Union-run phone banks and robo-calls in Mandarin: Behind the scenes in Chisholm

During the campaign for Chisholm, Victoria’s most marginal place, liberal volunteers and Liu himself will do what the party estimates at 100,000 calls to the electorate.

Then there are the robots. Chisholm voter Dianne Oon says she has received “almost daily robo messages from Gladys Liu in English and Mandarin. I’m Chinese but my husband gets nothing. He’s Caucasian.

Chisholm MP Gladys Liu hands out how to vote briefly at the Mount Waverly Pre-Election Center.Credit:Chris Hopkins

Lius’ spokeswoman says she has not made robotic calls but leaves messages for some voters who do not answer.

“I do not understand Chinese so I would not know what Gladys would have said in Mandarin,” says Oon. “In the English message, she states that she is my representative and that she should contact her if I have any thoughts. The calls have come from various mobile numbers.”

Both parties contract private companies to do data collection – take the ballot and add details such as mobile phone numbers. The parties are also making stubborn efforts to update their own databases when they knock on the voters’ door. These databases are exempt from privacy legislation to give politicians the opportunity to better address political messages to residents.

Those who get such a knock on the door before the election – and Garland, Liu and their volunteers have knocked on tens of thousands of doors in recent months – may not realize that the interaction has served two purposes: to appeal for your vote, but also to gather information.

Volunteers call Chisholm's voters from Carina Garland's office.

Volunteers call Chisholm’s voters from Carina Garland’s office.Credit:Darrian Traynor

“If they have a problem, try to resolve it with a follow-up letter,” said a federal lawmaker, who is an old hand but asks not to be named because he is not an authorized campaign spokesman. “It’s both a great way to actually help them, but also to remind them that you’re there next time.”

It is also becoming increasingly important with each election to find volunteers who can staff pre-selection premises and distribute campaign materials. There are two dedicated booths open in Chisholm, in Mount Waverley and Box Hill.

In the 2016 vote in Chisholm, 18,000 voters out of 87,000 voted in the mandate before election day. In 2019, it rose to 29,000 out of 99,000. It is expected to be even higher this time. The increase in pre-selection means that the parties must have enough volunteers to distribute how to vote cards – and this is particularly important in a marginal place like Chisholm.

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Both Liu and Garland will spend many hours at these polling stations between now and election day. Both were at Mount Waverley’s booth when Age visited last Thursday. External groups, including union representatives from the Victorian Trades Hall Council, were also there in a must-see seat, handing out cards urging voters to “put the Liberals first.” The cards were in the shape of a ukulele and decorated with Hawaiian flowers. On the front were the words “I have no hose”.

Back at Garland’s office on Wednesday night, Quynh Nguyen, a kindergarten teacher and union member, had just received her ninth phone call to an unanswered voter in Chisholm. The tenth goes through.

“But they said they were in a meeting,” Nguyen said, easily defeated. “This is the first time I’m doing something like this.”

Nguyen says that despite the frustration, she understands why people do not respond.

“I do not take up numbers that I do not recognize either.”

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