It’s nearly 8pm on a Thursday night, 100 days out from the 2013 federal election, and 27-year-old ALP field officer Paddy Batchelor is working the phones inside NSW campaign headquarters in the western Sydney suburb of Parramatta.
A world away from the pantomime cruelling his party’s hopes in Canberra, 50 ALP volunteers, many of them young and idealistic — and all of them chuffed to be working out of Gough Whitlam Plaza — are calling constituents in the party’s former heartland. They’re urging a vote for the Gillard government.
A few weeks ago, the Prime Minister herself even turned up, giving the loyalists a gee-up and making a few calls of her own. But the “100 Days Away Day of Action”, as yesterday was dubbed, belies an increasingly grim outlook for Labor on September 14.
On current polling, not only will local Parramatta MP Julie Owens lose her seat, plonking Liberal candidate Martin Zaiter into her electorate office just spitting distance away, but adjoining Labor-held seats — Reid, Greenway and McMahon — will almost certainly fall too.
Batchelor, who comes from a long Labor lineage (his mum is long serving NSW Legislative Council president turned former Sydney City councillor Meredith Burgmann and his cousin is former Balmain MP Verity Firth), told The Power Index the party’s best hope was to get “voters talking to voters” to convince them to think twice about Tony Abbott. While the Libs take the helicopter view, Batchelor reckons Labor “have been winning the ground game”:
“It’s about individual conversations rather than the old script approach. If someone on the other end of the line raises an issue [with Canberra], the volunteer can talk about why they personally support the party — then it’s much more likely to change someone’s mind. It’s very important that we continue to fight.”
This kind of hand-to-hand combat was honed during Barack Obama’s victory last year when Batchelor, based out of southern Texas, oversaw tens of thousands of calls into Florida’s Broward and Miami Dade counties. The effort is credited with helping swing the state for the Democrats — when it was finally called for Obama, just 50,000 votes separated him from the GOP.
But in Australia in 2013, Labor is going to need much more than the efforts of a young David Axelrod to turn its fortunes around. Overseeing the effort, and arguably wielding the most power of any group besides voters in deciding the makeup of the 44th Parliament, is Labor’s national campaign director (and national secretary) George Wright and his counterparts at the Coalition and the Greens.
The soft underbelly of the Coalition campaign — run by federal director Brian Loughnane and deputy Julian Sheezel, with polling and strategy support from Mark Textor — is still the “unlikeability” of its leader Tony Abbott. And with the polls failing to turn you can expect Labor’s Wright to flick the switch to negative very soon.
Wright told The Power Index that the “framing of one’s opponent is something I would expect everyone to do. We’ll have a view about the Opposition Leader and we’ll articulate that view.”
“Your tactics are important but nowhere near as important as a clear message, hopefully an effective one.”
Another influential prime ministerial staffer agreed, saying that while the campaign would be fought around “trust”, a full-frontal Abbott attack would soon emerge. The staffer said he was:
“a great believer in the proposition that voters hate the idea of negative campaigning but it affects their vote … is there likely to be a negative campaign? I would have thought so. In a campaign where we’re fighting to win we’ll have to weaponise anything we can get our hands on.”
Essential Media’s Tony Douglas and Liz Lukin have put together an ALP creative team headed by Dee Madigan, who’s not afraid to get her hands dirty if her Campbell’s web spots — exposing Queensland LNP leader Campell Newman’s business interests ahead of the state election — are any indication. But getting them to air might be a challenge. Last week’s backflip on political funding, that would have delivered millions in cash to help pay the commercial networks’ invoices, means that Labor might need to fall back on micropayments from its grassroots networking strategy (hosted on the Nationbuilder platform).
At national Liberal campaign headquarters, the mood is more buoyant. So much so that Loughnane apparently told a well-attended fundraiser this week that the party had the election in the bag and that Tony Abbott would win in 99 days’ time.
Chief Liberal strategist and pollster Mark Textor, a veteran of over 250 campaigns, gave a blunt assessement of his approach, telling The Power Index that a “political class disappearing up its own arse” had failed to adequately frame the actual terrain the election would be fought on (Crikey did not escape his wrath, with the operative accusing Canberra correspondent Bernard Keane of “spouting lefty crap”).
Asked what his strategy was this time, Textor referred us to his regular Australian Financial Review column in which he said both extremes of politics had neglected the “discriminating, discerning, thoughtful, hardworking and … rightly demanding” views of “mainstream Australians”.
If early interventions are any indication, the Coalition will go blow-for-blow with Labor on negativity. This pamphlet posted to marginal seats this week highlighting “Labor’s dirty dozen” broken promises, designed to capitalise on the PM’s poisonous lack of appeal, could play well. It’s similar to the Liberals’ semi-viral “headless chooks” commercial.
As The Power Index explained last week, veteran Liberal ad man Mark Pearson and his “blue team” have a knack for pressing the electorate’s buttons — but as Jacqueline Maley observed yesterday, they’ll really only need to line-up YouTube grabs of federal Labor MPs bagging their own party to cut through. And with corporate donations rolling in, the Liberals can afford to spray the vitriol far and wide.
As for the Greens, national campaign coordinator Chris Harris, who took over from Ebony Bennett after the last federal election, told The Power Index that despite the absence of white-knight donor Graeme Wood (who stumped up $1.6 million in 2010), the party would campaign hard against the possibility of a Tony Abbott majority in both houses.
Issues voters associate with the Greens, like education, social welfare and the environment, would get a solid workout. “Our research tells us people are under a lot of pressure and they don’t see the major parties addressing that,” Harris says. The national office has commissioned TV ads dreamt up by long-term contractors, Gruen Transfer favourites Republic of Everyone, that will roll out later in the campaign, with a focus on Western Australia and South Australia where Greens Senators are under serious threat of being dislodged.
While the Greens party “does not have the luxury” of a $25 million outlay like the major parties, Harris said he would expect some trade unions dissatisfied with government policy, including the National Tertiary Education Union, to stump up some much-needed moolah.
Wright says that in the end, elections are won by clarity of strategy and clarity of message. “Your tactics are important but nowhere near as important as a clear message, hopefully an effective one. There’s so much clutter, there’s so much stuff you can’t control. What question you want to ask people is probably more important than the answer.”
Paddy Batchelor and his merry band of phone bank volunteers will be asking plenty of them over the next three months. Whether it’s enough to turn NSW, let alone Australia, into another Florida is a different question entirely.