It's the grassroots, stupid: what Zali Steggall's campaign can teach Labor about winning

Labor is doomed to electoral failure unless it abandons its culture of rewarding insiders

As much as the Liberal party might hate to admit it, independent Zali Steggall had an unbeatable advantage in Warringah – she had genuine grassroots support.

It might have started with a few disaffected moderate Liberal party members but the anti-Tony Abbott movement quickly swelled to a deep local army of passionate supporters. Then they found their local hero in Steggall – an Olympian and long-time resident – around whom they could coalesce.

That army went to work in the community. They held kitchen table discussions (literally) with friends and acquaintances; they pushed messages out on their social media feeds. Their aim was to convince their networks that Steggall was the real deal, and provided a viable way for voters to vent their deep concern about climate change and the direction of the Liberal party.

The former member and former prime minister never stood a chance.

This is how modern campaigning will work in the future. It will no longer be full-page ads, posters, or campaign speeches. Unless there is a messianic leader who emerges, the power of the personal connection will be what swings voters.

The defeat of Labor arguably can be traced to the same phenomenon.

The Liberal party wised up some years ago about the need to pick candidates in marginal electorates that had roots in the community rather than parachuting in people from their inner circle.

As the Liberals have made gains in the outer suburbs of our major cities, Labor has continued to pick candidates whose main claim to a seat is that they worked for the union movement or the party.

Take, for instance, the seat of Reid. Labor’s candidate, Sam Crosby, might have grown up in the inner west but his claim to preselection comes mainly from being a long-time servant of the Labor party: a staffer for Kevin Rudd and executive director of the Labor thinktank, the McKell Institute.

He was up against Fiona Martin, who attended school locally before graduating from the University of Sydney. Martin founded and runs the Sydney Psychology Centre. Despite her late start as a candidate, her experience as a small business operator seemed to resonate.

In Banks, Labor picked a union offical from the Financial Sector Union and the CFMEU, Chris Gambian. Gambian had grown up in the area but his professional experience is almost entirely within the union movement.

Ironically he is also director of Grassroots and Co, which aims to find new ways to to build a stronger labour movement.

The pattern is repeated over and over. The Liberals pick people with deep roots in the community, or who have life experiences that voters in that electorate will relate to. Labor picks candidates who have served the party either as staffers or with unions, or who have a life-long Labor pedigree.

Bill Shorten’s use of terms like ‘the top end of town’ played poorly in some parts of Sydney
Bill Shorten’s use of terms like ‘the top end of town’ played poorly in some parts of Sydney. Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images

Even some of Labor’s most prominent candidates, such as Ali France, who ran against the the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, in the Queensland seat of Dickson, and who had worked as a journalist and disability advocate, turned out to have been born into the fold. Her father was the former state Labor minister Peter Lawlor.

Ditto the candidate for Bonner, Jo Briskey, whose father was a state Labor MP.

Though Dutton might be unpopular in the wider community, in Dickson he appears to have maintained his strong roots as a former local policeman and local resident of the outer Brisbane seat.

And over west, Labor had sought to install a third generation of Beazleys in federal parliament, running Hannah Beazley in the seat of Swan. Perhaps the name recognition would have worked but Beazley was up against the Liberal MP, Steve Irons, who was a former AFL player and small businessman.

Many other candidates have been Labor mayors, or union officials who have come up through the party and paid their dues.

Most of these people are talented and committed but the preselection processes of Labor limit the gene pool and potential candidates from outside the Labor family, who have wider life experiences are locked out.

Talented true believers from the “real world” only rise to be candidates in unwinnable seats, to act as placeholders for the ALP brand. They are people like Tim Murray, a finance executive who contested the seat of Wentworth, and Dean Harris, who runs his own market research agency, who stood in Warringah. There is no path for these people in the party.

The problem of preselection is made even worse by the factional system, which allocates seats to the left and right. The factional claims to the seats often don’t relate to the nature of the population in the seat. For instance, Bennelong, in Sydney’s middle ring of suburbs, is a left-controlled seat but the seat has become increasingly conservative due to the growing Chinese and Christian populations.

Hannah Beazley
Labor sought to install a third generation of Beazleys in federal parliament, running Hannah Beazley in the seat of Swan. Photograph: Richard Wainwright/AAP

At the same time the union movement is shrinking and can now lay claim to only 14% coverage of the working population, compared with 51% in 1976. This means the network of Labor spruikers in the community has dwindled to a few pockets of the community. How does Labor engender conversations about what it can do for the IT community or the army of people in the gig economy?

Instead community organising on progressive causes has been captured by Getup, which, despite having had some union backing in its start-up phase, often backed Greens and independents over Labor on its how to votes, because of Labor’s equivocal stance on coalmining and Adani.

The Liberals, however, have tapped into conservative like-minded organisations, such as church groups, right to life organisations, Catholic school communities, evangelicals, local chambers of commerce and, importantly, ethnic communities.

For example, there were reports of letter campaigns in seats such as Bennelong criticising Labor candidate Dr Brian Owler’s stance on assisted dying.

“A vote for Owler and Labor may mean a health minister who believes in physician-assisted suicide,” Right to Life president Margaret Tighe said in an article in the Epoch Times, which is aligned with Falun Gong.

Where Labor used to win the migrant vote easily, the Liberals have worked to tap into communities such as those from China and India, where small business is the path to success in Australia.

Labor’s derogatory use of terms like “the top end of town” (Bill Shorten) or “the leafy northern suburbs” (used by former NSW opposition leader Michael Daley) go over like a lead balloon because many voters in Sydney aspire to both these things.

The only seat Labor won off the Coalition in the entire country on Saturday was Gilmore on the south coast of NSW, where the dynamic was reversed.

Labor had fielded a local teacher and long time resident, Fiona Phillips, who was making a second tilt at the marginal seat. She was up against Warren Mundine, who was parachuted into the seat after a messy factional brawl among the local Liberals, which saw the long-time local MP, Ann Sudmalis, ousted. With the Nationals’ Katrina Hodgkinson also running, it had all the makings of a train wreck for the conservative side of politics.

As for the Senate, both parties use it as a sinecure for long-time party officials. Perhaps there it matters less.

But if Labor cannot find a way to rebuild networks – real networks – within the communities it seeks to represent and reconnect and find ways to preselect candidates other than insiders, it faces years in the wilderness.


Anne Davies

The GuardianTramp

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