AAP: Dan Peled

Anatomy of a campaign launch

Trust me. That was the basis of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s pitch to Australian voters at the Coalition’s election campaign launch on Sunday.

The man who has run the longest and most negative campaign in modern Australian politics flicked the switch to positive with a polished and assured rendition of his claim to the top job in comparison with Kevin Rudd’s tarnished record.

With the strongest signal yet that most Australians vote on gut instinct at least as much as policy, the entire campaign launch focused on pushing the buttons of visceral voters, urging them to give Abbott the benefit of the doubt and put their trust in him on polling day.

The button-pushing started early with the relatively low-key entrance of Liberal eminence grise, former prime minister John Howard. Howard was seated prominently before the stage, providing the best camera angles for the mentor to be seen smiling approvingly upon his protégé, thereby conveying the not-so-subtle sub-text that Abbott’s election would bring a return of the Howard ‘golden’ years.

Howard’s presence said: “You can trust Abbott because he was part of my successful government and I believe in him.”

The opening address by Queensland Liberal Premier Campbell Newman, was to dispel any bad juju left hanging over the federal campaign from his austerity drive after being elected in that state. At least one media commentator noted (a fact no doubt supplied by the Coalition’s campaign team) that Newman still commanded a healthy lead in the polls, and by implication was a positive and not a negative for Abbott’s election prospects.

Newman’s speech said: “I am not a reason for you to distrust Abbott.”

Deputy Liberal Leader Julie Bishop not only provided the light relief but also shouldered the responsibility for taking the personal attack to Kevin Rudd. In an amusing display which might have made the Chaser Boys regret helping Bishop find her inner comic during the 2010 election, the Liberals’ most senior woman chanted the word ‘remember’ while reciting the recycled Prime Minister’s flaws.

She also delivered two pivotal lines that must be playing well in the Liberals’ focus groups; so well in fact that Abbott repeated them in his own address. “If [Rudd’s] own party don’t believe in Kevin Rudd and they’ve sacked him once why should the Australian people ever trust him in the top job again?” queried Bishop, leading up to the clincher: “Kevin Rudd assumes that this election is all about him. Tony Abbott and our team know, believe, that it is all about you the Australian people and we stand ready to serve.”

Bishop’s speech said: “You can’t trust Rudd but you can trust Abbott.”

Nationals Leader Warren Truss took to the podium next, partly to ensure that rural and regional Australia did not feel left out, but also to transition the mood of the event from negativity about Rudd to positivity about Abbott. Truss had the privilege of announcing the first policy commitment of the launch, one that heralded a number of other infrastructure promises. This suggests the Coalition is taking a punt that more votes can be won from new and improved roads and bridges than will be lost from their budget version of the NBN.

Truss built on the presence of Howard in the room, noting he and 15 former colleagues from the Howard era stood ready to serve in an Abbott ministry. “Proven competence versus proven incompetence” was how he described the choice facing voters between the Coalition and Labor.

Invoking Howard’s “Who do you trust?” mantra from 2004, Truss’s speech said: “You can trust Abbott and we won’t let you down.”

Then Frances and Bridget, two of Abbott’s three daughters injected some homespun glamour into the launch, eschewing the autocue to read from notes about the man who had “helped us become the women we are today”. Conferring this role on Abbott’s daughters instead of his equally telegenic and articulate wife Margie suggests the younger women have been assessed by the campaign team to have broader appeal and may have a better chance of convincing younger men and women to vote for Abbott than Margie would have with women of her own age.

Frances and Bridget’s speeches said: “You can trust Tony Abbott as we have done all our lives.”

Finally, the Tony Abbott who took to the stage was the best we’ve seen of him yet: Abbott gave his supporters and potential supporters a glimpse of the prime minister he could be. Undoubtedly rehearsed to within an inch of his life, this Tony Abbott was a long way from the staccato Mr Negative we’ve seen since 2009.

