Sydney Institute Address

Going to the People: Election Campaign 2013

Good evening ladies and gentlemen.

I would firstly like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which we are gathered this evening and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I would also like to acknowledge you, Sarah, and congratulate you on your recent success in Corangamite, and on being part of Tony Abbott’s Government.

And finally to Anne and Gerard Henderson from the Sydney Institute. I am deeply honoured by your invitation, I had never contemplated that I might have the pleasure, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to share some of my thoughts on modern grassroots campaigning in Australia.

And in doing so I will touch on a couple of different themes that, upon reflection, may be self-evident, but which I believe are crucial to this task, namely hard work and respect.

It has been said on many occasions that, “Politics is a marathon, not a sprint,” and that certainly held true for the campaign in Greenway. My re-election effort began in my local shopping centre in the suburb of Glenwood, in the northern suburbs of Blacktown, on the 23rd of August 2010 – the Monday after I was first elected to the seat of Greenway on a margin of 0.88 per cent, or around 1,300 votes, awarding me the unenviable title of being the most marginal MP in New South Wales.

I went into the 2013 election as the third most marginal Labor member in Australia. I was reminded of these delightful chestnuts on most occasions when I spoke with press gallery journalists. One reporter, who will remain nameless, opened an interview with me at the beginning of 2013 with the question, “Michelle Rowland are you looking for a new job yet?”

At that time, those dreaded polls had concluded that Labor would likely be left with just 2 seats in metropolitan Sydney after the election. Given that he was from the ABC, I was tempted to reply by asking him whether that question would actually be better directed at himself under an Abbott-led Government. But, I did not.

The reality is, you can’t criticise anyone for thinking it: an ultra-marginal seat, which suffered unprecedented swings away from Labor in the three State seats contained within it at the 2011 NSW election, coupled with internal bickering, and any worthy policy initiative being drowned out in a hostile media environment, or just a failure to effectively communicate it. It’s no wonder the commentators gave me no chance.

But whenever the Government had a bad week, or yet another disastrous poll was released, I always saw two options. And to mangle a line from my favourite movie, The Shawshank Redemption: I could get busy winning, or get busy losing. And although it often hurt like hell, both physically and mentally, I made a commitment to myself that I would always choose the former. And I like to think it mattered.

I lost count of the number of times I would wake before dawn, set myself up, alone, with a single A-frame corflute at one of the eight train stations located in Greenway to hand out flyers to early morning commuters, some questioning why I was bothering.

But as the months and years wore on, those questioners would often introduce themselves, share some ideas with me (often in the form of complaints about the trains or the train station itself), and would even introduce their families to me at their children’s school presentation nights. Standing at one of those train stations once, in the bitter winter cold, I had a Eureka moment: the alternative was to not do what I was doing. And that was not a viable alternative for me.

I believe I had disciplined myself into being totally focused on a grass roots campaign without being fully aware of it. I similarly remember seeing the revised electoral pendulum for the first time shortly after the 2010 election. There I was, dangling off the edge of the pointy bit in the middle. My reaction to it was a pure reflex: I turned to one of my staff and asked, “Can I go doorknocking?” Given that he was already my 2013 campaign director, he looked stunned but elated. And so, off I went.

I don’t think getting elected is something you can do at the last minute. You can’t cram for it and hope you pass the exam.

I would like to think that this sort of resilience, this discipline, was in no small part due to the life skills instilled in me from ten years working as a lawyer at Gilbert + Tobin. When I thanked the partners and my former colleagues in my first speech to the House of Representatives over three years ago in those very terms, little did I know how much I would call on those capacities, often subconsciously, and how they would help lead me to this point.

Late one night during week two of the campaign proper, I let slip to my campaign director that I was exhausted. I felt foolish for saying it and tried to take the comment back – it was only day 10, he was tired, the whole team was tired, my family was tired, but no-one else was complaining. But instead of being annoyed with me, he replied, “Yes, it’s day 10, but not for you. For you, it’s day 1,100”. And he was right.

There is now a popular set of throw-away commentary that Labor didn’t win Greenway in 2013, rather, the Liberals chose to sacrifice one seat to save many. There are two words to describe this view: utter rubbish.

The election campaign in Greenway was hard-fought, brutal and spanned three years, culminating in my opponent’s odds sitting at or around $1.10 on the night of 6 September, and Liberals goading me about whether my CV was up to date and offering me directions to the nearest Centrelink office.

The marathon is indicative of modern campaigning. Once upon a time it was the norm to only see your local member around election time, or even just on election day, if at all. Then we moved to the 33 day campaign, and now local MPs are expected to be out in their community all the time, both physically and virtually, and they are expected to be accessible to voters and develop relationships with their constituents, local businesses and community organisations.

