The party without any candidates

Hannah Ryan reports on the three USYD students who deferred their degrees to take on Canberra

The rise of the minor party is one of the media’s pet narratives of the 2013 federal election. WikiLeaks, Palmer United, the Pirate Party: all claim to be dissatisfied with the old ALP-LNP duopoly and promote themselves as a new voice that you should install in the Senate. There’s another name on the list of new minor parties: Coke in the Bubblers (CITB), which was quietly registered with the Australian Electoral Commission on July 16 of this year, a mere two months before the election.

CITB or something like it was born about halfway through last year. Three USYD students, Ed Miller, Chris Thomas and James Burton put their degrees on hold in mid-2012 to attempt to tackle what they saw as worrying problems with Australian politics and the economy. In their view, Australia faced economic problems, like a rising debt to GDP ratio and exposure to international risk, which would eventually ripen into disaster. They were also concerned about other issues of intergenerational equity, like superannuation and climate change. They believed that short-termism and an anachronistic fidelity to the left-right spectrum meant that the existing parties were not positioned to solve these problems. A lack of civility in politics wasn’t helping. Miller, Thomas and Burton knew they wanted to mobilise students and their ideas included forming a think thank or pursuing parliamentary representation.

A plan to start a political party would be ambitious, but Miller, Burton and Thomas appeared to have significant financial backing. They demonstrated this over three evenings in November last year, when the group held events on Level 31 of the impressive Deutsche Bank Building near Martin Place at the offices of private equity investment firm Pacific Equity Partners. The aim was to persuade other students and friends to volunteer their time over the summer holidays, and part of the pitch’s appeal rested on the group’s connections in the corporate world. According to Dave*, a USYD student who is involved in debating and went to one of the sessions, believes the office was “there to impress us. And it worked.”

I just remember being incredibly certain that they had just a huge amount of money.

The group’s presentation included a slide listing sponsors, attendees say. Some of the assistance Miller, Thomas and Burton claimed to have was in cash, some in kind: “office space, providing consultants to help do research,” Gerald*, another student, recalls. They were impressive names: Dave remembers hearing they had got research done by “really serious, high-ranking commercial firms”, including media and management consulting firms, and there were also a few individuals. “The thing that surprised a lot of us was that there were some very important companies that put a huge amount of money into some university students,” says Dave. “I just remember being incredibly certain that they had just a huge amount of money.” Fellow student and debater Tim* was surprised too. “The natural question was how did you get these people on side?” he says. “It seemed quite odd that [top-tier consulting firms] were stepping in – but not unthinkable.” Sam Molloy, a student who did some work with the group over summer, also had the impression that the group had significant support. “I know that they had been given what uni students would consider to be a large amount of money from, I think, private individuals who happened to be very wealthy and in the corporate world,” he says.

At the event, the group mentioned the possibility of running candidates for the Australian Senate. They would focus on the Senate races in NSW, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia, and they mentioned names like ex-ALP Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner and former deputy PM and leader of the Nationals John Anderson as the kinds of honest and respected people they would approach to stand as candidates. According to Tim, the ultimate question at the end of the night was: “do you want to take a semester off uni and come work for us?”

The pitch won them several volunteers. As the ‘Eureka Movement’, they rented out a spacious office on Broadway (currently advertised for $87 000 per annum).  According to Dave, who visited the office a few times, “they didn’t use much of that space at all”, but it was outfitted with a ping pong table.

Over summer, the team began to work on new policy ideas, mapping out the existing policy landscape, and a plan to mobilise university students in the coming year. They received advice on a field campaign from a student who’d worked on Obama’s 2012 campaign. Molloy says that at that stage “the ideal outcome was trying to build a movement that started in universities and went to engage more of the population to run some candidates.”

'Coke' in the bubblers

‘Coke’ in the bubblers

At the same time, Miller, Thomas and Burton continued their fundraising efforts. In an email to the Eureka team in January, they wrote that they had “set up the meetings for the next fortnight that will hopefully allow [them] to raise a further $250 000 by the start of March and find the first voice and face of the movement.” A week later, they wrote that they had had meetings with four “prominent businessmen,” and that they thought they would raise around $200 000 in the next fortnight. Some who were involved claim that there was a disparity between their representations in private and what they would reveal publicly. “It is definitely true that there was a huge difference between their willingness to privately flaunt the support of those companies and the complete lack of external reference to those companies,” says Dave.

