Overnight, it appeared that Labor’s Verity Firth had slipped behind Greens candidate Jamie Parker in the crucial race for second in the NSW seat of Balmain, meaning the Greens would grab their first Legislative Assembly seat in NSW. The final swing against Firth, however, was 9%, below the state-wide swing of over 13%, and well below the the high teens and over 20% swings seen in nearby Sydney seats. Before the election, Firth had been considered gone for all money.

In Carmel Tebbutt’s seat of Marrickville, the swing was even smaller, 6.6%, and Tebbutt held on, in the end comfortably, against another Green challenge.

Nathan Rees is also likely to hold on Toongabbie, although he suffered a bigger swing, 14.2%.

All three seats saw well-resourced campaigns from Labor to save the political skins of a minister, Deputy Premier and former Premier. Various conservatives and Zionists have drawn the longest of bows in attributing Tebbutt’s victory to Marrickville Council’s Israel boycott. There was also a concerted campaign from Labor figures to link the Greens’ Jamie Parker in Balmain to shonky business practices.

But both seats also saw the first NSW outing for Campaign Action, a progressive, Labor-aligned organisation that provides training for grassroots campaigns. It was established by Damian Ogden, a former LMHU officer, drawing from Ogden’s experience in the US on the Obama campaign and with the Wellstone Action group.

The Obama campaign is famous for its innovative use of social media, but that obscures how successful it was at organising a grassroots movement. This meshed with the work of progressive groups like Wellstone Action, a group established to continue the legacy of the late US Democrat Senator Paul Wellstone. Wellstone Action is run by Jeff Blodgett, who was Obama’s Minnesota campaign director. Blodgett visited Australia in 2009 during the ALP’s national conference, renewing an acquaintanceship with Ogden established during the Obama campaign.

Campaign Action’s approach, which draws strongly from Wellstone Action (Blodgett is on the Campaign Action board), is intended to contrast with the now standard top-down, tightly controlled nature of modern political campaigns. It trains political volunteers and candidates to avoid what they call the “transactional” approach of door-to-door campaigning, relying instead on candidates and volunteers engaging voters in a conversation in which they explain why they are seeking election, or why they personally support the candidate seeking election.

Typically, political parties don’t train volunteers, and confine them to handing out campaign literature or stuffing envelopes. Campaign Action has a dedicated training course to train candidates and volunteers in talking with voters and explaining their own personal reasons for supporting a candidate. The contrast with the rigid, talking-points only style of modern campaigns, in which door-to-door volunteers are told to provide “verbal direct mail” is obvious.

“The approach only works if you’ve got an authentic message,” Ogden told Crikey. “And of course you need an authentic candidate. The success of the Obama campaign online was partly a distraction. The ALP’s website is as good as the Obama campaign’s was. But the lesson of the Obama campaign was that you need an authentic candidate to draw supporters, you need to use their time valuably, and you need to get them talking one-on-one with voters.”

The approach complements more traditional campaign techniques — volunteers can identify undecided voters that enable more targeted campaigning efforts, and report back on burning issues that candidates can specifically address via mail or phone calls. The Balmain effort was strong on direct contact between Firth and voters, often follow-ups to previous contact. But offering an authentic story to voters is the key.

The techniques used by Campaign Action had their first Australian outing in the Tasmanian state election last year, when Labor’s David O’Byrne and Brian Wightman worked with Ogden on the Wellstone Action training. O’Byrne contrasted it with the traditional “strip-mining” approach of modern campaigning.

The Wellstone Action/Campaign Action approaches are suddenly very relevant for a party that, by universally agreement among even bitterly opposed figures, needs to reconnect with voters and renew its membership base. The first step might be to stop regarding volunteers as cannon fodder in top-down campaigns only engaged at election time.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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