We were right to stand. Although Aston is not natural SA territory we received more than 300 votes, started the process of putting ourselves on the map, and gained enormous confidence from being to mobilise 150 supporters on hate election.
Our able general assessment — that people the day. Liberals, but have no faith in Labor and are looking for an alternative — fitted like a glove. Both major candidates pledged themselves to the $1 billion Scoresby freeway. Both floundered on whether Australia should sign the Kyoto global warming protocol. Both supported the GST. The result was that the Liberal vote dropped by 8.5 per cent but the Labor vote fell too, meaning that a by-election that should have been Labor's for the taking was decided by postal votes.
We need to be patient; it will take time to establish the SA as an alternative. We were swamped in a field of 15 candidates and struggled to establish a profile. It was clear on polling day that while many liked our how-to-vote card slogan, “Scrap the GST”, they didn't know who we were and weren't going to vote for us. The more often we stand, the better it will be. In the federal election there will be fewer competing candidates.
Given the difficulties, including not having the party name on the ballot paper, our vote was very credible. Aston is an outer-eastern suburban seat with no recent history of leftwing organising. While three minor candidates recorded zero votes in at least one booth each, we got votes in all 32 booths, showing the value of a big presence on the day. Our best booths returned 1.1 and 1.0 per cent (0.45 per cent for the electorate as a whole, just shy of our stated objective of 0.5 per cent). To put the vote into perspective, only four of the 15 candidates saved their deposit. Only seven received more than 1 per cent. The Greens complimented us on our performance. Their vote (2.4 per cent) was only 0.7 per cent higher than their Senate result in Aston in 1998. 5) Our prime audience is among disgruntled Labor supporters. This was particularly clear in Aston, where anti-capitalism has so far had a small impact compared to inner-city areas. The people who joined us (six recruits in Aston itself, and a number elsewhere as a direct result of the campaign) mostly described themselves as appalled by Labor's drift to the right. A former ALP member turned up at the GST rally with a homemade placard supporting our candidate, Josephine Cox. One voter came up to her on polling day to say: “This is the first time I've not voted Labor in 40 years — this time I've voted for you.”
This points to the future of the SA. Our first step, creating an alliance of far left groups, is necessary but not sufficient. We need to reach out to those breaking from Labor but not in agreement with the ideas of the founding groups. Part of this is making our ideas and proposals more concrete. We found out very early on in the campaign that saying “no to economic rationalism” meant very little, saying “scrap the GST” meant a lot. Our leaflet was strongest when it detailed our public transport policies, weakest when it simply repeated the platform without local content. In future campaigns we will need to research things like which local schools are overcrowded, which hospitals have the longest waiting lists, etc.
SA members can be enthusiastic and self-sacrificing. Where we rang SA members who are not part of an affiliate group and asked for their help, we got it. This helped get the 150 out on polling day; it also helped make the new SA members feel they were part of a group with energy and organisation. On my booth, for example, we were helped by Peter, who lives in a rural area near Melbourne and who discovered the SA when he got a leaflet on M1. He had joined but had not been contacted by the group until he was rung for Aston. He turned up at 7.30am on polling day and worked tirelessly until 6pm. There were other examples like that — our members are a resource, so let's inform and involve them.
Preferences were a lively question. A minority of those attending campaign committee meetings voted to preference Labor. A majority voted to preference the Greens on the basis that their vote was in the current circumstances a left protest vote. In the end, we preferenced Labor anyway because the Greens split their how-to-vote card. The SA is not neutral between Liberal and Labor, and we were not prepared to help the Greens if they in turn were in any way helping the Liberals.
While we set out to win as many votes as possible, we did not give way on questions of principle. Concretely, the cutting edge of the argument was refugees. A number of people commented that they supported “everything you say” except on refugees. This provoked interesting arguments about the way that the Liberals were scapegoating asylum seekers to divert attention from things like the GST. In the case of one ETU member, who attended our public meeting, patient argument paid off. He joined the SA and supported the campaign to the hilt in the following weeks.
Things we did right. We campaigned at the TAFE campus and went to one metal shop and two picket lines. Our GST protest was a big success, with 70 attending and big coverage on the TV, ABC radio and in the Sunday Herald Sun. We got almost weekly coverage in the two local papers by doing a few simple things: finding out the name of the reporters covering the election, their deadline and their phone and fax number, and sending in a lively, professional media release on time each week. We looked for different angles, like the GST, support for the Johnson Tiles picketers, etc. By getting in early and providing a picture of the candidate, we got a decent personal profile published in one of the papers. All up, there were some four or five stories published with headlines and many “in briefs”. The candidate wrote a “thank you” letter to be published in both local papers, thanking supporters and pledging to be back.
Things we did wrong. We didn't go back to the TAFE and we didn't visit any other workplaces. We didn't follow up the GST action with other protests or stunts. That left a space for the Greens, public transport supporters and the HEMP party to make a mark. We didn't use the letters column of the local papers, where the candidate could have spoken directly to the local debates. We held our public meeting on a week night at 8pm in the middle of winter, instead of a Sunday afternoon. We didn't try to get a list of endorsements from local people that we could publish to support the campaign.
The campaign cost about $2800: $1500 for the letterbox pamphlet, $660 for the how-to-vote, $350 for the deposit and about $300 in incidental printing and other expenses. We ran this campaign on credit, using state SA funds, because of its strategic importance. There will be no such latitude for other campaigns and SA branches need to make fundraising an urgent priority. We will recoup most of the cost of the campaign, hopefully, with the Saturday night social at the SA founding conference.
Election day. Not only were we on every booth, but on many we had card tables, collection buckets, balloons, posters and membership forms. Each booth had an SA booth captain who was responsible for a final ringround of volunteers for her/his booth, for bringing the “show bag” of how-to-vote cards, forms, balloons, etc, for providing the table and bucket, and generally for cohering and leading our team. We aimed for four people on a booth, with two on a couple of tiny booths and six on the minority of 1998 pro-Labor booths. We hoped that sheer curiosity would bring some people to our tables; in general that didn't work. On one booth SA people used a Nike petition and filled five sheets. In future, we should have a petition at every booth. The candidate set out to visit each booth; this was subverted by the need to courier spare how-to-votes to where we were running out. Ideally, we should have two campaign cars on polling day: one to ferry the candidate, the other to do problem-chasing. Having a post-election party was a must and a great success.
Comrades found the campaign to be fun and worthwhile. It provided invaluable experience and profile. Thanks to all who took part. We're on our way.
David Glanz was the Aston by-election campaign manager