Saturday, May 08, 2010

Saturday Morning Musings - elections past

There is no doubt that I am a bit of an election tragic. I can't help myself.

As I listened to and watched the UK election and the unexpectedly poor performance of the Lib-Dems, my mind went back to the 1975 Australian Federal election in the seat of Eden-Monaro.

I was working on the booths for the National Country Party in Queanbeyan. We had every hope of winning the seat.

Prior to 1972, this had been Liberal and Labor territory. In 1966 the Country Party had run a candidate (Tony Pratten), the first since 1946, but had only got 8.7% of the primary vote. The previously long-serving Labor Party member Allan Fraser lost the seat to the Liberal's Dugald Munro in the Vietnam War election of 1966 (Fraser was strongly opposed to the War), but regained it in 1969.

A journalist active in the Australian Journalists Association,  Allan Fraser was one of those hard-working old style Labor members. His brother Jim, an equally hard working MP, held the adjoining Federal seat of Canberra in an iron grip.

In 1972, Allan decided to retire. The Country Party saw an opportunity and thought about contesting the seat. However, there was essentially no organisation left. I decided to run for pre-selection, moved my residence across the border from Canberra to Queanbeyan, and with a few others threw myself into re-creating the Party. As part of this I ended up secretary of the Queanbeyan-Canberra Branch, President of the Young Country Party and secretary of the Eden-Monaro Electorate Council, all newly formed.

At the time, Country Party pre-selection was like a mini US style primary. To be considered for pre-selection, you required at least one branch nomination. However, the more branch nominations you had, the stronger the position. Branch delegates were not bound to vote for you (the actual vote was by secret ballot) but it did strengthen your position.

The then Party was very much membership based. It depended upon membership subscriptions to fund its ordinary operating costs. To do this, it had a bank-order system in place. Once people signed the bank order, then the membership subscriptions came out automatically thereafter. Since it required a conscious decision to cancel membership, the Party ended up with a substantial income stream from an often inactive membership.

When as a Party official I came to look at Eden-Monaro membership details, I found some membership subscriptions that had not been updated for decades, but almost no active members outside the Goulburn state electorate.

Elections provided an opportunity for the Party to refresh itself at electoral level. Individual candidates for pre-selection brought in new members, while Party organisers went around electorates with candidates and other pilots to recruit new members and get others to update their subscriptions. The Party had an old rule of thumb that to be absolutely certain of winning and holding, you needed one member for every three or four electors. This was a big ask, but at its peak the old NSW Country Party had 33,000 members, the largest membership base of any political party.

The pre-selection campaigns themselves were part of this process. The need for branch nominations meant that the candidates travelled around the electorate in convoy from branch to branch. Branches that had not met for years were re-energised to hear the candidates speak. I do not remember just how many branches re-formed in Eden-Monaro, but it was probably around the order of 30. Some branches such as Goulburn or Queanbeyan-Canberra were substantial, others had a handful of members.

The format was always the same. The candidates would be asked to wait outside as a group, and then invited individually to speak to the branch. After all the candidates had been heard, the branch would then vote. Once the results had been announced, candidates and branch members would then gather for a cup of tea or a drink.

As part of my role, I was in charge of publicity and especially in the Queanbeyan-Canberra area. During the first re-establishment phase, stories focused on the re-birth of the Party and on responses to issues designed to identify the Party with the area. Then as the pre-selection campaign got underway, we turned this into a rolling story in its in right. That year I got a Christmas card signed by everyone in the local Canberra ABC newsroom. We had become the biggest single provider of local stories!

The professionalisation that was to come to exercise such an iron grip on all the political parties was just getting under way then. We had no specific polling, nor were there things such as focus groups. We knew the McMahon Government was in a degree of trouble, but the then Country Party leadership was electorally popular. We focused on selling the Party and on local issues that we knew to be important from talking to people and the local press.

In the absence of polling, none of us really knew how the Party would go. Maybe if we had had that polling we might have got depressed! However, we had hope.

