A picture is worth a thousand votes: images of a leader

Image: it’s politics’ dirty little secret. Despite protestations that our voting decisions are driven by parties’ policies, the truth is our choice is significantly influenced by the image our political leaders project.

We don’t like to admit we’re that superficial, that we could choose a government on the colour of a man’s tie or the timbre of a woman’s voice, but this is the political reality being managed, if not manipulated, by political strategists.

We got an insight into the importance of political image last night on ABC’s Lateline. In the first of a two-part feature, Coalition political strategist Mark Textor and Labor’s John Utting showed how voters’ responses to politicians are shaped by instinct rather than policy analysis.

Looking first at Julia Gillard, the feature explored how Labor is attempting to craft an image that sends three messages about the Prime Minister: she’s strong and will fight for you; she understands your needs; and while you might not like her, she is worthy of your respect.

It appears Labor has only lately come to the realisation that potential Labor voters respond positively to the idea of Julia Gillard as a strong leader. The epiphany most likely came when the Prime Minister gave her ‘misogyny’ speech, which wasn’t so much a rallying cry for women but for all the people who had been waiting for a sign that Julia Gillard was capable of standing up and fighting for a genuinely heartfelt principle.

Yes, there was the inconvenient (and, to some, inherently hypocritical) matter of sole-parent payments being reduced on the same day, but the speech signposted the point at which Labor voters felt Julia Gillard finally became the leader she claimed to be at the time of the Rudd coup.

Since then, purposeful presidential images on television accompanied by assertive general statements on signature issues such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme, Gonski education reforms, Royal Commission into child abuse and Australia’s relationship with China, have all helped to create a perception that the Prime Minister is a strong leader.

As Labor’s John Utting says, “all reinforce an underlying perception that many voters have, irrespective of what they think of [Julia Gillard] on a more personal level or on a policy orientation, but voters almost to a man and more importantly to a woman do acknowledge her as a very strong, effective leader.”

In contrast, the Coalition’s Mark Textor says it’s not enough for the Prime Minister to be seen as tough, that the toughness needs “to have a personal consequence” for voters or a positive outcome for Australia, such as John Howard’s potentially rural-vote-losing decision on gun control. Textor dismisses any prospect of Julia Gillard replicating Howard’s ability to attract the ‘respect’ vote.

Another image-crafting strategy being deployed by Labor is to create a sense that Julia Gillard is in touch with voters. In the case of connecting the Prime Minister with women bloggers and their vast digital audiences, this strategy worked particularly well. Other online activities such as live blogs and an appearance at a Google+ hangout has also helped the Prime Minister to appear in tune with, and talk directly to, younger voters. But much less effective was the trip to western Sydney, the “crucible of modern Australia” according to Utting, which was so highly orchestrated that the Prime Minister barely shared the same room with a genuine ‘average’ voter the entire week she was there.

Despite Mark Textor dismissing their capacity to do so, it seems clear Labor ARE trying to play the respect card. Julia Gillard is being portrayed as a Prime Minister who might not be loved like Hawke or admired by Keating, but who can be grudgingly respected like Howard. John Utting says as much last night:

“It is amazing what she has done: some of the biggest reforms in Australia’s history. Some are still warming to her but there is no doubt what she has achieved and the increasing respect the PM is held in.”

Mark Textor deflects this by playing the ‘competence’ card, saying there can be no respect if nothing has been delivered and suggesting that uncertainty will continue to overshadow any future Labor Government.

While it’s easy to dismiss what these two strategists say as mere spin, pumping up their leaders’ tyres while deflating the others’, their commentary last night nevertheless provides us with a couple of informative insights. Firstly, both men confirmed the importance of image in the campaign for and against Julia Gillard.

Secondly, they gave us a preview of the main themes being developed for the election campaign. Labor is crafting an image for the Prime Minister that says: I am strong, I understand your needs and I will fight for you as I have fought for Gonski and NDIS. Meanwhile, the Coalition is trying to subvert any perception of the Prime Minister’s strength by suggesting she is only tough when aggressively taking on Tony Abbott or defending her Prime Ministership against Kevin Rudd.

The 2013 election campaign then, it seems, will centre on the choice between a strong, caring leader versus a ruthless, incompetent politician. It will be interesting to see which one the Australian voters decide is which.

You can watch Suzanne Smith’s report – PM’s Image – on the Lateline website.

This post first appeared at ABC’s The Drum.

Author: Drag0nista

Political columnist at The New Daily | Editor of Despatches & AusVotes 2019 | Author of On Merit, a book on the Liberals' *women problem*. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989.

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