The gaping maw called politics

By my estimation, about 170 non-politicians lost their jobs on Wednesday: about 50 people employed in the office of former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and around 20 in each of the six ministers who resigned on the spot in solidarity with her.

That’s not counting those who will be unemployed on election day as a result of their bosses deciding not to contest the 2013 federal election.

Little thought is given to these people when matters of high-octane politics occur.

Admittedly, anyone who works for a politician knows that you only last as long as your boss. The Damoclean threat of impermanence is one of the perks of the job, along with 14 hour days and low rates of pay. But even so, the mortgage looks ever so much more daunting when the votes don’t swing your boss’s way in the party room or on polling day.

Only a few staffers keep their jobs when elections are lost, party leaders are changed, or portfolios are shuffled. Room can be made for the few with high profiles and excellent reputations, either in party headquarters, state MPs’ offices or in the government affairs sections of sympathetic corporates or NGOs.

The rest have to face the job market, labelled with having worked for the losing side.

In the months to come between now and the federal election, and with the outcome of the election slightly less certain than it was a week ago, these freshly minted unemployed will be faced with prospective employers unwilling to take a chance on them. Departmental recruiters, lobby groups and corporates will all worry about the potential repercussions arising from employing any of the Gillard camp’s walking dead. And many will not be prepared to take that chance.

Politics is like that. It chews up, spits out and moves on with nary a glance back.

Tis the nature of the political beast.

#Knittinggate and Staying On Message

This post is in part a response to Ed Butler’s thoughtful piece on #knittinggate over at AusVotes 2013, and in part a more coherent (I hope) explanation of my rant today on Twitter about That Photo. It also echoes a comment I left on Amy Gray’s related (and incidentally fabulous) post over on Guardian Australia’s CIF page.

When I said I’d be wandering the streets of Canberra today, wild-eyed and muttering “knitting!” it isn’t because I think it’s bad that the PM knits, or that it shouldn’t be highlighted in a feature article by Women’s Weekly. I don’t subscribe to the Murdochian view that feminists don’t knit: yarn-bombers around the world have certainly proven that.

I simply despair at the photo as a communications strategist, that is, someone who knows that a good or poor communications strategy can make or break the launch of a new car, the release of a new assistance program, the recall of a faulty product, or the re-election of a government.

The problem with the photo is that it doesn’t convey the messages that will motivate voters to change their vote to Labor. And let’s face it, that’s what the WW article is all about – giving the PM an opportunity to speak “directly” to WW readers about why her government should be re-elected and why they should reconsider voting for whichever other party or person they’re currently telling pollsters they’ll vote for.

I know we’re sick of hearing about this government’s “lack of narrative” and poor communication, but these are important in helping the community know what the government is doing / has done for them as individuals and the nation more broadly.

I’m not denying or underplaying the impact of the government’s policy problems. But its communications failures have undeniably compounded voter confusion, disappointment, and disquiet about the competency of the Gillard Government.

Julia Gillard is fighting a battle to the death with Tony Abbott: there can be only one Prime Minister after the election. With less than a hundred days to go til polling day, it’s far too late to be trying to win the popularity vote with warm fuzzy photos. The WW interview should have focussed on the things that Australian voters want to know / be re-assured about: that the PM is strong, competent and working hard on behalf of all Australians. The PM should have (and may well have) emphasised that in the interview, but all of the photos should have emphasised that too.

One of the golden rules of campaigning, and communications more generally, is to stay on message. The definitive example comes from Bill Clinton’s 1992 election campaign, where “the economy, stupid” was famously emblazoned on posters throughout their campaign war-room. While some recall this case study as demonstrating the primacy of economic matters in the minds of voters, the purpose of the slogan actually was to remind everyone working on the campaign to Stay On Message.

Most of us who follow politics closely hate it when politicians Stay On Message. It means we hear the same thing at the morning doorstops, during the breakfast and mid morning chat shows, during Question Time and the following Matter of Public Importance, during the afternoon chat shows, on the tv and radio news, in the post news current affairs programs, and then again on the late news. Not to mention online or in the print media the next day.

