Australians typically don’t have a great relationship with their political representatives. A study of last year’s federal election by the Australian National University (ANU) showed that only a quarter of Australians believe that people in the government can be trusted, while voters’ satisfaction with democracy is at “its lowest level (59 per cent) since the constitutional crisis of the 1970s”.
However, one Victorian politician is challenging stereotypes with a surprising new technique: being a genuine human.
Elected in November 2018, Dustin Halse represents the seat of Ringwood. Outspoken about homelessness and mental health, he is reshaping the notion of an Australian politician.
Dustin’s passion is people. He believes the right to a safe home, a reliable job, an education and access to mental, emotional and physical health services are the pillars of a strong society.
With past work experience in vulnerable sectors such as aged care, Dustin knows all too well the impacts of the loss of a healthy mental state.
In 2018, during his maiden speech in Victorian Parliament, Dustin broke down. Filled with emotion as he detailed his ongoing battle with depression, Dustin appealed to his fellow politicians for a more supportive and sustainable society.
Dustin’s wife Rachel had noticed changes in his mood and behaviour, including difficulty concentrating, insomnia and increased restlessness. He saw his doctor several days after his 2018 election win and said, while it was difficult to acknowledge he was vulnerable in that way, it was absolutely essential.
“Nearly one in two Victorians, during the course of their lifetime, will suffer from or experience or manage a mental health condition,” he said. “I think it’s a really important issue, the work we’re doing in the mental health space.”
Owen Wrangle is Dustin’s office manager and political confidante. He says, unlike other people in politics that he knows, Dustin is the real deal.
“He gets up every morning wondering what he can do for people,” Owen said. “The source of his stress is that he can’t do enough.”
Born at Box Hill Hospital in 1985, Dustin spent his primary years in the area he now represents and has big plans for his community.
He is cheery and relaxed in conversation, like speaking with an old friend.
A staunch Labor Party member and Hawthorn supporter, Dustin says he was a typical millennial – decidedly undecided – when it came to selecting a university course.
Dustin ultimately pursued a Bachelor of Arts, subsequently completing a Masters degree in International Development and Environmental Analysis at Monash University.
It was during the final stint of his study, a PhD in history and politics at Swinburne University, that Dustin found his passion for social justice. With the stark realisation that his fellow academics were teetering on the edge of unemployment in insecure teaching contracts, Dustin felt driven to act.
“That got me alive to issues of industrial justice and the real premise that if you don’t have a secure job, just like if you don’t have a secure place to live, then you don’t have a lot,” he said.
Dustin became deeply involved in the trade union movement through his tertiary studies, starting as a delegate and member of the union.
“Sometimes in life it’s about the opportunities that are presented to you,” he said of his election win.
Dustin won the seat of Ringwood from Liberal Party MP Dee Ryall.
“He can’t be demonised as a cold-blooded career politician. I’ve worked for those people before, and he’s not one,” Owen said.
“He was preselected very late, and I don’t think he had much of an idea about what was actually going on. Until he’d been elected, I don’t think in his heart of hearts that he ever expected to get in.”
During our conversation, Dustin only occasionally let his political side show. He spoke fondly of his career from his home in Mitcham, musing about whether a work-life balance was possible. Soft gurgles arose intermittently in the background from his five-month-old son, Teddy.
Dustin believes that rather than a federal seat, state parliament is the place for him. He can’t imagine spending weeks at a time away from his young family to be in Canberra when Federal Parliament is sitting.
Before COVID-19, Dustin’s typical day included a short stint in the office before heading out into the community for the day; meeting people, visiting projects, attending primary and secondary school visits. His evenings usually consist of attending local plays, community group meetings and hobby clubs.
“It’s a challenging time. I want to be out and about in the community as opposed to literally being on Zoom and on the phone for 12 hours a day, but that is the current reality,” Dustin said of Victoria’s lockdown measures.
Dustin Halse is about much more than cutting ribbons. Underneath all the ceremonial appearances, he is a father, a husband and a modest, compassionate politician who says he won’t stop until he makes a real difference.