Corflutes and complaints: Is this the pettiest election campaign ever?

Corflutes and complaints: Is this the pettiest election campaign ever?

It started with corflutes, those blue, red (or teal) posters for political candidates strapped to front yards, power poles and polling places.

But the turf war covered so much more than signage. There were hit jobs on campaign volunteers, complaints to regulators, fights over buildings and billboards, rumours about personal lives and jibes about where people live and what cars they drive. Trivia thrives in a policy-free zone.

Wentworth, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, was home to some of the most trivial accusations in the campaign.Credit:Janie Barrett

If you’ve been thinking this election campaign has been pettier than normal, you’re not alone.

“It does feel worse than usual, absolutely,” says one jaded former Liberal strategist and dirt digger. “This has been the most low-energy, low-creativity campaign I think I’ve seen in my career.”

Perhaps Tim Wilson set the tone. Upset about Climate 200-backed independent Zoe Daniel’s signs appearing around his seat of Goldstein months before the election was even called, the Liberal MP turned to his local Bayside Council for redress.

Wilson made mention of the signs to Bayside mayor Alex del Porto during an Australia Day event, asking why Daniel was allowed to put her corflutes up so early. His team made a spreadsheet of addresses displaying the signs.

First out of the blocks: Goldstein resident Lana Dacy had a Zoe Daniel campaign sign on her Hampton fence in March.Credit:Penny Stephens

In a trail of correspondence revealed this month by The Age and the Herald, Wilson and his office went back and forth with the council for weeks until the matter ended up in the Supreme Court.

The courts weren’t the only umpire candidates and their parties appealed to in this dibber-dobber campaign. There were complaints to the charities regulator, the electoral commission, and even Ausgrid, the electricity distributor.

In Wentworth, the Liberals were apoplectic when a sea of Allegra Spender signs appeared covering almost every power pole up and down New South Head Road. Ausgrid ordered Spender to take down the corflutes, but despite her vow to comply, the company had to dispatch workers to remove them.

Liberal MP Dave Sharma asserted the whole saga undermined Spender’s position on integrity in politics. The Spender camp got legal advice which apparently said the signs were OK – but they never released it. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised: this is the seat where candidates fought over who had the right to the colour teal and boasted about their ATARs.

Allegra Spender’s campaign posters seriously aggrieved the Liberal Party – and Ausgrid, which took them down.Credit:Oscar Colman

The Liberals were also upset about a solar panel Spender “facilitated” for a community centre in Paddington, which she unveiled alongside the Smart Energy Council in early May. In a midnight adjournment speech on Wednesday, upper house member Christopher Rath accused Spender of “potentially bribing the electorate with private funding”, and called on the AEC to investigate.

The only problem: they had already looked at it, and decided there was nothing wrong. “The AEC has investigated and does not consider this announcement or action infringes section 326 of the Electoral Act,” the commission said.

The Libs had slightly more success reporting the Smart Energy Council to the charities regulator, which is reviewing whether it breached laws preventing charities campaigning for political parties or candidates.

But the rule cuts both ways. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg had to scrap advertisements featuring an endorsement from Guide Dogs Victoria boss Karen Hayes, and remove photographs in which he posed with young Scouts. Hayes was suspended from her role.

Karen Hayes appeared on Liberal Party pamphlets endorsing Josh Frydenberg.

Frydenberg wasn’t the only Liberal to fly too close to the sun in that regard; Paul Fletcher in Bradfield had to axe Lifeline executive Wendy Carver from his flyers, while Jason Falinski, Trevor Evans and Fiona Martin all ran into trouble over their enthusiastic use of charity endorsements.

In the western Sydney seat of Fowler, Labor was doing its best to muckrake against Dai Le, fomenting the suspicion that cross-town interloper Kristina Keneally is under real threat from the Liberal-turned-independent local.

There was all the usual finger-pointing about candidates being parachuted into seats far from home, including claims they may have lied on their declarations. The AEC investigated three such claims – about Labor’s Andrew Charlton in Parramatta; the Liberals’ Richard Welch in McEwen; and Jerry Nockles in Eden-Monaro – and found no evidence of enrolment fraud.

Both major parties had the sooks over each other’s ads: the Libs made a video revealing how Labor took Scott Morrison’s “that’s not my job” quote out of context, while Anthony Albanese complained the Libs were “making fun of someone’s name” with their rhyming tagline “it won’t be easy under Albanese”.

And there was no matter too trivial for the Liberals in the marginal Geelong seat of Corangamite, where an AEC staffer was sacked for photobombing Labor MP Libby Coker. Liberal senator Sarah Henderson demanded Coker apologise for “knowingly posting a photograph … which led to his sacking”.

“AEC staff are not political props,” she tweeted on Friday. “Coker understood the consequences of her post but could not care less.”

Spinners desperately shopped around their hit jobs to media outlets as the campaign plodded on.

The Liberals were particularly interested in whether Kylea Tink had served out her full week in COVID isolation (in the end it appeared that she had), while Allegra Spender’s camp was greatly exercised about Dave Sharma’s giant “experienced and delivering” billboard attached to the wall of the Edgecliff Centre.

The Spender campaign exerted much energy complaining about Dave Sharma’s giant billboard on the Edgecliff Centre.Credit:Main image: James Alcock

The enormous banner overlooks New South Head Road like Dr T J Eckleburg’s eyes in The Great Gatsby. But did the building’s owner really have secret plans to build a 195-metre monstrosity on the site? Well, yes and no.

The Longhurst Group did lodge plans to redevelop the centre into a 45-storey tower, but it was rejected by Woollahra Council – as was Longhurst’s bid to rezone the site.

Ryan Liddell, who was Bill Shorten’s chief of staff as Labor leader, said petty campaigning seemed worst in the teal seat contests where MPs were seeing their political lives flash before their eyes.

“Some of these MPs seem a little offended by the idea of having to ask their community for support, which is why they resort to the real pettiness,” he said.

“If they spent as much energy engaging with their community as they do lodging complaints about ludicrous things like corflute placement, maybe they wouldn’t be in such strife.”

At the 11th hour of the campaign on Friday, operatives were still screaming blue murder about corflutes, with independent candidate for Mackellar Sophie Scamps accusing the Falinski camp of stooping to new lows after dozens of her signs were splattered with red paint.

Liddell also said journalists had to cop some blame.

“There are some parts of the media that have a bit to answer for this campaign, encouraging this kind of behaviour and acting pretty obnoxiously as part of the travelling press pack,” he said.

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