By Mark Phillips Editor – Working Life
On Saturday, the Denis Napthine-led Liberal-National coalition government was turfed out by Victorian voters after just one term in power. The election was won in the key southern bayside seats of Carrum, Mordialloc, Bentleigh and Frankston – seats where Victorian unions had concentrated campaigning and resources most of 2014. This is the inside story of how a grassroots union campaign helped swing the election.
IT’S less than 36 hours until Victorians vote and the Melbourne Trades Hall building is a sea of calm.
Any visitor expecting a last minute frenzy of phone calls, volunteers packing election day kits, or panicked attempts to fill rosters will be disappointed.
All the calls have been made, the crews have been assigned to their booths on polling day, and the coreflutes, posters and leaflets have all been distributed to the army of volunteers.
The dilemma is to find something meaningful to do for the volunteers rostered on election eve.
So well organised and precision perfect has the union movement’s election campaign been, that now all that is left is the waiting.
Waiting for the day when Victorians will vote to turn Denis Napthine’s Liberal-National coalition into the state’s first one term government for more than half a century.
The bluestone Trades Hall itself, one of Melbourne’s most imposing Gold Rush-era buildings on the corner of Victoria and Lygon Streets, is wrapped in about 50 metres of six-foot high red bunting carrying the message “Nap Time’s Over”.
Across the road in Lygon Street, the Liberal candidate for Melbourne, Ed Huntingford, has parked his sky blue Toyota in a futile attempt to counter the Trades Hall message.
He gets full marks for chutzpah, but will be disappointed to find a cheeky union soul has stuck flyers under his front and back windscreen wipers.
It has been like this for the past month as the Victorian Trades Hall Council’s state election campaign has swung into the final straight to home.
The Trades Hall campaign slipped under the mainstream media’s radar. If you did not live in one of the six targeted marginal seats, you were probably blisfully unaware there was a campaign.
But for residents in the target seats, there was no avoiding it, and the similarities – albeit on a much smaller scale – with the Your Rights At Work campaign have been remarked upon often.
But it carries profound implications for the future of grassroots political campaigning in Australia.
“Changing the government really wasn’t our number one goal,” says Luke Hilakari. “Our number one goal was to build a movement.”
As he surveys the final preparations – dressed, as always, in black jeans and boots and a t-shirt bearing the message ‘This is what a unionist looks like’ – the recently-elected Trades Hall Secretary, 33-year-old Luke Hilakari, exudes quiet confidence about the result on Saturday.
Win, lose or draw, he knows that the union campaign has made a difference.
“Right now, it looks like the conservatives are screwed,” he confides.
“This is a very big campaign. We’re trying to do something really hard. We’re trying to knock off a first term government, and that hasn’t been done in Victoria for over 60 years. To do something that big we needed a pretty big response.”
The Trades Hall campaign was launched in March, when the presence of the famed British singer-songwriter/activist Billy Bragg ensured about 1000 people spilled into the Trades Hall courtyard.
But its genesis probably goes back to when Hilakari – who earned his stripes as an organiser at United Voice – was first appointed Trades Hall industrial and campaigns officer in 2011.
Making its mark: advertising hoardings erected outside Trades Hall. All photos: ACTU/Mark Phillips
The campaign launch was a blast – the beer flowed freely, the sausages sizzled, Billy Bragg posed for selfies and afterwards everyone ended up carousing in the John Curtin Hotel well into the early hours.
Indeed, under Hilakari, campaigning looks like fun, which is a critical factor in attracting so many volunteers.
But also, like everything in this campaign, the launch had a serious side. Every attendee had to sign up for the campaign by providing their name, email address and phone number, and they have all been contacted and coerced into volunteering in one way or another since.
Hilakari’s enthusiasm is contagious and he could never be accused of not pulling his sleeves up and pitching in himself. He and a group from Trades Hall are at every union rally or event, and the favour has been reciprocated by affiliates, who have lent staff and resources.
Like Hilakari, most of the small campaign team at Trades Hall are young and fresh-faced.
With campaigns officer Wil Stracke, who comes from the Australian Services Union, at his side, Hilakari set out with three clear goals when he began plotting the 2014 election: changing the government, building the union movement, and improving Trades Hall’s internal campaign capacity.
“Changing the government really wasn’t our number one goal,” Hilakari says.
“Our number one goal was to build a movement and for us the election was just a vehicle to make that happen. We want to be stronger at the end of the campaign than we were at the start.”
This meant not only building the size of the movement’s activist base, but also improving how the Trades Hall communicated to them and mobilised them.
“It’s time to tell people don’t be scared, don’t apologise for being a union member,” says volunteer Sharon Hart.
While desperate Liberal advertising sought to target Labor leader Daniel Andrews as being a puppet of the union movement in the time-honoured manner of union bashing – even photoshopping a CFMEU hard hat onto him – the Trades Hall campaign was unashamedly badged as ‘We Are Union’.
“We are proudly union at Trades Hall and we want to pull all our unions together to be just as proud as we are,” Hilakari says.
In fact, the overly-negative anti-union advertising probably worked in reverse and damaged the Liberals more. It also served as an extra motivator for the campaign activists.
Having decided on four key issues for the campaign – jobs, health, education and emergency services – Trades Hall then identified who they wanted to persuade to vote progressive.
