Sunday, 22 August 2010

Election, the sequel

As the final results of the Australian federal election trickle in, I marvel at how close I came to calling it.

I sent this letter to The Australian the day before the election:

John Howard and Paul Keeting agreed on one thing: change the government, you change the country.

Never has this been more true that this election.

Every scorecard I’ve seen from pro-environment, pro-justice and pro-labour organisations has given top marks to the Greens, placed Labor at a distant second, and rated the Coalition last by a long way. Although this campaign has blurred the differences between the major parties, those differences are very real. The irony is that the Coalition, had it followed Malcolm Turnbull’s lead, could easily have outscored Labor on many issues. The Liberal party room by 1 vote has changed the centre of gravity of Australian politics from a forward-looking discourse to a race to the bottom with no thought for where it takes this country.

Fortunately the preferential voting system allows us to rank the parties on election day, and I hope a lot of people will take the trouble to understand the issues that are not being aired in the sound-bites that pass for campaigning. The best outcome we can hope for is a close result with a big enough swing to the Greens to shake up the major parties.

In the pursuit of brevity, the paper cut it to this:
HAD the Coalition followed Malcolm Turnbull’s lead, it could easily have outscored Labor on many issues.

The Liberals have, by one vote, changed the centre of gravity of politics from a forward-looking discourse to a race to the bottom.

The best we can now hope for is a close result with a big enough swing to the Greens to shake up the majors.
That maintained the essence but stripped the message that voters should be looking beyond the garbage that passed as reporting. The Oz letters page occasionally lets that sort of comment slip through if you hide it well, but not this time.

In truth, the coverage of the election by the mainstream media was abysmal. I was managing the Greens Ryan campaign, and the coverage of Ryan mainly was around the ejection of Michael Johnson from the LNP (an issue, but report it once and move on, not repeatedly) and anything but the Greens campaign. LNP candidate Jane Prentice’s husband’s finances were dragged into the media, with absolutely no relevance to the campaign. The ABC’s election information on the race lifted trivia about the Greens candidate, Dr Sandra Bayley, from the party’s site, while giving the Family First candidate who did not run a campaign of any significance more than twice as much text outlining his background. Another ABC online article had it as a three-way race between Johnson, the ALP’s Steven Miles and the LNP’s Jane Prentice and didn’t even mention the Greens. This is supposed to be our unbiased national broadcaster.

This sort of drivel is absolutely typical of campaign reporting in this country. The media pack follows the party leaders, and ignores all else besides scandal. Voters can be excused for finding it hard to tell the parties apart, or to discern their local candidate as anything but another echo in a bigger echo chamber of spin and negativity.

Let’s look at the provisional results (as at 22 August 2010, the day after the election):

Candidate Party Votes % Swing (%)
MILES, Steven Australian Labor Party 18,220 25.06 -13.50
BAYLEY, Sandra The Greens 13,872 19.08 +9.20
VINCENT, Allan Family First 1,253 1.72 +0.19
PRENTICE, Jane Liberal National Party of Queensland 33,018 45.42 -1.47
JOHNSON, Michael Independent 6,331 8.71 +8.71

Tell me this reflects the general tenor of the reporting on the campaign, that the Greens were insignificant, and Johnson was a real contender. Someone could only have reported that if they were not actually paying attention to events on the ground. It’s not that there was no advance hint of this possibility: WWF did two polls in Ryan in June and July, showing Greens support to be 18% in the first, and 17% in the second. These were reported in the mainstream media, and swiftly forgotten. The Greens vote generally drops off towards election day, so I took these polls as indicating that a 15% result was achievable; we took this as a target, with 20% as an aspirational number. 19% was a very pleasant surprise.

For our vote to increase from these early polls is very unusual; let’s look at a bit more detail of how we did versus the more favoured competition.

The Greens achieved a swing of over 9%, nearly doubling primary vote over last time. Johnson’s result was respectable for an independent without a coherent platform, but nothing spectacular, and the level of media coverage he achieved obviously did not help him much. Nor did Labor gain from being taken more seriously than we were.  In at least one booth, the Greens above the line senate vote hit 30%, and we beat Labor in a few booths on lower house vote. How did we do this with no significant media? We certainly did not match the torrent of paper showered on the electorate by Johnson and the major parties. We sent out two fliers, one delivered as unaddressed mail (a lot cheaper than addressed mail), and the other hand-delivered by volunteers.

Having run for the state seat of Moggill in the last Queensland election, I knew what to expect, and from the start, aimed to make the mainstream media irrelevant. We set up a campaign site long before the official Greens Ryan site was ready, and not only kept it up to date, but made sure the best of it was echoed on the official site after once that was ready, and used personal networks to spread the word. We also participated in every forum that candidates were invited to attend, the only campaign to do so. While some of these may have had small audiences, we counted on those who attended to talk to others.

Beyond the obvious campaign, we also aimed in the inter-election period to offer as much of an incumbent service as we could without holding office. In one example, we had knowledgeable speakers address a protest meeting against a development, with a factual presentation on the community’s rights, and a no-nonsense assessment of their chances of stopping the development. I won’t itemise all such events but each time we did something like that, our presence in the community increased.

Once the election was called, we used various innovations in street signage to get our message out, all only at the cost of cheap materials and a few hours of person time to meet Brisbane regulations for having signs in public places attended. By election day, few voters wouldn’t have seen at least some of our key ideas – and in a context where they were an interesting surprise and therefore memorable.

All in all the main focus of the campaign was to get people talking about us, so they would take a closer look and be impressed when they checked the detail. By contrast, the major parties in Ryan mostly repeated their party’s prepackaged message. The ALP candidate Steven Miles did some of his own messaging on climate change and local issues, but obviously failed to cut through the general swing against Labor. The Johnson factor was a complication in that it’s unclear how much of his vote would have gone straight to the LNP in his absence; we await publication of full distribution of preferences to understand that fully.

To me the main lesson of all this is that a grass-roots campaign can trump professional marketing. In the end, the main thing you are selling to voters is trust. If they get to meet you close up and personal, and you empathise with their problems and offer real solutions, they will stick with you no matter how good the marketing of the other side. The integrity the Greens have established over time paid off in a largely negative campaign by the two major parties: we didn’t have to shout to be heard. Many voters tuned out the major parties and wanted to hear from us. In one example, I had a call from a retied stockman and Vietnam vet who was profoundly impressed with Bob Brown. This from someone who used to live in a community that voted solidly Nationals.

So why did I title this article “Election, the sequel”? Watch this space. We’ve learnt some useful lessons and will do even better next time.

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