Candidates and hopefuls line up for the game of thrones

The tomato-coloured letter, which arrived by post ahead of the April 9 ballot, was typically unsigned. But where its authors remained in the shadows, their claims were anything but backward.

The tomato-coloured letter, which arrived by post ahead of the April 9 ballot, was typically unsigned. But where its authors remained in the shadows, their claims were anything but backward.

Rank-and-file members of the local ALP branch were warned that Katie Hall, an aspiring replacement for Nicola Roxon in the Victorian Labor jewel of Gellibrand, was not what she seemed.

Rather they said, she had links to "Australia's biggest corruption scandal" involving the Health Services Union. Clearly defamatory claims about her relationship history were also featured.

Hall denied everything, but the "shit-sheet", as they are known in the business, served its purpose. She lost.

Among the luxuries of being an ordinary citizen within a stable democratic system, is the right to remain uninvolved - to leave such unpleasantness to others.

Federal politics intrudes materially on the daily lives of most people only once an election is called and the formal campaign is under way. But for others, that tiny wedge of the population who are paid-up members of political parties, and the even smaller group preselected to stand, the game of thrones was already at fever pitch when Julia Gillard declared the finish line to be September 14.

Indeed for many months before Gillard's February bombshell, candidates and hopefuls on all sides had been beavering away, stitching up the numbers internally, attending community functions, raising funds, setting up card tables at shopping centres, and planning their local campaigns.

There have been just six changes of the governing party since World War II at the federal level, ushering in prime ministers R. G. Menzies, E. G. Whitlam, J. M. Fraser, R. J. L. Hawke, J. W. Howard and K. M. Rudd. All of the available evidence suggests 2013 will deliver the seventh changeover.

For political hopefuls, budding careerists, and the lamentably rarer policy-motivated, election 2013 spells opportunity. For those already on the inside, especially those in Labor seats, some of whom have put just one tortuous term under their belts, the election looms as an existential threat. Many are expected to lose, dumped unceremoniously back into private life, making way for a whole new wave - the class of 2013.

With the minority Gillard government cowed under sustained three-year siege from a rampaging Tony Abbott-led Coalition, the odds are, both figuratively and literally (if you look at betting markets), that Tony Abbott will become the nation's 28th prime minister.

Those same odds, informed as they are by a welter of private party research and public opinion polling, also tell us that he is likely to lead a government with a majority somewhere between safe and thumping.

That portends a large and potentially unwieldy party room, with a mix of fresh new talent and passengers, of team players and the odd loose cannon.

One reason for this variable quality is that big-swing elections, such as appears to be in the offing here, can see people sent to Canberra whom even their respective party machines had assumed could not win when preselected. Party vetting processes can sometimes be exposed as having been less than rigorous in these supposedly unwinnable seats.

Of course, not all the hopefuls in 2013 are on the conservative side.

In safe Labor seats, where the incumbent is retiring, the competition for a professional political sinecure can be as willing as ever. This was the case in the aforementioned Gellibrand, which came up late thanks to Roxon's shock departure.

Competition was willing because it is one of relatively few Labor electorates certain to remain safe beyond the election. The party opted for Tim Watts, a former adviser to Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, over Hall. Watts is a corporate affairs manager for Telstra.

While some tightening is expected, recent polls have shown swings against the ALP of between 5 and 7 per cent, although in an election-proper, margins will vary widely state to state and seat to seat.

It might surprise some to learn that despite the inherent instability of minority government, Abbott's frequent demands for an election and the concomitant sense that the Gillard majority could collapse at any time, as well as the declaration of the poll date so far out, neither major party has fully sewn up its pre-selections.

Indeed, Labor is yet to nail down candidates in more than 35 seats out of the 150 House of Representatives spots up for grabs, and the Liberals have 10 or so to finalise.

In Western Australia, the battle has been willing despite Labor's paltry three-seat return in 2010 and the serious risk of losing two or even all three this time.

Labor has selected the Maritime Union's Adrian Evans to contest the marginal seat of Hasluck held by the indigenous Liberal MP Ken Wyatt.

