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We don’t have to go any further than the ubiquitous fluro vest for confirmation that image is as important to Tony Abbott’s election prospects as it is to Julia Gillard’s. The Opposition Leader’s man-of-the-people persona is as strategically fabricated as Julia Gillard’s portrayal of the strong, compassionate protector.

On Monday night, in the first instalment of Lateline’s feature on political image, we saw how Labor is crafting an image for the Prime Minister that says: I am strong, I understand your needs and I will fight for you.
The Opposition’s response has been to twist that perceived strength into self-centred ruthlessness and subvert any nascent respect for Julia Gillard with doubts about her competency.

In the second instalment shown last night, Labor strategist John Utting and the Coalition’s Mark Textor put their respective spin on how voters perceive the other prime ministerial contender, Tony Abbott.

A successful opposition leader needs to be what the prime minister is not, and to demonstrate superiority in those points of differentiation. John Howard did so by styling himself as a man of the common people in contrast to PM Keating who was depicted as aloof from the broader community. Kevin Rudd similarly made ratifying the Kyoto Protocol and scrapping WorkChoices his points of divergence from PM Howard.

And so we see the Coalition carefully crafting Tony Abbott’s image to portray him as distinctly different from Julia Gillard’s Commander-in-Chief: he’s being pitched as an everyman, one of us, just another Joe who holds no airs or graces and understands the problems and concerns of the everyday voter.

This is what the endless shopfloor walks, truck drives, fish fillets and assembly-line inspections are all about. This tactic has particular resonance in western Sydney, the “crucible of modern Australia” according to Labor’s John Utting.

As political blogger Preston Towers recently wrote in a post about western Sydney, Abbott’s blokey demeanour is well received in those circles. According to Towers, Abbott is perceived as:

“…part Vladimir Putin, part Bollywood star and part tradie. Indeed, some people might well believe that Abbott used to be a tradie in a former life, he wears headwear and safety vests so much. Tradies play well amongst many in Western Sydney, because they are the lifeblood of the region… The strategy of having [Abbott] doing things, being physical, being an Alpha Male, does have resonance amongst those in the West who do similar things, or look up to people who do those things.”

Mark Textor confirmed as much last night, saying: “You need to demonstrate you are in touch with the community. The community volunteers on Clean Up Australia Day and the community goes out there and volunteers with the Nippers and the Surf Lifesavers. Tony has a history in always participating in those events even before he was Opposition Leader…”

Interestingly, Labor has not attempted to dismantle Abbott’s everyman construct, which could be said to be his strength. Instead, they’ve chosen to exploit Abbott’s weak spots: his perceived ‘woman problem’ and religious conservatism.

I wrote yesterday in the companion to this piece that our voting choice is significantly influenced by the images our political leaders project. We base our judgments about a politician’s suitability, trustworthiness or competency not only on what they say, but how they say it, how they behave, what they’re wearing (or not wearing), where they visit and who they’re with.

As a result, some voters are apprehensive about Tony Abbott and the extent to which his conservative Catholicism influences his decisions. They’re troubled by his swagger and the archaic prism through which he views women and gender issues more broadly. And they’re worried that Abbott’s emulation of Howard will extend to the reintroduction of WorkChoices.

John Utting explains it thus: “lots of women, especially younger women, are quite uncomfortable with what they perceive as [Abbott’s] white bread 1950s style social conservatism.”

The Coalition’s tactic to counter these concerns has been to stage media opportunities featuring Tony Abbott’s wife, daughters and gay sister, all of whom have heartily testified to the Opposition Leader’s late but genuine transformation into a new age guy.

While the strategy has been met with scorn from Labor voters, it is not aimed at changing the minds of those already decided against Tony Abbott. It is intended to allay the concerns of those who’ve not yet chosen which way they will vote.

Although Mark Textor was unwilling to confirm it last night, the high-profile presence of Tony Abbott’s traditional nuclear family is also a strong point of differentiation being made with the unmarried, childless Julia Gillard. This tactic is aimed at strengthening the Coalition’s base vote.

Perhaps the most telling attempt to influence voter perceptions of Tony Abbott is the recent entreaty that he “has changed”. Mark Textor says this is not necessarily a strategy to shape Tony Abbott’s image, but is more self-evident: “I think it’s the truth. We all grow.”

But on several recent occasions, Tony Abbott has effectively sought permission from voters to be able to “grow into” the prime ministership, as he did when he became health minister and, as Mark Textor mentioned last night, John Howard did when he became prime minister. This is an interesting new dimension to the construct that is Tony Abbott’s political image. It suggests there may be voter concerns the Opposition Leader is not ready, or equipped to sit in the big chair. Or it simply may be a tactic to assist the Opposition Leader’s transition from Dr No to the alternative prime minister.

Over the past two nights Labor’s John Utting and the Coalition’s Mark Textor have lifted the lid on the myriad perceptions, assumptions and biases that shape our voting decisions. They also set the scene for the real federal election battle that is yet to come.

According to the images being crafted for our political leaders, we are being given the choice between a strong, compassionate protector and an evolving man-of-the-people. Alternatively, we must choose between a ruthless incompetent and an anachronistic misogynist. Despite knowing that we are being manipulated by image-crafters like Textor and Utting into making this decision, the choice on polling day will not be any easier.

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

This post first appeared at ABC’s The Drum.

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