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Swinging on a Shoestring – Labor’s Campaign in Aston

There has been a lot of talk about the loss for the Liberal Party of their seats in Greater Melbourne in the 2022 Federal Election. It looks as though the party will retain only three of their seats in their former heartland of the Eastern Suburbs. One of those seats is Aston, held by Alan Tudge.

Some of the post election talk, especially in Crikey, is focusing on the future of Alan Tudge, one of the three remaining Liberals who still holds his seat. Bernard Keane is suggesting that Josh Frydenberg, the former treasurer and member for Kooyong could be easily placed in Aston if Tudge wanted to go quietly. That might not be as easy as Keane (or the Liberal Party) might believe.

For the weeks of the election campaign, I was inside the Labor campaign for Aston as a volunteer. This is the story of how a under-resourced, shoestring campaign with a first time candidate managed to snip a 7.4% swing against a well known incumbent member in a seat that has been held by the Liberal Party since 1990.

Before going into the account of the campaign, there were three main motivations behind my involvement. My mother in law lives in Aston – in Wantirna South – so this would provide opportunities for popping in after volunteering ; we live in Dandenong, which is in the (relatively) safe Labor seat of Bruce ; I thought it would be good to help a woman unseat a man like Alan Tudge. I was one of the only outsiders to help with this campaign – there were a couple from Wills who knew Mary from her time with the union movement. This was a campaign made up of Aston locals. And, as it turned out, there weren’t all that many of them.

The Characters of the Campaign

Right from the start, I knew this was a shoestring budget campaign. I signed up on the website, and did not get a response. I then mentioned to the candidate, Mary Doyle on twitter that I would be coming to one of her train station street stalls at Boronia Station. She was grateful, then told me when I turned up that there was an issue with the website in terms of signing people up. I knew then that this was not going to be a campaign featuring many from outside the seat, all working to unseat Tudge. This was a campaign featuring locals, who had been fighting against Liberal incumbency since 1990.

At that station stall, I met Russell and Jacqui. Russell was a relatively new campaigner, made so by Alan Tudge’s disinterest in helping people who needed welfare support. He was a driving force of this campaign, volunteering for lots of street stalls and prepoll. It was Russell who would be driving every night from prepoll to prepoll site, collecting the kits. Jacqui was an old style, passionate Labor campaigner from the working class end of Aston who was sick of the wealthy, Rowville end determining who represented her interests at a Federal level. Boronia was in the heart of that working class stronghold. I liked both of them immediately.

The candidate, Mary Doyle herself also had a story. She had dreams of being a rock star, but soon realised that an insurance call centre paid the bills. Working in such a place, however, made her into a shop floor activist, going into the Financial Services Union as an organiser, and ending up at the ACTU. She is currently an organiser for the NTEU, and had to take unpaid leave to undertake this campaign. This was her first campaign as a candidate for any political office. It was clear from the outset that Mary was not a polished politician, especially when standing next to the State MP for Bayswater, Jackson Taylor, who has had four years to hone the craft. Taylor should go well in November, even though he is battling a redistribution that puts him behind the Liberals. He has been very busy connecting with local community groups and schools. His Facebook profile shows how much work he is doing. He reminded me of Mark Greenhill, the hard working Mayor of the Blue Mountains. Having met a fair few Labor politicians from Western Sydney, I knew the difference between polished and newbie. I like people like Greenhill and Taylor, but I also liked Mary for all her freshness and lack of polish.

The Talking Points of the Campaign

In the ensuing weeks, I went to Boronia, a street stall in Mountain Gate shopping centre in Ferntree Gully and a street stall in Rowville, the stronghold for the Liberal Party. For context, Rowville was one of the only eastern suburbs seats not to fall to Labor in the Danslide of 2018. Also for context, the Rowville shops at which we appeared has a bougie IGA that sells various expensive cheeses and sauces that you usually only see in Toorak and Cape Grim steak and dry aged steak that goes for $100 a kilo.

