Opposition Leader Bill Shorten takes a selfie with media on the campaign bus on the way to Beaconsfield State School in Mackay, Queensland. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen Illustration: Michael Mucci

It was2013. Tony Abbott’s campaignbus rolled into the military base at Holsworthy. Inthat day’s bid to get favourable pictures up for the nightly news, Abbott did a meet and greet with military personnel.

A young man approached Abbott with a questionabout the issue of foreign ownership of agricultural land. So rare was a voter actually asking the leader about an issue, the media pack swoopedand began asking for his name and details. He began shaking and repeatedwith a military tempo, “You are not authorised to speak to me.”

We laughed at the time. Much later I reflected on how highly intimidating we must have all been and whether if I would have asked a leader about a burning issue if I knew I might be inviting the nation’s excitable media upon me and in my workplace.

Tocall the travelling press pack a “bubble” is no exaggeration. During electioncampaigns, acamera crewfrom each of the major networks, photographers from Fairfax Media, News Corp and AAP as well as journalists from each media outlet will be shadowing the leader’s every move. To do this, they usually encircle the leader, to capture that moment: when a leader scores a pash, a serenade, gives a hug or at best is served a mouthful.

In the tightly controlledworld of media-managed campaigns an organic moment like this isgold. Pictures areking and ordinary punters bailing up a leader wins. Journalists, let out after hours with nothing to do and keen to justify their place on the bus, compete with their colleagues to live-stream andtweet from theirphones.

In 2010, I spent the campaign on the bus for Radio 2UE, swapping halfway between Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard. By the end I was left wondering who was benefiting from the campaigns? It felt like they were showing the worst side of the media andpoliticians, butrarely reaching real voters.

Events with candidates were usually held with local party supporters. On the rare occasions the leaderventured out into neutral territory – a street or shopping centre walk – ordinary people either did one of two things: they asked for a selfieor looked at the media pack and moved right out of the way.

Once walking inSydney’s CBD with opposition leaderTony Abbott, a group of young girlsstopped Tony Abbott for a selfie. Afterwards they giggled and turned to me to ask who hewas. They figured he was someone famous because of the media pack. It was the ultimate feedback loop.

Campaigns costmoney -at least $40,000 to $50,000 to send a single journalist.Journalists fly on planes charted by the parties (but paid for by their media companies), stay in five-star hotelsand travel on buses hired by the campaign unit.

They will get a few hours of access to the leader atdrinks one evening andfive minutes on the bus when the leader decides to jump on to schmooze – if they’re lucky. At worst they will be told five minutes before a media conference of themajor policy that’s being announced.

The level of control is such that on Tuesday Malcolm Turnbull thought he could shut down questions from travelling journalistsabout Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and his remarks on “illiterate and innumerate refugees” by holding his first press conference for local media only. The way campaigns are set up leads to process and gotcha-driven coverage about the censorship, last-minute changes to plans and even tweets from journalists about the sort of food they eat on the campaign plane, while senior journalists remain in Canberra “wrapping” the day’s news.

Journalists on the bus interviewedthe driver, who revealed Turnbull canned a planned street walk.Veteran journalist Phil Coorey says this is a counterproductive move for those playing a long-game.

“On a campaign the driver is the one person who knows where you’re going,” he says.

Are theseminute-by-minute tactical plays reallythe best way we have ofcampaigning in 2016?

Over the past three elections thehighlights of the dreary stage-managed campaigns have been the town hall debates wherevoters get to ask the questions they want. Last week’s forum was watched by 62,000 on Foxtel, Sky’s first live Facebook stream was watched by a further 170,000 people and the post itself reached 1.3 million Facebook users. The stream was also broadcast online atnews websites and Facebook accounts, including Fairfax Media.For a Friday night these were strong figures.

And for the camera-shy? There is online and it’s not just limited to sending a tweet into the void or adding your comment to a politician’s Facebook page. But it can betwo way. Politicians have been forced into addressing issues like medicinal cannabis, credit card surcharges and even the backpacker tax partly through effective petitioning online.

In truth campaigning doesn’t happen in the six weeks before the election. It never stops from one election to the next. Leaders regularly hold the events with local candidates around the country. The only change is that in the weeks leading up to the election they take half the Canberra press gallery with them.

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