Adam Bandt central, big ol’ ’70s office in King Street, beige room dividers and crap carpet window onto the west side of Melbourne, the scumble of the back end of the CBD old terrace shops, take away food and lap dance clubs, Goldfingers convenient for lunch meetings (I doubt they take up the opportunity much). Inside, 30 or so staff and volunteers shoved into every nook and cranny, young and shiny and smiling people, knitted tops and granny glasses, the occasional flash of a leather J or a T-shirt spruiking some indie band you never heard of. Phones, phones, phones going; it’s ol’ school get-out: “I’m calling on behalf of Adam Bandt, the member for Melbourne … I’m calling because you indicated a willingness to volunteer … I’m calling … I’m calling.”

The walls are covered with butchers’ paper, three by fives, sticky whiteboard, texta invocations and admonitions. “Signed someone up? Hand them over to social media”; “register, register, register”; “going to a meeting, take a video, Dropbox it in”; and on and on. The room hums with information and energy synergy and smartness. It’s a politics pod, hacking its work with exponentiality, pulling political value out of coils of air and talk, a campaign beyond campaigning, seeing if you can get to the next level and totally own an electorate, get it in your camp, and then spread out from there, to Grayndler to Brisbane South to Swan?

I hit the office late afternoon. It’s been a hell of a day for the Greens, with the Libs announcing they won’t be preferencing the Greens over Labor, taking a stand. Tony Abbott is out there turning it into a matter of principle, which is bullshit of course. The Libs would pref the Greens if they could in the hope of fucking up Labor and gaming the whole election. But they know their electorate won’t stand for it, and to urge a Greens second preference would expose them to the great truth of Australian lower house politics: that the party doesn’t control where people put their preferences. Some Lib voters urged to vote for the Greens would mutter “I’m not going to vote for those commies” and disobey the ticket. Equally, in Melbourne, there’s going to be a bunch of Libs who will go 1 Lib, 2 Green, and there’s arse-all Abbott etc can do it about. But they can dismiss it as marginal and particular. A nationwide revolt over preferencing Greens would be another matter entirely.

Bandt has done a presser in Flagstaff Gardens on the matter that morning, a freezing day, the whole assembled press in black, it being Melbourne. It didn’t endear me to nature; we could have had the whole thing in Gloria Jeans, but there you go. Bandt is chipper as always — “well, I think if Tony Abbott and Labor are against us, we must be doing something right” — and is never lost for words, but he knows this is a setback. The Greens need a magic extra 5% on the primary to pass Labor and then scarf up second preferences and, as one Green source says, “Labor’s primary is at 31%, we’ve already stripped ’em of a fair bit”, so it’s diminishing returns.

Bandt has already done the morning canvasses, and he’s been ceaselessly on. “I’m trying to get him to get some sleep,” his minder says. Dressed like a well-organised PhD student in a cheap suit and open-necked shirt, like he was sponsored by the late and lamented Dimmys, like the sponsorship was worth $19, he’s working the electorate old school, like an old ward heeler, being everywhere, in everyone’s face. Labor are already whining about the plethora of billboards around, unashamedly focusing on the man. That night he’ll be doing The Project and then the Greens ad is on the ABC’s Gruen Nation. When I hit the office, his consigliere Damien Lawson — grizzled veteran of a quarter-century of inner-city leftist politics — is listening to him go head-to-head on ABC 774 with some Labor stooge. He bounds out to greet me, calls for attention and announces to the whole office that I’m doing a sortie and they should feel free to talk to me. Compare and contrast the Libs, who are so fearful of the press they pretty much put their candidates into a witness protection program. Last week I rang up Alex Hawke’s office to try and cover a walkaround in Mitchell, which he holds by a gazillion percent. His yahyah publicist was on the phone to be prevaricating, talking to someone — was it Hawke himself? — “he wants to come on walkaround” (muffled reply) “I think he just wants to cover it” (muffled reply) [to me] “Can I get back to you?” It was like something out of Gossip Girl. Here no one’s monitored or massaged.