But people who don’t follow politics closely (read: most people) will most likely only glance at a paper or the online news during the day, and devote only a portion of their limited attention to the news or a current affairs program after work. They’ll be exposed to that message only once, if at all. So the opportunities to get a message out to the voters must not be squandered. They must always be on message, even when it is a fluffy human interest story for the Women’s Weekly.

We might not like it, but that is how a successful campaign must be run in order to cut through all the other communication detritus in voters’ everyday lives.

Every successful communications strategist knows this.

There is nothing wrong with the PM knitting; whether it be for foreign strangers on the other side of the world, an anonymous philanthropist, or even a friend or relative. Knitting is a far more normal hobby than collecting french clocks or green and gold tracksuits.

But the PM’s communications advisers have made a(nother) blunder by allowing this knitting photo to be taken.

By allowing the PM to be photographed like a modern day Madame Defarge they have been complicit in providing a distraction from, and muddying, her message completely.

Time is up for the Australian Greens

Greens leader Christine Milne entered the federal election campaign last week in the party’s latest attempt at relevancy.

In her first interview with Guardian Australia, Milne made several demands of the putative prime minister-elect, Tony Abbott, to secure the Greens’ cooperation with a new Coalition government. Pledging that her party’s role will be to “keep the bastards honest” and insisting that Abbott would need to produce acceptable spending initiatives, Milne resembled the Black Knight more than a serious alternative to the leaders of the “old parties”.

Like the feisty medieval soldier, Milne doesn’t seem to realise her party’s melee is over. The Greens will not play a major role in the September federal election, nor will they be significant force afterwards.

Only 17% of voters think the performance of the Greens in federal parliament has been good, while the party’s primary vote has dropped from a peak of 11.8% at the 2010 election to around 9% now. Unless Adam Bandt can secure a preference deal with one of the major parties, the Greens poster boy in the house of representatives will be a one-term wonder.

The party’s Senate vote is also estimated to have dropped, from 13.1% at the election to around 11% now, putting most of the Green Senate candidates – and the prospect of retaining the balance of power – at risk of being wiped out by closed shop preference deals between the major parties.

But like the Black Knight, the Greens aren’t giving up that easily. They’ve tried hard to insert themselves into this contest in an effort to stem the loss of votes.

The minor party wasted no time taking credit for the carbon price decision that history will judge as prime minister Gillard’s greatest misstep. They played hardball on asylum seekers to stake out the high moral ground. And after years of harassing farmers for their animal husbandry and environmental management practices, the Greens sought to join forceswith the very same primary producers to “help” them resist the developers of rural coal seam gas deposits. Not one of these endeavours has delivered votes (as measured by the published opinion polls).

Even Milne’s dramatic public announcement that she was calling off the formal arrangement between the Greens and Labor struck at the formation of minority government in 2010 – the political equivalent of being told “you’re dropped” – did nothing to gain new supporters. Since that election, half the votes lost by Labor have gone to the Coalition, while the rest have drifted to independents, others and don’t knows. None have shifted to the Greens.

Milne’s latest ploy will have equally little traction. Her claim that Abbott is not fit for leadership because of his stance on climate change is based on a mistaken assumption that voters planning to vote for Abbott care that he is, for all intents and purposes, a climate change skeptic. It ignores the fact that Abbott was elected Liberal leader over Malcolm Turnbull expressly to overturn the pro-emissions trading position Turnbull had imposed on the Liberal party. No one currently thinking of voting for the Coalition will change their vote to the Greens, or to Labor for that matter, because of Abbott’s climate change position. For him it’s a vote winner, not a vote loser.

No matter how much Milne and the other Greens parliamentarians claim otherwise, this election will simply not be about them or the independents: it will predominantly be a battle of the giants. The election will be distinguished by voters returning to the major parties after what they consider to be a brief but torrid flirtation with the Greens and the current batch of independents.

While minority governments have been the norm at the state level for some time, voters are unfamiliar and unhappy with them at the national level. This disenchantment is manifest: only 28% believe the current minority government arrangement with the Greens and independents holding the balance of power has been good for Australia. And as we have seen in the published polls, only a third of that number are prepared to elect the Greens to a similar position this time around.

This year, the federal election is simply about Labor and the Coalition: the voters have already determined this by rejecting the non-major parties and the concept of minority government.