Even more than this, it’s about the local member having relationships not only with key stakeholders and community groups, but individuals. To support my previous comments, you can’t develop relationships with a sizable proportion of 100,000 voters in 33 days. This is a healthy development.

It is good for democracy and it is good for local communities. The amount of people that came up to me on polling day to say they met me at a school gathering or a community event was both staggering and humbling. I honestly didn’t realise I knew so many people. The hard work certainly does pay off and people do notice.

In regards to the actual mechanics of our campaign in Greenway, I would describe it as targeted and methodical.

Throughout all of 2013 the campaign team had assembled volunteers to contact voters usually by phone to check their voting intentions. Voters had either made up their minds about who they’d be voting for or were unsure.

There is no point having the candidate talking to strident Liberal or Labor voters close to polling day, so this was a useful way of isolating those voters who were undecided.

These were the voters whom I contacted leading up to polling day.

While at the national level our message was being lost in all the noise of leadership tensions and related trivia, on the ground the local campaign felt strong and organised and the NSW Branch of the Labor Party deserves recognition for this.

As the NSW General Secretary of the ALP, Jamie Clements said, Labor’s result in Western Sydney was largely due to the success of a call centre in Parramatta and its large number of volunteers.

In fact on polling day we had approximately 600 volunteers in Greenway alone.

And as well as targeting these undecided voters in Greenway, there was also a conscious effort to reach out to the various ethnic communities in the electorate.

So often we hear the media describe Western Sydney as if it is one homogenous mass that thinks and acts the same, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

In the electorate of Greenway, 41.5 per cent of residents were born overseas and 40 per cent of residents speak a language other than English at home. My hometown of Blacktown, which falls within both Greenway and Chifley, is home to more than 30 different ethnic communities making it a wonderfully diverse and vibrant part of Australia.

The most common surname in the Blacktown Local Government Area is not Smith or Jones, but rather the Punjabi, or Sikh name, Singh.

The difficulty in reaching these communities is obvious though, so any modern and successful campaign must endeavour to reach these communities in ways that cut through and are easily understood.

In Greenway we had Punjab speakers calling the Punjabi community, Tamil speakers calling the Tamils, Cantonese and Mandarin speakers calling the Chinese community and so on.

Not only did this allow us to get our message across to these groups, but we tried to reduce the informal vote in the electorate, which was at a very high 10.27 per cent in 2010. One disappointing result of the 2013 campaign was that despite these efforts, “Informal” once again polled third in Greenway behind Labor and Liberal on 9.98 per cent, a very marginal decline from 2010.

We specifically asked our scrutineers to note the types of informal votes at their booths on the night. Unlike some elections where most informal votes are blank or decorated with expletives, it was a near uniform pattern. The piles of single ticks, crosses or “1”s in the box against my name vastly outnumbered all others.

Few things frustrated me more on election day than the voter who came out of the polling booth giving me a thumbs up saying, “Don’t worry Michelle, you’ll be fine, I made sure I ticked your name twice”.

There has also been a degree of commentary about how Labor borrowed US-style campaigning in what is often called “neighbourhood” volunteer models, basically involving a combination of reaching out to community groups beyond Party members and building on the modern relationship campaigning I referred to earlier. The reality is this: Labor was forced to adopt these Obama-esque tactics because we didn’t have the money to do anything but.

In the end it was a blessing, it worked, but it highlighted a great tragedy. Back in the days when Labor was riding high in the opinion polls and the entire country was wall to wall Labor Governments in 2007, we didn’t use these tactics.

Instead, we burned money on expensive and ineffective mass mailouts. We ignored branch member support. We didn’t reach out to others in the form of community organising. In fact, I often think that if we campaigned like we do now during the ETS debate in 2008/2009, with call centres and boots on the ground discussing the issue, arming our supporters with the facts and engaging with people, we would have won that debate – and the vote in the Parliament – back in 2009. And wouldn’t the political landscape be totally different now.

The importance of the local or grassroots campaign in Greenway and other Western Sydney seats for Labor cannot be emphasised enough. In fact, the campaign in Greenway was almost an entirely local campaign.

Throughout the recent Parliamentary term, it was obvious the Government struggled to get its message across to the wider community. It became clear during the campaign that the majority of people had switched off, although I did notice a brief flicker of re-engagement immediately following the final leadership change.

Despite the fact that more than 500 pieces of legislation were passed in a hung parliament, including landmark and visionary achievements such as our education reforms, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and finally putting a price on pollution, this was buried by infighting and damaging leaks.

