By Ingrid Jacobson
WHEN Thomas French isn’t working 12-hour days as a commercial electrician, he can often be found hiking the trails of Yanchep National Park with his wife, Siobhan, or sandboarding on the dunes of Lancelin.
However, since nominating as Labor’s Federal candidate for Pearce, the 32-year-old Wanneroo man is just as likely to be spotted walking the hustings in the electorate he so enjoys and hopes to represent.
Up against Pearce MHR Christian Porter, who has held the safe Liberal seat since 2013, Mr French admits he has a challenge on his hands but is driven by what he sees as a disregard by the Liberal Party for the basic needs of the local community.
He is also fired by firsthand knowledge of the issues faced by those in the Pearce electorate, naming education and training, quality, local jobs, and equal access to resources and public transport as essential for those living on Perth’s urban-rural fringe.
“When it comes to job creation, education and training are the most important issues in Australia and must be available to everybody,” he said.
“It keeps everything egalitarian and gives everyone a chance, no matter how much money they have or where they come from.
“As a former university and TAFE student, I know how important it is to have a well-funded education and training system.
“We’ve now got the situation where Australians may be facing $100,000 degrees, and where the basic training ground for much needed trade careers, TAFE, is disgracefully expensive.”
A self-described “working class man”, the former FIFO worker is a University of Newcastle business graduate who previously ran his own family business before re-training.
He believes he is well-placed to understand the needs of the far flung electorate, which he sees as not dissimilar to the country town in New South Wales where he was born.
French grew up living literally at the end of a railway line in the once thriving dairy and timber town of Dungog, which is 76km from Newcastle.
His father was a painter, and later became a publican of several country hotels, where Mr French and his four brothers experienced the hardship that comes with struggling to make a living in a town with a shrinking job market and plummeting population.
“When I was growing up, the only jobs were in the local council, the high school, the hospital, dairies and wood mills,” he said.
“Once the dairy and wood mills closed, it killed the town in a couple of years.
“My younger brother is 19 and at 10 years my junior doesn’t have the opportunities that I had at his age.”
Mr French’s other passion, which he links to job creation, is the need for more public transport, naming Labor’s proposed extension of the railway line to Yanchep and Ellenbrook as one of the party’s number one priorities.
He works in Bibra Lake so knows the nightmare of peak-hour gridlock commuting to and from new suburb Sinagra.
“If Labor gets elected, we’ll extend the train line to Yanchep which is long overdue,” he said.
“You can’t just keep on building houses without a railway line to service them and the roads are in terrible condition and need to be updated to ease the congestion.
“Places like Lancelin which is the first tourist town north of Perth are desperately in need of a fast train.
“Metronet has been forecast to create about 4000 jobs.
“It will not only make it easier for people to commute, but will also create hubs along the railway lines which will give more opportunity to set up businesses and much-needed jobs.”
Through his own childhood experience and as a FIFO worker in the Pilbara, Mr French knows the need for local jobs, not just for the people who are already working in his electorate.
“The mining boom has 100 per cent finished and we also need to cater for those coming back to Perth,” he said.
“Until recently, I never imagined I would be standing as a candidate in this election.
“But I’ve watched the Liberals destroy everything that has made Australia good and felt I wanted to be counted.
“Basic rights such as having access to education, jobs, and transport, are being denied to many, then there’s the erosion of Medicare and being able to afford to go to the doctor.”
Mr French uses another blast from his past, during his twenties when he travelled through the US, Canada and Europe, and also lived in London.
“I’ve seen up close how the job conditions are worse in England which is why I am a big advocate of protecting penalty rates, so this country doesn’t follow the same road,” he said.
“And in the US, the health system is in crisis.
“I know what a fantastic place Australia is and don’t want to stand by and see our standards of living further eroded.”
Whether Mr French can become the proverbial dark horse in the contest for Pearce remains to be seen, but in his bid for a Labor future he reckons there’s still enough of the country boy in him to put up a good fight.