SIX weeks ago Michael Barling was in a restaurant when a former student approached the table and said his public support for gay marriage had made a “huge difference” to his confidence.
In a safe conservative seat and a Catholic stronghold like Warrnambool, coming out in support of gay marriage still takes courage.
Speaking to The Standard this week, the Labor candidate tells the story in the restaurant as the best moment of his campaign.
After 17 years of teaching at Emmanuel College, Barling is a polished speaker and is well guarded, particularly for a first-time candidate, but on this topic he speaks bluntly.
“It doesn’t matter if I get my teeth kicked in on Saturday,” Barling said.
“It just doesn’t matter because getting out and saying things like that meant some young bloke has said ‘well I do belong in this community’.”
Barling has very much been left to his own devices — the high profile Labor visits haven’t really made it past marginal Corangamite and he admits he has not spoken to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd during the campaign.
He’s also been unable to convince Labor colleagues to match major funding commitments by Liberal MP Dan Tehan.
He has relied on his family, particularly his sons, to generate support in Warrnambool. He has a loyal following of students on social media, although has made a point of not letting politics interfere with class time.
Barling has made a real effort in towns along the northern belt of the electorate where Labor could gain blue-collar votes.
At least once a week he’s stayed overnight in towns like Ararat or Maryborough and estimates that he’s travelled 10,000 kilometres in a van spray-painted with a image of himself and the words Michael Barling — Labor For Wannon.
Barling isn’t afraid of a bit of conflict. This week he distracted a disgruntled voter away from abusing some Greens volunteers outside the Warrnambool polling station.
Has it been hard on the family?
“The last three or four months has been different, there’s no question about it, but we’ve got the structure and the family that has allowed us to manage it in a low-stress way.”
It’s a massive challenge. Even after months of energetic campaigning, the Coalition may actually increase its hold on the seat.
“People who come from outside our community say ‘why would you bother getting involved because nothing is going to change?’ It doesn’t matter what the seat is. There’s always an opportunity,” Barling says.
“It’s a slow wheel. You go out and do everything you can.”
Asked about the most difficult part of his campaign he says “there was no question I was an avowed Julia Gillard supporter”.
He admires the stoic way she stared down personal attacks from the Coalition and the media (as well as Labor).
“That shows remarkable courage and it’s really important that we see courage.”
Given the political apathy that prevails in Wannon and the tendency of candidates running for the sake of running, will his strong campaign make it easier for future Labor candidates?
“There’s a broader issue for me. The community and the young people who I teach will be able to see that you make a stand on a principle and you give it as much energy as you can,” he says.
“But absolutely, it will make it easier for Labor candidates. The closer we get, the easier it will get for a Labor candidate.”
Every vote counts for Barling tomorrow, most of all from his mother who had told The Standard she’d be ticking the box next to Liberal MP Dan Tehan.
“Mum will be voting for me,” Barling laughs reassuringly.
Even if Barling misses out on a federal seat this time, with next year’s state election would he consider trying to unseat a premier?
“I haven't given it too much thought. But I’d be ready to go again.”