Abbott’s mind should be on Canning, not Cape York

Abbott’s mind should be on Canning, not Cape York

This week, the Prime Minister will visit a number of remote Indigenous communities in northern Australia. According to media reports, the PM’s entourage will include cabinet and junior ministers as well as senior departmental officials.

No doubt a small battalion of support staff will be there as well, if only to marshal the journalists brought along to document the PM’s annual outreach campaign.

If this year’s week in the north is anything like the last one, it will be hard to identify what benefit, if any, this travelling road show brings to the local communities that feature as backdrops for prime ministerial pic-facs.

As Fairfax journalist Michael Gordon wrote last week, there has been little progress on Indigenous issues since the PM last went bush in 2014. Instead, Indigenous Australia has experienced:

…budget cuts, a growing shift away from Indigenous to mainstream organisations for service delivery, a Closing the Gap report card showing no progress in some areas and regression in others, and some ill-chosen remarks about “lifestyle choices” that were seen as provocative and utterly ill-informed.

There is of course the matter of constitutional recognition, but at times Abbott has vacillated on the question, most likely under pressure from conservatives in the Liberal Party.

There is little reason to doubt the PM’s good intentions when it comes to improving the lives of Indigenous Australians; he has been an advocate for change since visiting remote Indigenous communities as health minister during the Howard years.

Abbott’s visit to the grave of Eddie Mabo this week also suggests he is determined to be more than just another white fella PM who passes through before the wet season commences.

But there is also no denying the PM’s off-track tour conveniently gives him a reason to avoid campaigning in Western Australia for the Canning by-election.

Since the 2013 federal election, the PM and his Government have squandered a handsome electoral lead in the state, which no doubt contributed to the decision by WA MPs Luke Simpkins and, ironically, the former member for Canning, Don Randall to call the leadership spill vote against Abbott in February.

And now, at the commencement of the by-election campaign following Randall’s death, the new Liberal candidate for Canning faces a 10 per cent swing against him (or more accurately his party). If this threatened backlash persists until polling day, it could potentially wipe out Randall’s previously strong margin of 11.8 per cent. And if the Greens continue to grow their vote in the west, their preferences could even push Labor over the line, making life for PM Abbott considerably more difficult.

This makes Abbott’s decision to go north this week even more curious.

Everything the Government does in a communication sense over the next four weeks should be targeted at the voters of Canning. This is because the convergence of mainstream media paired with the adoption of social media ensures everything said and done on the east coast is transmitted to the west coast in real time.

So even if the PM thought it wise to physically stay distant from the Canning campaign (other than to appear at the launch), his advocacy of Indigenous issues this week simply muddies the campaign narrative.

Like most Australians, the voters of Canning are more interested in jobs than they are about constitutional recognition. A recent poll by the Australian National University found that 82 per cent of Australians supported removing clauses from the constitution that “discriminate on the basis of race”.

But when asked to nominate the two most important problems facing Australia today, only 1 per cent of respondents nominated Indigenous affairs. The top three issues were the economy/jobs, immigration and terrorism.

The Canning by-election is all about jobs, and Labor has wasted no time in staking out the “jobs” territory. This is somewhat ironic given “jobs and growth” is meant to be the Prime Minister’s latest mantra; at least it is according to twice-leaked Coalition talking points last week.

And it certainly seems to be the case given the numerous press conferences (read: picture opportunities) held by Abbott in past days, during which he apparently focused on jobs while variously climbing a fence, looking determinedly at cattle, surveying a shipyard, posing with cafe staff wearing pink uniforms, and looking at machinery while wearing a hard hat.

So if “jobs and growth” is the Coalition’s overarching theme at the moment, and if “jobs and growth” are so important in Canning, it is simply poor communication strategy for the Prime Minister to be on the opposite side of the country talking about Indigenous health, education and constitutional recognition.

Yes, it is important for Abbott to fulfil his commitment as the “Prime Minister for Indigenous Australians”. But given his need to do well in Canning – not to mention improve the Government’s poll standing more broadly – Abbott’s boys’ own adventure in Cape York seems like self-indulgence at a time when discipline in communication is particularly needed.

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.

Don’t mistake the organ-grinder for the lion-tamer: the media and the 2010 federal election

There’s a lot of outrage mixed with genuine bewilderment being expressed about the role of the media in the federal election campaign.

Much of this angst is due to a lack of insiders’ knowledge about how media, politics and policy work in Canberra and during election campaigns.

Annabel Crabb did a sterling job explaining some of the campaign minutiae in a recent piece. The scorn and derision she received from some readers would have been surprising if not for a related (and heartfelt) complaint by blogger Grog’s Gamut. Even the redoubtable Laura Tingle bemoaned the apparent lack of willingness by the political media to seek and scrutinise policy.

These posts elicited for me an excellent and thought-provoking Twitter exchange with journalism lecturer Jason Wilson during which we pondered why political journalists focus on the superficial drama of the campaign rather than policy. We explored whether political parties’ efforts to tightly manage the media and messages are a defensive move because journalists only focus on drama and superficiality, or whether it is an offensive move to ensure that the key message, and nothing more, makes the TV news each night.

From my perspective, based on real inside experience, it is the latter. Parties are the organ-grinders, doing everything they can to get journalists to dance to their tune, rather than lion-tamers holding a vicious beast at bay.

I believe much of the dissatisfaction with media coverage this election comes from Labor voters/sympathisers because they have not, for many generations, witnessed the degree of media scepticism that is currently being applied to the ALP. Their instinctive reaction is to label this media negativity as bias.

