Two days before the “party-off” switch is flicked on the pineapple election that has transfixed Crikey readers over the past month, the outlook is looking grim indeed for flailing premier Anna Bligh. A tranche of leaked internal polling is pointing to either an unlikely Liberal National Party victory, or, at the very least, an extremely tight outcome that could paralyse the parliament.

The requisite electronic advertising blackout was imposed on the campaign at midnight last night, consigning both party leaders to more traditional tactics like kissing babies and early-morning walks. An increasingly desperate Bligh has embarked on a whirlwind tour to visit 30 electorates in three days, including some held by Labor by a massive margin. ALP insiders say the internal polling is accurate, and is much worse than tracking data seen a week ago.

Bligh has maintained a brave face after last week’s devastating oil slick sucked oxygen out of the ALP’s “key messages” dreamt up by campaign svengali Mike Kaiser. But internally, party hacks are already preparing for the worst, with insiders emerging in the past few days to describe one of the worst-run grassroots campaigns in the history of Australian politics.

In a “recognised internal failure”, the party is said to have almost given up campaigning in electorates with margins of under 5%, with the focus now on seats previously considered safe like Toowoomba North and Cairns. In an echo of the WA election, where Labor meekly surrendered power to a retiree and an accused chair sniffer, insiders have described a nightmare scenario of head office mismanagement, with the blame lying squarely at the feet of State Secretary Anthony Chisholm and Assistant State Secretary Terry Wood.

The Labor campaign in Queensland basically has three arms — the premier’s office, party apparatus and the local campaign. The relationship between the party office and the local foot soldiers is said to have broken down completely with volunteers in marginal seats said to be unaware of strategy from week-to-week. Letterboxing, street stalls and mobile office operations have been running blind with little or no official direction.

Reports from several quarters are now suggesting that the central problem is that head office has been hollowed out, replaced with crew of professional campaigners on the one hand and bunch of dud factional hacks on the other.

Temporary organisers, usually dispatched to frontline seats for the month of the election, have been either absent or incompetent, sources say. Basic logistical issues have been ignored or dodged. And unions aren’t helping out as much as they usually do — those aligned to Left are said to be peeved over the IR bill, and have transferred their angst to campaign cynicism.

Insiders say that in 90% of state seats, the early offer of a postal vote, with an accompanying letter from Bligh, didn’t go out until the second week of the campaign — in 2006, Peter Beattie famously sent this material out before he had even visited the Governor. The importance of direct mail intervention shouldn’t be underestimated, with early impressions likely to linger with voters. The Courier-Mail‘s Dennis Atkins vented his frustration with the process on Tuesday.

Following a clean-out last year, 75% of the Queensland ALP’s head office team is new, reflecting an internal drift of experienced campaigners from rank-and-file liaison to cushy ministerial offices. The downplaying of head office reflects an obsession with the kind of professional campaigning perfected by James Carville in The War Room, but seemingly without the requisite nous. It mirrors the situation in 2006, where the campaign was wrenched away from the control of former state secretary Milton Dick into the hands of seasoned lobbyists Hawker Britton.

The inexperienced Chisholm is meant to be looking after the organisational side while Kaiser drives the day-to-day “above the line” message out of Bligh’s office. But a communication breakdown with his assistant Wood, not known for his willingness when it comes to compromise, has cruelled any chance of coherency emerging where it matters — on the ground. Even minor information requests directed at head office have gone unanswered amid the maelstrom.

Kaiser has a thoroughly chequered career having famously lost his state seat of Woodridge in 2001 after being named in the Shepherdson inquiry into internal ALP rorts. He then amazingly resurfaced as ALP Assistant National Secretary in 2004, claiming that a Latham victory could have been achieved had his advice been adhered to. And in what might be considered further punishment, Kaiser then cropped up as Morris Iemma’s chief of staff.

Kaiser was installed in Queensland as a result of pressure from union heavy Bill Ludwig — part of a series of factional deals which enabled opposition to Bligh to be curtailed. Chisholm and Kaiser, both from the AWU, liaised closely during the Kevin07 campaign but that relationship is now said to have broken down. Kaiser’s strategy to distinguish Bligh from Beattie, by placing her in a hard hat, avoiding politics and projecting strong leadership must now be considered an abject failure, insiders say. Last year’s forgotten “Toward Q2” initiative, Kaiser’s apparent springboard to a Springborg defeat, is shaping up as a Spaghetti Nation-style running joke.

The campaign may also have been hampered by a lack of cash. The $100 million strong ALP funding arm Labor Holdings has been accused of gross underfunding, with the $8 million pledged in 2006 looking more like $3 million this year. But the broader problems are said to be ones of basic mismanagement with the drift of seasoned campaigners to Ministerial positions sucking the life out of the emaciated state office.

Even if the ALP somehow squeaks home on Saturday, it would be galling indeed for the Queensland Left if its most senior campaigner Wood ended up costing his internal ally Bligh the election. But with the finger pointing already beginning in earnest, it seems Bligh, Kaiser and Wood may have already boarded a slow train to political oblivion.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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