The street stalls revealed the scale of the campaign. For the station stalls, there were usually 4 – 6 hardy volunteers, turning up once a week in the morning, with 2 of them getting on a train, hoping that the station staff at neighbouring Bayswater wouldn’t tell them to stand well away from the entrance. The Mountain Gate one was in friendly territory for Labor. I got the chance to listen to some locals, as well as the campaigners. It was illuminating.

For all the talk of the Tudge / Rachelle Miller payout on Twitter, few were talking about the payout received by Rachelle Miller as a result of her relationship with Tudge. It was mentioned occasionally by people who were appalled by the way he had an affair and left his wife – but by rusted on Labor voters, mostly, with a few exceptions. This does not mean, however, that the issue didn’t exist in the community. Just that it wasn’t mentioned.

The main discussion points were the work that Tudge had done in the community. He was very well known for his appearances at sporting clubs, whether it be netball, footy, cricket. At local aged care facilities. At lots of community organisations. Tudge was a Well Known Local Member who Got Things Done for the community. He was clearly known in Aston as a politician who wasn’t just there for a cabinet position and then perhaps be a Prime Minister. That is what made him different from say a Josh Frydenberg or Tim Wilson. He looked comfortable at such places and events. People like Frydenberg and Wilson never did. That persona and work was also what insulated him from a backlash against his personal indiscretions.

Tudge was also the Minister for Robodebt, and the Liberals were the party that ran down the NDIS, but those were not big issues for vast swathes of Aston. They were discussed with us at street stalls, but by Labor supporters. One NDIS recipient expressed concern about the NDIS and Labor, especially after Anthony Albanese’s widely reported stumble over the issue. But she was reassured that Bill Shorten would be looking after that, and he would do a good job with that. That was reassuring – it was clear that Shorten is still respected in many circles.

Where’s Tudge?

During those first four weeks of the campaign, the man himself was missing. “Where’s Tudge”? was a popular refrain amongst the workers on the campaign, with sightings reported when they occurred. One of the few articles about the Aston campaign in the Age focused on his non appearance. Apparently he only appeared at ANZAC Day; we had a Tudge sighting at Mountain Gate in Ferntree Gully, but he was there only to briefly talk to his volunteers, and then disappeared before having to talk to anyone who might be working class. His longest appearance was at the Rowville Wellington Village shops. The Labor campaign, a week after his appearance there, booked a space inside the foyer of those shops, and the local Rowville Liberals were so shocked that they got on the phone to each other and set up outside, despite not having booked the space. By and large, though, Tudge was virtually invisible, hoping not to have to talk to people at street stalls outside the Rowville stronghold. Part of that, though, can be put down to him getting COVID-19. Mary also got COVID-19 in the fourth week of the campaign.

Volunteering and Organisation

The shoestring budget of the campaign and the stretched numbers of the volunteers was clear when rosters were put out and plans were made. Our campaign manager, Pamela Anderson (the CEO of Emily’s List, and no, I didn’t make a comment about her name, I am sure many have) was savvy, sharp and always scrambling to make things work. There was no money for a seat wide mailout of materials, so the volunteers had to pound the pavement to put material in letterboxes. Mary herself was a relatively last minute candidate, and there weren’t all that many volunteers on call, so door knocking was a challenge. Even staffing prepoll and polling booths on the day was a challenge. There were 34 polling booths across Aston, and during our last Zoom call, there were many slots still empty. I was placed on the largest booth in the seat, with 2900 voters in the last election. It was also the booth with the second largest Liberal 2PP. It was in… Rowville, near the Wellington Village shops. For a while, I was it. I managed to ask a couple of friends to help, who did. But I was going to be at the booth from 6am to 8pm. Eventually, the decision was made to put Mary there, but that symbolised the campaign. We didn’t have volunteers in shifts, multiple people handing out How To Votes. Many booths were just one person. I felt like I was working on a Western Sydney Greens campaign all over again. At least, though, we had corflutes well ahead of time and t-shirts with Mary’s name on them.

