Neighbourhood conversations are Victoria’s new political frontier

The Age: Neighbourhood conversations are Victoria’s new political frontier. November 16, 2014 Mary Delahunty

What’s left to say: Mary Delahunty analyses the week of state campaigning. Photo: Supplied

Now we are seeing clear campaign differences. Dan Andrews is sticking to the script, education, health, jobs. He is flanked by a cast of services “good guys” – firefighters, nurses and paramedics. While Andrews fights the “air war” on television every night with announcements that play to Labor’s strengths, the “ground war” is led by uniformed firies, nurses and ambos who are doorknocking targeted seats.

This is the new face of retail politics, frontline service providers having one-on-one conversations with voters on their doorstep explaining how the cuts to health and other services by Coalition governments in both Victoria and Canberra directly affect lives.

And in the wings another powerful tool, the neighbourhood campaign. Thousands of volunteers, Labor supporters but not always party members, forensically focused on streets and houses of their undecided neighbours for nightly phone calls.

It is in many of these conversations that the paradox of the Coalition proposition and damage of the Abbott factor is clear. The community want more infrastructure to unlock congested cities but not at the expense of spending on health, education and public transport.

The other show is stumbling. An Obama-style launch failed to excite the wider audience. While Denis Napthine’s avuncular good humour never flags Treasurer Michael O’Brien showed the strain by lashing out at university scholars who dared to offer the public their assessment of the long-term cost of the East-West link – $18 billion over 25 years.

Disputing “a bunch of left-wing academics with a huge anti-roads agenda”, O’Brien failed to offer his costings. This is a bad scene for the Coalition. It signed the contracts with unseemly haste in the shadow of the campaign but refuses to reveal the updated cost-benefit analysis. Why, what’s to hide, cries the audience.

Support for the project is being undercut by questions about its true cost and opportunities lost for other necessary state spending. Labor advertising is striking this hard, asking if the government has to cut $1.2 billion from TAFE how can it find multiple billions for a tunnel. TAFE closures and rising regional youth unemployment are not assuaged by futuristic government advertising for a road link and airport rail in Melbourne.

Indeed, the $10 million Moving Victoria ads online, on TV and radio and in newspapers, on trucks taxis and street furniture may just serve to contrast the fantasy of the future with the grumpy reality of the daily struggle home on congested trains trams and freeways.

This campaign marks a transition from 40 years of mass electoral marketing through old mass media. Liberal’s decade of decay under Labor and an almost soothing reprise of Guilty Party or Labor’s Under the Liberals you’re on your Own ads are losing market share as media fragments.

The new political frontier is the neighbourhood conversation. Obama finessed it, now Victorian Labor is giving it a shot. Ambulances turning up on time, or a tunnel.

Mary Delahunty is a Gold Walkley winner, a former minister in the Bracks government, and author of Private Life: Public Grief and Gravity, Inside the PM’s office during her last year and final days.

Twitter @luminosityMary

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