By Ingrid Jacobson
FAMILY First has gone from being a rank outsider to a real chance of winning a North Metropolitan Upper House seat following the release of preferences for next month’s State Election.
The party’s odds tightened on Tuesday after it became part of a dramatic preference deal by a block of five micro parties that made it “top dog” in the seat.
This was further strengthened by the Liberals also preferencing it in North Metro ahead of One Nation.
Add to this a plethora of other minor parties favouring Family First in the voting order and an interesting picture begins to emerge of a possible victory for the socially conservative party which was founded by Queenslander and former pastor Andrew Evans.
So much so that the party’s lead candidate, Henry Heng, admits to being “in total shock” after he opened the email detailing the outcome of preferences.
“To be honest, I thought we no chance before the preference deal,” he said.
“I knew the deal would help but I never expected the Liberals to put me ahead of One Nation.
“Given that North Metro is the only region out of six in the State where Liberals have preferenced us at number three, this is a real game changer.”
“I was also very happy when I saw that most of the other parties and independents had placed me reasonably high as well – the only party that’s put One Nation ahead of me is Shooters and Fishers and an independent.”
Mr Heng’s previous doubts were understandable following his “very disappointing” debut at the 2013 election when he got just 2900 votes.
This was despite his own instinct that he had worked very hard along with his quirky YouTube video dubbed ‘Vote For Henry’ receiving 51,000 hits.
The West Perth resident who has lived in the North Metro region since he migrated from Singapore to Australia 20 years ago admits he was caught off guard when it came to being ready for the election, so little confidence did he have in winning.
Now he’s “rushing around getting my flyers printed” and no doubt saying a grateful prayer to Glenn Druery, the man known as “the preference whisperer” who brokered the deal between Family First, Flux the System, Flouride Free WA and Daylight Saving Party, which will now see them all preference each other for Upper House seats.
For small parties such as these, voting in a block is a chance to take on the major parties – Liberal and Labor – despite their policies often sharing little in common.
In the case of Family First, Mr Heng describes the party as being Christian-based with a main platform in support of small business.
“The party has been calling for a corporate tax rate of 20 per cent for the last 15 years,” he said.
“When you think that the largest employer group in the country is small business, it makes sense that if they are doing well, more jobs will become available and the economy will do well too.
“We basically believe the government is trying to control too much and needs to allow more leeway for families to develop and grow.”
However, parties voting in a block can also lead to a similar situation such as the 2013 Senate election which saw candidates from the Australian Sports Party and the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party snatch seats in an upset over which Mr Druery was also the architect.
During an interview with the ABC last week, the eastern states broker said he was “very happy that Western Australia will see an outbreak of democracy”.
“I would suggest that a few (minor parties) will probably be having a very big smile on their faces on March 11,” he said.
“I think one thing that could impact the minor parties’ success or not, will be just how much the Liberal Party vote falls off because of their deal with One Nation.
“If the Liberals vote falls off more than we expected then there is a very good chance that more minor parties might be elected.”
For voters, the jury is still out how much this trend will impact, with deals such as those between Liberal and One Nation, and the separate five-party pact also having the effect of muddying the waters when it comes to just who one is voting for.
Obviously, it becomes even more important for punters to scrutinise their own vote and its consequences in an election that has already set records and in which the ballot sheet will be decidedly crowded.
These include the highest number of candidates contesting seats in a WA election, 717 compared to the previous record of 560 in 2005, and an explosion of new parties.
In the North Metro region alone, there will be 19 columns on the ballot paper and overall, twice as many columns than in the 2013 election.
As ABC political blogger Antony Green told The West Australian last week, “With more than 50 candidates in every region, very few people will vote below the line.”
“Under this system, the more important point is what parties do with their preferences.
“If a party gets any sort of preference vote, once the snowball of preference harvesting gets underway, you never know who’s going to be elected.”
Which has got candidates such as Mr Heng so hopeful although one gets the feeling that emotion is usually part of his general nature, given the life he has forged since coming to Australia 20 years ago.
Arriving “with not much”, he started a bottled water business called Refresh Pure Water and is both chairman and chief executive officer of the Refresh Group, which now has six factories across Australia and is listed on the Australian Stock Exchange.
He has been secretary of the Family First Party WA since August 2012, secretary of Full Gospel Business in Perth, was a board member of Grace City Church in Osborne Park, and a council member of Edith Cowan University.
He and his psychologist wife, Cara, who is second on the ticket in the South Metropolitan region, are still members of the Grace City Church.
Their involvement with the Australian Christian Churches Network led them both to politics.
Mr Heng said that they had many shared values, including a deep interest in social causes.
“Those social causes don’t just revolve around the church or religion, as I am interested in many areas such as my work with Edith Cowan University Council,” he said.
“My wife was a teacher in Singapore and now she is a psychologist so again, those professions involve helping people.
“We both believe that we have received a lot in life and need to give back to society.”
Family wise, the couple now have the time to do more of that, with their two daughters who are 31 and 28, having both forged successful careers.
The eldest works as a lawyer in Sydney, the youngest is in marketing and lives in Berlin.
It was the Hengs’ desire to put their family first that led them to Australia.
Mr Heng said the decision came about because Cara desperately wanted to raise her girls, rather than put them leave them with a nanny.
“In Singapore, people both need to work just to have a decent standard of life – for example, an ordinary car costs about $100,000,” he said.
“So I told my wife the only way we could do it was to come to Australia and we haven’t looked back since.”