Corflute Shenanigans

One of the features of the early part of the campaign were attacks on corflutes – the election signs people plonk next to roads. Many people on Twitter decry and downplay the need for them, but they are necessary. Many were saying to me during and after the campaign that they didn’t know who the Labor candidate was for Aston, and that’s because there wasn’t much of a budget for signs, either. And in those early days, people were cutting out the face of Tudge and stealing their signs. Senator Jane Hume, and others, were blaming Tudge’s “opponents”, but people were also stealing signs of Mary. It did not help her visibility to the community. Eventually, Tudge’s signs were replaced – new ones made, plastering the community. Mary’s, however, were not as plentiful – there wasn’t the money.

Prepoll

So then it was time for prepoll. And suddenly Tudge was very visible. Labor’s campaign managed to just have enough volunteers at the three prepoll sites – Boronia, Wantirna South and Rowville. There originally was only two sites listed by the AEC – there was no Boronia listed at the start – and Tudge was annoyed at that situation changing. Little wonder, because that was the Labor stronghold. He then went onto claim that this election was the first one to have a Boronia prepoll station, which was not true – the Labor volunteers had done Boronia before. In typical Morrison style, Tudge reportedly refused to accept the truth and continue to accept his alternative fact.

A phenomenon that emerged at Rowville prepoll was the use of volunteers who spoke Mandarin – there were two. They usually stood apart from the other Liberal volunteers, who were the usual sort one would expect for the Liberal Party – older men who were Rotarians and liked golf. The Mandarin speaking ones did not have many voters to talk to, but it did show that there was a commitment to have such an approach. Labor, in contrast, had no such volunteers. We were fortunate if we had more than one volunteer on any given shift. One moment that did interest me was when a young woman of Chinese heritage approached the booth, the Mandarin speaking volunteer started speaking in Mandarin, which caused the woman to back away and say “sorry, I don’t speak Mandarin” and scuttle on past.

Tudged for the Very First Time

I was mostly at Rowville, which was also Tudge’s favourite prepoll spot. There I met Jill, who was a Rowville local and had to suffer the travails of being a Rowville resident and a Labor supporter. And it was at the Rowville prepoll, at Stud Park Shopping Centre where I met Tudge. We talked at length about various things when there was a lull in voters. We had conversations, about football – he is a North Melbourne supporter because he and his parents were immigrants and when they arrived in the 70s, North were winning a lot. We talked about his grey winter jacket (which I really liked and now want). He came across to me as an unremarkable, but affable middle manager. In the conversations we had, there was nothing overtly aggressive or arrogant about him. Just comfortable with who he is and what he had become. Tudge did not seem like a hard nosed, ideologically driven warrior, though he did suggest at one point that my Dandenong based electorate of Bruce would be in the sights of the Liberal Party next, as a “mortgage belt” seat. Labor volunteers in Aston had other stories and impressions of him from long experience, but I was assessing him as a local voter might. The same way I do whenever I meet any candidate. Fiona Scott, the one term MP for Lindsay was the same – friendly, affable, comfortable. Scott had a short connection to Sky News, but was never a good fit. I can’t imagine Tudge being a good fit there either. Though at one stage I did overhear Tudge talking about the ABC and the Guardian in a dismissive tone (I am paraphrasing here) “They wouldn’t know anything about where we are right now. They are easy to fob off – give them one line answers and they go away”.

For the most part, voters were friendly towards Tudge at prepoll. It was clear he was popular with men. Tradies, subcontractors, older men, all wishing him luck and shaking his hand. There were a lot of older women who liked him and found him polite and nice. There were yet others who self identified as Christians and therefore were supporters of the nice Christian man. Tudge himself boasted to other Labor volunteers that he had lots of volunteers from the local Pentecostal churches. The irony was not lost on any of us. But occasionally, there were people who looked with open disgust at Tudge and said “as if” as they walked straight past him to grab a Greens or Labor HTV. There was also the man who looked at Tudge and said “me wife would kill me if I voted for you”. All of us – other than Tudge – all laughed at that.

