Weatherman for Hire


Early this year, Labor asked Bailey to stand for North Sydney, the seat adjoining Bennelong, against then Workplace Relations Minister Joe Hockey. The Party was keen to run a high-profile candidate to ensure a strong campaign against the Minister with responsibility for the WorkChoices legislation. To win would require a 10 per cent swing – a big ask in a federation seat that has never been won by Labor.

Bailey hesitated. He knew he had only an outside chance of winning and would need to resign from the ABC immediately he stood, leaving him unemployed until the election, except for a few hours each week lecturing journalism students.

He decided to do it. Why? He thought his high profile would add value and, as a committed Labor supporter and union (MEAA) member since 1968, he was disgusted with the Howard Government’s extreme IR laws and lack of probity. He was also sick of remaining silent. He wanted to declare his preference and fight for it. Winning was secondary.

Perhaps you think he was on a promise. Nope – and the Federal ALP was not even promising to fund his campaign. He was to rely for funds on the Party’s local branch and the support of his friend, Tony Kelly, Labor’s NSW Minister for Lands.

As President of Labor’s North Sydney Federal Electorate Council (FEC) and unaware of the Bailey approach, I had asked Ingmar Taylor, the FEC’s Treasurer to stand for pre-selection. Taylor, a barrister specialising in Industrial Law, was the industrial specialist on the team of barristers representing the NSW Government in the WorkChoices case in the High Court last year. With that expertise, he seemed the perfect candidate, against Hockey.

Then in May we heard rumors of a media candidate and quickly learnt of the approach to Bailey. The FEC discussed it and with Taylor’s agreement, informally decided to support the Bailey candidacy. Taylor was an excellent candidate but Bailey – the friendly, courteous fixture in Sydney’s loungerooms – was better.

Bailey was duly endorsed and we faced our first problem. We only had $3,000 in the bank. Taylor graciously assumed the role of Bailey’s campaign manager and Tony Kelly organised a June campaign launch at Parliament House in Sydney with former Premier Bob Carr as guest speaker. All of the key union officials in NSW were invited, along with local party members and every friend Bailey has ever had.

Two hundred people attended and Bailey spoke exactly as needed – he made a tough attack on WorkChoices.

The union officials were surprised and impressed. Bailey, the man who had ad-libbed the ABC weather for years, knew how to deliver a speech fluently and without notes. The locals and his friends were delighted and donations began to flow in.

A one-room campaign office was found which later expanded into four rooms. Janet McDonald, a former Labor candidate on maternity leave, agreed to manage the office as a full-time volunteer

We held our first fundraiser, a trivia quiz with Senator John Faulkner as quiz-master. Three hundred people attended and we raised $17,000. Tony Kelly introduced Bailey to several business donors and they got out their chequebooks. The unions did the same and Ingmar proposed a campaign budget of some $60,000, three times what we have ever spent before in North Sydney. In the end we spent more than $150,000.

Bailey is just like his media image: smiling, friendly and polite, but with a hidden strength. With his media training, he was a natural at street stalls and walks. People of all ages, especially women, would approach him. It was always the same – ‘It’s so nice to meet you after all these years’. He would then joke about the weather.

In September, before the election was called, the Financial Review published leaked Liberal polling which said Bailey was ahead of Hockey with 56 per cent of the two-party vote. We were suspicious – Hockey had publicly talked up Labor’s chances in 2004 when we needed a 13 per cent swing. Surely this was a lie.

But then Labor polled North Sydney and told the campaign confidentially that we were ahead. We were incredulous – and, with Janet McDonald resuming paid work shortly after, about to lose our only full-time experienced campaigner.

We sent an SOS email to Labor’s campaign leaders requesting a replacement for McDonald. We noted that two out of the three NSW Upper House MPs who are supposed to assist the local Party in North Sydney’s three Liberal-held State electorates were actually running campaigns in other Federal seats that Labor could not afford to lose. A few of us told a Party official: ‘Mike has given up his job for this, and you are expecting volunteers to run a full-on marginal seat campaign?’

But the ALP was never going to indulge itself by pouring money into a campaign requiring a 10 per cent swing. Every cent must be applied to electronic media or the marginals – generally defined as those needing less than 5 per cent. Even marginal candidates can have their money turned off after being judged likely to win.

We then approached the unions. Could they help us against Joe Hockey? Money was found and the wonderful Martin Cubby from the MEAA and a team of our local volunteers staffed the office, often seven days per week, for the rest of the campaign.

Former PM Bob Hawke rubbished WorkChoices at our second fundraiser in October. Younger supporters were amazed at how good he was. I had to explain to them that for 20 years from the late 1950s, Hawke had been Australia’s foremost trade union leader. We made $13,000 that night and campaign morale soared.

Hockey knew he was in trouble. Suddenly, a week after the election was called, he promised that the Government would spend $25 million to keep in public hands the Graythwaite Estate, a six acre heritage site four minutes walk from North Sydney’s CBD. He had previously not lifted a finger to prevent its sale. When Federal Labor matched the promise, we knew Bailey must have a good chance.

Campaign organisation began to preoccupy us. Ingmar Taylor and others were spending a lot of time during their working hours running ‘Mike07′. We sniffed victory.

Linda Scott from John Faulkner’s office, aware from polling in Bennelong that McKew’s lead was narrowing, counselled caution. ‘Mike is probably not going to win this,’ she said. ‘Don’t let him get confident.’

After the Hawke function, I spoke to Bailey about a final fundraiser with Paul Keating. They went to the same school and Keating had already given Bailey a letter of support. The former PM accepts very few invitations these days and had done one fundraiser only this campaign, for Greg Combet. I didn’t think he’d do it but Bailey was hopeful.

The approach to Keating was made five weeks before the election with no immediate response. When finally the former PM proposed a lunch for the last Tuesday of the campaign, Bailey was thrilled. There would be huge publicity, 500 people would attend, we would make a heap of money and morale would go into orbit, all propelling Bailey to victory.

But the lunch was vetoed by the Party. They explained it would submerge whatever message Kevin Rudd was to deliver that day, in the crucial last week. In addition, Keating is loved in inner Sydney but in regional Queensland where we most needed to win seats, he is not loved. As Karl Bitar, Labor’s incoming NSW Secretary said, ‘we can’t take any risks in the last week – we could lose two Queensland seats we have to win.’

We got on with it. In the last week, we did a direct mail of the entire electorate (cost: $42,000) and a McNair poll was released showing Hockey and Bailey locked at 50 per cent each of the two-party vote.

On the Thursday before the election, we did a final direct mail attaching a How-to-Vote (another $42,000) and the campaign was over. Almost 600 Labor volunteers staffed North Sydney’s 41 booths on polling day. No poster of John Howard appeared and Hockey’s troops wore white t-shirts with ‘Vote for Joe’ in red on the front – without the Liberals’ logo.

A few of us took the calls from our booth scrutineers on election night. It soon became clear there was a 9 per cent swing to Bailey on primaries but because of a reduced vote for the Greens, it came down to about 5 per cent on a two-party basis. Mike had lost – despite polling only 0.3 per cent less than Maxine McKew with her massive campaign.

As we were cleaning out the campaign office last Saturday, I asked the Candidate about his job prospects. I got the impression the phone isn’t ringing off the hook.

What will Bailey get out of this? Probably nothing – except great respect for his commitment, and hundreds of new friends. I am proud to be one of them.

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