From text messages to attack ads: How Labor won the Aston byelection

Electrician Karl Adriaanse is the type of voter the Liberal Party relies on to win elections.

But the sparky from Wantirna South, along with many of his neighbours in the Aston electorate, handed Labor a famous byelection win that surprised the government’s own strategists.

Karl Adriaanse and his partner in Aston on Sunday.Credit:

“The Liberals are out of touch everywhere,” Adriaanse, who is in his mid-30s, said on Sunday. “Just with the youth of today, inflation, cost of living… Do I think Labor’s fully in touch? Probably not, but more so than the Liberals.”

After a 7.3 per cent swing against the Liberals at the 2022 election, Labor sniffed an opportunity to snatch the seat when Alan Tudge quit politics to trigger Saturday’s byelection. And it was voters like Adriaanse the party targeted.

In a campaign that aimed to maximise strengths – including a popular prime minister – and inflate the opposition’s weaknesses, Labor took aim at Liberal leader Peter Dutton’s history with Chinese-Australian voters, and candidate Roshena Campbell – a lawyer from the trendy, inner-northern suburb of Brunswick parachuted into Melbourne’s tradie belt.

Both parties believe Campbell’s outsider status was a liability. Labor thought she was an excellent candidate, picked for the wrong seat.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese congratulates the newly elected member for Aston, Mary Doyle, at a Bayswater cafe.Credit:Chris Hopkins

The party clogged social media channels with ads reminding voters Campbell was a blow-in. The barrister’s polished style contrasted with Mary Doyle’s salt-of-the-earth vibe for Labor.

“They pretty much posted it everywhere, all over social media, Facebook, everywhere … a couple of TikToks, you were bombarded with it, honestly,” Adriaanse said.

Labor strategists identified early on that voters in Melbourne’s outer-east knew little about the opposition leader. Many Aston voters in focus groups only gave strong reactions to Dutton when presented information such as his links to former prime minister Scott Morrison or his past performance as home affairs and health minister.

Labor used this feedback to frame Dutton in a negative light in its advertising campaign.

“Morrison’s Liberal leftovers was a cutting line,” said one Labor source, who along with other major party sources spoke anonymously to reveal campaign strategy.

As defence minister, Dutton was central to the Morrison government’s muscular stance towards the aggressive Chinese government and Chinese-Australian voters swung violently against the Coalition when Morrison was voted out last May, a trend consistent with results in recent Victorian and NSW elections.

Capitalising on the trend, the government used a cohort of Chinese-speaking volunteers to call voters. It sent text messages and released attack advertisements in Chinese language. Households received a letter from Chinese-background Foreign Minister Penny Wong.

“The Albanese government is rebuilding our international relationships. We are engaging with our key trading partners,” the letter, which was also translated into Chinese, said.

The Liberals employed some of the same approaches, but Labor Premier Daniel Andrews’ trip to China days before the byelection received a lot of positive feedback on WeChat, Liberal sources said.

Labor recorded some of its biggest gains in sections of the electorate where a large proportion of households speak Chinese at home.

As in the swathe of urban seats lost by the Liberals in recent elections, shifting demographics hurt the party in Aston. Adam Todd, a 42-year-old primary school teacher, said the look and feel of the previously deep-blue seat of Aston – which more closely represents suburban Sydney than genteel Melbourne seats like Kooyong – had changed.

Todd was speaking outside The Hatter & The Hare cafe in Bayswater. The stylish venue, which Albanese and Doyle visited on Sunday morning, sells smashed avo for about $30. Across the road, a 30-metre line snaked around a new bakery that has become TikTok famous.

Adam Todd (right) in Aston on SundayCredit:

“A four-bedroom family home gets knocked down and then a set of apartments pop up,” Todd said.

From the census taken in 2011 to the most recent 2021 version the number of townhouses and apartments has doubled, many more people have university degrees and the number of Chinese-background voters has almost doubled to 15 per cent.

Labor made a big effort to ensure voters, particularly younger disengaged ones, turned up to cast a ballot.

Arzu Khanla, who just finished university, said she did not hear of the Aston byelection until days before voting day when she – and thousands of others – received a text message from an account called “VicVotes”.

It warned them: “AVOID A FINE – REMEMBER to vote”. The message included a link to Labor’s how-to-vote card.

Signs carrying the same message were dotted around the electorate and included a QR code to Labor’s website. The signs were authorised by Labor but were not coloured red.

Labor spent many hundreds of thousands on the campaign while the Liberals spent more than a million, sources said, underscoring the importance of the seat to the Coalition, after losing all but three of its Melbourne seats in last year’s federal election.

In mid-March, Labor campaign bosses Paul Erickson, Jen Light and Chris Ford sensed fragility at the core of the Liberal campaign run by Canberra-based federal party leader Andrew Hirst.

Doyle’s team believed the Coalition had reduced its focus on blaming Prime Minister Anthony Albanese for interest rate rises. Instead, the Liberals ramped up its messaging on local road funding cuts.

Liberal sources deny there was a pivot but acknowledged voters were not buying the line that Albanese is either causing rates to rise or failing to address rising consumer prices.

    A Labor poll weeks out from the election showed a 52-48 Liberal win. A poll late in the final week showed a narrower Coalition win. Even still, government sources never gave themselves a better than one-in-three chance of winning.

    But Saturday’s thumping win has emboldened Labor’s brains trust to mark out parts of the electoral map that it would once not dare to dream about.

    Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.

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