“Preference whisperer” Glenn Druery was hauling a kayak through a muddy swamp in Pittwater, north of Sydney, naked but for his jocks, he recalls, when he got a phone call from broadcaster Derryn Hinch.
It was September 2015, and Hinch invited him on his TV show. Lunch followed, along with an invitation to run the celebrity journalist’s campaign for a Senate seat, says Mr Druery. When it was clear Hinch had won, he promptly offered Druery a job as his chief of staff.
“Well, I’ve been working for myself almost my entire adult life,” Mr Druery told The Citizen. “And I said, ‘Look Derryn, I think you’re a great guy, I think what you’re doing is fantastic, but you know I’m a – I’m a free spirit. I get up in the morning and my day is my own.”
Nevertheless, he took the job. “And we came to an agreement, and that is essentially I look after the politics – he looks after everything else – and it’s been a wonderful gig.”
According to a report by veteran political journalist Tim Colebatch published this week, Mr Druery has in this campaign again worked his magic, pulling off an “unheralded coup” to try to get his boss re-elected, negotiating deals with Labor and the Greens.
Mr Druery, a former foreman and real-estate investor, says he screened Hinch the way he screens any potential candidate who approaches him – by asking “curly questions” about who they would be willing to work with, and what they would do to win.
“ ‘Are you prepared to deal with the socialists?’,” he asks. “At that bit, often parties on the Right will say, ‘No way, forget it.’
“If you said something like, ‘Well, I’d rather not deal with the socialists’ or ‘I’d rather not deal with One Nation, but if that’s what I’ve got to do to win, I want to win’, so I’m testing you out and I’ll pick extremes based on who you are.”
Speaking to The Citizen by phone from Sydney airport, Mr Druery enthusiastically expands on his strategy and backstory. He has been putting people into state and federal parliaments for more than 20 years, he says. His drive to take on “the big guys” has existed since his school days, where he was frequently beaten up taking on bullies.
Growing up in western Sydney, Mr Druery had his first taste of electoral campaigning in a bid for school captaincy, aged 11 – though, he confesses, “I did offer peppermint lifesavers to those who would vote for me”.
Mr Druery says his late father is the reason he’s in politics, having been encouraged to think for himself at an early age by having to argue all sides of an argument.
“I mean, Dad would ask me to back up a position that was opposite of something I believed, just to see if I could – which was kind of cool.”
His political education continued into his early twenties, where, working as foreman on a multistory building in Sydney, Mr Druery says he was in charge of 80 men.
“Well, I had a lot to learn. I was 22 years old and the stress of that really got me. I’m trying to build this building, and getting these men to do what I wanted was not easy… And I learnt then the best way to get them do what I want was to ask their advice.
“And then once you do that, they become this sort of father-type figure and they do whatever you want.”
Mr Druery says he was flung into the spotlight in 1996 after appearing on a talkback segment for 2UE with “right wing shock jock” John Laws. Discussing land use policy under the Carr government, Mr Druery says he was protesting the closure and “destruction” of local trails.
Put on the spot, Mr Druery recalls, he invented a rally to be held that Sunday at Sydney’s Macquarie Park. Two and a half thousand people showed up, he says, including TV networks and a helicopter.
After marching the crowd up Putty Road to “the scene of destruction”, Mr Druery declared to the crowd they would form a political party and win a seat in the Senate “to sort these bastards out”.
Offered money, people and resources by Malcolm Jones of the 4WD Association, Mr Druery says he was happy to hand over the “administrative stuff” so he could focus on “coming up with crazy ideas” to get elected.
“It became known as preference harvesting. That term was invented in 1999 after I did what I did. And what I did was, for the first time ever, organised the minor parties – all for one and one for all.”
The ‘minor party alliance’ began meeting in the lead up to the 1999 NSW election, says Mr Druery, with representatives from over 50 minor parties participating.
Minor parties are crucial for a diverse and representative Parliament, he says. “The major parties do not want these little guys, little girls there.”
After Malcolm Jones, Peter Wong and Peter Breen were elected on a “combined primary vote of just over two per cent”, Mr Druery says the laws in NSW were changed. (Election records indicate their combined votes was 0.1%) “And that’s the first of six times I’ve had the laws changed to stop me.”
Electoral reform in NSW removed group voting tickets and tightened party registration requirements after the 1999 State election became famous for the “tablecloth” sized ballot paper.
These days, Mr Druery’s reputation for playing the numbers and negotiating is such that it can be more strategic to advise his clients from the sidelines, he says.
“But if no one knows you’re my client, I’ll say to you, ‘Now call this person. These are his hot points, these are his cold points. Call me back after you’ve spoken to him.’ And I’ve got a picture of what’s happening.
“And based on that conversation I’ll say, ‘Right, we need to have a coffee, and this is the direction we need to go.’ But ultimately – ultimately you have the say on where it goes.”
