By Chris Monnox*

Australian election campaigns are highly disciplined affairs. They mobilise large numbers of people, but there is little that is unruly about them. Gaffes and slip-ups prove newsworthy precisely because they are unusual. It is true that campaign organisers increasingly speak the language of grassroots empowerment, but as election scholar Stephen Mills observes, the reality of centralised control remains.

Such high levels of discipline are unusual for what are, after all, exercises in popular politics. Maintaining them requires much by way of effort and money, especially when campaigning can stretch on for months before the official campaign even begins. The parties spent millions on advertising alone during the last Federal election. Labor had forty full-time organisers [PDF] in the field for a year before the 2013 Federal election, and campaign headquarters are also heavily staffed.

Many critics of modern campaigns would like to see top-down control downgraded in favour of a more grassroots-driven style. They have a point. Like the parties that manage them, elections attract fewer volunteers than was once the case, and many of those who continue to pitch in feel ill-used. A recurring complaint among party members is that, in the words of one submission to Labor’s 2010 party review [PDF], ‘their only function is to turn up on polling day and spend a day in the sun handing out how-to-vote cards.’ Among journalists and 

ordinary voters, the scriptedness of electioneering is a constant source of disaffection.

It must be said, however, that recent years have done much to expose the limits of a laissez faire approach to politics. The social media executive apologising for hosting extremist (or simply distasteful) content is beginning to look like a defining ritual of contemporary democracy. On a more banal level, lapses of campaign discipline like a fracas between volunteers or a candidate unable to enunciate party policy are not refreshingly unscripted. They’re just bad.

Elections in the early twentieth century did manage to reconcile a fairly high degree of discipline with broad participation, while requiring much less direct control from the centre. Candidates certainly deviated from the party line more often than is now the case, but most of them stayed on message most of the time. This meant sticking to the broad parameters of their leaders’ policy speeches, set piece addresses that offered both a program for government and criticisms of opposing parties. The Age’s complaint that ‘whatever the candidate’s views as an individual might be, he must subscribe only to the things which the Prime Minister will set forth’ was made in advance of Billy Hughes’ policy speech in 1919, but it has a modern ring to it.

Much of the day-to-day work of campaign volunteers was organisational, offering few opportunities for individual expression. Some of the tasks they performed are familiar to contemporary campaigners; leaflets were distributed in the millions, and handing out how-to-votes was just as thankless as it is today. Others were products of the time. Public meetings required organising. Money had to be found to pay for hall hire, and not-always-grateful candidates had to be transported and accommodated. Leaflets were also an important means of promoting meetings, so yet more of these had to be distributed.

Party bureaucracies were much smaller and less well-resourced than their modern equivalents, but one of the tasks they did attend to was printing. This meant that many of the leaflets that volunteers distributed bore centrally determined rather than locally tailored messages. Some were designed to templates with local details filled in, just as they are now. Others were rolled out across the nation, perhaps with some local tweaks. Sometimes, large numbers of volunteers were brought together for bulk mailouts. One such effort, in 1925, required 167 volunteers in Melbourne to stuff and address at least 200 000 envelopes.

In many ways elections were very different one hundred years ago. Politicians communicated through lengthy speeches rather than tweets and soundbites. But campaigns were still underpinned by a combination of message discipline and administrative grind. Familiar in many ways, this approach nonetheless drew in many more volunteers and required less direct intervention from party headquarters than its modern equivalent. This owed much to how organisation was perceived. Being well-organised was routinely spoken of as a decisive advantage in electoral politics, on par with good policy and leadership. Winners were vigorous and disciplined, losers lackadaisical and sloppy.

Campaigners still value rigorous organisation, but it was once both more highly and more widely esteemed. Early twentieth century parties could get away with less of a command-and-control approach to campaigning, but this was in part because more people saw the world through the eyes of a party official. Campaigns can be both decentralised and disciplined, but if it means more people adopting some of the outlook of the much-derided party bureaucrat one must wonder how many of modern electioneering’s critics would actually want them to be.


*Chris Monnox is a PhD student in Macquarie University’s Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations. He is studying electioneering in early twentieth century Australia, with a focus on country electorates. He is based in Canberra, and has previously written on the ACT Labor Party.