Revealed: the backroom faces in fight for your vote

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Liberal Josh Manuatu and Labor’s Melissa James.

AFTER a sluggish start, the ACT election campaign is starting to gather momentum with Chief Minister Andrew Barr hoping to stave off Canberra Liberals/ leader Alistair Coe’s growing traction.

But the election involves more than just the public faces who grace corflutes across the territory. Much of the grunt work is conducted by somewhat anonymous, in-house political professionals made up of party hacks, elders and campaign strategists. 

“CityNews” sat down with two of the backroom operatives who sit alongside Barr and Coe in the fight for your vote. 

Josh Manuatu… “It really comes down to the cost and quality of living for Canberrans.” Photo: Belinda Strahorn

JOSH MANUATU, Canberra Liberals campaign director

At 30 years of age and 6ft in height, Manuatu, who was born in Queanbeyan and raised in Goulburn has become a recognisable fixture of the Canberra Liberals’ franchise. 

The committed dog lover and tea enthusiast will face his biggest test yet, in the driving seat of the Liberals’ attempt to make history and win government for the first time in 19 years. 

Manuatu, for the record, has been a long-time Liberal staffer and former president of the Young Liberals. As a staff member for Federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor, Manuatu was embroiled in the infamous Angus Taylor-Clover Moore stoush where Taylor used inaccurate travel figures to accuse Sydney Council of virtue signalling on climate change. 

Before his posting to Taylor’s office, Manuatu was an adviser to Tasmanian senator Eric Abetz. He’s worked on other election campaigns and spent time in Britain with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s election staff including fellow Australians Simon Berger and Isaac Levido – the political strategist credited with Boris Johnson’s victory. 

In the true sense of a party apparatchik Manuatu applies his trade behind the scenes as a key backroom operator. His position gives him a unique insight into the Liberals’ election chances and is well placed to analyse what his opponents may be doing at the same time. 

“CityNews” began by asking Manuatu how he thinks Labor’s campaign is going? 

I think it’s going well for them. They are a long-term government and they have a lot of experience in winning elections, the next couple of weeks are going to be interesting to see what they do. We are very much the underdog and we need to mount a strong campaign to take it up to them. Labor has a strong campaign machine with big institutional backing from union bosses and pokie revenue. So it is a bit of a David and Goliath battle but we’re working hard as a part of our grassroots campaign to speak to as many people as we can.

After 19 years in opposition, what will it take to knock Labor off its perch and form government?

Whoever speaks to the most voters will determine the election and we’re trying our hardest to make sure that’s us. In order for Labor to win they need to effectively do the same. This year has been a very interesting year with coronavirus. The campaign is going to be much shorter, much more impactful and both parties need to navigate things we haven’t had to previously. 

What are the key issues this election?

It really comes down to the cost and quality of living for Canberrans. People are really doing it tough, even before coronavirus. The increase in costs of rates for people who own a house and the costs of rents are skyrocketing, and what are people getting in return for that? That is what this election is going to come down to, those individual hip-pocket concerns. The hospital system is in despair, footpaths aren’t being maintained and yet we are paying record taxes for it.

Some people are calling it the ‘social-media election’. How big a part is social media playing in this campaign?

It’s really important. There are a lot more people on social media than there were four years ago, it’s ever increasing and there’s less reliance on traditional mediums than there was. We have got to think a lot more carefully about what we are putting on social media and making sure the message cuts through.

What’s been the strategy in managing candidates’ diversity?

We have a really great team that brings together people from a broad cross section of the community. Alistair Coe was really keen to take forward a team that reflects not just our party but our community, which includes a lot of diversity. We are very proud of the fact that we’ve got the first majority female party room in the country and now we have one of the most culturally diverse groups of people standing for the election. 

How has your experience prepared you for campaigning during a pandemic?

Any job in politics teaches you to be prepared for anything. The pandemic has forced us to rethink a lot of things but at the end of the day we just have to push through. This year has been really tough on a lot of people and a lot of business and political parties are no different. Covid has changed a lot of things we would have normally done and we’ve had to scrap our plan and re-do it at times, but it’s just a matter of trying to adapt to the changing situation. If we can’t knock on doors, we will make phone calls instead. 