In fact, they are witnessing journalists rebelling against the parties’ (particularly Labor’s) “media management” strategies. Most journalists have finely tuned bullshit detectors and can identify even the most subtle attempts to manipulate them. Journalists’ instinctive reaction is to subvert and therefore expose this constraint in any way they can.

Before you jump to label me a Tory sympathiser, dear reader, cast your mind back over the past 30 years. Can you remember a time when the conservatives were overwhelmingly treated well by the media? I cannot. I’ve observed over that time that most journalists are “small L” liberal or left-leaning. This is no surprise considering that liberal philosophy fits so well with the journalistic motivation to facilitate the public’s right to know.

Journalists’ liberal values were clearly observable during the Hawke, Keating and Howard years. During that time, conservative politicians and parties felt they could never win a trick with the print media, television networks or the ABC.

The political media participated in the Australian community’s adoration of Prime Minister Hawke during his heyday. As Hawke’s light faded, many journalists shifted to actively support Treasurer Keating during his campaign to destablise and ultimately overthrow Australia’s most popular Prime Minister.

At no time in the 80s or 90s were Opposition Leaders Peacock, Hewson, Downer or Howard feted by the media. The conservatives’ only allies were found amongst the conservative shock-jocks in the retail-communication worlds of tabloid newspapers and talkback radio.

Kevin Rudd, in fact, was the first Opposition Leader since Bob Hawke to be given the overwhelming support of the media. Can anyone remember a conservative Opposition Leader who enjoyed this support? No. Labor supporters may be upset at the current unprecedented lack of media support, but it cannot be labeled bias. Its real name is rebellion.

Ironically, and with foresight, the media’s support for Opposition Leader Rudd was begrudging. This sentiment sowed the seeds of the campaign media’s current discontent.

Kevin Rudd is known to have vigorously worked the media during his rise from regular Sunrise guest to Leader of the Opposition during the dark and final days of the Howard government. But once the election campaign-proper commenced, Rudd mimicked the successful small-target strategy utilised by Howard in 1996. Under the tight media-management direction of former Carr spinmeister Bruce Hawker, Rudd became unavailable to the “real” news media. Rudd opted instead to appear on youth-oriented radio programs and television variety shows – affording him the double benefit of direct access to mainstream Australians without having to address pesky questions of policy and substance.

Nevertheless, the political media were so enthralled with the community’s growing dissatisfaction with Howard and the prospect of the government being overthrown, that they were prepared to humour Rudd for the duration of the campaign. A story at the time featured former Hawke media adviser and now ABC Insiders host, Barrie Cassidy, candidly quoting another journalist saying ‘We all know we have to go to war against Kevin Rudd as soon as the election campaign is over.’

This media “war” was held off by the unprecedented honeymoon that Prime Minister Rudd enjoyed with the Australian public during the first two years of his term. Not only did the media sit back in awe of this popularity, so did the political hard heads in the ALP.

In the end though, perhaps Rudd the organ-grinder forgot that monkeys also have teeth. Or that other sidewalk entertainers can be ruthless enough to knife you for the optimal position on the street corner.

Those who wish to lay blame for the behaviour of political media in this election campaign should look no further than the genial Bruce Hawker and the entourage of former media advisers that he brought to Canberra in 2007-08 from the deeply unpopular NSW Labor government. While Hawker’s tight media management strategy, aligned to the relentless 24/7 news cycle, may have delivered for the state government, it did not fit well with the communication needs of a federal government.

Journalistic resentment about Rudd’s media management, and the ALP’s more generally, had been simmering for some time. This was exacerbated by Rudd’s inability to fulfil the great expectations that he created during the 2007 election campaign to positively differentiate himself from the ageing, discredited Howard.

As shocking as Rudd’s removal was, many journalists were relieved and optimistic that the Gillard era would herald a more sensible and less frantic approach to newsmaking. Some of these journalists are young and are travelling with the Leaders’ teams in their first election campaigns. Regardless of their experience, it is easy to infer from their various writings that most campaign journalists are tired, dazed and disoriented. They are sick of being herded from one pic-fac to another, told nothing, given no time to absorb or analyse, and no latitude to report anything other than the message of the day.

It is no wonder then, that they subvert the process by ignoring the strangled notes of the squeeze-box and dance instead to their own tune, asking the most inconvenient and embarrassing questions, and attempting to catch the Leader off guard? Is this natural reaction enough to justify their policy-free questions?

No it’s not. But it should also be remembered that the campaign we see on the nightly news is no more than a flimsy facade. The only campaign that really matters is being deployed in the marginal seats. The purpose of the national campaign is to maintain the status quo (not lose any “tribal” voters) and secure enough supportive voters’ attention/engagement to guarantee they turn up on polling day.

Most policy announcements are designed to do nothing more than grab a headline to reassure a particular demographic. While it is understandable that amateur politicos would like to see genuine analysis of these policies, it’s worth remembering that most political journalists are not policy specialists and do not have a good understanding of how policy is developed or implemented. As a consequence, they pay less attention to these processes and only focus on what they know – the political dimension of policy.

In closing, let me remind you of one small matter. While I have lamented in the past that we do not elect our media, we are ultimately still responsible for their behaviour and their output. At no time have ordinary citizens had more power than now to shape their news media; with their purchasing power, with their voices and with their keyboards. I look forward to reading further contributions to this debate!

Postscript: This excellent piece by senior political journalist Tony Wright is an illuminating addition to the subject

This post was also featured at The Notion Factory.