Mary Doyle’s emerging image was a a big contrast to that of Tudge. Always in red, whether a top, a dress or boots, so proudly Labor. But also clearly a mum who wasn’t going to cosplay as your Maaaate. Someone who would speak for the working class, for the vulnerable, for the underpaid. Her presence and image in the campaign was a distinct difference from Tudge that it was noticeable that a statement was being made. No more matey football holding, but standing for values and the vulnerable were the way things should be done. The fact Mary was always friendly, always positive helped give the campaigners more energy and passion. That was the direct opposite to what had happened in 2019, from all accounts.

The Anti-Vaxx UAP

One feature of this election were anti-vaxx volunteers for the UAP. This is why in this election, they had volunteers handing out for them and running actual campaigns. I was used to business grifter candidates after some free publicity for their business and paid volunteers from past federal campaigns in Lindsay. This time, though, they had ideologically driven conspiracy theorists. The candidate, Rebekah Spelman, was particularly hard driven with her hatred for mandates, vaccines and the Labor Party in particular. So much so, she wanted to call for the “hanging of Dan Andrews” at a rally. Spelman continually had a bluetooth earpiece in, which I found… curious. But she got on well with Tudge, with them chipping away at each other in a playful way. All quite chummy and nice, especially in the light of Spelman’s history.

An Internet Troll Come to Life

But a UAP volunteer was there for one of the nastier moments of the time at Rowville. There was one moment when Jacqui arrived, and there was a random woman standing at the side, talking loudly about “Labor and the Greens being in bed with each other”, to which I told her she should go to Cooper or MacNamara and see what happens in those seats. She then laughed at our volunteer – Jacqui – for wearing her mask. Jacqui was offended, mostly because she had just recovered from a bad illness, which had prevented her from campaigning for weeks. So she called this random woman an idiot. That then fired up the woman, who then started to shout at Jacqui, while the UAP volunteer backed her up by telling Jacqui she shouldn’t have called her an idiot. The situation was further inflamed by another visitor – a man who was clearly connected to the first random woman – who then decided to attack Labor with a range of comments about Dan Andrews, then Kevin Rudd getting knifed. I said to Jacqui that we weren’t engaging, and I refused to talk to either of them. That inflamed the man, who came close to me and started shouting at me. At the same time, a voter came from the carpark and was startled by the commotion. The voter looked at us confused and I said “don’t worry about him, he’s just an internet troll come to life”.

Fortunately, the aggressive man took off as soon as Jacqui went in to ask the AEC staff to intervene. However, the original woman came back, this time with a man wanting to take photos of Jacqui – getting in her face to do so – in order to make a complaint. It was messy. However, an AEC staffer told them the way to make a complaint, but also their aggressive actions towards Jacqui were inappropriate. All this time, the young Liberal volunteers were silent. But were willing to report the actions of the outsiders. The Greens volunteer was lovely and supportive, standing up to the aggressive man at one point, pointing out “that is a state issue, sir”. But the UAP volunteer was enjoying the show.

Election Day!

Then came Election Day. The end of a long time. I arrived at my booth at 6am. The Liberal volunteers had been there earlier, but this was nothing like Kooyong or Lindsay. They left space for my bunting on the fences. They were friendly and not openly ideological – honestly, like most of the Liberal volunteers. I learned a fair bit about golf, footy and the desire for a Rowville train line in my time in this campaign. So we chatted a lot about things we had in common. I told stories of Lindsay and of marginal seat campaigns in Sydney, which fascinated them. They were not used to that kind of thing.