Mr Druery expands on his strategy with a hypothetical, advising a client from the Arts Party, trying to make a preference deal with their political adversary, the Mathematics Party.
“If you do this deal with the Mathematics Party, that could really piss off your people and it could impact your primary vote. However, I think it’s better to get their preferences, because you’re going to get ahead of them because we’ve done these other really good deals. My advice to you is to take it, but it’s your call.
“Isn’t it better to break into your enemy’s camp, steal their weapons and turn it against them? Because that’s what I’m doing for you. You have very limited resources, very limited everything, so you’ve got to do all it takes to win within the law.”
Mr Druery’s tactics have drawn fire from critics – including some who have benefitted from his work in the past.
Reason Party leader Fiona Patten lodged a complaint to the Victorian Electoral Commission last year, claiming Mr Druery was negotiating preference deals for payment while working as Senator Hinch’s chief of staff.
The Age reported in November last year that Mr Druery was facing a potential criminal investigation following Ms Patten’s complaint to the VEC.
The Victorian Electoral Commission would not comment on the status of the complaint, but a Victoria Police spokesperson has confirmed to The Junction that an investigation is underway, with police “hopeful” of an outcome soon.
“It is a complex investigation and we understand there is strong public interest in the outcome, so it is important that we get it right,” the spokesperson said.
“I’m not sure how Derryn can allow that to occur,” Ms Patten told The Junction. “If that’s legal, it certainly doesn’t pass the pub test.”
Ms Patten, whose party – then called the Sex Party – paid Druery $20,000 to work on her 2014 campaign, says he was hired without her knowledge, and that he was an “independent operator” at the time.
Ms Patten says 2018 was different because “it was, ‘Pay me or I’ll make sure you don’t get elected’.”
“Glenn Druery had said to our campaign director, ‘I will make sure that Fiona does not win a place on a netball team. I will make it my life’s work to make sure she does not get re-elected.’ So there was nothing to lose in talking about this and in raising it.”
Mr Druery calls this a “gross exaggeration … I said words to the effect of ‘If she screws up the strategy – the political strategy, she’ll be lucky to be voted vice captain of the local netball team’. I never threatened her. I don’t do that.”
Mr Druery says he wouldn’t work with the Reason Party in 2018 because it wanted to win more seats than was possible.
Asked how he handles potential conflicts of interest among the many minor parties he advises, Mr Druery says they don’t occur.
“There’s no conflict of interest. There’s none. From the very beginning I design what’s going to happen in the election, and I don’t take on clients where a conflict would develop. So the question is not relevant, really, because it just doesn’t happen.”
To “design” his strategy for wrangling preferences, Mr Druery says he takes himself to remote places with a tent, phone, laptop, solar charger and his notes.
“The permutations involved in putting this together – I mean, it’s just off the scale. Algorithmically, it’s off the scale. And I just like to get away, do my phone calls, put all my stuff together, and that might be a night, two nights, three nights.”
Having unsuccessfully run twice for the NSW Legislative Council, and twice for the Senate, Mr Druery quips “political strategists don’t get themselves elected”.
“I made some fundamental errors in working on my own campaigns, and if I’d have done them with others, I would have been run out of Dodge a long time ago.”
Due to changes to the Senate voting system in 2016, Mr Druery says minor parties will now have to run celebrity candidates or buy their way in.
“What we’re gonna end up with in several [electoral] cycles from now is the major parties – the Greens, there will be minor parties, but they will be minor parties that have at the helm a Derryn Hinch, a Pauline Hanson, a Jacqui Lambie, you know – a well-known presidential–style figure.
“So if you don’t have that, then you’ll need lots and lots and lots of money – like Clive Palmer – to buy your way in.”
The Senate changes in 2016 eliminated group voting tickets, and electors are now asked to number at least six boxes if voting above the line.
“The rules were changed to stop minor parties. The rules were changed to stop people like Ricky Muir coming through, to stop people like you and all the other people that have come to me for help to get through the system.”
Mr Muir was elected in 2013 with 0.01 per cent of the primary vote, winning the sixth Victorian Senate seat despite coming equal 215th in first preferences by candidate. Mr Druery is widely credited with the Gippslander’s 2013 success, but was fired as Mr Muir’s chief of staff in 2014.
According to a 2014 interim parliamentary report on Senate voting practices, micro-parties have been ‘‘gaming’’ the system legally for years by harvesting votes and setting up ‘‘front’’ parties.
Dr Nick Economou, senior lecturer in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University, says the Senate changes “substantially disadvantage the ability of minor parties to participate in the electoral process”.
As Mr Druery tells it, that’s lamentable.
“The days of the butcher, the baker and candlestick maker getting elected are finished. And that’s a terrible result for the country, absolutely terrible result.”
Lucy Lovegrove is a student in the Master of Journalism program at the University of Melbourne. She has also written a profile of Fiona Patten and her Reason party’s 2010 Senate campaign, available here.