No matter how loudly the Greens demand to be taken seriously in the campaign, their reality is that their time is over. They can yell and posture as much as they wish, claiming they’re not finished yet, but they won’t be noticed or heard over the grunts and roars of the grappling giants.

This post first appeared at Guardian Australia.

Managing the protest vote

tweedledee-tweedledum-3Any Australian election campaign follows a fixed pattern. Daily photo opportunities masquerading as policy announcements are interspersed with debate stoushes and then the debates themselves. Somewhere in the final two or three weeks the campaign launch is held. And also around that time, the expectations game begins.

The rules of the expectations game are simple: make the voters think the election outcome is finely balanced and that every single vote counts. This is a time-honoured way of managing the protest vote. It’s preferable for any political party to be perceived as the underdog at that point in the campaign, running slightly behind, than to have an unassailable lead.

Election outcomes that are seen as a sure thing can lead voters into thinking they can afford to lodge a protest vote against the inevitable outcome, safe in the knowledge they won’t be responsible for altering its certainty. When enough voters think they can harmlessly protest in this way, they can inadvertently tip the election pendulum and produce unexpected election outcomes.


The most recent examples of this phenomenon happened at the State level in the 1990s. Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett entered the 1999 state election campaign with a seemingly unassailable lead but lost to fresh-faced newbie Opposition Leader Steve Bracks because he hadn’t bothered to manage the protest vote. Victorians who voted against The Jeff mostly likely just wanted to give him a boot up the arse, not throw him from office altogether. And yet that’s what they ended up doing.

A similar fate almost befell another Liberal Premier in 1991. New South Welshmen and women came close to tossing out Nick Greiner that year when he called a snap election to capitalise on a strong lead in the polls and was predicted to be easily re-elected. Greiner ended up with a minority government instead.

While one could argue that the fate of two former Liberal Premiers has little import for the current Leader of the Federal Liberal Party, it’s clear Labor has commenced the expectations game early and is attempting to manage the protest vote against Abbott. It’s mostly a ‘saving the furniture’ strategy but with a bit of wishful thinking thrown in for one of those ‘unexpected’ election results.

Gillard supporter and potential future Labor leader Bill Shorten said on Friday:

‘There is no doubt in my mind that if the polls are correct Tony Abbott would win in a landslide. So the question then is, what does an Abbott government look like if the polls are correct and stay this way?’

Admittedly, Shorten later backed away from this statement, worried that it was being depicted as a sign of no confidence in Gillard, but it was clearly part of a strategy to mobilise a protest vote against Abbott.

While not going as far as Shorten, his Gillard-supporter Cabinet colleagues followed the same strategy earlier in the week. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said Abbott would cancel construction of the NBN to new premises should he win the September federal election. Industry and Climate Change Minister Greg Combet said Abbott would not scrap the carbon tax.

Their subliminal message is that although Abbott’s election is inevitable, it’s not too late to voice your protest and rein in his post-election power.

Greens leader Christine Milne is employing a similar strategy, conceding an Abbott victory even before votes are lodged in the hope of gaining enough protest votes for the Greens to keep the balance of power in the Senate.

Granted, these attempts at marshalling the protest vote may be an entirely misguided strategy. Perhaps Kennett and Greiner are not the relevant case studies; see contemporary State Liberal Leaders such as O’Farrell (2011), Newman (2012) and Barnett (2013), who all converted huge poll leads into landslide election results.

Each of these leaders tapped into voter disenchantment with a tired and discredited Labor Party. Each leader offered a clear alternative. And each promised stable and competent government. Voters responded by flocking to them in droves: O’Farrell’s Liberals achieved a 14.16% swing, Newman got an 8.05% boost, and Barnett stormed home with an 8.71% increase. Abbott appears to be in for an equally impressive tide, currently tracking at around 6%.

The similarity doesn’t end there. Each of the successful State Liberal triumvirate led their opponents as the preferred Premier leading into the election, but not all had a higher net satisfaction rating (with Barnett, the only incumbent Premier of this group, trailing his Labor opponent).

The other distinguishing feature of these three elections is how the Green vote diminished over time. The 2011 NSW election (seven months after the Greens saw their highest national vote ever at the 2010 federal election) saw the minor party’s vote increase by around two percent. But by the Queensland election in 2012 the Green vote was coming off the boil, with a one percent swing against them. This had deteriorated to a three percent swing against them at the WA election in 2013.

