She’s Port’s new MP. After a persistent four-year campaign Leslie Williams’ hard work paid off and she’s where she aimed to be, positioned to influence the NSW Government’s decisions and expenditure for our region for, it’s expected, the best part of the decade towards 2020.
Leslie Williams’ smart red sedan pulls up at the Gordon Street stop lights. A little tacker aged 11 or so, from Grant Street primary school, wheels his bike over the pedestrian crossing in front of her. He reaches the kerb, props, turns, and calls out at the top of his lungs. “Hey, LESLIEEE!!!” he hails her, cupping his hand around his mouth and grinning. And gives her the kids’ “You rock!” hand signal.
It’s one of many novel experiences for Williams since she was elected Member for Port Macquarie on March 26. It’s unsurprising people feel they know her, she’s worked so long as a candidate for the seat. One of her strengths was the hard yakka of doorknocking, having the courage to contact people face to face. She knocked on hundreds of doors from Johns River northwards and, via her team, on thousands. “I didn’t get any door-slams. A few politely said ‘no thanks’. At some, I went in for a cup of tea.” She has a high recognition rate among the young. Even the odd miseryguts having trouble accepting the people’s verdict, sniping on in letters to the editor, acknowledges her tenacity. She’ll need to draw on that quality especially now.
We meet just days after the poll’s official declaration, attended by Williams and Labor’s gracious Peter Alley. It’s not two weeks since voters strode into booths and resoundingly installed her as our MP. Yet in that period, inter alia, in a single day alone she: attends the opening of the dementia day care centre; takes the Minister for Ageing and Disabilities on a tour of the private hospital; drives the Minister to the airport; meets interested parties re changes to Part 3A developments; undertakes to make reps to Liberal Planning Minister Brad Hazzard; calls Hazzard to alert him to concerns … then takes a hummingbird cake she’s baked up to her ward at the base hospital for afternoon tea with colleagues, formally resigning as a nurse. Later, she drives to Wauchope for an interview on community radio 2WAY-FM. On another jam-packed day she: holds a meeting with council chiefs for briefings on Stingray Creek Bridge, the airport upgrade, Rainbow Beach area development, etc. “I think we’ll work well together,” she remarks [a big improvement on the situation before the council was sacked, when MP-local government dialogue was moribund]. That afternoon there’s a meeting with medical advocates re the still-awaited hospital extension – people aren’t interested in the mechanics, she says; they just want to see the bricks; then a conference with Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner; then organising a visit by three federal MPs. This week too she: joins the Cancer Council’s Relay for Life, attends Heritage Week’s launch at the Anglican Church and drives to Sydney with her parents and daughter Meredie,19, seeing Meredie off at the international airport to visit her brother Ben, 21, in the Canadian snowfields and putting her parents on a domestic flight to Adelaide, heading home to Kangaroo Island. Husband Don was coordinator of booths, booth captains and 300 enthusiastic volunteers while Meredie was campaign office manager. A half dozen others, late ’teens, early 20s, operated her tally room on election night. Williams is delighted by the keen involvement of young people – as well as other new supporters – in the party’s generational regeneration.
Impressive statistics: the swing here between 2007 and 2011 was near 35 per cent; the Nats won over half a million primary votes, more than ever before, nine new MPs its most new members ever. Its 18 Lower House MPs are the biggest proportion of the Assembly since 1938: Nats won 90% of seats contested (compared with 20% for Labor and 1% for Greens). Tellingly for the youth influence, Nats Niall Blair, 33, and Sarah Johnston, 28, are the two youngest MLCs. Williams herself is on Facebook but: “I don’t have time to tweet”. [Know any sole operator who does?]
We’re talking just after an engagement she’s had with visiting Westpac chief Gail Kelly, after an earlier trip to Tuncurry, for her Harrington constituents, for a police awards ceremony led by divisional top cop Carlene York. At 50, Williams is close in age to the two high-achieving women, a contemporary too of Premier O’Farrell and Deputy Premier Stoner. After our talk, she’ll be home by early evening – a novelty – when “friends are coming over to drink some Champers!” There hasn’t been time to celebrate: she’s been to Macquarie Street for National and Coalition party meetings and the clerks’ induction to the Parliament. Tonight’s a rare break. Yet today a slightly irritated Williams greets me. She’s multi-tasking, talking to me while processing a stream of mobile messages. Frequently, she folds her arms on her chest, a sign she’s not comfy just sitting chatting. Frankly, she admits, the transition is hard: MPs’ Parliamentary offices haven’t been allocated and [at time of writing] she hasn’t been able to take over and settle into the State-leased former MP’s office in “the White House” opposite the town library. “So it’s frustrating: we’ve no office, no files. I just want to get into it and on with it, to help people: that’s who I am.” She appears to be metaphorically jumping from one foot to the other, itching to get moving, or – moving faster than circumstances are allowing. Yet already it’s a more pragmatic Williams I discern, with a tougher edge, intent on being surefooted and achieving. Still, the same community concern that’s driven her reassuringly remains, and she’s determined to bulldoze barriers. Fortunately, the Nationals’ incumbency should see her hit the beltway at a respectable speed, despite all that needs remedying.
She’s game; she’ll take on anything: recently she was reportedly the first woman to compete in Comboyne Show’s annual mountain goat race. “I had a goat [on her childhood farm] when I was young; we milked her daily. She was an angel compared to the Comboyne ones! At the start of the race, my goat veered to the left” [remind you of anything?] “and blocked another competitor, but then it was a straight run to the finish. Over another 15m we would’ve taken the lead.” As it was, Williams finished a creditable second but, true to form, it’s not a place she’s comfortable with. “It was great fun! And now I’m ready for next year, with a few tactics under my belt from knowledgeable locals about how to tackle the course …”
If someone will lay you odds, it’s probably a safe bet wagering Williams to win at Comboyne in 2012.
Out to Lunch is hosted by Lou Perri
at The Stunned Mullet on Town Beach.