At an early stage, a decision was made to focus on just six target seats, all held by the Coalition by very slim margins. This was partly due to lack of resources and wish to avoid being spread too thin.
They settled on the “sandbelt” seats of Carrum, Frankston, Mordialloc and Bentleigh, leafy Monbulk in the Dandenong ranges, and the coastal seat of Bellarine south of Geelong, both of which had been deemed marginal Liberal after redistribution.
The most marginal of these was Carrum which, after redistribution, required a swing of just 0.3% to become Labor.
In the finely balanced Victorian Legislative Assembly, the Coalition only needed to lose four of those seats to lose government.
Nurse Jo, firefighter Paul and paramedic Heidi were three of the many workers who handed out at the election on Saturday.
Authenticity was the key
Lacking the financial resources to commission a large-scale electronic or print media blitz like the Your Rights At Work campaign had, the Trades Hall campaign was always going to succeed or fail on whether it could mobilise enough grassroots supporter/activists to engage on a targeted ground war.
And this is where state trades and labour councils excel.
Trades Hall set an internal target of recruiting 2000 volunteer activists to help on the campaign. They exceeded that with 2191 volunteers signed up who have done at least one activity as part of the campaign.
“Those activities had to be something physical, whether it be phone banking, doorknocking, handing out at a railway station, marching in a rally,” says Hilakari. “It wasn’t good enough for us just to click on an online petition.”
This year, union campaign volunteers have knocked on 93,000 doors, convinced about 30,000 people to sign pledges or petitions of support, held 211 street stalls and 152 train station blitzes, where they handed out 37,000 flyers.
Back at Trades Hall, 172 phone bank shifts were held, with 30,000 conversations held with union members in marginal seats. People who did not indicate how they planned to vote were contacted again – and again – often around a specific issue they had identified in an earlier conversation, such as health.
Online and social media has also been a crucial part of the campaign, and the little bit of money that was available for advertising primarily went online.
The VTHC’s Facebook page has grown from a couple of thousand to almost 9000 likes, while dozens of snappy and often hilarious videos have been made for YouTube.
In any public contact, a key worker – such as a nurse or a firefighter in uniform was paired up with an “orange person”, a volunteer so-named for their orange t-shirts. And very rarely, maybe one in 100 knocks, did they have doors slammed in their face.
“The messenger is as important as the message,” says campaigns officer Wil Stracke.
The same happened with phone calls, where a specialist worker would be assigned to talk to a voter about the issue they most cared about.
“The whole basis of our campaign is around the authenticity of our work,” says Hilakari.
“A firefighter will be believed every single time over a politician having a conversation. Same with a metalworker talking about a job in the Geelong region. Same with a paramedic, a nurse, a teacher, all these professions have been doorknocking and having direct conversations. They are the most powerful conversations and the most persuasive conversations.”
It was the same with all the campaign communications, tagged as ‘The Real Story’.
Every person who appeared on a poster, flyer, or video is a real worker and a real union member.
At times, this has caused problems: an ambulance paramedic, Louise Creasey, was hauled over the coals for being photographed in her uniform until public outrage forced management to back off.
“We’ve equipped a bunch of new people to go back to their workplaces and feel proud of being union and being part of the campaign,” says Wil Stracke.
The story doesn’t end here
Sharon Hart, a psychiatric nurse who lives in the seat of Frankston, has arrived at Trades Hall on Thursday afternoon to pick up her equipment for election day.
She is wearing her orange ‘We Are Union’ t-shirt under her jacket. Although a union member her entire working life, she has never been involved in something like this, and over the past few months has done phone calls and handed out leaflets as well as the election day activities.
She has found it an empowering experience.
“The unions have been decimated by the Liberals, and divided and conquered and people are running scared, and it’s time to tell people don’t be scared, don’t apologise for being a union member,” she says.
“When I’m leafletting, I’ve found most people have been polite and people are interested in knowing where you work and usually they will give you a story about their own lives.”
Although the union campaign generally stayed under the radar of the mainstream media, a sign of its success was the reaction from the Liberal Party and the government.
“The good thing is the Liberals are losing their minds,” Hilakari said just days away from the election.
“They’re complaining to the VEC [Victorian Electoral Commission], they take videos and photos [of union volunteers] and they get in their face, and the public sees that.”
On election day, the unions manned 130 booths around the state, primarily in those six target seats, and volunteers were provided with a range of paraphernalia to boost the message, including five-metre tall flags, large floor stickers, mobile billboards and digital advertising.
The campaign didn’t end with Labor’s win on Saturday.
“Our aim was not to do recruitment,” says Stracke.
“It was to politicise and engage but what we have said right from the start was once you’ve done doorknocking, you’re more likely to step up in the workplace . . . We’ve equipped a bunch of new people to go back to their unions or workplaces and feel proud of being union and being part of the campaign.”
Trades and Labor Councils in other states are looking to replicate the techniques for the New South Wales and Queensland elections next year.
And after Saturday’s triumph, there is another Liberal leader in their sights.
“Most of these state seats match up with the marginals federally,” says Hilakari.
“We have volunteers in place who are already to turn ahead. If they didn’t like Denis Napthine, they hate Tony Abbott. They just want to go him.”