In the tradition of opposition leaders before him, Abbott’s speech remained light on costing details despite demands from the media and his opponents to provide them. He gave purpose and momentum to his ‘positive plan’ by detailing what would be done on the first day, within the first 100 days and by the end of his first term.

Abbott made a few strategic commitments including more support for seniors, encouraging more young people into trades, and recognising Indigenous Australians in the Australian Constitution.

But most significantly, Abbott committed to restoring trust in government. This is audacious considering Abbott’s relentless negative campaigning is responsible for at least some of the community’s loss of confidence in the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Government. Equally, Abbott’s pitch to restore ‘trust in people’ and vow never to seek to divide one person from another sits uncomfortably with some of the Coalition’s most divisive policies such as that on asylum seekers.

Trust may well be a risky characteristic upon which to build the remainder of the Coalition campaign. As Labor Opposition Leader Mark Latham learned in 2004, this ephemeral quality has many interpretations and can swiftly be transformed from a positive to a negative depending upon who is more skilled at framing the debate.

On recent past performances, the Coalition is more adept at such campaign tactics, although Labor is more than competitive when not distracted by internal ructions.

But in the end it will likely come down to the two main contenders. It will be he who wins the ‘trust wars’ who will prevail on polling day.

This post originally appeared as a weekly campaign column at ABC’s The Drum.

Competency, not truth, will decide this election

Guardian Australia’s political editor Lenore Taylor wrote that we’re heading to a post-truth election.

This might have come as a surprise to the many political observers who consider truth to be a quaint artefact from a golden age of politics that may not have actually existed. Truth, or its absence, has not been a deciding factor in politics for a very long time. Nor will it play a definitive role in the 2013 federal election.

The result will, however, pivot on the questions of trust and competency.

Taylor cites as evidence of the post-truth paradigm the Opposition’s current strategy of dismissing Government undertakings as lies or broken promises-in-waiting, while the Government paints its opponent as a bogeyman with manifold hidden agendas.

While “Politicians have always tried to paint their opponents in an unflattering way and cast doubt upon their promises and credibility,” says Taylor, these days “the story politicians tell about themselves and their opponents bears scant relationship to the actual policies on offer.”

But it has ever been thus.

As Laurie Oakes wrote last year “Let’s not beat about the bush. Tony Abbott tells lies. So what? Is there anything surprising about that? After all, he’s a politician”.

This view is supported in the opinion polls. Fourteen per cent of Coalition voters believe Tony Abbott won’t actually scrap the carbon and mining taxes. Twenty-eight per cent believe he’ll bring back WorkChoices. And yet they say they will vote for him.

The sad truth is that we expect politicians to lie: it is simply part of what they do. While we denounce the lies of politicians we’d never vote for, we forgive the untruths of those we support.

This ‘compact of deceit’ saw Prime Minister John Howard re-elected in 2004 even though voters believed he’d lied about the children overboard affair. Newspoll found the proportion of voters who perceived Howard to be trustworthy dipped from 57% in July to 51% in September that year. Nevertheless, Howard defeated Mark Latham just a month later at the October 2004 federal election even though Latham’s trustworthiness rating at the time was 61%.

That’s because voters considered Howard a competent Prime Minister and the trust they vested in him was to run a strong economy and make the right decisions for the nation. (Granted, there was no discussion of the structural deficit Howard ended up bequeathing to the nation’s future economy.)

So while Lenore Taylor picked the right examples of election strategy at play, she misinterpreted their intent. Both sides joust using the language of untruth, but in reality they’re evoking another thing altogether: the equally emotionally-vested concept of promises broken and expectations dashed through foolishness and incompetency.

