Despite high-profile backers, the woes of the Abbott government is making it difficult for the Liberals to recruit volunteers – in contrast to Labor’s strength.

Fatigue with the federal government has led to low numbers of Liberal campaign volunteers prepared to knock on doors, staff booths and hand out leaflets for the party before the 28 March New South Wales election campaign.

Ordinary Liberal members have been receiving repeated emails calling for volunteers in the safest of Liberal seats less than two weeks before the poll. The emails, seen by Guardian Australia, report that few volunteers have responded to repeated calls for the party faithful.

Safe seats normally supply excess volunteers to more marginal areas and Liberal sources suggest “fatigue with the federal government” – reflected in Tony Abbott’s low polling numbers – is a key factor in the low party volunteer turnout.

Conversely, unions are rolling out a campaign across marginal seats, replicating their successful strategies in the Victorian and Queensland elections.

In the second last week of the campaign, Mike Baird appears to be on track to retain government, albeit with a reduced majority. The Coalition’s latest polling by Galaxy two days ago put his government ahead of Labor by 54-46 on a two-party preferred basis.

But his privatisation of electricity poles and wires remains the biggest stumbling block to voters welcoming him back with open arms, notwithstanding some high-profile supporters including the former Labor prime minister Paul Keating, the former minister Martin Ferguson and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman, Rod Sims.

The premier can also count on a range of industry groups providing information and advertising campaigns, through the the pro-privatisation campaign, Repowering NSW. Supporters include the NSW Business Chamber, the Sydney Business Chamber, Infrastructure Partnerships Australia, the Australian Industry Group, the Property Council of Australia and the Business Council of Australia.

A NSW Business Chamber spokesman, Damien Kelly, said his organisation was not political but had campaigned in favour of privatisation, infrastructure spending, cutting business red tape and the small business agenda.

“We are not a political organisation,” Kelly said. “We don’t back parties or sides, we back issues. We don’t tell people how to vote. We get private feedback and put forward a business viewpoint and what is best for NSW companies.”

Kelly said his organisation, which has 18,000 member organisations from small business up to large corporations, spent close to the electoral funding limit of $525,000 for third-party campaigners.

The chamber has paid for extensive advertising in print and radio, held regular “education” events and regional roadshows throughout the state, and hosted the first leaders’ debate.

But despite its huge network, members do not hand out how-to-vote cards, nor do they knock on doors, unlike the extensive union campaigns which were so successful for Labor in Victoria and Queensland.

So what the Coalition has by way of support from industry and sections of the media, it lacks in boots on the ground.

The modern union movement has John Howard to thank for its enduring campaign architecture which is proving the major challenge for the NSW Baird government.

It was his ill-fated 2006 WorkChoices legislation that spurred the union movement into creating a political campaign network that will play no small part in the election.

WorkChoices was Howard’s attempt to exempt small businesses (with fewer than 100 employees) from unfair dismissal laws. The legislation tried to shift the power away from the right to collective bargaining and in the process, marginalise unions.

As a result, in 2005 before the 2007 federal election, 44 general union groups formed in suburbs and regions in NSW under the campaign banner of “Your Rights at Work”.

For the first time, members from different unions – teachers, nurses, firefighters, council workers, electricity workers, police officers – were meeting as a whole and mobilising. The legacy of the anti-WorkChoices campaign was a permanent network for elections as well as single-issue campaigning.

From those 44 groups, 29 local union community councils were born. These retained the members from the WorkChoices campaign and created a cross-union structure in local communities.

In the Victorian election, Labor’s state secretary and campaign director, Nicholas Reece, credited the union campaign with swings in targeted marginal seats of more than 4%, compared with provisional statewide swing to Labor of about 2.5%.

Door knocking, phone polling and modelling identified undecided voters and the issues important to them. Then a worker in that field – for example, a nurse or teacher for health and education – would contact the householder to discuss the issues of concern.

Reece wrote in the Age: “The potency of this campaign technique rests with the authenticity of the person delivering the message. In the information age, people are harder to reach because they are bombarded with news and have become skilled in tuning out. 

“Not surprisingly, people will believe a nurse over a politician when it comes to a debate about health. Ditto for a teacher on education, a paramedic on emergency services, or a neighbour on a local issue. Trades Hall’s research suggests this approach delivered a 73% conversion rate for undecided voters.”

There are 600,000 union members affiliated with Unions NSW, the organisation which is running the anti-privatisation campaign badged as “NSW Not for Sale”. The practical capacity, according to the senior campaigns officer, Paul Doughty, is much less – between 150 and 200 members turning out every weekend in targeted seats to knock on doors and phone voters.

The key to the campaign is that the voter speaks to a worker in the field, as opposed to a politician or a union official.

Doughty says privatisation, as well as cuts to Tafe, have mobilised many people who have never been involved in campaigning. But he says the 2015 campaign began straight after the 2011 election. Local union community councils meet monthly or bimonthly to keep the structures working.

“Volunteers are returning week after week to hand out leaflets at railway stations,” he said. “There is a feeling that this is the one chance to stop privatisations, one chance to save Tafe and I have met Tafe teachers who have never handed out on prepoll booths and who have never knocked on strangers’ doors before.”

 

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