Several hundred ACT election candidates are now working extremely hard to promote themselves to electors. Often they are trying to promote their name recognition through the campaign signs, which now grace (or spoil, depending on your point of view) the verges of most of our main roads. They often just include a name and a party affiliation, and sometimes a head-shot photograph. The occasional creative one uses a slogan or cartoon, but mostly they look like they have been mass-produced by the same factory, some more expensively than others.
We learn a little more about these candidates through the many leaflets that end up in our letter boxes because these explain a few party and individual policies and give a little personal background about the candidate. Some of them attempt to attract extra attention with some creativity, such as a baby photo or an action shot. But there is a limit to what a leaflet can do. Fanatics like me and the National Library collect them but most probably go straight into the bin unread.
Some of us are door-knocked by a candidate or two after hours or on weekends while other candidates appear at our shopping centres with a team of volunteers to promote themselves further. Later in the campaign, some may even scrape up the money for a paid media advertisement but these will be few and far between. That's about the extent of it.
Whenever I see a row of these campaign signs alongside a main road, I am torn between regarding them as a brave example of democracy in action or as a forlorn bid at political communication in a cold climate.
There is something sad about what candidates are driven to do in order to promote themselves. There was even a cruel letter to the editor condemning these signs from a writer who promised never to vote for anyone who advertised themselves in that way. Some environmentalists rage against what they see as visual pollution.
But what else are candidates supposed to do? These signs are one of the limited number of ways in which they can extract themselves from the ruck by imprinting their name on our brains on the chance that we will remember it when we enter the polling booth. Their dilemma is made even worse by the Hare-Clark proportional representation system in which each electorate has five seats.
In the ACT system, even rusted-on major party voters have to choose between five candidates in each seat. The minor parties offer three or five candidates and there are a multitude of independents who, realistically, are competing for the one spot in each electorate. How are voters to choose between the many candidates with the same party or independent label?
We just don't know enough about them to make an educated choice. It comes down to name recognition, which is why incumbency is such an advantage. More often than not, sitting MPs are re-elected.
Campaigning is such hard work and raising your profile is such an elusive thing to do that every candidate out there attempting to do it deserves congratulations. They are brave people taking a stand. There are few campaigning options other than the tried and true ones. The "How to Get Elected" handbook has a limited number of chapters.
So what options does a candidate have to stand out from the pack?
Almost without exception the candidates we have to choose from are not household names. Many of them have led perfectly admirable professional lives and made remarkable contributions to our community. Some have been community and professional leaders in business, education, the non-profit sector, churches, sporting groups and so on. Only a few have an established profile through the media.
There are recognised ways to stand out from the crowd, primarily through a political party brand or by attachment to a particular issue. But in the ACT system, even this does not distinguish one candidate from another with the same brand or the same issue. The gender, ethnic group, religious affiliation and age of the candidates help the discerning voter to some extent. But that still leaves plenty of possible contenders.
That's when other recognisable factors come into play. Think Pauline Hanson, Nick Xenophon, Bob Katter, for instance.
One harmless option is the identifiable gimmick. Katter has made the big hat-look his own as have other rural politicians such as former Nationals leader Tim Fischer. But city-slickers look silly in country gear, so that's not for Canberra. The Canberra Times has featured some local attempts, such as Labor's bald but bold candidate and the red-nose candidate. Riding your campaign bike around your electorate or having a crazy campaign vehicle are other versions of the campaign gimmick.
Going a bit further than the gimmick is the stunt. Xenophon has made a career of campaigning with animals or even dressing up as one. Former chief minister Kate Carnell once made a name through sky-diving. Basically anything goes that attracts attention. You just have to have a sense of humour and not take yourself too seriously.
Finally there is the option of being outrageous. Pauline Hanson has made a 20-year career out of saying outrageous things that feed a weakness of the media. Publicity usually results. This ACT election has few candidates who could be described as outrageous. Some voters may find it boring as a result. Give me boring any day but it does make self-promotion much more difficult as any candidate knows.
So make the effort to find out more. Don't write off candidates for lack of profile.
John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.