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The Sharp End: The Work Of The Local Candidate

Ari Sharp, Australian Democrats candidate for Kooyong, reports from the campaign frontline.

SharpIt is often difficult to work out just what the role of a local candidate is in a Federal election.

In recent times, Australian politics has become overwhelmingly presidential in the way campaigns are fought and the way that the media covers a campaign.

A presidential campaign is one in which the leaders of the major parties are the central figures, and the election is considered a battle of competing personalities rather than parties or ideologies. Parties invest large amounts in developing profile and recognition of their leaders, and this is put to the test come election time.

The media responds to this, and covers the election very much as a diary of what each major figure has done for the day. The focus is on the image each leader wants to present for each day. The spinoff, therefore, is that the personal profile of local candidates (independents excepted) is of fairly minor significance compared to that of the party leadership.

When politics becomes as presidential as it has, the question that begs is “what’s the role of a local candidate?” It is a difficult question, and one that hundreds of candidates across the nation will be grappling with.

To many within the senior ranks of a campaign, local candidates may be considered a pain in the butt. Take, for example, the 1996 election, where one of the biggest stories surrounded the then little known Liberal candidate in the safe Queensland Labor seat of Oxley, Pauline Hanson. If it weren’t for her utterances in opposition to her party’s official position, she would have remained in obscurity. But as a local candidate who didn’t ‘toe the line’, she was a nuisance and bugbear to the Liberals.

The reality of being a local candidate is that anything one says which is in line with party policy will find its way onto page 15 of the local paper. Anything said publicly which is inconsistent with official party policy will find its way onto page 3 of the metropolitan dailies.

The stark truth, therefore, is that for local candidates to do their job effectively, they need to get their head down and bum up and work on the mechanics of a campaign.

Most local candidates will tell you that the three most important elements of a local campaign are polling booth coverage, polling booth coverage and polling booth coverage. The fact is that no matter how effective a campaign may be up until polling day, if voters don’t have a slip of paper telling them how to vote for you, then you’ve lost their vote. The challenge therefore is to get how to vote cards out, and this is where a local campaign is most fundamental.

Local campaigns are also vital to fight the ‘ground war’ – the battle to leaflet the electorate as comprehensively as possible, and in the case of marginal seats, doorknocking and telephoning constituents.

In a federal electorate of 85,000 voters, the challenge is coming into contact with enough to make a major difference. As a guide, a candidate would need to doorknock every weekend for five years in order to reach every voter – not really practical for most.

A better way, usually a street walk, where a high flow of voters can be found, works far better. In the morning peak at a train station, or in the midst of a busy weekend shopping centre, many more voters can be encountered, although this contact is less substantial than during a doorknocking.

Finally, a word of warning: try to avoid standing between a candidate in a marginal electorate and a group of undecided voters. The ensuing stampede may be harmful to your health.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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