Secret Army not so Secret

Well done to Jude Dodd, who scored a mention for the Vintage Reds in the Fairfax Press today!  Read about the foot soldiers in the campaign to throw the Liberal party out of government on the 2nd July…

That secret army’s not so secret anymore
   Jenna PriceCanberra Times, 23 May 2016

A couple of my kids got the call-up to serve.

Some of their friends. Some of the parents of their friends, older people as well as young. They were all being drafted into working for a secret army, an army to keep former prime minister Tony Abbott to one term.

Judging on the basis of that campaign – a combination of organising, talking, tweeting and Facebooking – the secret army won its first battle, ably assisted by their unnatural ground allies, the Federal Liberal Party.

The field marshal of that army is Sally McManus, vice-president of the ACTU, union warrior, nun. Well, married to the labour movement rather than the church, but the disposition is the same, the constancy of focus, but less charity. I’ve known her for nearly four years and my advice is this: don’t be her enemy because she’s quick to dispatch her enemies.

The Abbott spill was an unexpected setback for McManus. She’ll tell you that herself. Everyone expected it would happen at an election and not before, particularly since the Liberals had promised – promised – endless stability. Turns out they recognised it was as hard for them as it was for the Labor Party.

So ground shifted beneath that army’s feet when Malcolm Turnbull replaced Abbott in September last year.

“It was harder,” says McManus. “There were many bleak months when people didn’t want to be active. They thought all the things they were campaigning for were going to be fixed.”

We imagine anyone wanting to campaign against Abbott would continue to want to campaign against Turnbull. But in some people’s minds, all the bad things were associated with Abbott: the opposition to marriage equality, the risks to Medicare, the dismantling of Gonski, the refusal to recognise climate change. So when it turned out that the Abbott policies were the Turnbull policies, the army regrouped. That secret army’s not so secret anymore, particularly if you live in a marginal seat.

These are the people who are doorknocking all over Australia to persuade voters to put the Liberals last on their ballot papers on July 2. They arrive at your door, usually in pairs, dressed in colourful T-shirts, to get you to sign up. They know, of course, that many progressive voters would never put the ALP first either, because of its dismal stance on refugees.

There are 30 marginal seats and groups of at least 100 doorknockers in each seat. On a good day you might get one in two householders answering the door. I watched some of these campaigners in action and it’s definitely not a task for the impatient. I’m naturally nosy but I might struggle to have these conversations with perfect strangers.

In some cases, the doorknockers are members of the Australian Labor Party. Some are Greens members. Nearly all are members of unions or retired. Some are both and some are neither (this surprised me – surely you’d have to have some official allegiance. But no, the allegiance only has to be to the concept of putting Liberals last).

Retired nurse Judith Dodd has never belonged to a political party but she’s keen to throw the Liberal Party out. Dodd signed up to be a foot soldier months ago and has been doorknocking and stall-holding in the bellwether seat of Eden-Monaro. She is not sure whether it will remain such a marginal seat because of a redistribution which excluded Bateman’s Bay and included the traditional National stronghold of Yass.

But the day she held a stall on the main street about Medicare, she was surprised at the level of local support. It hasn’t been easy in Yass and she’s had long and difficult discussions about refugees and penalty rates. But Dodd, a member of retired unionist organisation Vintage Reds, remains positive about the influence she can have. Positive even in Yass when she bumped into David Barnett, once press secretary to prime minister Malcolm Fraser, who said as Dodd handed out leaflets: “You won’t come near me with that, will you?”

It’s slightly less friendly in Darwin where there is a skeleton tied up outside the office of Country Liberal member Natasha Griggs. The implication is if you were waiting for that particular member to talk about local jobs, you might be waiting a long time.

But mainly what works is talk. You talk to one person, then another person and then another person. McManus makes fun of those who swear they’ve discovered the next new thing in campaigning.

“There are 101 shiny campaigners who come back from the US and they all say they worked on the Obama campaign and they are full of techniques and shortcuts, but in the end it is the old-fashioned work of people talking to people.

“What works is what worked 100 years ago and now we have the ability to do it in a much more coordinated way.”

If you hate this kind of thing and you’ve already decided never to answer your door to strangers, don’t pick up your phone either. There are 38 phone banks across the country and McManus has enlisted everyone to do their bit.

Even Ged Kearney, the president of the ACTU. Yep, she’s making calls too.

What happens when she introduces herself?

“They might say, ‘what, Ged from the telly?’ and then I will say, ‘yes, but I’m just ringing to talk to you about the things that matter to you’. And then they just launch into what’s important to them and what worries them.

“I’ve done a lot of calls now. And people want to talk.”