You only live once which means you’ve got to give things a go. Well I looked around at the poor state of Australian politics last year and decided to run in the Australian Federal Election for the seat of Menzies (where I live). It was an amazing experience, and I encourage anyone to get involved and give it a go.
Here is a run-down of what I did, the mistakes I made and lessons I learned.
The Effort and Resources Required
- I spent 250 hours on the project over 8 weeks starting from zero.
- 80% if this was learning time, brochure development & admin, 20% people contact.
- My budget was $2000 ($1000 for materials plus $1000 for the AEC – Australian Electoral Commission).
- I got 1.4% overall with 4.3% in my best booth (1173 votes with 86% counted) = 10-15 mins invested/vote
- I circulated 9,000 flyers total with a reach of approximately 10% of my electorate.
Lesson: Getting coverage is much harder than you think and more expensive. Political campaigns need cash, so begin a campaign with a strategy for funding it and think about $$$ per vote as well as your most effective use of time.
Choose Your Approach.
With limited budget both in time and money, I targeted physical areas to see what results I would get from different approaches. The AEC publishes results of each booth, so I was able to track the impact I had on each area. Naturally I had great aspirations of going from zero to representing the people, but I was also realistic that this would most likely be a learning experience for a start.
I ran for the house of reps as an independent candidate. Running for the house of reps means covering a smaller physical area, and although it is arguably easier to get into the Senate, I am not one to take the easy path. For me, the house of reps (lower house) is like the fire where the action happens where the Senate is like the water which moderates and puts the breaks on policy. I’m more someone of action.
Lesson: If you are planning a serious entry into politics, plan for the long-term. Get your ideas straight and keep putting the message out there to those who will listen. Expect to build awareness for 5-10 years. Choose what you want to get out of the experience.
Listening and Understanding
I started with a review of my electorate and chats with neighbours – people who live in Menzies. You get a lot of information on interests, home ownership, religion, education levels, household incomes, family makeup, country of birth, etc., etc. by talking to a few people and checking the Internet.
I went and got my 100 signatures. This was a real eye opener. The Menzies Electorate lies along the Yarra River near Melbourne, Victoria and you can get from one end to the other in 20 minutes in the car. Despite this, it is amazing the different groups within the electorate and different interests. Speaking with people was eye opening. I went and got my signatures from different areas in the electorate and my success and the response varied enormously from place to place. It literally took 4 times as long to collect signatures in some areas than others.
Collecting signatures was easier than votes and although many people were nice, I did meet the odd person who was confrontational.
Lesson: People are different. You need to spend time building your skills and understanding your community. There is no way around it except for spending time talking to people. Expect to get asked things you have not thought about before, expect to be challenged, expect to change your mind.
Your Actions Do Have an Impact
- My best booth was 4.3% where I spent the whole day from no previous contact around the booth. There is no point going to different booths (wasting time). Spend the day at the biggest booth.
- My second best booth was 3.1% with a flyer covering entire area distributed 2-3 weeks out from the election, no other action. I believe two drops would get +4%
- I got 2.4% with a flyer distributed 4-5 weeks out
- And 1.9% with a flyer distributed within 3-10 days of the election
- How to vote handouts by someone other than me and signs outside booths seemed ineffective with no previous letter drop/contact.
- I did not get a chance to do combination testing.
- My base rate as an Independent seems to be 0.9% (booths not touched), so I am taking anything above that as being due to my efforts.
Lesson: What you do and when you do it is important. The most effective way to reach people is to meet them in person and listen to them. Get out there with the people.
- People are open minded up to about 2 weeks prior to the election. After this, it takes a personal contact either from the candidate or one of voters own friends to shift their vote.
- Letter drops help middle ground parties (estimate 2-3% per drop) and should be run before the last 2 weeks of the election. They are less effective for single issue parties (from my discussions with other candidates).
- Signage is just a support/maintenance mechanism. People won’t shift their vote based just on a sign, but it good for early in the campaign just to get your name out there.
- Staffing booths is good(some impact), but is ineffective without first shifting people’s vote prior to the day except for the candidate.
- People treat their vote as valuable but they also want simple – I should have had a clearer call to action on my flyer (eg See my video for more on how and why it’s critical to …)
- Momentum exists – it takes time to shift people and you can build momentum (from my research trying to copy what overseas parties have done like 5 stars in Italy and Navalny in Russia).
- People will vote on a single issue, so don’t isolate anyone on flyers or in the news. I made a mistake in one part of my electorate which already has a train station, and doesn’t care, while the other end wants one. They both have issues around transport, so I should have micro-targeted flyers or written about ‘transport strategy’ generically.
