Anatomy of a campaign launch

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.

Rudd’s doublespeak on marriage equality

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
George Orwell, Animal Farm

While the rest of the known universe was boggling at the audacity of Tony Abbott uttering the question that is on everyone’s minds but apparently must not be asked, I was struck by something different altogether.

During the Peoples’ Forum last night, Kevin Rudd said:

My view and a position I took some time ago was that to properly reflect what I think is the dignity belonging to all people, irrespective of their sexuality, Australia should now move towards laws for the secular state which support marriage equality… However, there are different views and certainly my view with the Christian church is the Christian church should be fully free into the future to conduct its own traditional marriage services relying upon the traditional definition of a marriage between a man and a woman…

It was the first time my attention had been drawn to the careful positioning of Rudd’s support for same sex marriage. It was the first time I realised his support was not unequivocal. He gives the churches a free pass.

Apparently this isn’t the first time Rudd has carefully draped this caveat around his Damascene conversion to marriage equality.

While Rudd’s original statement is no longer available on his personal website, it was reported as saying:

“I have come to the conclusion that church and state can have different positions and practices on the question of same sex marriage.”
“I believe the secular Australian state should be able to recognise same sex marriage.”

It’s quite clever really. This positioning allows Rudd to present a modern, progressive face to some voters and a traditional, conservative face to another.

Clever indeed. See also duplicitous.

I’m not suggesting that Rudd, his government, or any other government should impose same sex marriage on churches. I support the separation of Church and State.

But it is the blurring of this line that is the problem.

Religion has hovered quietly over the recently-dissolved federal parliament, as it does over this election. Much is made of Tony Abbott’s Catholicism and its potential influence on his political and policy decisions.

Conversely, little is made of Rudd’s religious beliefs despite his weekly visits to church, which are ruthlessly exploited as photo-ops and force-fed to voters each Sunday night on the news.

Equality is equality. It can’t be trimmed with politically expedient caveats.

While there is no role for the State to force the Church to do anything, I believe there IS a role for politicians to support and promote the views of the broader community and – at times – encourage the Church to embrace these modern views.

Former US President Jimmy Carter’s recent intervention on the ordination of women is a good example. It has nothing to do with the State interfering in the Church’s business, but everything to do with a secular community leader encouraging a deeply conservative, patriarchal institution to also take a leadership role in promoting equality.

If Kevin Rudd was fair dinkum about same sex marriage, he would follow Carter’s example.

Muttering “marriage equality for everyone” out of one side of his mouth, but “not in a Church” out the other is the epitome of political doubletalk.

If Kevin Rudd truly believes in equality for gay people, it should be unconditional.

If Kevin Rudd truly believes in gay marriage he should stop playing both sides and instead state unequivocally that he “looks forward to the day when the Christian church reflects the views of the broader community and recognises same sex marriage.”

Addicted to polls

The DrumHere’s my latest weekly campaign column for ABC’s The Drum.

Forget cigarettes. Forget alcohol. Forget the secret stashes of mini Toblerones or Kit Kats that dwell in desk drawers all over the country.

Australia is in the grip of an unhealthy obsession that has nothing to do with these temptations. Our nation is addicted to something far more insidious, brain-numbing and soul-destroying: we’re addicted to opinion polls.

In the 15 days since the federal election was called voters have, by my reckoning, been willingly subjected to 22 opinion polls. More than half were national polls, while the rest focused on individual marginal seats. And yet there are still three weeks of the campaign to go.

The reason for this survey cornucopia is that opinion polls sell. The prospect of knowing who’s winning seduces us into buying newspapers, giving up hard-earned cash to peer behind paywalls, clicking links on online news sites, and tuning in to television and radio programs.

These are challenging times for media organisations. They’re grappling with the tendency of consumers to shop around online for news and often bypass traditional news providers altogether. These organisations have noted that publishing exclusive opinion polls and news stories based upon them is a proven way of winning those consumers back, even if it is for a brief period.

And so news organisations galore have decided they must have their own opinion polls. As a result, at least once a week if not every couple of days we’re subjected to the latest survey from one of eight polling houses emblazoned on newspapers, online news sites and television news stories.

Are media organisations providing voters with a valuable service by propagating these surveys? Do opinion poll stories help to make us informed voters or enhance our democracy in any way? Well no; not any more than the arbitrary scorecards handed out at the end of each campaign day or week announcing who ‘won’ the past 24 hours or seven-day period.

The horse-race approach to reporting is nothing more than the political equivalent of empty calories: it might satisfy a short-term need (to feel knowledgeable about the campaign) but ultimately it leaves us unsatisfied (because it tells us nothing about which party will best deliver on our policy needs).

More often than not, stories on opinion polls aren’t even actually news. No opinion poll is perfectly accurate and all have a buffer within which their numbers should be viewed. If any single poll moves only within that buffer, or margin of error, then it’s not considered to have actually moved. Newspoll for example has a 3 per cent margin of error, meaning that any increase or decrease of less than 3 per cent in one Newspoll is not really a change at all. So if the ALP primary vote increases by 2 per cent – it’s not news. If the Coalition primary vote decreases by 2 per cent – it’s not news either. And yet we see and hear such ‘news’ stories almost every day.