The day itself was pretty low key all the way along. My wife did the coffee run – there is a great bougie cafe next to Wellington Village that uses Toby’s Estate beans (there are benefits to being in a wealthy Liberal suburb). Mary Doyle was placed on the booth all day, because it was the largest booth, and that’s what Labor does. Her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend also appeared for a time. Throughout the day, the Liberal volunteers chatted away with me and my friend Anne; we mostly stayed aloof from the UAP and Liberal Democrat volunteers. I also talked with the Greens people, who fit into the usual profile for Greens in the outer suburbs – friendly boomers and passionate teenagers / Gen Zs, but these ones were from Casey. The Greens candidate for Aston – Asher Cookson – was their age.

My friend Anne, though, decided to amuse herself with overhearing the conversations between the UAP and Lib Dem people, and their conspiracy theories. Voting machines, dark deals, vaccine conspiracies and ones from the UAP volunteer talking about the Illuminati controlling the weather.

And then we had a visit from a Liberal celebrity, Tim Smith, the soon to be former Member for Kew. He was distinctly different from the other volunteers. He came across as spiky, partisan, a hard nosed ideologue. He wasn’t overly impressed with my connection to the Greens, suggesting that the far left posed a huge problem in Australia. When my friend Anne suggested the far right were a problem, he demurred and suggested that they weren’t really a factor he had experienced. Smith also complained about where he lived – the seat of Kooyong, suggesting that it wasn’t his kind of place any more. It had degraded over the years, and the campaign there was a “circus”. He wasn’t going to campaign there on Election Day because “they would abuse me there”. So he chose to campaign in one of the safest booths in metropolitan Melbourne, in comfortable Rowville.

Here is Tim Smith talking to Rebekah Spelman, the UAP candidate for Aston. They didn’t discuss the possibility of having Dan Andrews hanged.

Alan Tudge also arrived, and by this stage, Mary’s daughter’s boyfriend tried to hand him a Mary flyer, having no idea who Tudge was. It was a very fine moment. Tudge also decided to have a long chat with Tim.

Our best Tim interaction, however, was when one of the Liberal volunteers, not really knowing who Tim Smith was or the fact that he was leaving politics because he crashed his car while over the limit, was talking enthusiastically about his hobby of restoring cars. He talked a solid 10 minutes about cars. So I added that my brother enjoyed restoring cars. Tim stayed completely silent during the whole conversation, knowing that he could say absolutely nothing.

The Patterns of Voting

Throughout the day, there were patterns emerging. Lots of people take all the material, in order to be polite. Especially in Rowville. But there were other patterns emerging. We had many people taking only Liberal HTVs, which was deflating – and character building – for Mary. We had Gen Zs who were clearly either voting Liberal with their parents, or voting because of their parents’ influence. Then there were the Gen Zs who were taking only the Greens’ HTVs, or Greens and Labor. And then there were occasionally the angry looking people taking the Palmer HTVs and semi growling under their breath at us in red shirts. We also had my favourite kind of voting couples. The man walking in front, taking only the Liberal HTV, then the wife, trailing behind, making sure she took a Liberal, Labor and Green HTV. There were a few like that throughout the campaign. There were also others who were delighted to meet Mary, and one took a selfie with her.

The End

The end of the day came. By the end, the emotional toll of the campaign had hit Mary like a truck and she was crying with relief and nerves – and by a voter who made some very affirming comments to her (detailed in the addendum). It was proof that she wasn’t a hardened, cynical politician, but a regular person who was doing a pretty brave thing. That was not an easy booth, it was not an affirming booth. There was no primary swing at the booth, though the Greens doubled their primary vote there, which meant that the 2PP vote for the ALP shifted 4%. Not the best result by any means. But it was good for Mary to be there and see the scale of the challenge for Labor in Aston. It was massive.

