Politics Analysis

KERRYN PHELPS: Coalition go for teal in The Corflute Games

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Liberal MPs Dave Sharma (left) and Tim Wilson (right) have pursued vendettas against campaign signage of Independent candidates Allegra Spender and Zoe Daniel (Image by Dan Jensen)

From legal challenges to political subterfuge, welcome to the dramatic world surrounding election campaign signage as explained by former Member for Wentworth Professor Kerryn Phelps.

LET THE CORFLUTE GAMES BEGIN!

Independent candidate for Goldstein Zoe Daniel recently won a legal challenge over corflutes.

When I decided to run as a candidate in the Wentworth by-election in 2018, we had to make a plan for corflutes.

At that stage of my campaigning awareness, I had to be told what a corflute was. Of course, I had seen election signs and placards up on poles and in shop windows all around my community and beyond in previous election campaigns, but I didn’t know there was a special word for those posters. Corflutes.

The appearance of corflutes around an electorate is for many people in the community their first awareness of an impending election, like how the first buds of spring herald a change of season.

For people who are not particularly politically tuned-in, corflutes may be their only exposure to the names and faces of candidates running for office and relying on their vote.

Corflutes are a time-honoured political tradition, like the democracy sausage.

I certainly didn’t know what a complicated exercise it was to have corflutes designed, printed and attached to electricity poles and other structures, with a detailed plan for them to be in key locations where there was likely to be high visibility.

People who knew about these things from their previous experience in political campaigning explained to me that there was an unwritten custom that political candidates would put up the corflutes in the weeks leading up to an election and that councils and other authorities turn a blind eye, provided that the corflutes are taken down by each respective candidate within a few weeks of the election.

Corflutes are a major campaign expense. For 1,000 corflutes, you would have to budget around $10,000 for production. But corflutes do not attach themselves. Major political parties usually have groups of volunteers who have done this all before and have a system. Without the volunteers, it costs about $50,000 to produce the corflutes and to then have contractors do the attaching and the removal.

To try to save money in our pop-up by-election campaign in Wentworth, we had groups of young volunteers who put their hands up to say that they would go out in teams with a hired ute and a ladder and put up as many corflutes as they could over a few nights, at times when the traffic was light. It was a major effort.

Imagine our shock when, not long after, we discovered that a substantial number of our corflutes had been removed and curiously, corflutes bearing the visage of the Liberal Party candidate Dave Sharma were in place of where ours had previously been displayed.

Now, I am careful not to assume who or what entity was responsible for removing our posters, but it did seem like a big coincidence at the time. Not only did our posters get removed once, but the second time we had them produced and attached to poles around the electorate, many were again removed.

We had to go through the whole exercise yet again and it was a significant and unnecessary expense.

We recycled the corflutes (the ones that were left after the by-election dramas) for the next federal campaign, but we knew we would have to plan for rapidly replacing ones that would be removed during the campaign as our volunteers would call in with reports about where they had mysteriously disappeared.

So it was no surprise when I heard that Independent candidate Zoe Daniel in the electorate of Goldstein was facing a legal challenge to her corflutes and the timing of her posters going up around the electorate. Too soon for Liberal MP Tim Wilson’s campaign, apparently. Was this a case of the incumbent Wilson’s campaign not being ready with their corflutes?

After all, it seemed like something of a double standard when his Liberal colleague Josh Frydenberg had billboards and corflutes proliferating all over the nearby electorate of Kooyong.

In an exercise in how not to win friends and influence people, Tim Wilson’s campaign even went as far as exhorting constituents to dob in a neighbour for displaying a Zoe Daniel poster, threatening potential fines of almost $1,000.

Well, Zoe Daniel won that round in a Supreme Court challenge and her corflutes and placards were able to remain in place around Goldstein.

Which brings me to the corflute games again being played in Wentworth. When my wife Jackie and I were driving around the Wentworth electorate recently, we saw the teal-themed corflutes with the smiling face of Independent candidate Allegra Spender. We half-joked that on past experience, it would be just a matter of time before many of those disappeared and the Liberal candidate’s corflutes would appear in the same locations. When they didn’t, it was quite curious.

Soon after, we saw reports that there had been complaints “from the public” to Ausgrid about Allegra Spender‘s corflutes being attached to Ausgrid’s poles around Wentworth. Then it all made sense. Ausgrid had, apparently, ordered the Spender campaign to remove the corflutes. No prizes for guessing where the complaints had originated.

Quick as a whip, Dave Sharma was tweeting on 21 April:

‘Disappointing that a candidate running on integrity has refused to remove illegal campaign posters from Ausgrid poles, despite saying they would do so.’

This was tweeted, apparently, with no sense of irony that his own campaign in 2018 and 2019 had corflutes up all over the electorate, or that he had voted against Parliament debating Independent MP Helen Haines’ bill to establish an integrity commission.

But I digress.

Knowing the expense and effort it takes to have those corflutes designed, produced and distributed, of course, Allegra Spender’s campaign sought legal advice. Her campaign spokesperson told me that their legal advice is that “the corflutes are not illegal”, so they will remain in place.

In other parts of the country, corflutes are defaced, damaged and have swastikas scrawled across them. 

In Kooyong, googly eyes have mysteriously appeared on Josh Frydenberg’s posters.

If these corflute games are going to continue to be played, then it makes sense for everyone to know what the ground rules are.

Should corflutes be allowed?

If so, where can they be attached?

When can the corflutes go up?

Once they are attached, what is the expectation for the timing for them to be taken down again?

Is there a sustainable material that could be used, or is there a recycling process?

Or do we just carry on as always, accepting that this is a form of free speech in a healthy democracy?

This is a particularly important issue for Independent campaigns. Major party incumbents have the advantage of public recognition because of the opportunities to appear in local and national media during their term, as well as the budget afforded by major party donations.

For other candidates, recognition of their face and name is an extra hurdle. Corflutes help to introduce candidates to the electorate, contributing to the democratic process.

That goes part of the way to explaining the motivation for the corflute games being played by some of the incumbent Liberal Party campaigns.

For now, the corflutes will remain. We still haven’t seen many Sharma corflutes around Wentworth. However, there is a very large billboard on the Edgecliff Centre bearing Dave Sharma’s personal slogan and the barely discernible Liberal logo. Apparently, the local (Liberal) Council asked for that billboard to be removed because it is against Woollahra Council regulations, but at last sighting, it was still there.

I have it on good authority that the commercial going rate for displaying a billboard of that size is about $20,000 per month. We can only imagine Josh Frydenberg’s billboard budget in Kooyong. We will have to only imagine because, unlike Independents, major party candidates do not have to disclose donations or expenditure by electorate.

Clearly, at least a couple of Liberal Party campaigns have worked out that corflutes give Independent and minor party candidates visibility they do not want them to have.

It would be too much to expect some mutual respect for other candidates’ efforts or to focus on policies, but I suspect that the corflute games are here to stay.

Professor Kerryn Phelps AM is an IA columnist, the former Member for Wentworth, advisory board member and conjoint professor at NICM Health Research Institute, a Climate 200 advisory panel member, a member of OzSAGE and a former Sydney Deputy Lord Mayor. You can follow her on Twitter @drkerrynphelps.

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