Voters don’t care about political lies

The Coalition and conservative media might as well stop flogging the dead horse known as JuLIAR. They’re wasting their breath because the public just doesn’t care if a politician is accused of, or even found to be, lying.

These days, lack of truth is what voters expect from all politicians: there’s no political capital to be gained or lost from one MP pointing an outraged finger at another.

Politicians are, however, taking a big political risk if their behaviour suggests they can’t be trusted to do what’s right for the country.

The public’s inoculation against political dishonesty seems to have started in the Howard years.

While voters were considerably unhappy with Keating’s broken L-A-W promise on tax cuts in 1993, and sent him to the lowest ever approval rating for a modern Prime Minister, PJK was still able to drag that rating up enough to dispatch two Opposition Leaders during his term. It’s clear this breach of faith nevertheless contributed to the wave of anti-Keating sentiment that swept him from office in 1996.

During the Howard years, however, it’s as if voters became accustomed to, and then unfazed by, political deceit. John Howard first swore as Opposition Leader in 1995 that he would “never, ever” introduce a GST; then as Prime Minister he successfully took such a tax to the 1998 election. Some would say Howard was not actually “successful”, having only secured 49% of the vote, but I’d argue that his success was measured by the two election wins that followed the GST. Howard also backtracked on numerous commitments made during the 1998 election campaign, dismissing them as “non-core” promises.

Even more memorable are the claims made against the PM in 2004 that he lied about children being thrown overboard by boat-bourn asylum seekers in 2001.

Political observers were puzzled at the time that this revelation did not cause voters to desert the Coalition. Newspoll’s tracking of how voters perceived Howard’s trustworthiness found that his rating had dipped only slightly from 60% in 1995 to 57% at the height of the furore.

Howard’s trustworthiness rating dropped further, to 51% at the time of his election win over Opposition Leader Mark Latham, whose own trustworthiness rating at the time was 61%.

Almost counter-intuitively, Howard fought that election on a platform of trust. He announced the election with a direct call to voter values: “Who do you trust to keep the economy strong and protect family living standards?” “Who do you trust to keep interest rates low? Who do you trust to lead the fight on Australia’s behalf against international terrorism?”

The ALP clearly thought they had an edge over the PM in the trustworthiness stakes. Latham’s response was to claim: “We’ve had too much dishonesty from the Howard Government.” “The election is about trust. The Government has been dishonest for too long.”

Unfortunately for Latham, he and the ALP did not differentiate between a voter’s trust in a politician to tell the truth and their faith in that politician to run the government responsibly.

Politicians as a group haven’t been trusted by voters for a very long time. The Roy Morgan “Image of Professions Survey”, conducted over the past 16 years, ranks state and federal politicians 22nd and 23rd out of 30 professions when it comes to perceived honesty and ethical standards. (Union leaders rank 24th and newspaper journalists 27th.)

An interesting print article on honesty in politics and the children overboard issue in 2004 quotes a pollster explaining the contrast between voters believing politicians and actually trusting them to do their job: “We have total faith in almost nobody, but we put conditional trust in each of our institutions to perform their function. We trust the bank enough to move our money from one account to another; we trust the politicians enough to run the country. It’s only when we think they are not taking any notice of us at all that we rebel and invent something like One Nation to get their attention. We basically trust them just enough.”

This argument applies equally today and goes some way to explaining the popularity of the Greens.

The article concludes by suggesting that “while leaders deliver on our core demands, it seems that we are prepared to live with their dishonesty ….. [yesterday’s poll] found 60% believed Howard had deliberately lied over children overboard, [but] only half that level – 29% – thought he should lose his job over it.”

This is why PM Gillard can privately dismiss current accusations of deception over the carbon tax. As long as she can convince Australian voters that she is running the government responsibly and making the right decisions on behalf of the whole community, as opposed to conceding to the whims of a few (that is, Green voters), she is inoculated against this attack.

This post also appeared at The Drum / Unleashed

Gerry Harvey: How did it all go so wrong?

How did it all go so wrong? Perhaps that’s what Gerry Harvey is thinking right now. And so he should. In the space of a day, the canny retailer has succeeded in turning his own reputation from a positive to a negative.

Earlier this week Harvey was the home-grown success story, the eccentric billionaire with a canny ability to predict and tap into the psyche of everyday Australians.