Howard campaigned against Latham in 2004 with a strong economic track record allowing him to make a claim for trust and competency. Gillard finds herself unable to communicate a similar advantage over Abbott despite shepherding Australia’s economy through the GFC. Her backflip on the carbon tax, followed by the watered down mining tax and the missteps in dealing with asylum seekers, compounded by the people’s convention on climate change and the littany of strategically dumb decisions like announcing the election date early, has etched the PM’s reputation in voters’ minds as not only an oath-breaker, but a foolish and incompetent one at that.

While 27 per cent of voters currently say the Government is unpopular because people don’t trust Julia Gillard (followed by 19 per cent saying it is because the Government is divided and can’t govern properly), a staggering 71 per cent said the Labor Government will promise anything to win votes. Admittedly only four per cent less think the Liberal Party would do the same.

However it is in the competency stakes that the Liberals have the important edge: they’re seen as being better than Labor in having a vision for the future, understanding Australia’s problems, being in touch with ordinary people, having good leaders and keeping their promises.

Labor may think they’re tapping into voter unease about Tony Abbott by playing the truth card. But truth isn’t the same as trust, and as Mark Latham discovered to his detriment in 2004, even trust is a two-edged sword (see video below). Without competency, neither truth nor trust will win the federal election.

Is an unfaithful politician fit for office?

“While it’s all very well to say political private lives should stay private, we need to stop glossing over the fact that infidelity involves a great deal of lying and the breaking of a profound commitment.”

Here’s my piece on this touchy subject, published today at The Hoopla.

Exposing Rudd camp’s attempt to rewrite history

Australians have witnessed considerable rewriting of the political rulebook over the past decade.

Mark Latham ran an unconventionally hokey campaign in 2004 that almost got him elected. He focussed on populist issues such as MPs’ superannuation and reading to children, when the rulebook says that oppositions should stick to the big policy issues like the economy and health.

That same election, John Howard unashamedly and un-ironically used “trust” to beat Latham. The rulebook says he should have avoided this political battleground when the community clearly had their own trust issues with the then-PM.

New rules were written in 2007 when Kevin Rudd barnstormed the election with his “me too” campaign, promising to be Howard-lite with added features like the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. Never before had a politician offered to be “the same, but better” than his opponent. It was however the perfect pitch for Howard-weary voters looking for another safe pair of hands to run the economy.

And now, Tony Abbott is defying all known rules on negative campaigning by running the longest anti-campaign any of us have ever witnessed. The success of that strategy is yet to be borne out.

Perhaps the most “bent but not broken” rule in the political playbook to date, is that which says history is written by the victor. I mention this because of the concerted effort being made by the Rudd camp to re-play the Howard trust card, and claim that Julia Gillard lost the trust of the Australian community by wresting the Prime Ministership from Kevin Rudd in 2010.

This narrative might suit the combatants’ purposes, but it’s not backed by the facts.

Support for the Labor Government increased after Julia Gillard became leader, from 52% before the change in Prime Ministership, to 53% after the change and 55% two weeks after that. Similarly, support for PM Rudd as preferred Prime Minister was 46% prior to the change, and then for PM Gillard was 53%, increasing to 57% two weeks later.

So, up to three weeks after the “coup”, the Australian people were swinging back to the Labor Government and Julia Gillard as PM. Surely if there was outrage or resentment about the way in which Kevin Rudd was dispatched, it would have emerged in the opinion polls. But no, it did not.

The polls did dive three weeks after the change in leadership, but not because of any perceived poor treatment of Rudd. The polls dived because the Australian community realised they’d be sold a pup. Not once, but twice.

I’ve written before that people lost faith in Rudd because his promise to be Howard-lite proved to be empty. Rudd created the expectation but did not deliver. While he promised to be a man of action, he proved to be a man of indecision, committees and reviews.  Rudd proved to be nothing like Howard, showing none of the former PM’s ability to provide a narrative to give meaning to the government’s efforts. Nor could he speak like Howard to the community, in a language they understood.

