White / Start packing up the office, Peter

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SCORES of volunteer union members have been making hundreds of phone calls to swinging voters in the bellwether seat of Eden Monaro.

Alex White
UnionsACT secretary Alex White.

With less than three weeks to election day, this is the culmination of almost two years’ campaigning by union members, locally in Queanbeyan and Canberra, and nationally. All up, more than 500 local volunteers have stepped up and lent a hand to campaign in Eden Monaro, knocking on doors, making phone calls and staffing street stalls.

Eden Monaro has a mythical status for politicos and election-watchers. It has been won by the party that forms government at every election since 1972. In 2013, it was won by former big business lobbyist Dr Peter Hendy by just 1085 votes.

The volunteers, all of whom are everyday workers and retirees from a range of backgrounds and professions, are reporting back on the key issues for swinging voters.

Cuts to Medicare, public sector sackings and threats to penalty rates are the first, second and third issues raised by undecided and swinging voters. Borders, interest rates and the deficit don’t rate a mention.

Most swinging voters express their disappointment at Malcolm Turnbull. Many had high hopes after he toppled Tony Abbott, looking forward to a less extreme, more respectful prime minister. And many say they feel betrayed by Dr Hendy on issues such as healthcare funding and the Gonski school funding.

Unsurprisingly, given recent leaked Liberal Party polling suggesting a “likely loss” for Dr Hendy and placing the junior minister seven percentage points behind Labor’s Mike Kelly, these issues are the core concerns for swinging voters in Eden Monaro.

Normally disengaged voters are expressing their frustration at their local member and at the prime minister. Long-time Liberal voters are angry at Dr Hendy’s treachery over the Abbott-Turnbull leadership change. Small business owners are disillusioned that the Liberals seem intent on giving tax cuts to big banks and multinational corporations, while doing nothing to stimulate demand.

As people’s minds slowly turn to the election, our campaign volunteers are seeing ambivalence turn into frustration and anger.

It comes back to those three issues. When I go door knocking, almost everyone I speak to is frustrated that the government wants to “Americanise” our hospitals and healthcare system. A week ago I spoke to a worker at a regional hospital. She was a swinging voter and had voted for Tony Abbott last time. But not this year. The proposed cuts to medical imaging and pathology funding is the issue that changed her mind. Every day, she helps her sick neighbours get blood tests and other life-saving scans. The idea of making those tests unaffordable made her furious.

Similarly, I spoke with a volunteer who had spent the weekend doorknocking about public service cuts. He told me about a conversation he had with a voter angry at the CSIRO cuts. With all the talk from Malcolm Turnbull about innovation, the voter said, the cruel cuts to a national treasure like the CSIRO was dumb and hypocritical.

While on a street stall at the Jerrabomberra shops two weeks ago, a campaign volunteer spoke with two nurses. They received penalty rates when they worked night shifts and, although the Turnbull government isn’t proposing to cut penalty rates for nurses, they said they strongly opposed the plans. For them, a cut to weekend penalty rates is simply a wage cut that low-paid workers can’t afford and don’t deserve.

Although the Better Future campaign uses old-style techniques – door knocking and phone calls – we are melding it with high-tech data models and an unprecedented mobilisation. The old days of random conversations are over.

We have refined and improved the tactics that changed the outcome in the Victorian and Queensland elections. Rather than waste millions on untargetted television advertising, we are empowering more than 5000 everyday volunteers across Australia to have targetted, focused conversations with swinging and undecided voters about the issues they care about.

There’s still a long time to go until July 2, but if I were Peter Hendy, I’d start packing up the office.

Alex White is the secretary of UnionsACT

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