Today he is the public face of a badly crafted campaign to force and shame Australians into curbing their online shopping behaviour. Harvey is now perceived as an arrogant capitalist, interested only in lining his own pockets with the limited cash earned by hard-working Australians.

How did it all go so wrong? To an interested observer it is quite clear. The campaign by the Australian retail industry is flawed no matter which way you look at it.

Politically, there are no votes in it. It pays to remember that it took three politicians to attempt bringing in a GST (Keating, Hewson, Howard) before it was successfully introduced by Howard in 1998. Even then it was a high-risk strategy and it would take a brave politician to extend the GST’s scope even now.

At a policy level, the imposition of GST on online purchases increases rather than lightens the regulatory load, with no discernable public benefit delivered as a result. No modern government would interfere in a market by increasing regulation without being able to point to a considerable public benefit.

From a behavioural perspective it would take more than a 10% tax to dissuade online shoppers, particularly when the price differential is often more than that and online shoppers still don’t have to contend with carparks, checkout queues or limited choices on the shelves.

And perhaps most importantly, the campaign is flawed from a communications perspective. Its key messages have no resonance with the people whose behaviour it is trying to influence, namely the politicians and the shoppers.

It appears the retailers’ campaign was neither strategically planned nor deployed.

No organisation should try to influence or change public policy without covering all these bases. The retailers should have been armed with market research and economic modeling to demonstrate that their case was legitimate and that it could deliver both political and public benefits as well as the behavioural change they sought.

They should have engaged on this issue at the departmental level first, with complementary briefings provided to MPs, key ministerial advisers and relevant journalists. This “pincer movement” strategy has the best chance of securing the attention of decision makers and creating the necessary momentum to get a favourable policy decision.

If these avenues have been tried and failed, it may have then been appropriate to take out ads in the newspapers.

But there is an old saying in the world of lobbying and advocacy: if you have to run to the media, then you are admitting that your other lobbying strategies have failed.

Going to the media is the final resort, a very public last-gasp attempt to shanghai a minister into a favourable decision. More often than not, this tactic will fail too because it is seen by both politicians and public servants as unnecessarily aggressive, overtly disruptive and ultimately self-centred. None of these perceptions serve well when one is trying to influence government.

And finally, perhaps the greatest weakness in the retailers’ campaign is its demonstrated misunderstanding of shopper motivations and behaviour.

Instead of spending mega-dollars on newspaper ads, the retailers should have taken steps to understand why customers shop online and how they might be enticed back.

The GST campaign suggests they have not done this even this basis homework, because it is clear that people shop online for more reasons than price alone.

Tastings from the 2010 political buffet

At the end of this week, just before the official start of summer, the Australian Parliament will rise, politicians will head home to their electorates and voters will focus on how many meats to serve on Christmas Day or the quickest route to the beach. For many, the summer break is for relaxation; yet for others it evokes reflection about the year just passed. Given the political year we’ve just had, the reflective folk will have much food for thought.

From my perspective, the two leadership challenges, two state elections and the federal poll have challenged conventional wisdom and rewritten election playbooks, but also confirmed some political trusims. I don’t pretend to be a psephologist or political pundit, but I’m hopelessly attracted to the world of politics. I can’t help but look for patterns and cause-effect relationships and wonder how these might alter the path of political endeavour in the future.

With that caveat, I offer up for your degustation these observations from the political buffet of 2010.

Appetiser: Australian voters want their politicians to be genuine

At times during the federal election, it was hard to distinguish a 7.30 Report interview from the latest instalment of Kath and Kim, such was the broadness of Aussie accent on display. Both Gillard and Abbott went to great lengths to prove they were genuine and in touch with real Australians – particularly compared to their predecessors, the densely verbose Rudd and the tree-hugging patrician Turnbull.

However, Gillard’s authenticity was somewhat inconsistent during the early days of the campaign. At one point she morphed into a Stepford Prime Minister, nodding sagely to the cameras while using the calming tones of a pre-school teacher. This persona grated on voters’ sensibilities and she was quickly cast off in favour of the New! Real! Authentic! Julia. While undoubtedly relieved, voters were nevertheless left to wonder about the previous incarnations of Ms Gillard and their authenticity.

Tony Abbott’s misstep was equally unsettling, telling Kerry O’Brien that he couldn’t necessarily be held to account for words spoken in the heat of the moment, but that his written word was trustworthy. While operatives tried to spin this blunder as candour, it undoubtedly left a crack in Abbott’s everyman persona.