So, in June 2010 the Australian community were well on the way to understanding that they’d been conned by Kevin Rudd. That’s why there was no uproar when he was deposed. Instead there was a cautious optimism that maybe the Labor Party had made a necessary course correction.

The shattering of that optimism is the reason why Julia Gillard no longer has the faith of the Australian people.

Julia 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 asylum seekers.

On 2 July PM Gillard announced a resolution to the mining resource tax that was reported by the media as being a backdown. Then on 6 July 2010 the PM made a strong speech to the Lowy Institute committing to solve the issues relating to boat-borne asylum seekers. Even though her asylum-seeker solution was scuttled shortly after, the public remained optimistic and the PM registered her highest approval rating (57% on 16-18 July 2010).

But on 23 July 2010 PM Gillard announced that her government would create a citizens’ assembly of ”real Australians” to investigate the science of climate change and consequences of emissions trading, under a plan to build a national consensus for a carbon price. This proposal was widely derided as setting climate policy by public opinion instead of science, and a further repudiation of the emissions trading scheme shelved by Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister.

This was the point at which the penny dropped. Voters realised that they’d not only been gypped by Rudd, but also by Gillard, and so the opinion polls began to fall.

At the time of the citizens’ assembly announcement, PM Gillard’s rating as preferred Prime Minister fell from 57% to 50% (23-25 July) and the Government’s standing from 55% to 52%. A week later, the parties stood at 50% each.

The rest, as they say, is history. On this occasion, the facts are borne out by the numbers and can’t be bent to show anything other than the truth. Attempts to recast them for political purposes should be exposed for what they are – blatantly misleading and condescending to all of us.

(All opinion poll data is sourced from Newspoll).

This piece also appeared at ABC’s The Drum

Think tanks: Independent does not mean objective

Somewhere along the way, in the debate of public policy issues, we seem to have forgotten that “independent” does not necessarily mean “objective”.

Think tanks in particular are the guiltiest in using this sleight of hand. In stressing that they are independent scholarly organisations, think tanks attempt to lay claim to a higher moral ground that comes from academic objectivity.

With a sage nod and the dispassionate tones of an academic, think tank representatives refer us to the word “independent” in their Wikipedia entries in a Jedi-like attempt to distract us from the partisan players who sit on their boards or fund their activities. They MAY be independent, in that they’re not formally affiliated with political interests, but most think tanks are NOT objective by any stretch of the imagination. Generally, this is because political interests created them in the first place.

This deception is by no means a new dimension to the battle for political influence. Nor is it the only illusion inflicted on the mostly unaware populace.

The flourishing of think tanks indicates the evolving nature of public trust; articulate and organised “third parties” almost magically blossom from whichever groups the community trusts most. And when that trust moves from one group to another, then new “independent” voices spring from that group too.

It’s a classic lobbying tactic, to which the name astroturfing no longer fits because of its broader scope. I call it the creation of friendipendents, that is, the active establishment by partisan interests of third parties which claim to be independent but actually push their creator’s agenda.

There have been several different manifestations of this tactic. When the community vested its trust in non-government organisations like environment groups, these proliferated. Business interests set up their own NGOs with pro-environment names to muddy the waters. As NGOs lost their gloss, and academics consistently outpolled them on trust, then lobbyists (of all political persuasions) swathed their agendas in academic garb by establishing “independent” think tanks.

And let’s not forget the classic astroturfing tactic which arises when the most trusted voice in a community is “one of us”, resulting in the fabrication of grass roots support to influence the debate.

Sometimes, because of the disparity of public opinion on a broad or complex issue, lobbyists use a combination of these approaches to influence the key demographics. The most evident example of this is the Say Yes campaign, which combined green NGOs with the “independent” think tank The Climate Institute, and faux grass roots organisations such as GetUp!.

The Climate Institute’s prominent involvement in the Say Yes campaign seemed to me to be the first time a self-described independent think tank had publicly displayed such political activism. It caused me to question whether this was appropriate. My judgement was no doubt coloured by The Climate Institute’s close association with one political party; TCI was established by The Australia Institute, which has Bob Brown’s current Chief of Staff on its Board and is headed by a former Greens’ staffer.