Evans, who stridently claimed he had "never worn a suit to work for a day in my life", would certainly make an impact in Labor's otherwise professionalised political class. But he would have to buck an expected anti-Labor trend.

A more certain addition to the federal caucus from the west is the uncompromising Christian, Joe Bullock. The 58-year-old Shop Assistants Union boss, who used to knock around with Tony Abbott in their university days, is heading to Canberra in the No. 1 spot on Labor's WA Senate ticket. He is certain to make waves in Labor with social views closer to Abbott's than to the mainstream of his own party.

"I'm more than happy to stand on the family values ticket and I am opposed to gay marriage," he told The West Australian newspaper recently.

While fledging Labor politicians are eyeing safe seats that could vault them into the party's slimmed-down post-election caucus, those on the other side of politics are attracted to a slew of seats, not all of them classically marginal, expected to turn Liberal blue.

To win the big prizes, for example the western Sydney seats of Lindsay, Parramatta or Greenway, would not just send a message about Coalition dominance of middle Australia, it would also earn the victor a heroic reputation and a high profile in government.

The electorate of Parramatta, held by Labor's Julie Owens, a classically trained pianist and hard-working local member, is one such seat.

Martin Zaiter, a 29-year-old partner in a local accounting firm, has been pre-selected as the Liberal aspirant to unseat Owens, who holds the seat by 4.4 per cent. Zaiter saw off two rivals to win the nod, one of them engineer Charles Camenzuli, who unsuccessfully contested the seat at the 2010 election, but attracted negative publicity due to litigation he was involved in at the time.

A Liberal Party member who was on the preselection committee says that the party looks for "people with potential to be ministers, who will also be good local members because they have strong local links".

Small business owners such as Zaiter and the Liberal candidate for Lindsay, Fiona Scott, have an edge because they can devote themselves to campaigning almost full time.

Scott, who will run in Lindsay for the second time against Assistant Treasurer David Bradbury, came very close to ousting Bradbury at the 2010 election.

In a report on the 2010 candidates for the Liberal Party executive, Scott was praised for her hard work in campaigning. Many in the party, including Tony Abbott, believed if Scott had been endorsed earlier she would have knocked off Bradbury in the bellwether seat, in which he snuck home by just 1.1 per cent.

Scott was the obvious choice this time around.

The selection of the Liberal candidate for Greenway, in Sydney's north-west, took longer.

Jaymes Diaz, a 37-year-old Filipino-Australian lawyer with strong local ties, was chosen in March to contest Greenway after a drawn-out preselection battle.

Fairfax understands the ballot was delayed because Abbott was unhappy with Diaz, whose performance on the 2010 election campaign trail was considered underwhelming.

In the end, no star candidate turned up and, besides, Diaz had the numbers in the local branches.

The incident shows just how cautious the Liberal Party is being in its pre-election processes.

With so many seats genuinely up for grabs, the party is keen to avoid embarrassment by green or, worse, ill-disciplined candidates. But as history shows, there will be some.

In 2004, the then member for Parramatta, the Liberal MP Ross Cameron, confessed his extramarital affair to the Good Weekend magazine and was one of only three Coalition members to lose his seat at the October election.

In 2007, the Liberal MP for Lindsay, Jackie Kelly, was derailed after her husband was found to be distributing fake election pamphlets purportedly from a (non-existent) Islamic organisation, which claimed that the Labor candidate would support clemency for terrorists and wanted a mosque built locally.

To avoid similar scandals in 2013, the party is keeping a particularly close eye on the key western Sydney seats.

Like the ALP, which has moved its offices to Sydney's west, the Liberals have set up an electorate office in Parramatta, and tasked NSW Liberal senator Marise Payne with supervising the local campaigns.

The campaign office issues directives to the local candidates, and Fairfax understands a representative from that office reports directly to New South Wales Liberal Party headquarters in William Street in the city.

Whatever happens, there will plenty of new faces in Canberra, and some of them will be just as surprised as their party leaders.

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