One of the things to emerge, however, was a respect the Liberal volunteers had for Mary. She had remained steadfast, positive and friendly throughout the day – as she had through the campaign. They all agreed she was a vastly better candidate than the previous one, who was aloof and ineffective. And one of them gave me some advice on how to help her do better into the future. “Get her to connect with the local sporting clubs”*. That fit into the message I had received loud and clear in my time with the campaign – that is how you get through in Aston. By being a visible local.

The Party at the End of the Day

At the end, the Liberal volunteers and I exchanged our pleasantries, and we moved to our respective lives. They were all going home, not to their function. I was heading to our function at Bayswater Soccer Club. It was a great function, where the small band of true believers watched as the results came in across the country. I learned that Labor HQ didn’t think the swing in Aston would even get near 5%. I also learned that HQ were similarly pessimistic about Menzies, which ran a similarly low budget, shoestring campaign.

The 7.4% swing to Labor in Aston was something to celebrate. There were booths that Labor had not won in decades. This was a campaign of guts, shoe leather and exhaustion. There were Labor people who had been fighting for no gains for many, many campaigns who now had something to cheer. Russell was jubilant. Jacqui was relieved and delighted. Jill was over the moon. It was wonderful to watch. Pam was ecstatic – she had managed a campaign that went wildly more successful than Labor HQ had predicted.

State MP for Bayswater, Jackson Taylor, Aston Campaign Manager Pamela Anderson and Labor Aston candidate, Mary Doyle

And then everyone had the chance to celebrate as the night wore on. There was a massive cheer – one of the biggest of the night – for the victory of Monique Ryan in Kooyong. It didn’t matter she was a teal – the fact was, the Liberals in Victoria were being routed. Tim Wilson losing in Goldstein was also cheered with derisive laughter at the former member of the IPA.

Morrison’s concession speech
Emotional times for Albanese’s speech

There were then cheers for the concession of Morrison and then later the victory speech of Albanese. By the time Albanese spoke, most of volunteers had left. A few had gone to the Trades Hall function, not knowing how they were stay awake. Most had gone home, happy with the result. But I listened to Albanese’s speech as the volunteers heard it – as a thank you to the true believers, like those in Aston who could not barely keep their eyes open at this point of the night. Mary Doyle was again in tears – happy ones this time.

The Future…?

Bernard Keane (and others) might think that Alan Tudge might disappear into the night and that the Liberal Party might try to install Josh Frydenberg into Aston. But I question the logic of that idea, based on the knowledge I accumulated during this campaign. Aston is now a marginal seat – the Labor campaign made it that way with next to no budget and a new candidate. People in Aston now know who Mary Doyle is. And Frydenberg does not have the connections and profile that Tudge has built over 12 years as the incumbent. He is of Toorak, not of Rowville. And there is a vast difference, even if they sell expensive cuts at meat at the IGA. It is hard to imagine the local Liberal volunteers being all that enthusiastic at being used in the same way as Fowler was used by the ALP in Sydney. If the Liberals did try that move, the Aston Labor volunteers would be ready for a by-election. For the first time in decades, they would be saying bring it on.

Addendum

Mary Doyle has responded to a few things that were written in the blog, and made these comments on Twitter.

a) The tears on Sat at 5:35pm were due to a convo w/ a last min voter, Ross, who wanted me to know how glad he was to be voting for someone like me and as he walked in to vote, it hit me all at once that ppl really responded to me and wanted me to represent them

b) I have had my character nicely built up already by handing out many kinds of flyers over the last two and a half decades and being told to ‘f**k off’ by ppl , so at age nearly 52, Liberal voters refusing my HTV is water off an old duck’s back by now!

c) the Lib vols @ Rowville weren’t privy to my visits to the sporting clubs around the other end of Aston… not being a particularly sporty person myself, Jackson Taylor took me along to meet many of the local sporting clubs around Boronia, Baysie & Wantirna. So there’s that 🙂

Oh and d) I still have dreams of being a rock star… so if there are any musos out there who’d like to collab with me feel free to slide into my DMs