Who do you think will win?

Hopefully us. 

Melissa James… “Environment and climate change remain the most significant issues. Photo: Belinda Strahorn

MELISSA JAMES, ACT Labor campaign director 

ACT Labor could make history come October, if voters decide to return a Labor-led government for a sixth time since 2001. Pulling the strings behind the Chief Minister’s re-election is ACT Labor campaign director Mel James. James, 36, was born and bred in Tasmania, her first recollection of campaigning was letterboxing on a tricycle at the age of five. 

“Four generations of my family have door knocked and letterboxed together… we have always been a politically engaged family, I was practically brought up on Hare Clark,” James said. 

Friendly but focused, the former chief of staff to Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith is lending her weight to the goal of returning the Barr government to office, a task she readily admits won’t be easy but can be achieved.

How do you think the Liberals’ campaign is going? 

They are definitely out there, the candidates are really focused and energetic and working hard, but I think centrally they have had a few hiccups with candidates. Having gone through a vetting process of our own candidates and knowing how long it can take, the thought of something like that happening and so quickly, you wouldn’t wish it even on your worst enemy.

What will it take to extend Labor’s 19-year run governing the territory?

The central campaign and the individual candidates are under no illusion of what we are asking for. ACT Labor has been in government for 19 years and whilst we have had several leaders throughout that time and probably we see them as distinct periods with different visions for the city, I think that we understand completely that we are asking Canberrans to have a huge amount of trust in us. 

I think, particularly this year, our experience has shone through in terms of Andrew as Chief Minister, the Health Minister and Emergency Management Ministers, that 19 years has not been a bad thing and that 19 years has put us in good stead to get us through some really difficult times. 

What are the key issues this election?

Environment and climate change remain the most significant issues and that was particularly focused on people’s minds with the bushfires. Covid has raised other issues, jobs and economy and health are up there and then education remains a big issue for families, too. So health, education, climate change, jobs and the economy are what people are talking about in terms of what they are going to vote on. 

Some people are calling it the ‘social-media election’. How big a part is social media playing in this campaign?

I don’t think any campaign in the world has cracked the social-media campaign formula yet. The algorithm is changing and there’s no formula for success, which makes it more challenging and riskier in some ways, because in our system where you have 25 individual candidates trying to stand out, you don’t want them to stand out for the wrong reasons. Online is where people are so that’s where politicians need to be. Getting the nuances of the different platforms can be challenging. 

What’s been the party’s strategy in managing candidate diversity?

We have a very open preselection process. We are always looking to have that roots-up representation. Diversity comes in a lot of different roles. There is gender, sexuality and life experience, there are so many different diversity elements to our community and I think our candidates have a large amount but we also need to work within our party to make sure we continue to support people to find their place in the party.

How has your experience prepared you for campaigning during a pandemic?

I don’t think there would be any experience from any campaign in years gone by that could equip you for a covid campaign. It’s a lot about taking those traditional skills and adapting quickly. We have a tried and true model of ground campaigning as a party, with large active volunteer bases that get out and talk to people and so we have had to roll the dice on some different approaches. It’s about taking everything you know and throwing it out in some regards and working out where people are and what they want to talk about. And there is an appetite for people to want to talk about political issues at the moment because the economic and health elements of the pandemic have turned people’s minds to some of the inequalities we are seeing in the community. 

Who do you think will win?

I think it’s going to be close. I wouldn’t be betting on a Hare Clark system. We are asking for something huge. I think we have what it takes but I think we have to continue to work and keep telling people why we deserve to be here and that we are not taking the Canberran community for granted. It’s going to be close and I can tell that the Liberals’ candidates are throwing everything at the wall, too. 


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  1. “Taylor used inaccurate travel figures to accuse Sydney Council of virtue signalling on climate change”

    Tell it as it really is. Taylor used doctored figures…. not inaccurate figures. Big difference.

  2. Well, the 2020 ACT elections are pretty well done and dusted, and lo and behold, the Canberra Liberals went backwards. Clearly the Canberra community were not up to the adaptation and antics of the Boris Johnson campaign. Time now for Alistair Coe to remove his boxing gloves and abandon his sledge hammer and have a serious think about what went wrong.

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