.
The Prime Minister called the Melbourne protesters «green-collar criminals» and said the full force of the law should be used against them.
«It needs to be looked at at a deeper level,» Mohit had said.
Dan says he will vote for the Greens. Mohit, who would have liked to vote for the Coalition, is undecided. He values growth and security and isn’t sure the Greens or another minor party could provide it.
But for others, the Prime Minister’s convictions are a vote winner.
Henok, who is driving for Uber full-time and raising a family in Melbourne’s outer suburbs, has a simple voting equation: «[Morrison] a strong Christian, that’s why I support him.»
Bill Shorten is also Christian but Henok says he is particularly attracted to the fact the Prime Minister shares his Pentecostal faith.
Wai-Man, another Uber driver who also works part-time in a warehouse, says he originally considered himself a Labor voter. But now he doesn’t believe the parties will live up to their names so he votes on his faith.
«I’m a Christian, so our church usually give us some advice on which party will care more about Christians, and the church … So usually we take the advice of the church,» Wei-Man says.
Uber driving in Melbourne can be tough. Another driver says he drove every day as well as working full-time at Hungry Jacks.
But Labor’s changes to penalty rates, the minimum wage and casual work did not rate a mention.
Faith is what cut through.
Leg 2: Launceston to Melbourne via Devonport
It looks like winter has arrived, the captain of the Spirit of Tasmania says over the intercom before the ship’s engines whir into life on our Friday night voyage from Devonport to Melbourne. «It could be a bit rough.»
He’s speaking about the trip across Bass Strait, but it could just as well be the battle facing Australia’s major parties this election (or the new season of Game of Thrones).
I’m on board the Spirit of Tasmania as part of my journey from Hobart to Cairns, to take the temperature of Australia’s voters. The ship is still on the Mersey River, but I can already feel it beginning to roll. And my fellow travellers already have plenty to say about Canberra.
Ned, who I met before boarding with his old friend Nick, says the major parties are «all full of bullshit. They only want to line their own pockets.»
He doesn’t have much of an opinion on Bill Shorten or Scott Morrison, but isn’t tempted to vote for Clive Palmer either.
«He seems like a shonk,» Ned says, recalling reports the resource magnate’s company owes workers millions.
Nick is even more disengaged. He prefers to reminisce about when he was young enough to sail his own boat across the Bass Strait, a beloved break from his former day job as a dairy farmer.
It’s the kind of disengagement that seems to have eroded old party loyalties.
Monika, a secondary school teacher I meet waiting for a bus in Launceston, is in many ways a model Labor voter. She is a teacher, she cares about reliable, full-time work, she thinks the government should spend more on mental health and she has progressive views on trans issues.
But she is also deeply cynical about the «boys’ club» of politics.
«It doesn’t matter who is in charge, nothing is going to change. You don’t see hope or inspiration or aspiration,» Monika says.
Shorten, Monika says, «seems like a shifty bugger». And she is leery of the Prime Minister too, worried that his faith pushes him to be exclusionary on social issues.
Ultimately, Monika reckons she will vote for a minor party. She isn’t sure which one, but thinks Clive Palmer is a joke.
«He could be entertaining, though,» she says.
Back on board the Spirit of Tasmania, we head for the open sea. Hopefully, the voyage is not too rough.
749.9 kilometres down, 3802 to go.
Leg 1: Hobart to Launceston
Helen and Wally, a Hobart couple I met on the plane from Sydney, tell me they are thinking of moving to the mainland to enjoy retirement closer to family.
«We worked long and hard enough,» says Wally, who was a fitter and turner.
But if they list their house on the market, Helen says with a laugh, she is afraid it will sell too quickly for them to get their affairs in order.
«Four or five other houses have already sold on our street,» says Helen, a retired pathologist.
She and Wally keep abreast of politics but have paid more attention to state than federal politics recently – «too busy playing with grandkids», Helen says.
And though she sees Tasmania as a Labor state, Helen reckons the economy has done better under the current Liberal government.
Joseph, who manages a hotel bar in Launceston, is more agnostic. It is private industry which he sees as the real job creator, not the government of the day (he has moved from Adelaide for this job; his family stayed behind).
‘The government can’t do anything. I wouldn’t want to be prime minister,» he says. «You just can’t please everyone.»
Helen too is worried about population growth bringing the congestion problems of Sydney or Melbourne to Hobart’s tiny CBD. Like Joseph, she’s concerned about the dry conditions that sparked bushfires late last year.
«It’s just barren,» Helen says.
Things are different for Manish, who is travelling with me on the bus from Hobart to Launceston to interview for jobs in hospitality.
If he gets a full-time job and keeps it for a year, Manish, who was born in Nepal but has lived in Australia for about a decade, says he will be able to apply for permanent residency.
«It’s very hard finding a job,» Manish says. He has qualifications in IT but is working part-time in hospitality now. «The government is putting a lot of people in Hobart but not more jobs.»
But he is hopeful about finding work in Launceston.
«Launceston is a second city so it’s a bit easier and cheaper,» Manish says.
At least for the people I’ve spoken to in Tasmania, Scott Morrison’s claim that his government has fostered a strong economy looks believable.
200.5 kilometres down, 4351.4 to go.
The first major event I covered as a reporter for this publication was the Sydney to Hobart yacht race. As a thoroughly land-based mammal, I was out of my depth.
Now I’m taking the same trip as those yachts to begin an even longer journey – thankfully, almost entirely overland – from Hobart to Cairns.
Here’s a mark of my ignorance setting out on this trip: looking at the map to plan my journey I saw the town of Bonnie Doon on the banks of Lake Eildon in Victoria.
Until then I had presumed that the town, where the Kerrigan family holidays in the classic Australian film The Castle, was fictional.
I’m not going anywhere as rural as Bonnie Doon but I am taking in smaller towns that we tend to cover less than Sydney and Melbourne in order to talk to people about what matters to them in the upcoming election.
Say hi if you see me.