This downward trend in support for the Greens suggests a growing level of disenchantment with them that will be reflected in this year’s federal election result. Having reached a peak of 11.8% in the House of Representatives and 13.1% in the Senate at the 2010 election by providing a lightning rod for the protest vote, the Greens are now registering 9% for the HoR and 11% for the Senate in the most recent published polls.

Labor voters who turned to the Greens in protest in 2010 are now turning away again. The lightning rod has turned to lead. Fifty percent of voters now believe minority government has been bad for Australia and only 25% support the independents and Greens having the balance of power in the Senate. This means the protest vote will be looking for a new home at this election. The smart money will be on the party that manages them the best.

Former Labor State Secretary and Minister, Graham Richardson, will go down in history as Australian politics’ greatest protest vote-wrangler. The second preference strategy he devised to save Labor’s bacon in 1990 cleverly acknowledged voters’ anger with the Hawke Government by saying ‘we don’t deserve your first preference vote, but please give us your second’. This strategy, paired with preference swaps and a strong marginal seats campaign, delivered Labor victory with more seats than the Coalition but less votes.

The protest vote is a fickle beast, beholden to no-one and difficult to manage. This year it will be more unpredictable than ever, even taking the Coalition’s strong lead into account. For Labor, effective management of the protest vote could turn a rout into a respectable loss. For the Greens, it could mean salvation from irrelevancy and impending oblivion.

And for Tony Abbott, good management of any protest will secure him a place in the history books as the only Liberal Leader to take his party to victory despite one of the highest disapproval ratings ever.

As well as a thumping mandate to do pretty much whatever he pleases.

This post first appeared at The King’s Tribune.

‘Women for Gillard’ another #PRfail

Photo: Sunday Telegraph

Setting aside the political wisdom or otherwise of establishing a ‘Women for Gillard’ campaign modelled on a US Presidential campaign strategy, today’s mishandling of the pre-launch story by Labor is yet another example of the party just not getting the basics of effective communication.

More often than not, communication roles in politicians’ offices and party headquarters are filled by former journalists. The rationale for this is that former journalists are knowledgable about what best constitutes news in the media’s eyes and have a network of contacts within news organisations that can be exploited to get stories placed and covered in a favourable light.

This is where the trouble begins. Former journalists in communications roles don’t/can’t see beyond the media when it comes to communicating with the public. Communications specialists know there are myriad ways and will choose the communications tool that best delivers the message to their target audiences – sometimes this will be the media, but many times it will not.

And in this new brave world of disintegrating news media, it is even more important to know and use the most effective way of delivering a message to target audiences.

Nevertheless, placement of the “Women for Gillard’ story in Sydney and Melbourne’s most read newspapers must be a pretty good way of getting a message across, no? Well, actually, no.

The other thing that differentiates (former) journalists and communications people is that the former are tactical, focussed on immediacy and how to get the best story up, while the latter take a strategic approach where everything is tied together to achieve a longer term objective. For a tactical person, getting a favourable news story up is an ends in itself. For a strategic person, the same news story is but one tile in a mosaic, which might be pretty on its own but ultimately adds to an overall bigger picture that is incomparably more attractive.

In a strategic approach to communications, nothing happens on its own. Complementary activities create a sense of completeness and momentum. A press statement here is echoed by a speech over there and a opinion piece somewhere else. Twitter and Facebook alert and direct to other versions of the same message. Eyes are directed to websites where more information is provided. Youtube videos and podcasts cater to other communication preferences.

Without these other pieces to help it tell the story, the narrative, one prominent news story on its own will be nothing more than a pretty tile.

And so we have today’s pre-launch announcement of ‘Women for Gillard’, complemented by a gaping hole of nothingness. No Twitter account, Facebook page or website towards which interested readers could be directed. Nada. Only a vacuum to be filled by those who find the suggestion that the PM is a champion of women galling in light of her government’s policies and her personal support of Faceless Feeney over the female candidate in Batman.

Undoubtedly, the official launch of ‘Women for Gillard’ on Tuesday will have all the attendant pieces; by then there will be a Twitter account to follow and a Facebook page to like etc etc.