If voters really wanted to be informed voters they’d eschew all opinion poll stories that report movements within the margin of error and only pay attention to those that report opinion poll trends. The direction in which a party’s votes are trending over more than just two or three polls is where the real news stories are to be found.

But why do voters even care who’s won any particular day or week during the election campaign? Are we so superficial and fickle that we can be swayed by an opinion poll? Well yes, according to someacademics: the bandwagon effect can lead to voters choosing the side that looks most likely to win, while the underdog effect can produce the opposite result. Undoubtedly both of the major parties have incorporated this into their campaign tactics.

Scores more polls will be dangled before voters eyes over the campaign’s remaining weeks, but the choice between hollow superficiality and satisfying substance is entirely within our hands.

Will we continue to indulge our obsession by wasting time and thought over next-to-meaningless blips in the polls? Or will we direct our efforts to determining which party will form the government most capable of serving our country’s best interests?

Guardian Australia podcast

Guardian Australia launched its weekly political podcast this week, which is hosted by the online paper’s Deputy Political Editor Katharine Murphy.

Katharine invited me along to talk with her and Political Editor Lenore Taylor about the role social media is playing in the federal election, amongst other things. It was a most lively and enjoyable discussion.

Click here if you’d like to listen to the podcast (and be sure to subscribe for future editions).

And the winner is … in the eye of the beholder

The DrumIn my post for The Drum this week I’ve looked at the Leaders’ Debate.

In the broader scheme of things, last night’s Leaders’ Debate will unlikely have much impact on the final outcome of this federal election.

For many disengaged voters, not yet fully aware the election campaign is now upon us, the televised event may have inconveniently delayed their local news program or more likely passed them by altogether as they tuned into their usual Sunday night fare.

Nevertheless, the event sets the tone for the week ahead.

The team with the candidate thought by the political media and pundits to have ‘won’ the debate will head into the second week of the campaign re-invigorated by the endorphins that only a winner can experience.

With public opinion polls suggesting a slight downward trend in support for Labor since the reinstalment of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister, it would appear Team Rudd needs the boost more than Team Abbott.

This was evident from the demeanour of both men at their respective podiums during the debate.

Rudd gave the impression of being on edge: constantly referring to notes, cramming as much information as he could into every answer, and constantly using Kabuki hand gestures that distracted the viewer as much as illustrated his answers. Rudd clearly knew his stuff but showed little sign of rehearsal (which is a common weakness in those who over-prepare).

Abbott, on the other hand, delivered his opening remarks with the casual confidence of a well-rehearsed public speaker. By looking down the barrel of the camera, he chose to engage the ‘viewers at home’ rather than the audience. The cadence of his voice was deliberately lower and slower, most likely to emphasise Rudd’s higher tone and speedy monologues.

Why mention these elements? Surely what the men said is of more import?

Well not exactly: audiences respond as much, if not more, to how something is said than the actual content.

Incumbency gave the Prime Minister an edge when responding to the questions of economic competence and policy – it’s much easier to point to an existing government’s achievements than foreshadow the benefits of a hypothetical one.

However, Rudd’s constant listing of those achievements (as he had done on ABC’s 7.30 just a few nights before) was the aural equivalent of trying to take a drink from a spouting fire hydrant.

In contrast, Abbott stuck to his tried and true method of repeating the simple but memorable policy mantras his team had no doubt carefully honed through numerous focus groups.

As an opposition leader not yet prepared to unveil the bulk of his party’s policies and their costings, this was all he was ever going to do and so the contrast of policy detail and lack thereof was particularly stark.

Both men told their fair share of porkies (for example, Rudd again raised the now discredited $70 billionCoalition budget black hole, while Abbott claimed the GST cannot change without the consent of all the State and Territory Governments*) and completely evaded a number of direct questions from the moderator and/or the panel (for example, on raising Australia’s emission cut target from 5 per cent if other countries take action).

Both men ended the debate as they started, their closing comments echoing the tones they’d struck with their election opening gambits just one week ago.

Rudd signalled challenging economic times ahead and that his return was needed to guide the nation through the New Great Economic Transition. Abbott repeated there was nothing wrong with Australia that couldn’t be fixed by a change of government.

Rudd seemed to have gained no confidence from the hour’s exchange, while Abbott’s final delivery was more stilted and sing-song than his opening, perhaps from being unnecessarily rattled by the question on marriage equality.

In the end there can be no winner, as audiences will seek and take different things from any such exchange. Those looking for reassurance for more of a stable Labor Government will have seen it, whereas those looking for a new approach from a competent alternative will have found that too.

And so the outcome of the Leaders’ Debate, like most things in the politics, will entirely be held in the eye of the beholder.