The plan to build the campaign out of universities proved difficult. “People engaged with the movement less than they were hoping,” Molloy says, and it was becoming apparent that running in the federal election was “a little unrealistic”. Still, the group had a presence at university O-Days around Australia in March, as they tried to get a range of young people to commit to aims like focusing on the long-term, not the next term. They also took a range of photos of students holding speech bubbles saying things like “POLITICS IS BROKEN” and “POLITICIANS ARE FUCKING WITH OUR FUTURE,” which they hoped to develop into a photo petition, and some of which are now on the CITB Facebook page.

By May, they had decided that the name Eureka had racist undertones, and the group renamed itself Coke in the Bubblers and started working towards party registration. The name was a comment on the state of politics – as the CITB website reads: “Every year, in primary schools across the country, students are elected to leadership positions on the promise of putting Coke in the Bubblers. Unfortunately, it feels like our political leaders are trapped in a system that still forces them to promise short and sell long.” The name was also a strategy to get the media’s attention. As one member said in an email to the team, “Coke in the Bubblers isn’t necessarily the name that we’re going with but the ad people at [their media consulting company] thought registering a party in that name was too good a news story to pass up.”

The name was a comment on the state of politics – as the CITB website reads: “Every year, in primary schools across the country, students are elected to leadership positions on the promise of putting Coke in the Bubblers. Unfortunately, it feels like our political leaders are trapped in a system that still forces them to promise short and sell long.”

CITB was registered in July with over 500 members.  At this stage, Burton and Thomas left the scene. Miller eventually abandoned the idea of running any candidates in the election, and a fleeting plan to run a ten-year-old boy, Josh, for Prime Minister as a publicity stunt was abandoned too.

Apart from obvious logistical challeneges, there may be other reasons why CITB or the original Eureka Movement ended up not running in the election. Dave says that “while it’s very fashionable to hate politicians, they just didn’t back up a lot of the things that they were going for.” Gerald*, another debater who went to the event in November, doubted that they could be successful as a party, because they were trying to pitch to both old people and young people by combining their investment policies with things like same-sex marriage and “when push came to shove they wouldn’t get too many votes.” Tim was also concerned by the feasibility of operating as a party: “They said they didn’t want to engage in the left-right spectrum – that’s odd for a political party.” He thinks they were also ambiguous on issues that would face a parliamentary party: “How would they work as a party, given that they have to work within the system that they hated?” They were “trying to paint it as easy,” Tim says, “but I knew it would be huge amount of work.” Dave sums up his feelings: “I do think it’s a very noble pursuit to make sure political discourse is constructive, I just got really sceptical really quickly.”

It’s clear that Miller, Thomas and Burton had a lot of ideas and drive and probably a lot of money, but it’s not clear what came of it. Six months after moving into their office, they gave up the lease, and the three of them are back at uni. The CITB Facebook page has a solid 1,271 likes, but hasn’t posted since June. Their website is up and running, but most of it is under construction and all of the FAQs are ‘coming soon’. The front page counts down to the old election date of September 14. The footer claims that “Australia deserves better”.

* Names have been changed. 


More on the federal election:

The advantages of being an election swinger - how to get the most out of your vote

Taking a microscope to the microparties - where your vote really goes

What will Abbott mean for universities? - the Coalition’s approach to tertiary education

When voting for the Sex Party, use protection - what does the ASP stand for, and where are their preferences going?

Australia First, minorities second - an interview with the Australia First candidate for Bennelong

Like father, like daughter - the role of politicians’ daughters in their campaigns

Hannah Ryan
Hannah Ryan is an editor of Honi Soit. She is in her sixth year of a very protracted Arts/Law degree, having studied History and German. She was a reporter for Honi Soit in 2011 and 2012, and is pretty proud of her typing speed.