Voters in marginal seats will find it hard to miss the union movement’s campaigning in the lead-up to the July 2 election, with about 5000 volunteers knocking on doors, handing out flyers and making hours upon hours of phone calls to swing votes. With manpower and a deep war chest raised over years from levies on members, unionists are hoping they can repeat the success of the Victorian and Queensland elections by taking down a one-term government with the slogan “put the Liberals last”.

Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) has been planning for this election since the start of 2015, continuing the momentum gained from the knockout blow delivered to Denis Napthine’s Liberals, targeting the electorates of Melbourne’s sandbelt in the south-eastern suburbs.

If you count the years preparing for the Victorian election, the current campaign, “Build a Better Future”, is the fruition of four years of work, and it focuses on workers’ rights, Medicare, education and public services — the Community and Public Sector Union, in particular, has been campaigning on cuts to the CSIRO and other agencies.

While politicians of all stripes are criss-crossing the country, shaking hands and kissing babies, Australian Council of Trade Unions president Ged Kearney is also racking up frequent flyer points. Spending the last two weeks in Queensland and New South Wales visiting marginal seats held by Liberal MPs, Kearney plans to continue travelling right up until the election, getting over to Perth and also speaking to union members in Adelaide and Melbourne.

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The ACTU campaign is targeting 31 marginal seats across the country, with 24 paid organisers as part of the “Build a Better Future” campaign, which Kearney says is not an election-specific campaign but has run for a year and will continue after the election. The campaign has ramped up for the election, though maintaining a “consistent pace” is a priority. “It’s steady as she goes,” Kearney told Crikey. “The last thing we want to do is force people to switch off. We’re dealing with each policy announcement as it comes along.”

Luke Hilakari, secretary at the VTHC, says the Victorian campaign is focusing on four marginal seats, electorates that would need to change in order for the government to also change. Corangamite in the south-west, encompassing Geelong and coastal areas, Deakin and La Trobe in the outer-eastern suburbs, and Dunkley in Melbourne’s “Riviera” (as outgoing MP Bruce Billson calls it) are all held by Liberals by margins of less than 6%; these are the most marginal seats held by the Liberal party in the state. The unions are waging a “ground war” in these seats, deploying thousands of members in targeted conversations with the public in a bid to swing votes.

The tactics are based on those used in US and UK elections and rely on individual conversations, sometimes over multiple occasions, focusing on issues the voter has stated as priorities. Hilakari tells Crikey if an undecided or “soft” voter said education was his top priority, that voter would likely receive a phone call from a teacher, who would re-iterate the importance of Gonski funding.

The process has been sped up by the July 2 election date, which Hilakari says wasn’t quite expected. It means that phone calls originally scheduled for July and August have had to be pulled forward by a few months, with a phone bank running out of Melbourne’s Trades Hall three nights a week.

Does it work?

At the Victorian election, Hilakari says scrutineers counted that 16% of voters put the Liberals last on their ballot paper — a figure that is considered a “huge success”. Relying on a large volunteer base is also an advantage, and both Hilakari and Kearney are coy when asked about the cost of the operation. There are staff costs, flyers and a limited amount of advertising, but the full figure is unclear. The funding comes from a $2 increase in affiliation fees, which was reported last year as going towards a $13 million war chest for campaigning. “We must build our campaigning capacity not just for elections and we will not dismantle our campaigning capacity after the federal election,” the ACTU’s final resolution read.

Of course, the ACTU does not have the monopoly on union involvement in the election, and in February next year we will find out just how much unions have donated to the major parties — last election there were donations to both the Labor and the Greens parties.

There’s also the AMWU’s “dank memes”, a lighthearted but continuous way in which negative attention is brought to Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition. Social media plays a big part of any political campaign these days, and Hilakari says the unions need to be where people are, especially young people and those likely to be swayed by progressive causes. Old “aerial campaigns” featuring only prime-time television advertisements won’t win elections, he says.

“There’s a few campaign dinosaurs out there. The number one news source for people under the age of 30 is Facebook, you have to be where they are.”

“The changing nature of campaigning lends itself to people who are passionate and want to make change and progressive causes.”

When asked why the unions are telling people who not to vote for instead of who to vote for, Kearney says there is more than one progressive party out there and people can make up their own minds based on the issues that are important to them.

“It’s our job to raise the agenda to raise the issues and to raise policy responses from all parties, and I have no qualms in doing that and its up to the voter to decide.”

“We can present them, you make up your mind. I think that’s the responsible thing for us to do.”

The union movement doesn’t always direct one-way positive traffic to the Labor Party. This week’s Fair Work ruling that the SDA’s deal with Coles doesn’t leave workers better off has led to embarrassing questions to answer for both union leaders and Labor leader Bill Shorten, who were forced to defend the union and the deal. Fairfax has also reported that McDonald’s workers have been dudded by an SDA deal. But when the money pours into the party’s coffers, does it make a difference?

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As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

North Stradbroke Island, QLD

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