In an election that has kept throwing up unseemly revelations and controversies, two smart, articulate candidates with starkly different politics have given a refreshing insight into the usually private struggles of political candidates.
Ms Charlton, who polling suggests is favourite to win a tight contest, says her motto is “disclose, disclose, disclose”. So before standing in the 2016 election, she wrote to Labor pre-selectors to admit to drug and legal troubles as a homeless teenager in Canberra.
“When I was 16 years old and addicted to heroin I was in trouble with the law after stealing from my parents and strangers,” she wrote. “Fortunately I was given an opportunity and residential rehabilitation allowed me to beat my demons and start a new life.”
What addicts call rock bottom came when a kind stranger took her to hospital, a kind doctor helped her through the night until the drug and alcohol unit opened in the morning and a kind magistrate allowed her to go to rehab, where she spent her 21st birthday.
Ms Charlton points to a short film called Joy made by her famous film-maker sister Cate Shortland, who is about to direct a Black Widow movie with Scarlett Johansson in Europe, to show what her life was like. It’s the painful story of a teenager rebelling against a father’s belittling with drinking, stealing, fighting and sex.
“It got really bad,” Ms Charlton says. “I was feeling ‘what do I do next? Do I end it all here? Or where to from here?'”
A magistrate, Warren Nicholl, changed her life and inspired an interest in community service.
“This is where government has a role to play,” Ms Charlton says. “Magistrate Nicholl had options because a Labor government had chosen to invest in drug rehabilitation services in Canberra.
“He was able to say to me – over the top of these fantastic glasses that I’ll never forget – ‘do you want to be in rehabilitation or do you want to be in jail because I have options for both?’ I said ‘I want to go to rehab please’ … and I didn’t let him down thank goodness.”
Ms Charlton went on to become a director in the federal Department of Health then worked in family, mental health and youth support organisations as well as on the staff of former MP then Labor senator Deb O’Neill.
A mother with three children of her own aged 28 to 30 and three children of her doctor husband’s aged 26 to 28 including two sets of twins – “we’re actually the Brady Bunch” – she has found being open about her past has only been positive.
“It’s never been an issue here on the coast or in any aspect of my life because more often than not people come up to me and say ‘that was my brother’ or ‘that’s my child’ or ‘I know a neighbour’,” she says. “Everybody has a story.”
Mrs Wicks, who worked as a teacher, an electorate officer and adviser, in corporate affairs for Telstra then in government relations before winning the seat in 2013, has a background that has made her acutely aware of the value of mental health support.
“My life has not been one of privilege,” she says. “I’m probably not what you might think to look at. In my 20s, I suffered with massive depression from PTSD arising from a very significant workplace bullying incident that took me years to recover from.
“It robbed me of my 20s. I thought it killed my dream to be a federal member of Parliament [but] the irony is it’s given me the resilience and the empathy to be able to do my job in a much better way.”
More recently, Mrs Wicks has had a personal experience of the “massive issue” of youth suicide on the Central Coast.
“My own family history has been impacted by youth suicide very recently – my immediate family – and unfortunately I’m not alone in that experience,” she says. “It’s rocked my world. The grief doesn’t leave you.”
Mrs Wicks, the mother of two children aged eight and 10, faced another health drama when she was diagnosed with chronic inflammatory response syndrome after a 60m tree crashed through the family house during a storm four years ago.
“It turned out the water damage that had permeated the inside of the floors and the walls – even though you couldn’t see it – had created quite a toxic combination of mould,” she says. “I started getting really sick. I’ve recovered now [but] at the worst of it, I’d have very bad symptoms. I’d find it very hard to absorb information. My skin would be on fire.”
Mrs Wicks approached then treasurer Scott Morrison, a longtime friend, whose advice was “tell your story” so the community understands why she had to hold meetings and functions outdoors for a time.
Now healthy enough to be volunteering as a lifesaver and learning to surf, she believes the key issues in the seat are jobs and roads, pointing to the delivery of 600 new jobs with an Australian Tax Office relocation, construction of a university medical research institute, extra car parks at Gosford and Woy Woy and plans for a medical and health precinct. Instead of a commuter region, Mrs Wicks wants the Central Coast to become “a reverse commuter region” with people travelling from Sydney and Newcastle for work.
But Ms Charlton, who says Labor plans improved shared pathways, roads, TAFE courses, a university campus and palliative care, believes Mrs Wicks has not delivered for the region.
“I see it evidenced in the terrible decisions this government has made: Lucy Wicks voted eight times not to support penalty rates [then there’s] the abject failure of the Liberal government to successfully deliver the NDIS in our region,” she says.
Area: 980 square kms; Suburbs include: Gosford, Erina, Mooney Mooney, Narara, Patonga, Terrigal and Woy Woy.
Held by: Lucy Wicks (Liberal); Margin: 1.1 per per cent
Other candidates: Anne Charlton (Labor); Cath Connor (Greens); Judy Singer (Sustainable Australia); Robert Marks (United Australia Party); Fiona Stucken (Christian Democratic Party); David Abrahams (Independent); Sean Bremner Young (Animal Justice Party).
Garry Maddox is a Senior Writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.