Labor’s Historic Win in Aston – There’s Something about Mary

There’s been, as ever, a lot of pontificating from afar, but this win is more about politics in outer suburban areas and the power of a double campaign. And, there is just something about Mary Doyle.

This morning, Australia’s media and public are continuing to try to work out how it was that the Federal Labor Government were able to repudiate over a hundred years of history and win a seat from their opposition in a by-election. There’s been, as ever, a lot of pontificating from afar, but this win is more about politics in outer suburban areas and the power of a double campaign that is collectivist and collaborated in spirit. And, there is just something about Mary Doyle.

  1. The Reactions – Not the Whole Story

There’s been a range of reactions to the victory, which are all instructive to how unexpected the result has been to media people who don’t know all that much about the area, outside statistics and the frame of national politics.

The reactions will continually throw the result into a national framework, whether it confirms what Mark Kenny suggests. Or, it will raise the issue of Moira Deeming and the state Liberal Party. Yet all of those positions will not tell the whole story of Aston.

2. Election Day – Not the whole story in any way

The coverage of election day, too, did not give much indication that legacy media outlets had much of a clue about what was about to happen. Simon Love of Sky decided to focus on a picture of one fence, inferring that the Liberals were interested just in promoting their candidate, and Labor were just focused on Peter Dutton.

(That was just not true about the campaign, where pictures of Doyle were everywhere. I know, because I helped to put them up.)

Then there was The Age, where Annika Smethurst and Melissa Cunningham decided to go to the seat just before closing time at polling booths. The quietest time for booths in Aston. But somehow, they managed to suggest that the Liberals were a good chance. This is because they visited Rowville, which is traditionally one of the most conservative suburbs in the outer east. And they somehow gleaned that there was “strong support in Boronia” for the Liberals. The very same Boronia where every booth had a two party preferred vote of 60% and above for Doyle. It was just shoddy.

3. The Bigger Story – Community Politics, The Campaign and the WhatsApp Group

Last year, I wrote a blog post detailing the Aston campaign during the May 2022 election. It was a post that was appreciated by the campaigners, including from Doyle, who provided some feedback as to how it should have told the story. It is true to say that this campaign was a fair amount different from the one in May. This one started with a launch by Anthony Albanese. (In the aforementioned Boronia.)

There was much more money spent on advertising, mailouts, coreflutes than in May. There were BIG signs available for front yards. There were Labor Ministers out to help door knock. They had positive Government policies to talk about, such as childcare, which is a big issue in Aston. There were more volunteers available for election day and for doorknocking and street stalls than there had been in May. English progressive musician Billy Bragg appeared in an endorsement. It was just bigger.

The campaign itself, however, was not bigger. It was very narrowly focused. The Liberal Party focused on the “fact” that Labor had not delivered on road funding promises made by Alan Tudge before the May 22 election. Two local roads. A problem with this approach was that locals knew that these roads had not been improved all that much in the entire time Tudge was in office. But the Liberals suggested that this was a failing of the new Labor government. That was all they offered.

Labor, in response, targeted Dutton and his record as a health minister with its posters. Pictures of him looking mean with a comment about him being the worst health minister, comments on him bringing in the GP co-payment when he was health minister. So it wasn’t just Dutton, it was about him and connection to health, which is a traditional Labor strength.

The cuts posters from the Libs and the Dutton posters from Labor were in yellow and black. Take from that what you will. But that was the focus of the campaign itself. Big money, big stakes, narrow focus.

The Campaign WhatsApp

The Labor campaign, however, wasn’t all a monolithic spending of money by HQ on yellow Dutton posters. There was an Aston Labor WhatsApp group set up for the May election. It lay dormant since then, but lit up this year. It was most instructive about the detailed workings of this campaign. What it showed is that, despite the spending of money by HQ, the success of the campaign still required the same locals to help co-ordinate the day to day elements of the campaign. In seats like Aston, visibility is important, whether that means with signs, or with volunteers at polling booths. And that requires boots on the ground during regular working hours, as well as cars with which to put out the signs.