While there were many factors that contributed to the federal election outcome, I believe the genuineness of the party leaders was one of them. Faced with two relatively unknown politicians, both of whose authenticity was in question, many voters chose neither. The perception that neither Gillard nor Abbott was genuine contributed to the shift of votes to the Greens.

Gillard and Abbott are now on probation – the media and voters are alert for any more cracks in their authenticity. So too will the country independents be scrutinised to see if they are as genuine as they currently seem.

Entrée: Unfulfilled expectations will come back to bite you

Kevin Rudd’s downfall was that he didn’t deliver on the expectations he created in the 2007 federal election. As I wrote back in June, Rudd deftly positioned himself prior to that election as Howard-lite, framing himself as the “other” safe pair of hands, but with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. While Rudd did apologise to the Stolen Generation he did not deliver on any other major promise. The Labor MPs and operatives who eventually deposed Rudd did so because they knew voters were waiting to take out their anger on him, just as they had done to Keating in 1996.

PM Gillard almost paid the ultimate price by making the same mistake soon after she replaced Rudd. Gillard became Prime Minister promising to resolve three issues: Australia’s response to climate change; the battle with the mining industry over the Resource Super Profit Tax; and a more humane approach to sea-borne illegal immigrants. Instead she announced a clumsy citizens’ assembly on climate change; gave ground to the mining industry and replicated some of the most reviled elements of the Howard Government’s detention scheme. Voters would have been forgiven for wondering why the PM who couldn’t fulfil commitments was brutally torn down for another with the same failings.

Gillard was damaged by that early mismanagement of expectations. It will be interesting to see whether the Labor Government, the Greens and the independents are wary of creating (or maintaining) expectations in 2011 that cannot be met.

Main: Re-enfranchised rural Australians are watching carefully

Rural Australians are a canny bunch: they may have grown up in the arms of the Country or National parties, but they are open to any other party or individual who can protect their chosen way of life. This is clear from the diminishing number of National Party members in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Both the ALP and Liberals have developed “country” arms of their parties to capitalise on this opportunity.

Country independents are not new to our parliament. Up until now, most have languished on the cross-benches because their votes were not important. Now with deciding votes in the lower House, the current country independents are being watched very carefully by rural Australia. No doubt, National MPs are closely watching them too. Rogue WA National, Tony Crook, managed to do what the rest of his fraternity could only dream of by swiftly dissociating from the Nationals soon after the election and putting his vote up for auction.

If the independents and Crook can materially improve the lot of rural Australians with their pivotal votes, then National MPs could be faced with the unenviable choice at the next federal election of either becoming an independent themselves or being beaten by one.

Dessert: The Greens run the risk of dis-enfranchising their constituency

More than a decade ago the Australian Democrats held the balance of power in the Senate, just as the Greens will do on 1 July next year as a result of this year’s election. In order to extract certain concessions from the Howard Government, the Democrats agreed in 1999 to support the GST legislation in Senate. This decision was portrayed as a sell-out of Democrat principles. It undoubtedly contributed to the leadership tensions and internecine manoeuvrings that wracked the Democrats from that time on, until they lost their last Senate positions in the 2007 federal election.

When the Greens attain the balance of power in July next year, they will discover as did the Democrats that it’s much more difficult to be a political or policy purist when your vote actually counts. Negotiations will inevitably lead to concessions, sometimes on the part of the Government but also of the Greens. The Greens will need to manage member expectations better than the Democrats did to avoid the pitfalls that decision-making can bring.

Cheese: The current model for election reporting is broken

Much has already been said and written about this final point. Political parties have so tightly orchestrated the involvement of mainstream media in election campaigns that the resulting coverage is so contrived that it’s meaningless. Senior journalists rarely travel with the Leaders’ teams any more, preferring to observe and opine from the comfort of their office. Journalists who do travel with the Leaders are told little, shepherded from venue to venue, and given little time to absorb policy announcements before being given access to the Leader who merely parrots the line of the day.

The current model is broken and probably cannot be repaired. I look forward instead to mainstream media outlets refusing to put anyone at all on campaign buses next election, the parties having to instead produce campaign footage for placement on YouTube, Leaders choosing to hold numerous town hall meetings around the country instead of pic-facs, and MP and candidates dealing directly with their constituents through Twitter, Facebook and Skype.

Now that will be an election to reflect upon!

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