- Video is powerful (I missed much of this opportunity, but still got 797 people to view my video which I did in 30 mins). Some more time & preparation would have made a big difference. A series of planned targeted videos could have been quite powerful
- 5% of people vote incorrectly. A proper how to vote card is essential. I did not set preferences, (just had Vote 1) but this confused people.
- The first step is to secure 4% of the vote. This makes a campaign sustainable long-term.
I learnt so much during my 8 week campaign that I noticed that the radio sounded different at the end. This is hard to explain, but I could suddenly hear more meaning in and behind what politicians and political commentators were saying than I had even noticed before. The advantage of doing a short concerted effort is that you notice this. If I had spent years building up, I would not have noticed, but this is what happens over time for all of us. We get better, we improve, we understand more and we become better people.
Lesson: You can and will change as a person.
Working with the AEC (Australian Electoral Commission)
I had many experiences where I had cause to meet with or request help from the AEC. One time, I was asking advice on behalf of a voter, another I needed to clarify something for myself. In every case, I sensed a deep commitment to the process of democracy from the AEC representatives and a respect for what I was trying to achieve. Naturally there are areas where the AEC can improve as there would be with any organization or person actually making an attempt to achieve something. For myself, I have nothing but praise for the AEC and the people who commit their time to running the election.
Lesson: Respect is a very powerful force which can be sensed. If you have a genuine desire to serve people, those people will genuinely want to work with you.
Meeting the other candidates was a great eye-opener. Each one had different ideals, different approaches, different backgrounds but each candidate was approachable and genuinely there to improve the country. Personally, I feel that there are major flaws with the 2 party system in Australia, but at a candidate level, it was great to meet all of them.
Some parties were basically running candidates to have a shot at senate seats, while others have a long term view at political change and yet others primarily run on one issue. When it comes to running, there is a lot more strategy and maths than I initially thought.
Lesson: There is room for all candidates and the more the better (at least up to a point) because genuine political debate and challenge is what brings out the best in people.
Ideas from Around the World
Politics is changing and it is possible to get great ideas from around the world if you are planning to run for election. Some places I found inspiration included:
- The Russian candidate for Moscow Navalnv. (or check here or here).
- The Italian 5 Star Movement
- Great historical political speeches – search online there are many good ones
- The Australian Labor Party It’s Time’ Campaign
Lesson: There is no lack of ideas for getting through to people, but also, there are no silver bullets. You need to have multiple paths to reach people along with a good clear, consistent message.
Planning and Flexibility
Like with anything, planning is critical to success in a Federal Exection. I believe the following would be a good basic framework for success.
- Anytime (expect 5-10 years) – Work on Candidate Profile
- Build awareness, build profile, clarify thoughts and messaging
- Do people know you exist? Just get your name out there. You will want 3-7 contacts per person ideally.
- 12 months – Prepare the strategy
- Map out plans for each group of people, booth and time-frame.
- Brainstorm and research possibilities and costs (eg mail-outs, letter drops, personal contact, volunteers, etc)
- Have contingencies for if you have more/fewer funds/volunteers than you thought.
- 6-3 months out – Voter willingness & Conversion
- Demonstrate that you are worth voting for. Get out there with a simple problem–>solution message
- Gather ideas from your electorate
- Minimize your weaknesses and highlight your strengths
- 3 months – 2 weeks – Mobilize supporters
- Reach as many people as you can
- Convince people that you are worth taking action for.
- Last 2 weeks – Press the flesh
- More or less nothing else works in this period so personal contact is the best with maintenance on media and signage.
Lesson: People need different messages at different times. First they need to recognize you then see you as a good alternative then see you as the best alternative. You can’t shift people from A-Z in one contact.
Communication, Communication, Communication
Communication is all-important, but the fact is that people will notice you for about 10 seconds, perhaps more like 4 seconds. Getting a message into 100 words is easy. Getting it down to 10 is really hard. Additionally, you might have knowledge on many areas to improve, and individuals will be interested in some of these, but for groups, they will be interested in a few key areas. these few key areas will determine if they continue to listen and inquire or if they switch off. The key areas are the basics like Healthcare, Transport, Housing, Cost of living, Immigration, etc. Having key messages around these is critical.
Good slogans do this and are critical. Navalny’s was ”Change Russia, begin with Moscow.”
Lesson: Clarity cuts through. If you can’t explain a point yourself in 30 seconds you need more practice.
Running in a Federal Election will be an experience that you will never forget. Give it a go. If you want to keep in touch with my next steps, like me here: https://www.facebook.com/RamonRobinson21C.