FLIMFLAM MAN v DR NO

The phrase came from a Brisbane punter. It was uttered during a focus-group discussion and jumped off the page when Mark Textor arrived at Liberal headquarters in Melbourne at 3am on Tuesday to begin analysing the polling data from the previous night. Textor highlighted it in the strategic report he prepared for Tony Abbott a couple of hours later: Flimflam man!

The phrase came from a Brisbane punter. It was uttered during a focus-group discussion and jumped off the page when Mark Textor arrived at Liberal headquarters in Melbourne at 3am on Tuesday to begin analysing the polling data from the previous night. Textor highlighted it in the strategic report he prepared for Tony Abbott a couple of hours later: Flimflam man!

In the next few days, it would be deployed in tweets by Liberal campaign director Brian Loughnane, after Kevin Rudd made a hastily organised appearance on the ABC's 7.30 ("just more flimflam on the economy, jobs and boats"), and by Abbott, in response to Peter Beattie's surprise decision to contest a Coalition-held seat in Brisbane ("another flimflam man").

Barely a kilometre away, at the other end of town, a torrent of information from Labor pollster John Utting confirmed that Rudd's warning of a GST rise under a Coalition government had struck a chord, especially among middle-aged mums in marginal seats, and that when focus groups were asked to define Abbott in a single word, the response invariably was "negative".

In the 2013 election, it is not just Kevin who operates 24/7. Deep in Melbourne's central business district, the Liberal and Labor headquarters are the engine rooms of this campaign. Each engages about 150 staff (including volunteers) who work around the clock, identifying lines of attack and defence, synthesising messages, feeding the social media and running interference.

It is a massive transformation from 1993, when Textor, now 47, had one year's experience as a pollster and worked on his first campaign. Back then, the Liberal tactics unit was a team of two, Jon Gaul and Darcy Tronson. When the campaign was over (with Paul Keating claiming the "sweetest victory of all"), they wrote to then party director Andrew Robb and politely asked if they could have a secretary next time.

This time, the Liberal tactics unit has more than 20 members, including Tronson and Tony Nutt, the former chief of staff of John Howard and Ted Baillieu, and works day and night shifts. Other units cover social media, marketing and advertising, research and strategy, media monitoring and policy.

Sandy Rippingale, the veteran logistics manager of Labor's campaign, was there when Labor's information unit in 1996 had just two people with two phone lines. Now, more than 20 people field thousands of requests, overwhelmingly by email, every day (and night).

Aside from overseeing the creation of what she calls this high-tech "pop-up office" and its smooth operation, Rippingale feeds a small army. The grocery list for Labor's headquarters includes more than 120 kilograms of apples, five kilograms of Vegemite, 18 kilograms of jam and 240 loaves of bread. "It's like shopping for a big family, and they plough through it, 24 hours a day," she says.

The digital focus of the Labor campaign - aided by the expertise of Matthew McGregor, a Brit who worked on Barack Obama's re-election and Rudd's son Nicholas - is reflected in one extraordinary fact. In the four hours after Rudd used social media to announce the September 7 election date, Labor received more in online donations than was raised during the entire 2010 campaign.

The difference between now and 1993, according to Utting, who has polled for Labor since the 1980s, has three dimensions: the proliferation of media outlets and platforms, the speeding up of the news cycle, and the segmenting of voter audience.

"We're information-rich," he says. "The real challenge is how to use it."

If the campaign structures of the two main parties are remarkably similar, the internal dynamics are a world apart. This is Abbott's second consecutive campaign and the message (and the people around him) are almost identical to his first. It is almost as if that campaign was a dry run for this one.

The criticism is that we have heard it all before, but Textor insists this is actually a plus, not a minus: "Basically, they're saying they think he's been rock-solid, has held the party together, hasn't made a mistake, and they know what he stands for - lower taxes, ending waste, stopping boats. Everyone can reel them off. What does Kevin Rudd stand for?"

This time, the confidence and energy of the group around Abbott shows, whether or not the cameras are rolling. His travelling advisers - a team of four media personnel, led by Andrew Hirst, chief of staff Peta Credlin, and former Howard minister Philip Ruddock - are obviously close and like each other. They dine together at night and the atmosphere between them is friendly and easy.

The familiarity between the travelling party and those at headquarters is summed up in one relationship: Credlin is Loughnane's wife. "We can all speak very frankly," is how one of them puts it.

By virtue of circumstance, Labor's team is less settled and more driven by Rudd's instincts, but just as determined to win. Two months ago, Labor national secretary George Wright was presiding over a campaign that was predicated on not just defeat but annihilation, with polls suggesting a primary vote of 30 under Julia Gillard's besieged leadership. Scarce resources were stripped from marginal seats that appeared lost to try to prop up those that in normal times were safe.

Now, both sides agree the contest is more or less evenly poised. That, overwhelmingly, is the result of Rudd's popularity and his efforts to address Labor's biggest negatives in short order: the carbon tax, boat arrivals, party reform and the budget bottom line. So, having made a contest of this election, Rudd has much more influence over how Labor defines the "new way" it is offering a sceptical electorate.

"Our job is to give him the best chance of winning," says Wright, who is running his first national campaign. "He has the right to fight the fight that he believes will give us the best chance of winning - and we've got a responsibility to give him advice and back him."