Yeah, and by now if you’ve tuned in for jokes, you may be a little disappointed. This is not going to be a pisstake of the Greens. Doubtless it wouldn’t be that difficult, and if I dug around the small communal kitchen I would find a ridiculous variety of teas containing anything but tannin and caffeine, and a series of mung-type stuff in earthenware bowls in the fridge covered in enviro-friendly cling film, hand-lettered “this is Jaya’s” or some such. But this is the politics I’m closest to, these are my people, even if none of them wear black or know what the Punters Club was, and this is not going to be a takedown.

“They may win, they may not, but if they fail it will simply be because the division of Melbourne hasn’t yet changed enough for the Greens to be the natural party of representation in Melbourne.”

Besides, there’s a lot less scope than elsewhere. Truth is, the Greens have got the process and the politics nailed here. They may win, they may not, but if they fail it will simply be because the division of Melbourne hasn’t yet changed enough for the Greens to be the natural party of representation in Melbourne. That shift of political determination has sent Labor, well, a bit spack here, because it’s a measure of their wider malaise. Cath Bowtell, Labor candidate, is complaining about the number of billboards Bandt has, a rather whiny objection, covering up what is by some reports a lacklustre and uninspired campaign. Labor’s volunteers, encountered on the street in their bright red shirts (Bandt’s have a shining green outfit; it’s like a battle of the M&Ms), seem personable enough, but they give off the air of being good kids, mainstreamers. At Bandt central there’s a bit more life.

Community organiser Kajute — see, I told you I wasnt going to do the gags — cut his teeth stumping for Obama in ’12, working neighbourhoods of Norfolk Virginia, seeing how social media intersects with pounding the pavement. “We’ve had 25,000 face-to-face contacts all logged. We’ve reached 60% of the electorate by the end.” In an alcove, Alex, in denim and a tangled beard, an old Green — “I joined 12 years ago” — like some old growth activist no one’s chainsawed yet, redolent of an earlier era, is finessing the social media message. He joined when the Greens were at 2-3%, looking like a permanent fringe party, and he was working as a trade unionist. Did he think about where his political energy should go? “To be honest I just thought about which party represented my values.”

In another room — “it was Adam’s office, but he had to give it up for more of the database team” — a half-dozen volunteers are logging every contact in latest-gen software. Someone’s talking about Nation Building, and they don’t mean roads and bridges. It’s more tools, more info. Ramah, in baseball cap, jawline beard, is logging notes of contacts. Came from Eritrea with his family in ’95; friend took him along to a meeting and he was hooked. He’s been volunteering for a couple of weeks, drawn by the Greens’ local involvement. “It was the helping out to the community they were doing. It was refugee policy as well.” Were there ructions in his family over that? “Oh yeah. Labor family and also very conservative.” Same-sex marriage problems? He smiles. “Yeah, but I think I’ve talked a couple of the uncles ’round.” Next to him, doing the same job, is Catherine, in her 50s, short-cropped hair, visual artist, ex-financial services counsellor. “I was Labor but Labor changed with Keating, it’s become all economics.” Economics matters though? “Oh, it does, but when it determines how we live, when that’s all we talk about, something’s gone wrong. I wanted to do something about it, this year it was just too much, and I suddenly realised I could work for the Greens, so I did!”Georgia, Adam’s minder, comes up and introduces herself. She used to work at SYN FM; brought a lot of skills over from there.

“Oh, you must know [name redacted]?”

“Oh yes,” she brightens, “we worked together. She …”

“She’s my wife.”

She brightened even further. “Oh right, and she’s still in London and …”

“Actually, we’re separated, soon to be divorced.”

Face falls. Oh hell. Is this event going to go sideways?

“Oh r-r-r-ight. Is it …”

“Total car crash. Very bitter.” A pause. “Don’t worry, I won’t hold it against you!” Thinking if it wasn’t the Greens, I totally would.