There were two people who did most of the sign placement. Sometimes prepoll rosters didn’t have volunteers arrive, causing a mad scramble on WhatsApp to find people. I was able to do prepoll HTV at Rowville (I like the more Liberal booths – I find Liberals in the wild fascinating) and I was relieving the same small number of people that turned out last time. And every day, two different Labor volunteers with many years of history in Aston would turn up to pick up the gear, to bring back the next day. And on the day, not all of the booths were necessarily covered with the outside helpers. The locals were still integral to the success of the campaign. It was these people from the May campaign – people like Russell and Jacqui in particular – who were the glue that kept everything together.

The Local Liberals…?

In contrast, the Liberal campaign seemed to be directed more from Liberal HQ than it was in May. None of the locals I was with at the Rowville Prepoll booth were at the same booth this time around. There seemed to be a couple of locals, but most were outsiders. One group, memorably, a group of rich Gen Zs who came in a Mercedes Benz and start to shout out slogans at voters as they were entering the booth. That almost never happens in outer suburban elections because that stuff doesn’t work. People don’t want to be disturbed. This particular floppy haired toff shouted “Send Labor a Message”, to which I would end with “that you like professional, competent government”. But I only did that once because it’s all so weird and out of place. (But he was so annoying.) (Postscript – It turns out he was notorious Liberal agitator Barclay McGain).

This is not to say that the local Liberals weren’t turning up to help elsewhere. However, there were a lot of bussed in (and probably Merced in) volunteers on election day. That sort of thing matters because it changes the tone of the election, and if familiar faces are removed, then voters can be a little unsettled about the party they have voted for for a long, long time.

4. The Local Candidate Element and Social Media

Onto local issues, and one thing from the Age piece from election day that was useful was this comment about Campbell being from Brunswick. There was a lot of things said about the election and the fact neither main candidate lived in the electorate. But those comments usually missed the mark. It’s a complete false equivalence. Doyle has lived in the outer eastern suburbs for 35 years. Campbell lived in Fitzroy, then Brunswick and is a councillor for the City of Melbourne. That is a vast difference in terms of being an actual local. Doyle lives 10 minutes outside the electorate. On the day, her daughter’s boyfriend voted for Doyle, because he lives in the electorate. Campbell, from day one, looked entirely out of place.

Throughout May, and during this campaign, Doyle’s personal approach and social media was focusing on meeting locals and being around locals. That was it. Mary being Mary – warm, approachable, friendly. She can’t be anything else. The social media approach also leveraged support from the social media presence of state Bayswater MP Jackson Taylor, whose use of Facebook is one of the best around (almost no-one uses or cares about Twitter in Aston. It’s all FB and, to a lesser degree, Instagram). Taylor’s works because he does it himself, and is therefore authentic. Doyle’s has the same elements. Campbell’s, in contrast, was bland and corporate. Same went for her style with locals. And to be honest, it probably couldn’t have been anything else. This is the main problem with being a parachuted outsider – you can’t feign authenticity. If the Liberal Party had preselected a local, they would have had a much better chance of holding.

The way this issue was treated by the media was pathetic, as usual. But not as pathetic as Peter Dutton’s, who attacked Doyle and her living arrangements on election day (his only appearance at the campaign). He said that Doyle “had 10 months to move and she didn’t” while Campbell took out a lease on a property in the electorate. That enraged me, because it’s not as if Doyle has a property empire like Dutton, or is a barrister married to a newspaper chief like Campbell. As Julia Banks pointed out, the Liberal Party, as an organisation, treat “living in an electorate” as something that simply can be bought.

In Doyle’s case, she took unpaid leave to campaign last time, and since then, has had to live life as an ordinary person, not someone ready to gear up for a by-election called simply because Alan Tudge was too afraid to face the consequences of his actions (or inaction) during the Robodebt disgrace. Doyle is a local, no matter what various media outlets and Peter Dutton tried to say.

