Election campaigns in rural New South Wales and Victoria, 1910-22
In the early twentieth century, when mass political parties were relatively new, their critics likened them to machines, their electioneering methods resembling mechanical processes. To these critics, election campaigns were regimented, impersonal, and conducted on a menacing scale. Modern perspectives on this period, by contrast, present its campaigns as decentralised and conducive to local autonomy. But for historians of electioneering, the machine metaphor still merits interrogation, for while it overstated the power of early twentieth century campaigning, it conveyed much else about its style and methods. The Australian election campaigns of the 1910s had significant mechanical aspects. In the constituencies, they were mostly routine and bureaucratic, rather than creative: party members and other grassroots campaigners focused on identifying and mobilising supporters, rather than persuading undecided voters. Campaigning methods were not uniform, but most local variations related to intensity and efficiency, rather than strategy. Moreover, central party offices played a vital supporting role, their bureaucrats crafting literature and advertising, as well as deciding which constituencies needed extra funding and visits from organisers. This style of campaigning was not, however, as impersonal as its critics thought. Rather than the machine superseding the individual, organisational and personal politics co-existed. This was especially true in the country, where local candidates remained highly visible. Traversing their electorates in an effort to speak in as many places as possible, country candidates were the focus of the local press’ election coverage and the main publicists of their parties’ policies. In the late 1910s, they became even more prominent, as the Country Party, a new force in politics, stimulated debate about their backgrounds and qualities. Moreover, the machines’ power to mobilise people was not as strong as its critics suggested. Throughout the 1910s, they yielded impressive results in the form of high turnout, but few campaigners thought voters easily managed. Instead, many politicians and activists saw themselves as struggling to mobilise a tenuously engaged electorate. Many people, they believed, treated politics as entertainment, while others were apathetic and unlikely to vote unless actively pursued. These anxieties, along with low turnout in the early 1920s, informed the introduction of compulsory voting. This, in turn, started the gradual decline of machine methods, ending a distinctive era in Australian electioneering.