But the next 48 hours is an opportunity lost; the battleground has effectively been declared but then left vacant for the opponent to occupy. When the time comes to record the whys and hows of the Gillard Labor Government’s tragic self-destruction, #PRfail will be high on the list of its flaws.

Rudd is taking us for fools

Illustration: Michael Mucci

How can anyone take a benign interpretation from Kevin Rudd’s interview on 730 last night?

If Rudd’s genuine intention was to extinguish the smoking embers of his supporters’ expectations, why insist on grandstanding for half the interview on matters relating to China and the US?

What on earth does the former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister’s views on Sino-American relations have to do with an earnest campaign to keep Tony Abbott out of office?

Not much, unless it is about reminding voters what a clever clogs One K. Rudd is and how his party is superior on foreign matters.

Or something, something.

And if Rudd’s genuine intention was to demonstrate his complete and utter disinterest in being recruited, dragooned, enlisted or otherwise begged back into the Prime Ministership, why did he not repeat the actual words of the commitment he made after the faux coup non-ballot in March?

Before entering the Caucus room for the non-leadership coup this year, Rudd said:

I have said that the only circumstances under which I would consider a return to leadership would be if there was an overwhelming majority of the parliamentary party requesting such a return, drafting me to return and the position was vacant…I am here to inform you that those circumstances do not exist.

After the meeting he strengthened this commitment (through a spokesman):

Furthermore, Mr Rudd wishes to make 100 per cent clear to all members of the parliamentary Labor Party, including his own supporters, that there are no circumstances under which he will return to the Labor Party leadership in the future.

They’re clear and unambiguous. So why the weasel words now?

LEIGH SALES: And a final question: I just want to make sure that nothing has changed in your mind. Is there any scenario in which you would take the leadership of the Labor Party?

KEVIN RUDD: Leigh, my position on that hasn’t changed since February of last year. The caucus had an opportunity to vote then and they voted two-to-one in favour of the Prime Minister and against me. I’ve accepted that position. My job is to go and argue the case for Labor and that’s what I’ll be doing around the country between now and voting day. It’s a good case and we should not be hauling up the white flag.

LEIGH SALES: So the answer is there’s no scenario … ?

KEVIN RUDD: As I said before, my position hasn’t changed since February of last year. You know what I said then. I’m not gonna enter into word games with you. The caucus voted. I accept their response.

LEIGH SALES: If you don’t say a blank no, people of course interpret it as you leaving wiggle room.

KEVIN RUDD: Well, you know exactly what I’ve said in the past to these questions time and time and time again and you’ll play word games all the way through. Last time I said in February of 2012 that I would not be challenging the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister won that caucus ballot by two-to-one. It was a convincing and strong win. I’ve accepted the result.

(My emphasis)

Rudd’s dissembling recalls the ridiculous time he refused to enunciate the word ‘billion’ when describing Australia’s budget deficit.
Rudd is taking us for fools. He’s hoping that by not restating those actual words, they will fade over time and will be replaced with a vague recollection that he said he wouldn’t challenge – thereby leaving the door open for him to be installed.

 Rudd’s latest attempt to ‘clarify’ gapes wider than a barn door. He is quoted as saying:

I have said very plainly that I am not a candidate for the leadership. And I have said equally plainly that I do not see any circumstances under which I would return to the leadership.

I can see the KRuddster drafting his acceptance speech now….. “I did not see any circumstances under which I would return, nor was I a candidate, and yet my Labor colleagues have persuaded me to listen to the people of Australia. And so I reluctantly agree to being installed by the caucus as Prime Minister. This is not about me, it’s about keeping Tony Abbott from the Lodge…..”

I can’t help but agree with Mark Latham, who’s said Rudd is deliberately sabotaging the PM. While I used to track Rudd’s interventions, and those of his supporters, to see if they tried to influence Newspoll results I don’t bother any more because any foray by Camp Rudd into the media will impact on one pollster or another’s results.

Someone should give Kevin Rudd a piece of paper with the words his spokesman conveyed on his behalf after the Caucus meeting in March and ask him to repeat them now.

Only then will I believe he is supporting Julia Gillard.

As Rudd said last night “A leopard never changes his spots.”