Both Loughnane and Wright are reserved and self-effacing. They respect, even like, each other, but this does not temper the desire to win, or the determination to wrong-foot the other side at every opportunity. Already, a Labor spoof of Abbott's positive opening TV ad has been a YouTube and Facebook hit, before complaints from the Liberals forced its removal.

Already, too, the feisty Textor has been unrestrained in sledging Rudd and Labor on Twitter. After, for instance, Rudd revealed that 60-year-old Beattie had been lured out of a comfortable retirement, Textor tweeted a picture from the British sitcom Dad's Army.

For the best part of two decades, veteran Labor senator, former minister and party elder John Faulkner has been a calming but low-profile presence in the leader's travelling party, but not this time. Rudd's main source of advice on the trail is Bruce Hawker, who shared the spotlight with the leaders when they gathered at the Australian War Memorial on Monday.

Hawker, Rudd's right-hand man in the long guerilla effort to return Rudd to the prime ministership less than two months ago, engineered the one big surprise of the first week of the campaign: Beattie's decision to run for a Coalition-held seat.

The Coalition was quick to release a comprehensive set of quotes from the former premier denigrating Rudd and denying any aspiration to enter federal politics, but Rudd and Beattie performed well as a double act announcing the move and the result was an injection of confidence into the Labor campaign.

Hawker and Rudd go back a long way. They met in 1989 when Hawker, then an adviser to NSW premier Bob Carr, was sent to Queensland to work on the state election campaign, where Labor's Wayne Goss was on his way to wrenching political control from the National Party, which had been in power for 20 years.

Rudd was Goss' chief of staff. He and Hawker, impatient with the old factional system and keen on retail-style political campaigning, formed an enduring alliance.

With Queensland the key to Labor's hopes of stealing the current election, who better, they decided, than Beattie, Queensland's master political salesman, to enter the fray? It would send a message right across the state that Labor was serious, and it would not cost a cent.

Beattie won't just be standing for the marginal seat of Forde; he will be the Rudd government's front man across the entire state, leaving Rudd freer to travel to other states with other messages.

To ensure maximum political impact of the announcement, the deal had to be kept under wraps by Eamonn Fitzpatrick, the only Gillard staffer to be picked up by Rudd, who heads Rudd's travelling media team with Fiona Sugden. Certainly, Rudd gave nothing away in the only interaction he has had with the travelling media outside of the daily set-piece press conference.

A 20-minute interlude on the media bus produced no blinding insights for the press pack, but gave Rudd a line for his 1.3 million followers on Twitter: "Went on the press gallery campaign bus. Offer to help write their stories was politely declined."

In contrast, Abbott hosted drinks for the travelling media on Wednesday night, giving a short, upbeat speech in which he expressed solidarity with journalists, having been one himself for a short time. He knew something of the pressures we were under, he said, and he understood that we had to write critically.

Abbott wove through the room in the well-honed arc of the experienced politician, stopping to talk to every journalist present. Nursing a bottle of beer, he was upbeat and relaxed, joking easily and calling everyone by name. He said he was excited, adding that it was also "scary" to be in the campaign, with such a big prize dangling at the end.

In the 2010 campaign, Abbott was viewed through a veil of suspicion - he was erratic and made gaffes, telling ABC's 7.30 he was "no tech-head" and making an ill-judged crack about whether or not "no means no" when discussing Gillard's invitation to debate him.

This time, his image is softer, the heat has gone out of criticisms of him as sexist, and he is keen to talk up his own and his party's embrace of multiculturalism, and his personal evolution on paid parental leave.

Ruddock's presence has raised some eyebrows because he was previously not a supporter of Abbott. He says he is impressed by Abbott's intelligence and consultative style, and the way he has managed to keep a lid on factional fracas within the NSW party. The 70-year-old father of the house told journalists his job was chiefly to "keep Tony calm".

If there is a consensus one week in, it is that neither side has so far scored big wins or taken big hits. Utting, a Fremantle Dockers fan, likens the five-week campaign to a game of AFL: "It's about halfway through the first quarter and, campaign-wise, everyone is loosening up, finding their feet, getting a sense of the game and their opponents."

No one disputes Rudd's claim to underdog status. He starts behind because those seats occupied by independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor and former speaker Peter Slipper are already pencilled in as Coalition gains, and because the Coalition has been ahead in the polls for so much of the past three years.

Loughnane says he is quietly pleased with how things are going. "It's now clear that Mr Rudd has come back to the leadership without a clear sense of what he wants to do. He seems to be making it up as he goes along."

That might be a Rudd weakness but it is also a strength, as no one quite knows what is coming next.

Wright, too, projects guarded confidence: "We're in a competitive position. We've take skin off them since his return and we're going to have to take more."



KEY PLAYERS INSIDE THE CAMPAIGN BUNKERS

LIBERAL

Brian Loughnane, 55, running his fourth federal campaign after becoming Liberal Party federal director in 2003.

Mark Textor, 47, the Liberal pollster in every campaign, federal and state since 1993.

Peta Credlin, 40, Abbott's strong-willed chief of staff and Loughnane's wife, who infamously interjected in federal parliament from the adviser's box.



LABOR

George Wright, 45, led the union campaign against John Howard’s WorkChoices in 2007, then left a corporate job to become ALP national secretary in 2011.

John Utting, 57, the Labor pollster who has worked on political campaigns in Australia and New Zealand since the 1980s.

Bruce Hawker, 57, the political strategist and lobbyist who advised Rudd on his failed challenge to Julia Gillard in 2012.

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