5. Momentum from May 2022The Story of Heany Park

There are any numbers of reasons why Doyle won. One of the most important is that this campaign built on momentum from May. People now knew who she was, and this is important in an area like Aston, where community and family and making local social connections are the focus for so many. Campbell could only depend on the Liberal brand. People liked Tudge, which was one of the reasons he kept winning and gaining swings even while other seats were inching towards Labor.

For me, personally, the moment that blew me away was last night’s primary vote victory at Heany Park booth in Rowville South. In 2019, the Liberal v Labor primary vote was 1550 to 910. In 2022, I was there with Doyle all day, meeting voters at the second safest booth in the seat. (As I said, I like going to safe Liberal booths). Her vote then was 830 – 560. Last night, it was won by Doyle by the margin of 1058 to 1046. Another interesting factor of that was that in the state election in 2022, the election in-between, Labor’s candidate, Mannie Kaur Verma, also won Heany Park. That booth in particular has defied the trend for Rowville, in that other Rowville booths haven’t swung as hard for Labor as that one. There is a story to be told in relation to why so many people suddenly trusted the Labor brand that they decided to change the way they voted after May last year.

6. What now for the future?

It’s important to discuss the future ramifications. Peter Dutton’s leadership for one. His leadership probably shouldn’t be under question because he didn’t show up for the campaign, until the end. The Liberal Party seemed to know from day one that he was a liability. Which should be a concern for 2025. If the Liberals ever want to be in government again, they need to win back relatively wealthy seats like Aston.

For the Liberal Party as a whole, they need to be more serious about the way they provide opportunities for professional moderate women to be voted into office. This was a ridiculous way to attempt to give a long standing moderate apprentice a “safe” seat. It was as tone deaf as the Kristina Keneally Fowler disaster last year. Possibly even more so, because Dai Le was better known across Fowler – due to her extensive involvement in local politics – than Doyle was in Aston. As I was talking to Roshena Campbell at prepoll, I found her friendly and whip-smart. Someone out to make a softer, more open Liberal Party into the future. It occurred to me the Liberals need fewer Michael Sukkars and more Roshena Campbells.

And the future for… Mary Doyle

(Photo taken by Michael Currie – @_michael_currie on Instagram)

These two photos were taken by me at Boronia Bowls Club. Note the happiness from Mary’s daughter and great niece)

“I guess I am the new Member for Aston”

Finally, this was a win for the long standing Labor volunteers and voters, who now have a voice for them in the parliament. Tudge never listened to them and their concerns – he was too busy, in so many ways. Doyle will be a local, backbench MP, looking out for Aston and being her genuine, authentic self. If you want to see that authenticity in action, watch her victory speech from the Boronia Bowls Club. I fully expect her to be drawing from the local support, and utilising her social media to help leverage her into being re-elected in 2025. Aston can be a long term Labor seat, if the support networks hold up. Jackson Taylor’s re-election in Bayswater should be a template for how to do that. He had an electorate redistribution that made his seat notionally Liberal, but through his sustained social media presence, and his appearance at every local event possible, he managed to grow his vote and win the seat with a significant margin.

And it’s important for the new Labor Government that seats like Aston are held. If, into the future, they lose support in inner city seats like Melbourne Ports and Wills, then they need to hold seats like Aston. And the way to do that is for communities in that area to feel as though they have a local who is genuinely in their corner. And now they have someone who is.

By prestontowers

I had been a teacher observing politics and the media from the outside for some time. I became a political insider, didn't like it much, and hightailed it back to watching it again. And still loving teaching.

One reply on “Labor’s Historic Win in Aston – There’s Something about Mary”

Thanks. This is a really useful summing-up, and I particularly liked your comment “It occurred to me Liberals need fewer Michael Sukkars and more Roshena Campbells. “

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