Deep within enemy terrain at the federal election, a pair of retired teachers are lending a hand to Victorian unions to door-knock gentrified suburbs and hand out campaign material at train stations.
The couple, Lesley Hardcastle and Rod Charles, have been deployed to the seat of Higgins, which was vacated by Liberal Kelly O’Dwyer, as part of an aggressive campaign by the Victorian Trades Hall Council to capitalise on double-digit swings in eastern Melbourne seats at the November state election.
“Lesley and I decided to go along to a meeting proposing that unions get involved in campaigns in traditional blue-ribbon Liberal seats,” Charles tells Guardian Australia.
“We thought this is exciting – it’s something that’s never been done before. We were impressed by the ambition.”
That’s how the pair find themselves walking the streets of suburbs such as Carnegie and Glen Iris, and talking to busy professionals about the Liberals cutting public schools funding and aged care.
Union hit list in Victoria and Queensland
Before Scott Morrison became Liberal leader the union battle plan was mainly to target Queensland marginals but since the switch of prime ministers there is a greater focus on Victoria.
While Liberal MPs think the party’s brand has recovered to an extent in Australia’s most progressive state, the list of Trades Hall target seats shows unions’ ambition to expand the electoral map.
Kooyong (Liberal held by 12.8%), Higgins (10.1%), Flinders (7%) and even Menzies (7.8%) and Deakin (6.4%) are targets alongside the more low-hanging fruit of Chisholm (2.9%) and La Trobe (3.2%).
When the polls close and votes are counted from 18 May that list will either represent an important electoral buffer for Bill Shorten or an embarrassing overreach in a tight campaign.
The largest union push is the Australian Council of Trade Union’s Change the Rules campaign, urging voters to change the government in order to rewrite industrial relations laws to fight insecure work and low wage growth.
That campaign is being deployed a little bit further down the electoral pendulum at marginal seats in Queensland (Forde, Capricornia, Flynn, Petrie, Leichhardt and Herbert), Western Australia (Swan, Pearce), New South Wales (Banks, Gilmore, Reid and Robertson), Victoria (Dunkley and Corangamite), Boothby in South Australia, and a bit of defence in Labor-held Bass in Tasmania.
The ACTU secretary, Sally McManus, says that unions “maintained all of our targets that were planned under [Malcolm] Turnbull and added to them under [Scott] Morrison”. They added five extra target seats in Victoria, one in Western Australia and one in South Australia.
In all, there are 16 ACTU target seats and a total of 28 targeted by unions, including peak bodies in each state and ACTU affiliates.
Cashed-up ACTU campaign
The most high-profile affiliates’ campaigns are the Australian Education Union’s Fair Funding Now, the United Voice campaign around weekend penalty rates, and the nurses’ campaign for aged care staff-to-patient ratios. The Construction Forestry Maritime Mining Energy Union has also raised millions but is bolstering the ACTU campaign rather than drawing attention to itself.
The ACTU is cashed up after changes made in 2015, when it added a permanent $2 annual campaign levy on the cost of affiliation for its member unions, which represent 1.8m Australians.
Raising revenue from a total affiliation fee of more than $6 per union member per year, the ACTU spent a total of $13m on its 2016 Build a Better Future campaign and the 2019 Change the Rules campaign will top this effort.
After helping to kick out the Howard government in 2007 with the Your Rights at Work campaign, Australian unions say they have learned their lesson not to pack up the tent and go home after a win.
Before the 2016 campaign the then ACTU secretary, Dave Oliver, promised it would build a “permanent campaigning capacity”, with organisers employed in marginal seats throughout the term of the 45th parliament.
As a result, the ACTU says it is embedded in the communities of the 16 target seats it has chosen for the 2019 campaign.
“Campaigns that truly come from the ground up take time to put in place, and the work that our organisers have been doing since before the last election is showing through now with the massive amount of community participation that we are seeing in our campaign,” McManus says.
“You can’t parachute in at the last minute and expect a community to get onside – we’ve been working with community leaders to bring their concerns to the national stage for years.”
McManus points to half a million Australians mobilised for street protests against low wages and insecure work in three nationwide actions in the last 18 months and high turnout at launches in 26 seats.
“We have plenty of surprises left before election day,” she says.
The art of persuasion: from the union base to undecideds
While the rallies make for good TV, the bread and butter of the campaign is phone banking, particularly to persuade undecided union members; door-knocking and television, print, digital and radio ads, which tend to reach more non-union voters.
Mark Morey, the secretary of Unions NSW, which is campaigning in Robertson and Reid, says the strength of unions using their own lists for campaigning is voters hearing directly from people like them.
“If someone you don’t know rings you it’s not as powerful – that’s the strength of the persuasion calls – someone from your union ringing you.”
Morey says the unions also want a strong Senate campaign, so Labor promises such as getting rid of union-specific regulators the Australian Building and Construction Commission and Registered Organisation Commission are not blocked.
“The main thing is to get people to commit to vote the current government out,” he says. “But we also want to remind members that some parties such as One Nation have a voting record that has been with the government and very anti-worker.”
Correna Haythorpe, the federal president of the Australian Education Union, says its Fair Funding Now campaign is targeted at parents and communities of public schools, who it reaches through community forums, advertisements and “conversations outside of schools”.
“One thing we’re doing very clearly is emphasising school by school comparisons to show the extra funding commitments [of progressive parties],” she says.
“People get the unfairness angle. If you watch our ads one of the things we’re talking about is prime minister Scott Morrison’s concept of a fair go – we’ve got a whole heap of students not getting a fair go on schools funding.”
From Labor’s perspective the union campaigns are helping their cause. Although they are not coordinated, they have a shared purpose to elect progressives and the sense is in this campaign there is less competition for activists.
The Greens have attempted to one-up Labor by signing up to Change the Rules in full and promising to outspend Labor on education.
But the Labor offering to restore penalty rates, regulate labour hire, change the rules for setting the minimum wage, pay equity for women, abolish union-specific regulators and to give $14bn more to public schools lines up nicely with the campaigns run by the ACTU and affiliates.
Lesley Hardcastle says when she’s talking to voters they start “suspicious” that volunteers are telling them how to vote but focusing on the issues helps get a foot in the door.
“We say you can vote any way you like but please put the Liberals last because of their policies … Don’t reward them for years of cuts and inaction.”
Rod Charles says persuasion can be hard because volunteers strike not anger but disillusionment. “Their attitude is ‘what’s the point, you can’t trust them, they get elected and don’t abide by promises’.”
But people are “generally sympathetic to principles like fairness and equality of opportunity”, he says. Volunteers ask voters to sign a pledge to vote on a particular issue, then will get a follow-up call before election day.
On Tuesday Morrison was asked what he made of the union campaigns, and he said they, Labor and GetUp are “out doing their normal thing”.
“They’ll be looking to tell lies about the government,” he said. “They’ll be looking to try and hoodwink people, like they did at the last election – particularly making threats around Medicare.
“They’ll be ringing up pensioners in the night, as they were last time.”
Lesley Hardcastle says the reason she signed up to the union campaign is precisely because she wanted to “break down the myths and stereotypes of union members”.
“When people see someone who looks like I do – an elderly, middle class lady – then hopefully they will think ‘well, if she believes in unions maybe I don’t understand what a union is about’.”
That is the basis of the union push: to get the voter to identify the issues that affect their lives – low pay, insecure work, aged care quality, or schools funding – with the progressive moment.
Whether it’s a call from a member of the same union or a knock from a neighbour, the strategy is to start with the base and build towards an electoral majority by using the voices of people like themselves.