Activism is not just manning the barricades, it’s also wandering around brightly lit strip malls in outer suburban electorates wearing an enormous papier-mache Peter Dutton head, urging people to vote for candidates with the best climate policies.
I am with Jake and Chloe from GetUp and the plan is to spend a day observing the GetUp campaign in Greg Hunt’s Coalition-held seat of Flinders.
There are about one million members of GetUp in Australia who provide a mixture of donations, volunteer support and help to direct GetUp’s vision. Members are very keen to see action on climate change action, and GetUp have identified seats and candidates where there is a chance of this happening.
But if you believe the News Corp headlines, GetUp is the bogeyman of this election – a kind of feral left that don’t play nice. I am in Flinders to look at the reality of a GetUp campaign versus the perceptions.
It’s not talked about in the car on the way here, but I’m wondering: will I see some Getup action? Will there be a happening?
But four hours in and so far the most hair-raising thing is that an insanely loud car alarm on the Getup hire car is triggered every time it’s unlocked.
Our first stop for the day is Rosebud primary school markets, a sparsely attended affair of a dozen stalls, where I meet three GetUp volunteers, all of retirement age, who tell me they were motivated to volunteer due to Hunt’s poor record on climate change.
Also at the markets is a very tall person in a baggy grey suit with a papier-mache head depicting Peter Dutton.
He poses for selfies with volunteers and through his mask he says things like “I love coal! I’m Greg Hunt’s best friend! People say I’ve been missing during this campaign but here I am!”
Later the Dutton character appears again at a Nepean road pre-polling centre. He waves his arms around holding a lump of coal. His real name is Kris.
There, I interview a GetUp volunteer, 70-year-old Margaret who has been diagnosed with stage-four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Her diagnosis galvanised her politically.
“I want to leave the world with some hope,” she says.
Later, on the way to lunch in the village-style high street of Mornington, we spot Kris coming down a side street, vaping, without his mask.
“There’s Peter!” says Jake.
“You mean Kris,” I say.
They ignore me and are shouting out “Peter! Peter!”
Peter/Kris waves back and we all go to lunch.
At lunch at the pub Jake and Chloe are still calling Kris “Peter”, even though he’s on his lunch break and not wearing his mask or holding his coal. And weirdly, Kris seems to be floating in and out of the Peter Dutton character.
When I ask Kris what he wants to drink he puts on a strange voice (vocal fry and a slightly robotic accent) and asks for a XXXX Gold.
“Do you want that or does Peter want that?” I ask.
It turns out Peter wants it but Kris doesn’t and the order for a XXX Gold is cancelled and Kris has a VB.
Later in the same weird voice Kris talks about the police academy, Queensland weather and how much he hates AC/DC.
Everyone laughs and says “Ha ha Peter.”
Peter/Kris tells me he watches old Chaser election stunts on YouTube to get into the mood before he goes out in public as Peter Dutton. Rose, the videographer, shows me footage of Peter/Kris confronting Hunt at a public forum, saying “Remember me, we’re best friends, we got rid of Malcolm Turnbull.”
The papier-mache Dutton looms over the flesh-and-blood Hunt, like a Gollum from a nightmare. At one rally the cops are called. Someone shoves Kris/Peter but he is by far the tallest person there and cannot be moved.
“He’s at every forum,” says Jake of Kris/Peter.
“Hunt has nightmares about me, I bet,” says Kris/Peter.
“He’s never not in character,” says Jake.
We eat our meals and I push the team for what we in the news trade call “colour”.
Where are the stunts? Will there be eggs? I would want to be warned if they were going to throw an egg at somebody.
Jake looks appalled. “We would never do that. We don’t go around throwing things at people.”
I ask if they are planning anything today and they don’t answer me. Perhaps, suggests Jake, we can meet some more volunteers.
Then suddenly three phones at the table go ping.
Back are straightened. The energy shifts. The atmosphere sharpens.
“Is it go time?” asks Kris/Peter.
Go Time. Could this be it? Could this be the happening?
They all turn away from me and look at their phones.
“That’s him,” says Chloe, looking at Jake’s screen. “Is he wearing a 90s ski jacket?”
“Yes, it’s him and that is a 90s ski jacket,” confirms Jake.
Chloe is all business. “OK let’s get ready. Everyone knows their position? Everyone got their costumes and props? The cake is in the car?”
The cake is in the car? Is that code for something? Like “the eagle has landed?”
“What’s going on?” I ask.
Jake hands me his phone. It’s a photo from behind, but it’s unmistakably Hunt in a 90s ski jacket – elastic at the waist and then a sort of flair.
Chloe tells me the stunt they have planned is Hunt’s retirement party. They are going to surprise him with a cake, a card and signs.
“Will you throw the cake at him?” I ask. No. They’re just going to present the cake to him and afterwards eat it. The group’s costumes are party hats, and Kris is going to dress as himself, as the Peter Dutton head is too conspicuous.
The group get up immediately (is that how they got their name?) and head for their cars. Hunt is 10km away. I jog behind them and feel a surge of adrenaline.
Jake is worried we might lose him.
“We’ve been looking for him all day. This is the first sighting. Ski jacket. Pre-poll centre on the Nepean highway.”
No one talks much in the car except to almost tersely go over the plan. We park in the same place where the car alarm went off before.
“You get out,” they tell me. “We’ll see you there.”
I walk to the pre-poll centre and my heart is hammering. Why am I so nervous? I’m not doing anything.
I pass a tired-looking guy in the ski jacket handing out. It’s Greg Hunt. If this was a movie I would say into my walkie-talkie watch, “Positive sighting of subject in purple and green ski jacket at nine o’clock.”
Like most celebrities Hunt is smaller in real life than he seems on television. Also standing out here in his ski jacket on a windy corner, he seems strangely undefended and vulnerable.
I stand near the entrance to the pre-poll centre, trying to look normal (whatever that looks like). Oh god, this whole thing is unbearable. Where are the operatives? I am feeling sick with nerves. I see Rose across the street, the video camera under her jacket. I hide behind a bin.
Then suddenly it’s happening. A small group – Jake, Chloe and Peter/Kris are sort of dancing around Hunt. They have a cake and happy retirement signs and party hats, and they are dancing. They are three, but they are also so young and loud and their signs are so colourful that they appear to be a much bigger group.
Then just as soon as they arrive, Hunt is on the move.
He is walking very, very fast away from his own retirement party. He passes me and up close is not the terrifying, empty eyes of the man that signed off Adani, but a sort of sadness on his face.
He looks for a brief moment – abject. He is human. This can’t be fun. Perhaps he is genuinely stressed about losing his seat. Perhaps he’s racked with guilt about his inaction on climate change. Perhaps he’s just over it. Whatever it is, the mask has momentarily slipped.
The GetUp people are trailing behind, festively, with the cake and signs. Liberal party campaigners in their blue bibs are doing sort of goal attack moves around Rose and her camera (for anyone who has played netball, a goal attack move involves jumping in front of the other person, with an outstretched arm in their face).
Hunt turns a corner and is gone.
The party return, jubilant. The happening was a success. They didn’t even drop the cake. Jake films a piece to camera with Rose: “Now that he is retiring, Greg Hunt will be able to spend more time with his family doing what he really loves, skiing.”
Then suddenly, like a Valkyrie, an enraged woman approaches the group. She can hardly get the words out she is so mad, “You get your say on election day, not like this. I’ve called the police.”
It is Greg Hunt’s wife. She’s called the cops!
We return to the car. The alarm doesn’t go off this time. We are almost in Collingwood by the time my adrenaline drops. That was wild.
• Brigid Delaney is a Guardian Australia columnist