“You need to get the message across that we’re not all hippies and we don’t all have dreadlocks. You’re people like them … this is about face-to-face communication.”
So urged Damien Lawson, the Greens’ Melbourne media chief, in a gee-up to over 100 well-groomed volunteers at the party’s Brunswick Street campaign headquarters last week. While the doctor’s wives mingled uneasily with the patchouli-drenched activists of yore, there was little doubt both could smell blood.
“This is about getting our positive message out there and avoiding Labor’s negativity and focus on the outer suburban marginals. This is about making history,” Lawson continued, to flutters of recognition.
At the rear of the former Commonwealth Bank branch-turned nerve centre (donated by former Citigroup investment banker Philip Wollen) was a neat row of computers, freshly printed sign-up sheets and door-knocking maps of the Melbourne electorate. The walls were plastered in “rock posters” showing a beaming Bandt alongside some hand-picked ordinary people, some of whom were in the room.
Indeed, if the party’s ‘make history’ line is right, the Greens are standing on the verge of securing only their second-ever federal lower house seat, and their first at a general election. But it could still come unstuck in an instant.
“The thing that haunts me, the thing that keeps me up at night,” Lawson hushed, “is the prospect of waking up on August 22 to find out Adam has missed out by a few hundred votes. Imagine that feeling.”
Thanks to his pedigree, Bandt, the Murdoch University Marxist turned Slater & Gordon partner, represents the perfect Labor foil. He got perilously close to defeating Lindsay Tanner in 2007, with a 4.3% swing and 45.3% of the two-party preferred vote, even amid the Ruddslide. But he will still need to boost his primary vote by at least another 5% to get over the line next month against union favourite Cath Bowtell, no mean feat in a seat held by the ALP for five generations. Still, his straight-laced pedigree will help.
According to a friend from his uni days, the one-time guild president used to strut purposely around campus with a briefcase, and was “certainly not of the hippy, greenie set”. “While we were getting drunk, he was probably reading history books,” the friend said.
The orthodox leftie legal route led all the way to the Victorian Bar and a petition to the International Labor Organisation last year to protest the Rudd government’s Fair Work legislation.
At Brunswick Street, fresh from a briefing on energy futures with US consul general Michael Thurston, Bandt called the meeting “bloody exciting”, before hammering the thrust of the party’s “people power” campaign based on grassroots interaction.
Tellingly, he talked not about the party’s policies on climate or refugees, but the Greens’ burgeoning profile, with a glowing 7:30 Report feature and several Age articles singled out for special attention. (Later, references were made to a “drop” given to Farrah Tomazin about increases to youth allowance, which dutifully appeared in the next day’s paper).
But it’s a risky strategy. If Bandt falls flat, and the seat remains in Labor hands, it would be almost impossible to repeat the same kind of fever-pitch enthusiasm three years down the track. The party could be condemned forever as a minor player.
Substantial resources have been tipped into Melbourne by the Greens’ state office, to the chagrin of other campaigns. Lawson refused to discuss with Crikey the specifics of its financials (“let’s not talk about money”), but sources close to the campaign put the total electorate spend at about $60,000 (although well short of the $300,000 Labor is expected to outlay). Eco-tinged PR company Make Believe has been commissioned to build websites and shoot feel-good Bandt videos. Earlier this week, Make Believe’s national Greens TV ad was posted online, and the party is now seeking donations to get it on the air. The theme? ‘Moving forward’.
ALP turncoats the Electrical Trades Union have stumped up meeting space, the walls of their building for posters and a yet-to-be-cashed cheque for $20,000 (according to ETU chief Dean Mighell, the union will tip in a further $100,000 for Richard Di Natale’s Senate campaign, $20,000 more than their annual affiliation fees previously paid to Labor). Other unions, including the United Firefighters Union, have also pledged support, ostensibly due to Bandt’s stance on WorkChoices. And although formally affiliated to Labor, sections of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union are sympathetic, with Bandt acting for many of their members in the past.
