Who is there to keep the good ship election campaign from sinking under Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten? And who is there to ensure the party stays on message?

During the 2013 election the chiefs of staff loomed large (remember Peta Credlin?), we are unlikely to hear a peep from them this time around — and that’s just how they like it. But they will be there from the early-morning phone hook-ups right through to the late night strategising for the mammoth eight-week election campaign.

Shorten’s right-hand man is in the traditional flavour of chiefs of staff. Cameron Milner was appointed to Shorten’s office in September last year, after a stint working as a lobbyist for Next Level Strategic Services representing companies including the controversial Adani mining company.

Milner is a veteran campaign strategist, having worked on more than 30 campaigns over the past two decades. As Labor’s state secretary in Queensland, Milner was credited with delivering huge wins for Peter Beattie in 2001 and 2004, and he was a key strategist in getting Kevin Rudd elected in 2007.

He became Shorten’s chief of staff after a reported bitter fight with the Labor Party in the state and two failed attempts to get into Parliament: first a tilt at preselection for the top of the Queensland Senate ticket, and then an attempt to force his former boss and former treasurer Wayne Swan into retirement so Milner could run in his seat of Lilley at the 2013 election.

Milner reportedly consulted with Swan and Labor MP Jim Chalmers before deciding to take the job. Although the bitter fight over preselection might have left some in Queensland with a bad taste in their mouths about Milner, his knowledge of how to win Queensland will be key for Labor at this election. Labor needs to pick up several seats in the state, along with several in New South Wales, in order to win the election.

This fact was obvious from the start, with Shorten spending the first week of the election in Queensland, focusing on education issues in the Sunshine State. And Labor has been running a grassroots campaign on the ground in the state for months. Some have already credited Milner with the improvement in Shorten’s standing in the electorate in recent months.

Milner’s role in the campaign is to work as part of the team to co-ordinate various parts of the campaign, and to ensure Shorten has everything available to him. Milner divides his time between travelling on the road with Shorten during the campaign and being back in Labor’s HQ on William Street in Melbourne, not too far from the Crikey bunker.

The Labor campaign has been described to Crikey as more of a team effort than a command-and-control style campaign with one large figurehead. George Wright, Labor’s campaign director, still makes the major financial and campaign decisions (he will be profiled in a future Election Decider article), but Milner is one key player, along with Shorten’s media director Ryan Liddell, senior press secretary Sam Casey, and Labor’s communications campaign director Ryan Hamilton.

The team appear to be enjoying themselves thus far, with one saying it was like a group of good mates who happen to be running an election. The lack of any leadership tensions in Labor this time around has also helped ensuring there is one team running the campaign.

Milner was not available for an interview, but based on previous interviews, it is possible to get an idea of how he will be seeking to approach Shorten’s election campaign. In an interview for Calculating Political Risk in 2008, Milner said he believed experience was key in politics:

“I think you can have a lot of raw gut feeling and some animal cunning and all the rest of it and just intelligence. But ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s experience and the blooding of having taken risks and having taken decisions and having seen outcomes and having survived them for better or worse are ultimately what you require. So the more battle-hardened people, the people who have actually seen some difficult times as well as the good times, are far more valuable than someone who says ‘I’m very bright’ or ‘I’m the best person on the soapbox at this particular moment in time’.”

Shorten has been seen in schools and shopping centres and hasn’t shied away from the public so far this campaign. This is not by chance. Milner said in Jennifer Lees-Marshment’s book Political Marketing: Principle and Applications that in order to shed the stereotype that Kevin Rudd might be another union-backed factional leader in 2007, the team decided to hold press conferences on Sunday mornings outside a church.

In a recent interview for Political Branding Strategies, by Lorann Downer, Milner said that opposition needed to overcome inertia in order to get the electorate to consider the opposition as a potential government, without scaring the horses:

“You’ve got to be different enough to provide a point of interest but not so different as to represent a risk. I think government of itself is almost its own brand. You’ve got a whole series of expectations come to bear … you want to be for everyone.”

On the Coalition side, there is Turnbull’s chief of staff Drew Clarke, who is not a party man. Turnbull appointed Clarke as his chief of staff after he was made Prime Minister in September last year.

Clarke had previously been the secretary of the Department of Communications, a post he had secured under the Labor government in 2013. In his public service, he has been said to show “outstanding leadership, high level communication and liaison skills, and a strong strategic approach”. He is respected and is seen as a calm and steady hand. The Coalition campaign team did not respond to requests for comment from Crikey. The Coalition’s campaign is being run out of an office block in Barton, in Canberra, near Menzies House.

For the Greens, Richard Di Natale’s chief of staff is former New South Wales legislative council member Cate Faehrmann, who took on the job after an unsuccessful attempt to enter the Senate at the last election. Di Natale’s leadership style is markedly different to his predecessors, and he had some in the party offside last year after the reshuffle of portfolio responsibilities, timed to be announced at the same time Turnbull challenged for the Liberal Party leadership.

Di Natale’s campaign focus has been all about Greens becoming a party of government, making no apologies for attempting to unseat several progressive Labor MPs and announcing several policies the Greens would implement if the party formed government. This is something Faehrmann said the party should be doing in an op-ed back in 2011, calling on the party to focus on issues that matter to voters, rather than getting caught up in issues like a boycott of Israel:

“We must be smart and mature enough to operate in a heavyweight political environment while maintaining Greens values. We must show voters that wanting a fairer, more compassionate and more sustainable future is not incompatible with pragmatism, responsible governance and genuine negotiation.”

There is a sense that the chiefs of staff do not want the sort of attention Peta Credlin has attracted. Where Milner and Clarke will be neither seen nor heard, Credlin is, by contrast, now a permanent fixture in the news cycle, dishing her daily advice on Sky News and “helping” with the Coalition’s re-election campaign. Many view her now as a proxy for Tony Abbott, allowing criticism of the government’s re-election campaign to be heard from the so-called “del-cons” in the Coalition without Abbott himself being seen to undermine Turnbull, as Rudd did to Gillard in 2010.

In his autobiography timed for the election, Shorten, a factional head himself, downplayed the role of factions in the party, stating that he was first influenced by what was best for the nation and what was best for the party before any factional preferences. But as the party begins to finalise its list of candidates for the election, factional fights will continue.

Labor has several key factional warlords, including Senator Stephen Conroy, David Feeney and Don Farrell. Although publicly Feeney is having a terrible election campaign so far, he has secured a number of key victories in preselection battles, including getting his preferred candidate Peter Khalil up in Wills. Farrell secured his own win by parachuting back into the second spot on Labor’s Senate ticket in South Australia.

In the Liberals, there are the moderates, the centre right, and the hard right, which itself often splits. The moderates have been busy seizing control in NSW, and can be credited for a lot of destabilising in the party as preselection battles rock the state. Turnbull has moved to protect politicians including Angus Taylor, Craig Kelly and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, but the factions were successful in getting Philip Ruddock and Bill Heffernan to retire, and were successful in seeing off Bronwyn Bishop in a bitter preselection battle in Mackellar, which we doubt we have heard the last of.

The battle for the fourth position on the NSW Senate ticket is likely to be the next key battle, with Fierravanti-Wells fighting against her former staffer Hollie Hughes for the position. Hughes initially secured the top spot on the Coalition ticket and agreed to hand it to the Turnbull government minister before the double dissolution election was called, but now the top three places will be given to ministers Marise Payne and Fiona Nash, with cabinet secretary Arthur Sinodinos expected to get the third spot.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey