Party machine master of micro-management

IN THE full glare of a pondering electorate, our major party candidates for the next election in Bass will be about as spontaneous as your worst cliche.

With so much up for grabs in the September 14 election, and both parties on the verge of either winning or losing the Northern electorate, the Geoff Lyons and Andrew Nikolic campaigns will be highly disciplined and tightly scripted from afar.

A candidate in a marginal or volatile electorate, which is typically Bass, is required to ditch any nonsense about creativity, suspend their personality and stick to the script.

Sure, they'll have their local campaign team, but this team will follow precisely all instructions from CHQ - the national campaign command centre.

It's like boot camp in a religious faith. Don't question the wisdom; just believe in a higher intelligence, omnipotently pulling the strings.

The federal Liberal Party usually bases its campaign headquarters in Melbourne. Labor usually bases its in Sydney, but the word is that this year both will establish their command centres in Melbourne and slowly ramp up for the final month- long campaign to start early to mid- August.

This slavish candidate devotion involves CHQ sending out daily scripts in the form of pre-drafted press releases and glossy pamphlets with the candidate's name on it. On top is an issue with a local flavour, but included is a core message that the federal party wants to get out there nationally on a particular day.

For Labor it may be a local hook for propaganda about Julia Gillard's skilled workforce moves.

For the Libs it may be a local company battling the carbon tax, which will include a subliminal message about Tony Abbott's plans to scrap it.

These are strictly scripted messages. If a candidate and his team deviate from the script, rewrite it or fail to issue the press release when instructed to, there's hell to pay.

The candidate usually gets a blast from either the state campaign director or the relevant minister or shadow minister. If the federal leader ever gets on the phone, you're in real trouble.

Scripted press releases are thoroughly researched, unimpeachable and approved by several layers of staff.

If there is a national propaganda message woven into the script, you can assume that the party's federal leadership team and staff have personally vetted it.

The scores of staff at CHQ are party whiz-kids and electoral experts from around the country, drafted for the campaign. Their social life stops. For them the campaign becomes a daily blur of over-night poll tracking, proofreading, phone calls, research, pizzas, coffee and beers.

It is a precise science. A marginal seat campaign has no room for error. Labor is usually better at it, but during the early Howard era the Libs were outstanding, and used all the trappings of government; Labor will surely do likewise in the months leading up to September 14.

In the final weeks of the campaign, CHQ will instruct local campaign teams to have party volunteers do nightly tracking polling - mini telephone surveys to track community feeling.

Imagine every state feeding this precious glimpse of local community moods into a national database.

That's why leaders and candidates always seem to know what to say in election campaigns. They've locked on to your thinking.

The campaigns rely on a database compiled routinely in MPs' electorate offices, which collates information from constituents, like their party allegiances, marital status, education, religion, likes, dislikes, family structure and priorities.

This database is used for prioritising mass mail-outs. No sense in wasting a Labor pamphlet on a diehard Liberal voter. It's a highly sophisticated software package of immense electoral value, and both major parties use it.

Come election night, the winners celebrate; but the real celebration takes place at CHQ and the various state party machine headquarters.

Each seat they win is another taxpayer-funded mini command centre ready for the next election, complete with taxpayer-paid staff and tonnes of mailing resources, phones, computers, airfares and stationery. The next campaign is the real winner on election night. All the candidates have to do in the meantime is obey orders and enjoy the perks.

Barry Prismall is deputy editor of The Examiner.


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