To win, we had to get in front of the Liberals and then hope that Liberal preferences would push us in front of Labor. Bob Whan, the Labor candidate and father of the current Labor member for the State seat of Monaro, was new. I knew Bob pretty well in a professional sense; we had worked together on wool marketing issues when he was in the Bureau of Agricultural Economics while I was in Treasury. I liked him and had a high opinion of him, but he still faced a big task to replace Allan Fraser. 

The electorate broke into three parts.

We knew that we should get a decent vote in the Goulburn portion since this was held for the Country Party at State level by Ron Brewer. We were very weak on the NSW South Coast; at the time, this was almost blue ribbon Liberal territory. Our candidate, Roy Howard, was Mayor of Bega and very well known and liked on that portion of the coast. Roy was also an approachable bloke who had come up the hard way and could talk to people. So that gave us some chance there.

That left the Monaro. Queanbeyan, the biggest centre by far, was blue ribbon Labor. Outside Queanbeyan we should have a chance of getting a reasonable vote. In Queanbeyan, the Liberal Party had largely given up. What we were trying to do was to mount a challenge to Labor that might chip away a few points, while capturing the non-Labor vote.

I was campaign director at the start of the campaign, an incredibly valuable experience because I saw how campaigns worked, but then relinquished the post because of the sudden chance to run for pre-selection for Armidale. Stephen Lusher, who was to become member for Hume the following year, took the driving role over.

One election day, Roy got 22.6% of the vote, the Liberal candidate Edward Otton 24.1%, and Labor's Bob Whan 47.6%. Minor party preferences pushed Roy in front of the Liberals, and we came within an ace of winning the seat in a final nerve wracking distribution of preferences. This was one of the few seats in the country at that election to record a swing against Labor - 2.7%.

In May 1974, the Whitlam Labor Government went to the people again in a double dissolution election. This time the Country Party candidate was Ron Brewer, the popular State member for Goulburn. The Liberal Party candidate was Jonathan Bell. I wasn't so actively involved this campaign and indeed expected Ron to win. In the event, he lost by a very narrow margin. Bob's hard work as Labor member had paid off. Importantly from a Country Party perspective, Ron at 301.% of the primary vote was well in front of the Liberal's 19.9%.

In November 1975, the Governor General dismissed the Whitlam Government, with an election held the following month. The Country Party had every reason to feel confident. The candidate, John Moore, was well known as the local weatherman, while the vote had been building.

That election I worked on one of the booths in Queanbeyan. There was an old Labor bloke there whom I had come to know well over the previous elections. He was gloomy. However, what I found really interesting was his concerns about the Party. Labor, he said, was being taken over by people from ministers' offices. There was no room in the Party for people like him. He didn't think that he would work on the booths again.

It's almost impossible to really tell from the booths on election day just what is happening. I felt a swing was on, but I wasn't sure.

I was scrutineering that night. It was clear from the radio reports that we were getting that Labor had been heavily defeated. It was also clear that the National Country Party in Eden-Monaro was in trouble. It wasn't until I got back to the campaign office that I found that Bob had been defeated, that Liberal Murray Sainsbury had surged ahead, with the Country Party vote below that achieved in 1972. There was a dreadful sense of gloom, with people asking what had gone wrong.

In the wash-up that followed, it quickly became clear that (as in the UK with the Lib-Dems) the polarised nature of the campaign had cost us dearly. In Eden-Monaro where were were in some ways still the third party, the anti-Labor vote swung back to the Liberals. In other electorates where the National Country Party was clearly the lead coalition party, the anti-Labor vote swung there.

Again, I don't think that we had polls. However, I am not sure that it would have been picked up by the polls until the exit polls themselves. Knowing the electorate as well as I did, I suspect that we were dealing with last minute shifts.  

I am not suggesting that this is an exact analogy to the UK position. However, the comparison is an interesting one.      

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