Thursday, 28 August 2014

Talking Points: The Political Party Machine

By Danae Bosler

During last year’s federal election campaign, I was (an unpaid) part of the political party machine that Stephen Mills writes about in his new book, The Professionals: Strategy, Money and the Rise of the Political Campaigner in Australia, and I enjoyed every minute of it!

I spent my weekends knocking on targeted doors in a marginal seat hoping to hold persuasive conversations with swinging voters. My T-shirt was unashamedly red and twice my size.

I was sent there by the local field organiser, who was instructed by the state director, who was ordered by the National Campaign Director.
Proof of Ploitical Nerdiness
image: Danae Bosler
Yes, I’m your standard political nerd with a bookshelf to prove it, but I ain’t no hack. I read, reflect and critique as much and as often as I can.

Mills, it’s clear, knows what he is talking about too. He’s been studying political campaigns for more than two decades, as well as working as a speechwriter for Bob Hawke. For his latest book, he interviewed “every living national campaign director” (that means fourteen white men) of the Labor and Liberal Parties. The book’s pages are black with dates, names and numbers and I finished up being sure of only one thing: politics is a moneyed man’s world.

Mills was joined on stage by Misha Ketchell, managing editor of The Conversation, and Sally Warhuft, former editor of The Monthly.
Oh Captain! My Captain!
image: Danae Bosler
In a roomful of political nerds, when the speaker ponders whether the emergence of the professional campaigner is bad for democracy, things are going to get touchy. There was huffing and puffing about Murdoch, political in-jokes about “the Shoppies” (that is right-wing union, SDA) and a few long minutes spent pining for the good old days of Gough.

It seems to me there’s two parts of the new professional campaign that Mills and the panel tried to unpack, and while one part is despised, the other is embraced.

The first part is the way politicians today must play the media with sound bites, talking points and hollow messaging void of real policy. Language that appeals to the lowest common denominator also known as the disengaged voter in a marginal seat. This farce was made apparent in Lindsay Tanner’s popular book, Sideshow (refer to nerd bookshelf photo above - 4th tome from the top). This strategy has been widely ridiculed and partly blamed for the disengagement of the masses. The political system (I think it’s called democracy) looks broken and yes, the professional party hack must bear some responsibility for this. 

But the other component of the new political puzzle that is also the responsibility of the professional campaigner is the renewed focus on community outreach. By this, I mean the street stalls, door knocking, phone calls, meetings and face-to-face conversations volunteers like myself have with voters. This part of political campaigning is engaging, empowering and genuine.

So let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water, if I’ve got the right expression. Let’s find a way to use the strengths of today’s professional campaigns to rebuild our broken political system.


  1. Great summary of the event Danae.

    One thing that kept coming up at the event was the broad disaffection with politics, especially in terms of spin and 'poll-driven politics'. There's a tension - people want to see leadership from politicians, but we also want to see them be responsive to community concerns. A lot of progressives wouldn't be concerned about pollies being 'poll-driven' if they were following polls like the majority of Australians supporting gay marriage. One of the problems with the current government is that they've got so drunk on power that they haven't paid attention to popular sentiment and have been pushing their ideological barrow.

    As Mills said on the night, the problem with democracy is not the prevalence of professional campaigners. It's the undue influence of vested interests, the loss of values and purpose in political life (which many would like to blame on a few officials or paid stuff but the responsibility for that is much broader), and the confines of the major parties competing together for a handful of marginal seats.

    I think the best situation is when the people lead and the politicians follow - which really requires active citizenry and the growth of people's movements. How great would it be if state ALP and Liberal parties followed the lead of the excellent anti-EW Link campaign?

  2. Thanks for your comments Holly (and I think I've figured out the problem you had commenting earlier!)

    I like your comment that the best situation is when the people lead and the politicians follow, and all that worries me is when the politicians are a little (too) slow at following...

  3. Thanks Holly!

    I like your comment that the best situation is when the people lead and the politicians follow, what worries me however is when the politicans are a little (too) slow at is often the case on a range of social and environmental issues...


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