Liberal campaign director Tony Nutt

You hear their names uttered speedily at the end of political ads, and they email you asking you to donate money to their parties, but although they are the guiding hand of election campaigns, you’ll rarely see or hear from these faceless men during an election campaign.

They are campaign directors.

Labor: George Wright

Early every morning in Labor HQ in Melbourne CBD, campaign director George Wright takes charge of the day’s strategy conference call. Insiders tell us he is overall deciding the day-to-day direction of the campaign — where Bill Shorten will be and what is happening — in concert with the fixers and communications staff of the campaign, whom we have profiled earlier.

[Election deciders: corporate lobbyists]

Melburnian Wright led the ACTU’s campaign against John Howard’s WorkChoices legislation in 2007, and for a time worked as a press secretary for Kevin Rudd. He took over as national secretary for the Labor Party in 2011, after former secretary Karl Bitar’s disastrous 2010 election campaign resulted in Labor’s commanding majority being reduced to a hung parliament.

In an April podcast for The Conversation, Wright said much of the election communication would come down to person-to-person. There would be robocalls, mailouts, TV ads, and emails, but the party was aiming for more than 1 million calls across the country over the eight weeks of the campaign. The campaign was becoming more and more local, he said, with people much preferring to hear from a volunteer rather than a robocall or a flyer.

“The thing about a person is you get to ask a question and get to put a view. They’re volunteers. They’re not somebody being paid. By and large the volunteers keep coming back to do it. We don’t have lots of people in tears because someone said something nasty to them.”

There’s also door-knocking in key marginal seats and emails out to people who have subscribed to Labor’s mailing list. Wright said that the party was learning what issues mattered most to the subscribers by assessing what got people to open the emails.

There have been more than 1.4 million phone calls and door-knocks this time, a spokesperson for the Labor campaign told Crikey, involving more than 12,000 Labor supporters volunteering their time. Wright said that despite the intrusion of cold calls, people were generally more receptive to volunteers calling them to talk rather than robocalls.

[Election deciders: the media]

Labor’s candidates themselves have made more than 5000 calls to people during the course of the campaign.

In terms of fundraising, always a major part of the campaign, those seemingly endless emails asking for donations have paid off for the party, with Labor collecting more than $1 million in small online donations since April (13,000 people made 21,000 donations in total, with an average donation of $48).

“To achieve this result, Labor’s digital team have employed a sophisticated online engagement harnessing the latest best practice from around the globe,” the ALP spokesperson said.

By comparison, at the last election, Labor had raised $700,000 in the same period.

Labor had been spending its time in opposition developing policies, and the change of prime minister last year from Tony Abbott to Malcolm Turnbull did not change much of what Labor would run on, but Wright admitted that Labor had to recalibrate its approach to the election campaign in light of the change.

Wright’s biggest appearance in this campaign was to take the ABC to task over its Vote Compass results.

[Election deciders: the moneybags]

Liberal: Tony Nutt

On the Liberal side of things, at the last election the party had the duo of Brian Loughnane as campaign director and his wife Peta Credlin as the opposition leader’s chief of staff — and this worked well for Abbott. But Turnbull’s ascension to the prime ministership means those two went with Tony Abbott.

In Loughnane’s place now is Tony Nutt, the Liberal party’s federal director, who has worked as a staffer for John Howard and helped secure election victories for state Liberal governments in Victoria, and most recently New South Wales.

Nutt is headquartered in Canberra, taking up residence in an office block across the road from the party’s national headquarters. There are about 100 staff working. Many of the tasks they’re engaged in are similar to the campaign Labor has run. The party has used robocalling, mailouts, volunteers and candidates (including Christopher Pyne and Tony Abbott) making calls.

The Libs declined to comment about their campaign.

Nutt’s biggest appearance in this campaign came in response to talk about Greens-Liberals preference deals, and then controversy over Parakeelia, the company owned by the Liberal Party that received taxpayer money for electoral roll systems it provides to Coalition MPs, and then subsequently provides money back to the Liberal Party.

Crikey sought information from the Greens but did not receive a response by deadline. It is understood the Greens run a more state-based campaign with directors in each state.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey