02 November 2023

Australians are big fans of internal migration. We love to get away. In Victoria it’s usually up north to places like Noosa, the Sunshine Coast, the Central Coast or anywhere where the water is warmer. In Perth it’s to Bali; or in Canberra to anywhere there isn’t a politician.

As far as our animals go, we have beasts in our oceans, like the majestic humpback whales, who visit in the warmer summer months from Antarctica, and the sharks and stingrays that swim the coastlines to stay in balmier waters.

In WA, hundreds of thousands of birds arrive in September from the northern hemisphere via the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, one of the great migratory bird routes of the world.

Unsurprisingly, the Australian silver gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae), our most common gull breed, does not migrate far from rubbish tips, chip shops or the local cricket pitch.

This past weekend, I witnessed part of Melbourne’s very own great in-city migration — the Spring Racing Carnival.

Last Saturday’s Cox Plate, in my electorate of Maribyrnong, was part of Melbourne’s annual spring racing migratory phenomenon that will happen another four times in the next two weeks and then not again for another year.

Now in its 103rd year, 21,000 people flocked to Moonee Valley Racecourse to watch the Cox Plate, which was won magnificently by Hong Kong champion Romantic Warrior.

It was fantastic to see the colourful racegoers decked out in the finest suits, frocks and fascinators converge on Moonee Ponds Junction, close to where I live and work.

A week earlier, 25,000 racegoers attended the Caulfield Cup, the official kick off to the carnival.

On a side note, 21 years ago I temporarily paused the Australia Day races at Caulfield in support of track workers who were forced to work in sweltering conditions with no heat stress policy.

Dressed in a daggy pair of shorts, I was the Australian Workers’ Union National Secretary when I led 60 workers at Caulfield in a health and safety one-hour protest, on the track in front of the barricades, over the failure to resolve a dispute for the essential policy.

The AWU ground staff had been in negotiations with the Victorian Amateur Turf Club for three years and negotiations were at a stalemate when I walked out onto the track with maintenance staff from Caulfield and Sandown at 3pm to protest the lack of heat stress safety policy.

The Victorian Racing Minister Rob Hulls agreed to meet with me and we eventually sorted the problems out.

The clubs and racegoers were only shortly inconvenienced, and the newspapers called the workers “militant”, but health and safety was the winner that day.

Back to the horses. Maribyrnong is the epicentre of the Spring Racing Carnival: it is home to both Moonee Valley and Flemington racecourses, which are about 3km apart as the crow flies.

Flemington, of course, is where, arguably, the most famous horse race on the planet, the Melbourne Cup, is run on the first Tuesday of every November.

A quarter of a million people attend the Spring Racing Carnival each year. We had a couple of quiet years during the pandemic but a crowd of more than 100,000 can be expected at next Tuesday’s Cup.

I will be attending the Melbourne Cup next week. Next year, though, I will be in Canberra for Parliament, in what will be the 32nd time the House of Representatives has sat on Cup Day since 1901, so I wanted to get down to the track at least once this year.

I treasure catching up with groundkeepers, barrier staff and the little generals of racing, all of whom I was privileged to represent. Plenty of friendly faces still around the traps from 21 years ago and beyond.

On a final note, still keeping with the all creatures great and small theme of this column, last week I said goodbye to one of my best friends, my beloved 11-year-old English bulldog Tilly.

As our furry friends age, they teach us the true meaning of loyalty and unconditional love. However sadly, they also teach us and our families about loss.

Her brother Walter and my family will miss her dearly. Rest in peace, my sweet Tilly.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Thursday 2 November 2023.