I was told that TCI’s activism was appropriate because the Say Yes cause was just and also consistent with the think tank’s area of expertise. I wondered nonetheless whether political observers would have been equally sanguine if the Institute of Public Affairs, which has some prominent Liberals on its Board, had participated to the same extent in the No Carbon Tax rallies.

That’s not to say the IPA doesn’t pursue it’s interests just as vigorously. By identifying, grooming and touting a bevy of articulate “independent” commentators, the IPA has assertively imposed its free market perspective into all major public policy debates including that on climate change.

This brings me back, then, to where I began. Independent does not mean objective, although think tanks (and their creators) depend upon us not making that distinction.

Think tanks have agendas and the justness of those agendas will differ in the eyes of each beholder. Think tanks have too long hidden behind the cloak of independence and should be subject to more scrutiny. They should be recognised as active players in political debate, and not the dispassionate observers that they pretend to be.

This piece also appeared at ABC’s The Drum

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

Time to throw out the astroturf and step forward

Astroturfing denotes political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization, but are disguised as spontaneous, popular “grassroots” behavior. The term refers to AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass.

Wikipedia.com

At any given point in time activists, political parties or business interests are at the forefront of techniques carefully honed to influence public opinion.  We never really know for sure which of these has the ascendancy until one of the combatants blows another’s cover.

The nature of the “disguise” has changed over the years.  Decades ago, when a vested interest provided a public rationalisation for their actions, they would automatically be met with a variation of the Mandy Rice-Davies response: “well you would say that, wouldn’t you”.

It was clear at this time that those who sought to influence opinion could not credibly do so in their own right.  Alternative methods were identified and explored.

As the art of influence became more sophisticated, the players took note of market research that indicated people were most likely to believe what scientists and esteemed scientific institutions such as the CSIRO had to say about contemporary and controversial public policy issues.  This finding heralded the “battle of the boffins” era.

This era saw governments and corporates mobilise behind the scenes to identify, solicit and enlist scientifically credentialed third parties to “endorse” their preferred position.  Activist and pressure groups refined this dark art even further by strategically placing a number of their field-savvy campaigners into scientific roles in academic institutions, as well as establishing their own think-tanks and creating their own “independent panels of concerned scientists”.

This approach proved to be counter-productive for all concerned.  Faced with scientific boffins squabbling over what were generally seen to be esoteric issues, ordinary people turned their backs on the divided scientific community and looked inwards to their core values for guidance.

Arising from this introspective mood is the phenomenon we now know as astroturfing.  At its heart, astroturfing is a fake grass roots campaign.

Once the vested interests realised that they had lost the community’s hearts and minds with their battling boffins, they undertook more market research and found that people had reverted to focusing on the mitigation of tangible issues at the local level.   Those seeking to influence public opinion studied and learned from the successes of Landcare and Rotary and then established faux local interest groups to support and promote their own interests.

Activist and interest groups followed swiftly with the establishment of similar entities.  Some did not make much effort to hide this sleight of hand, with some “local interest” groups publicly sharing fax numbers and postal addresses with high profile activist groups.

Today, the casually interested observer in political and public policy issues is confronted with an array of information sources, some of who may or may not be who they say they are.  No wonder there is little confidence in the credibility of most public information sources.

The huge irony in all this, is that people are now demanding that vested interests step forward and publicly defend their own positions. Many people have moved on from the Rice-Davies form of skepticism to a new variation that says “if you are not prepared to publicly defend your own position, product or party then there must be something indefensible about it”.

Activists, political parties and business interests should take note of this change in community expectations.  Throw away the Astroturf and step forward.  Being prepared to publicly defend your position is the first step in winning new hearts, minds and supporters.

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