Rob Mitchell genuinely wants the best for his constituency. As an MP for the Victorian seat of McEwan, he knows heartache better than most. He’s seen it first hand, the Black Saturday bushfires at the very core of this despair. Despite this, there is a refreshing sense of honesty and optimism in his voice.
That’s right – politicians and honesty. It’s not a new phenomenon, rather a forgotten one. He calls a spade a spade.
Mitchell supports Carlton in the AFL and he used his citizenship ceremony speech as a means of directing new Australians away from Collingwood. It’s light hearted and it’s typically Australian. When he was cautioned for being disparaging towards Collingwood supporters, he didn’t go into his shell – rather he said: ‘Stuff it, it is all part of being Australian.’
His daily routine is no different from most other MPs: filled with community meetings and visits to schools. Yet it’s not cutting ribbons that drives Mitchell, it’s an inherent desire to leave politics in a better shape than when he started as the first Labor MP for the Victorian Legislative Council seat of Central Highlands in 2002.
Now 45, Mitchell is the MP in Australia’s most marginal seat. His job is a multi-layered intertwining web of facts, figures and interests. His office receives 400-600 emails per day and many of these require a direct reply from Mitchell himself: ‘You are always dealing with people and their issues. They care about their rubbish not being collected right through to national matters. It’s my job to provide a voice for these people,’ he says.
Yet it’s the variability of each day that interests Mitchell most: ‘The one real beauty of this job is that no two days are the same. Every day something is different and you never know what is going to happen five minutes down the track.’
All the hard work does come at a cost, and Mitchell estimates that he gets on average no more than six hours sleep a night and concedes he isn’t as healthy as he should be. ‘In the morning most days I will stop and get a bit of toast and coffee on the way in. Lunchtime, it depends what is going on. A lot of the time you are out at a function and it’s pretty hard because some of the country homemade cakes are magnificent. I wake up at 6am after not going to bed until after midnight most nights. Some days I get a sleep-in until 7.20!’
It’s a frenetic lifestyle that requires a cool head.
He arrives at work at about 8.30am on this particular Friday. There are no schools to visit and no parliament in Canberra. His staff have ‘bunched’ various engagements together so that he can spend the day in his office. As he puts it, travel time is ‘dead time’, especially when he could be in the office making calls. Ideally his staff coordinate his schedule accordingly, but it is rarely straightforward.
Sorting through emails is necessary but tedious: ‘Some involve departmental issues, some are from other Ministers’ offices and some just require me to obtain some information for a meeting later that day. Sometimes it is someone just looking for help but isn’t sure where to go,’ says Mitchell.
Currently the Gillard government is coordinating the National Broadband Network (NBN) on a 3 year roll-out, a ‘monumental’ task according to Mitchell. The first meeting of the day is with two of his staff members, both of whom are integral to the distribution of letters and information relating to the NBN.
‘We have to work on a letter that informs my constituents about what is happening, when it is happening and what it means, for them,’ he says matter-of-factly. His measured tone indicates that this is far from glamorous politics, it’s hard work and logistically complex. Yet it must be done.
The truth is, Mitchell didn’t enter the political game to implement national policies. Rather it’s the day to day workings and dealings with individuals in the community that invigorates him: ‘We had a group of churches in a few weeks ago for example…five churches and the guys in the office had to try and organise it so that they could all come in and see me at once.’
He is also acutely aware of the need to remain in contact with people in the community: ‘We go through cost of living stuff for people. A lot of people are feeling the pinch with high petrol prices. So we do our best to explain the consequences of tax refunds and education benefits.’ His desire to help people stretches back 25 years when he worked as an RACV mechanic and spent close to two decades in the transport industry.
Mitchell has meetings nine to five on this particular Friday. He deals with interest groups asking for grants, community associations, the NBN roll-out, media enquiries and various government departments. It’s a schedule that’s thought provoking but draining. After only six hours sleep a two-minute window just past 3pm seems a great opportunity to grab a coffee. Frustratingly a departmental minister rings and he is held up. Coffee will have to wait.
At 5pm Mitchell would love to head home: ‘Friday and Sunday nights I try to keep free, that’s family time. Admittedly it’s one of the unknowns of politics that most nights of the week I am out with community groups – like the scouts. People don’t realise that I turn up at a bbq or function and have already done a day of work.’
He isn’t complaining. In fact, Mitchell ‘loves citizenship functions and community gatherings’. Long hours are just part of the job and Mitchell says he cherishes every moment as the MP for McEwan:
‘The best part of the job is helping people and changing their life for the better.’
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