But even with the extra focus, the Melbourne campaign is still without billboards, polling or the largest potential expense — TV ads. Only two part-time staff are working specifically with Bandt and for the most part the Greens are reliant on traditional tactics.
Since the campaign began, and with Labor scrambling following the resignation of Tanner, the party’s Melbourne volunteers (“several hundred,” according to Lawson) have been going door-to-door in Fitzroy, Collingwood and Richmond, bending the ear of voters who could gift them the 28% or 29% of the primary vote required for victory. The doorknocking script (see below) is simple — introduce the Greens and Bandt. Remind voters there’s two elections on this year. And persuade them that unlike almost every other lower house electorate, the party is in with a real chance.
There is a distinct play for the middle ground here — a sublimation of the party’s eco-socialist base to the message that voting Green is a normal, non-radical act. The obvious objective is to capture as much of the ALP’s wavering left flank as possible by appealing to potential defectors on banner issues such as climate change and refugees. If 2007 is any indication, Liberal Party preferences will take care of the rest.
(Tellingly, in the script, if the voter identifies as rusted-on ALP or Liberal, the volunteer is told to move on to avoid wasting time. They can write down issues and email addresses, but are warned against recording voting intention and “other details” until the door is firmly closed.)
Sometimes all the talk of history gets away from him. On July 12, Bandt told the Melbourne Community Voice he was “making history and sending the first ever Green to the lower house”, a slip of the tongue that discounted Michael Organ’s victory in the 2002 Cunningham by-election off the back of the support of the South Coast Labor Council.
A day after the volunteers forum, Lawson told Crikey the Bandt campaign had gone “beyond Obama” to embrace the tactics of US social movements, including personalised dinner parties and other member-directed functions.
“If our positive message is delivered by an ordinary person, that reinforces the message even more,” Lawson said. “They know the community best, and they’re best ones to deliver that message.” Convincing voters in Melbourne that they could actually elect a Green was the one key message campaigners needed to leave behind, he said.
On Labor’s negativity (which last time under sacked state secretary Stephen Newnham aired allegations of a sleazy ‘Greens-Liberal deal’, based on the party’s split ticket in Melbourne as an implied quid pro quo for Liberal preferences it sorely needs to jump ahead of the ALP), Lawson said Labor was still “more than willing to engage in dirty tactics” despite the ascension of the mild-mannered Nick Reece to Labor’s King Street throne.
But he warned against complacency: “There’s a always a temptation for the Labor Party to go negative, and try and run negative stories about the Greens through the media … in past campaigns there were some pretty dirty tactics and false claims and exaggerations in an attempt to scare voters away.” But Lawson “absolutely” ruled out the prospect of the party running a negative campaign of his own.
Crikey also raised the prospect of the Herald Sun reprising its infamous 2004 ‘Greens Back Illegal Drugs’ attack at the campaign’s pointy end, later slammed by the Press Council after a complaint from Bob Brown. Lawson said that “with the exception of some columnists” he was confident the Greens would escape a drubbing at the hands of sensationalist editor Simon Pristel.
“There has been balanced stories and we hope that’ll stay like that for the next few weeks,” he said. “All we can do is put out a positive story and hope they report on that.”
He also rejected allegations the Greens had been using the refugee issue for political advantage at the same time Bandt claimed he would prefer not to have to debate it.
All the while, drilled volunteers continue to worm their way across Melbourne’s inner north with their message in hand, hoping that this time they can cut through in what should be Labors’ heartland. And with Cath Bowtell yet to apply the campaign blowtorch, Bandt will have to rely on everything at his disposal to snag what it says is its rightful spot on the House of Representatives cross-benches.
*Part two of Crikey‘s special report on the battle for Melbourne, looking at the Labor campaign, next week
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story contained the information that Nick Moraitis and Jarra McGrath work for GetUp. Crikey accepts this is not the case and is happy to correct the record.