Compare this with the discipline and unity shown by the Coalition in opposition and it is no wonder we were performing badly in opinion polls.

Then in the campaign proper, the message from the Government seemed to focus purely on personality and not enough on our achievements in government or our plans for the future. In the final week of the campaign, the national campaign finally switched to a policy focus and we saw the Coalition put under pressure, but it was too little too late.

As I saw it, the national campaign was struggling and therefore the ground campaign needed to be executed perfectly. We needed to cut through the negativity and vitriol that had dominated the term of Government and reach out to people at a local level, while developing my own personal profile.

One of the things the ALP does differently to the Liberal Party is campaign like this at a local level. From my observations, the Liberal Party usually runs very similar “cookie cutter” style campaigns in every seat, while the ALP develops local brands and messages.

We had to take our achievements in Government and explain them at a local level.

Of course, there are some notable exceptions and some of the best examples of developing a local profile, distinct from their party’s profile, have in fact been Liberal MPs: Malcolm Turnbull in Wentworth, Jackie Kelly in Lindsay, and Danna Vale in Hughes come to mind.

So on the whole, our campaign was based on reaching out to voters who didn’t like Labor, felt there needed to be a change, but personally liked me at the local level.

In all of that though, it would be remiss of me to fail to mention that John Hill interview on Channel 10 and the impact it had on the Greenway campaign.

That was Day One of the campaign proper and it shaped the narrative surrounding the contest in Greenway. It didn’t have much of an impact on how we operated, but it obviously did for the Liberal Party and how the media framed the Greenway race.

From that moment onwards my opponent was sheltered from public events, local media and candidate debates. In response the media ratcheted up its pursuit of him.

A small target strategy was implemented and Mr Diaz was given no opportunity to redeem himself – even though he probably wanted to.

Recently he appeared on the ABC’s Hamster Decides program and made light of the incident in a display of self-deprecation and good humour. If he had been allowed to do that during the campaign, perhaps the result would have been different.

But, in Greenway especially, and in most other Western Sydney electorates, Liberal candidates were sheltered from any sort of community engagement or scrutiny in a hope that they would ride into office on an anti-Labor swing. And indeed, some of them did.

However, none of this should detract from the fact that when you boil it down, the results in individual marginal seats are essentially decided by a few visceral yet often objectively measurable factors, the most important being competence.

Not just partisanship, but competence. Listening to voters during and after the campaign, it’s now clear to me that my opponent’s performance made people question his competence but, more importantly for me, there were few questions about my own competence.

This made sense of a Greenway poll that came out at the end of the second week of the campaign which put the seat at an unbelievable 50/50.

It also explained the relative negative and positive approval ratings in that poll for myself (which was a strong positive number) and my opponent (which was a strong negative).

Voters appeared to be questioning his competency, but not mine, thanks to the four years of either campaigning or doing the job of a local member. Just as I point to the betting odds my opponent was enjoying on the day, and the exit polls taken on polling day which wrote off Greenway before voting even closed, I refute the simplistic notion that I just got lucky.

It was only with three years of good local member status under my belt that we could even contemplate taking advantage of my opponent’s errors. If we had just sat back and arranged for a big screen TV to be driven around the electorate playing the “6 point plan” interview on a continuous loop on election day, I am confident the swing would have been the other way. Voters would never have bought it. It would have been unfairly exploiting a lucky break.

There have been plenty of successful MPs and candidates who’ve made mistakes and gone on to win, and win often. The difference in Greenway was the long-term investment in being a good local member.

But the key takeaway for me from all of this was: what a gross lack of respect for the communities these candidates sought to represent in Australia’s parliament.

And I don’t necessarily blame the candidates, but the party machine that instructed them.

If you want the electorate to respect you as a candidate you must give them the respect they deserve in return. People do want to be engaged and have the conversation with candidates, but it is the candidate’s responsibility to be available and to show them that respect.

In closing, I believe the success of the Labor Party in Greenway at the 2013 election came down to two key factors: A sustained commitment to my electorate over a three year period, not just in the last 30 days, which enabled me to develop close relationships with the various communities I am privileged to represent in our Parliament. And, respect for the people of Greenway. To keep being the most competent, accessible and thoughtful local member I can be. To not rest on any laurels. And after tonight, I don’t think I want to say anything else publicly about the Greenway campaign because it’s not about me – it’s about the electorate. And I’ve got a lot of work to do yet for the people of Greenway. And just like the 2013 campaign which began on the 23rd of August 2010, the 2016 campaign has already begun.

Thank you very much.