I’d seen some of them the night before at a candidate’s forum, part of the Greens massive. Ascot Vale on a winter night, usual sort of hall hideously decorated in Uniting Church style, blondwood stackable chairs with lime green upholstery, on the wall tapestry homilies — “faith hope kindness” in big words decorated by snowflakes — executed no doubt by well-meaning simpletons, urn steaming away in the other corner. Full house, 90 people say, that’s Melbourne for you.

Bandt and Bowtell were there, piling into the room with their small posses, flying V formation, gladhanding; the half-fake, half-real chatter and laughter, the Lib nowhere to be seen. Later on TV he appears to be some Chapel Street flotsam with a mane of ringleted hair, but that may be unfair, who knows, who cares? He’s not going to win. Nothing against the guy on 10 seconds viewing, but, well, if there’s another vampire male-escort murder he wouldn’t be the last person whose alibi I’d check, just sayin’ …

Pretty much it was Bandt’s night, but I would say that. I think anyone else would too, since he’s got a strong line: the Greens, quite contrary to their old knit-your-muesli image, are a party that wants the once-in-a-lifetime windfall of the latest resources boom shared out better and invested. “Rather than 80% of the money going offshore as profits.” Labor’s in a tough position on defence there, because they fucked up the mining tax politics and they know it, and so they are forced to take the company line — that shaving a little off billionaires’ income will visit some destruction on the country.

Poor old Cath Bowtell. She looks like Jane Lynch from Glee in a retro wide coral blue collar and a spiky blond ‘do, but she can’t get under the skin in the way of her on-screen other. Having spent most of the night defending Labor’s last three years, she’s then faced with the predicament of saying why the hell it would make any difference to send another footsoldier there. “Well, it’s important to be inside rather than out, to have a progressive voice inside the Labor Party, otherwise the Labor Party …”

The audience shifts in its seat. Is it about Melbourne, or about the ALP, this grand old romance? Bowtell is a Labor lifer, she loves it, she’s right to, but like many of them she’s been wrong-footed by the simple failure of Labor to recognise that shit changes, man. She looks a little hurt when one or two of, what would you say, pretty proley types stand up and say this is it, this year, they just can’t do Labor any more. Afterwards, chatting to the audience, I’d say there were about a dozen undecideds there, maybe more, which is as good a harvest as you’ll get in Oz politics. Splitting about 2:1 for the Greens, though you can see there’s a couple of Labor types who are fighting it out inside themselves.

Bowtell comes up. “I didn’t know there was going to be a journalist in the audience.” “I said who I was,” I snap back. She looks hurt. “I was only jok- … oh, whatever.” She was joking around, but there was a truth in it as well, a plaint. Why has this become so damn difficult now, she seemed to be saying. More exactly, why me, why fucking me?

They all go off into the night, Georgia nagging Adam, Bowtell and a few chunky Labor types, all good people pitted against each other. I grab two trams back into town, through old Melbourne, the place that used to be a Presbyterian centre of the establishment, and is now some bizarre global knowledge/culture hub, the once staid grounds of Melbourne Uni now galumphed by vast glittering post-modern medical centres, the city itself a glittering Ville-Lumière. To say that Melbourne is the most European of Australian cities is obvious; what’s weird is that it’s the most European of European cities. Labor never saw this coming, how the class base would shift and change under them, never understood that the postgrads, the scientists, the administrators, the policymakers, the lecturers, would not simply tack onto a party that had centred itself on a one-dimensional idea of growth.

Bandt and the Greens did. If they don’t win it this time, they will next or the time after. Eventually it will stick. The kids in the glass bubble on King Street, still buzzing with a late-night session as the tram passes — most will come and go, but enough will stick, find their life’s meaning in this project. And that’s all a movement needs, people pulling up a chair in a down-at-heel office, and starting down a printed out phone list.

“I’m calling for Adam Bandt … I’m calling for Adam Bandt …”