Whether you like it or not – looks DO matter in politics

I have to confess I noticed the PM’s earlobes long before it was cool to do so, back in the days when she was a mere Deputy PM. Once or twice I mentioned them to non-politicos who responded with quizzical stares, but I soon discovered they had been a long-time topic of conversation amongst Labor staffers.

Before you accuse me of trivialising politics by focusing on a person’s appearance, let me let you in on a little secret – whether you like it or not, looks DO matter in politics.

It’s a real shame that Niki Savva stooped so low in her recent article about Ms Gillard’s appearance because the substance of her comments had merit. Politicians ARE measured by their looks, and not just female MPs as decried by Annabel Crabb.

Recent research by the University College London and Princeton University has found that voters make judgments about politicians’ competence based on their facial appearance, with facial maturity and physical attractiveness being the two main criteria used to make these competence judgments. The researchers found that appearance is most likely to influence less knowledgeable voters who watch a lot of television. This research built on earlier work that found voters rely heavily on appearances when choosing which candidate to elect.

Perhaps the most striking example of the weight given to politicians’ appearance was the perceived outcome of the first debate between Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy during the 1960 US Presidential election. The 70 million television viewers believed the tanned, relaxed Kennedy had beaten the pale, stubbled Nixon, in contrast to the radio listeners who thought the opposite. Nixon’s appearance directly affected public perceptions of his competence.

Moving forward to more recent US elections, opponents of 2004 Democrat presidential candidate, John Kerry, were accused of planting a story that Kerry used Botox to smooth his Lincoln-like brow. While no direct link was drawn between this cosmetic practice and Kerry’s competence, the subtle inference was nonetheless encouraged. The same tactic was employed against Queensland Premier Anna Bligh in 2008, which she quickly defused by admitting to the practice and then moving on.

And so, in politics, do clothes maketh the man?

Yes they do, even as far back as 1892 when the UK’s first Labour MP, Keir Hardie, took up his seat in Parliament wearing a tweed cap and a working man’s suit. His failure to wear a top hat prompted the magazine Vanity Fair to declare: “His headgear has endangered the foundations of parliamentary propriety, and provided innumerable paragraphs for the papers.”

We may move more quickly to judge female MPs, but this may be because their hair and clothes present such an array of style, colour and shape.

One writer mused that:

It is precisely because our interior selves are essentially inscrutable (most of us can’t unscramble the psychological coding of our spouses much less the machinations and motivations of public figures) that we depend so much on surface clues. The whole superficial shebang — from hairstyles (who can forget Hillary’s little-girl headband?) to accessories (remember the fuss about Cherie Blair’s pricey Tanner Krolle handbag?) — provides us with the contextual tools to read the Other, the person who is not us, be it the stranger across the room or the stranger angling for political office.

And so we are superficial by nature – judging books by their covers – and this is exploited by others. Political spin and campaigning techniques encourage us to accept a politician’s appearance as a measure of their competence.

A prime example is our twice-removed former PM. Despite Howard’s eyebrow trimming, teeth capping and spectacle refurbishment, and even the final banishment of the comb-over, we still remember him as Little Johnny. While Howard is in fact as tall as the average man he always looked short next to the towering Fraser. The diminutive term may have first been struck to match his appearance, but was later used to suggest smallness of spirit. It was the reinforcing visual image that made it stick.

Numerous other subtle but similar connections have been made between the appearance of politicians and their competence. Would Beazley or Hockey have been more successful if they had been slim and less disheveled? Would Tony Abbott have won more female votes this year if he had not paraded around in his sluggoes and licked his lips during interviews? Does Bob Katter seem even madder because of his hat? Yes. Probably.

Pollsters of any political persuasion will tell you I speak the truth. They know better than anyone how a punter’s vote can be won or lost based on the appearance of the candidate. War stories abound with focus group quotes including “I won’t vote for him, I don’t like his eyes” or “she’s a smart girl but she just needs a good blow-wave”.

So remember next time a politician is ridiculed for their hair or their personal style. Yes, it is superficial, but there is a deeper intent at play. Don’t be distracted or attracted by this sleight of hand – appearance does not equal competence, but it is up to common punters like you and me to prove it.

This post was also published at The Notion Factory.

Tastings from the 2010 political buffet

At the end of this week, just before the official start of summer, the Australian Parliament will rise, politicians will head home to their electorates and voters will focus on how many meats to serve on Christmas Day or the quickest route to the beach. For many, the summer break is for relaxation; yet for others it evokes reflection about the year just passed. Given the political year we’ve just had, the reflective folk will have much food for thought.

From my perspective, the two leadership challenges, two state elections and the federal poll have challenged conventional wisdom and rewritten election playbooks, but also confirmed some political trusims. I don’t pretend to be a psephologist or political pundit, but I’m hopelessly attracted to the world of politics. I can’t help but look for patterns and cause-effect relationships and wonder how these might alter the path of political endeavour in the future.

With that caveat, I offer up for your degustation these observations from the political buffet of 2010.

Appetiser: Australian voters want their politicians to be genuine

At times during the federal election, it was hard to distinguish a 7.30 Report interview from the latest instalment of Kath and Kim, such was the broadness of Aussie accent on display. Both Gillard and Abbott went to great lengths to prove they were genuine and in touch with real Australians – particularly compared to their predecessors, the densely verbose Rudd and the tree-hugging patrician Turnbull.

However, Gillard’s authenticity was somewhat inconsistent during the early days of the campaign. At one point she morphed into a Stepford Prime Minister, nodding sagely to the cameras while using the calming tones of a pre-school teacher. This persona grated on voters’ sensibilities and she was quickly cast off in favour of the New! Real! Authentic! Julia. While undoubtedly relieved, voters were nevertheless left to wonder about the previous incarnations of Ms Gillard and their authenticity.

Tony Abbott’s misstep was equally unsettling, telling Kerry O’Brien that he couldn’t necessarily be held to account for words spoken in the heat of the moment, but that his written word was trustworthy. While operatives tried to spin this blunder as candour, it undoubtedly left a crack in Abbott’s everyman persona.

While there were many factors that contributed to the federal election outcome, I believe the genuineness of the party leaders was one of them. Faced with two relatively unknown politicians, both of whose authenticity was in question, many voters chose neither. The perception that neither Gillard nor Abbott was genuine contributed to the shift of votes to the Greens.

Gillard and Abbott are now on probation – the media and voters are alert for any more cracks in their authenticity. So too will the country independents be scrutinised to see if they are as genuine as they currently seem.

Entrée: Unfulfilled expectations will come back to bite you

Kevin Rudd’s downfall was that he didn’t deliver on the expectations he created in the 2007 federal election. As I wrote back in June, Rudd deftly positioned himself prior to that election as Howard-lite, framing himself as the “other” safe pair of hands, but with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. While Rudd did apologise to the Stolen Generation he did not deliver on any other major promise. The Labor MPs and operatives who eventually deposed Rudd did so because they knew voters were waiting to take out their anger on him, just as they had done to Keating in 1996.

PM Gillard almost paid the ultimate price by making the same mistake soon after she replaced Rudd. Gillard became Prime Minister promising to resolve three issues: Australia’s response to climate change; the battle with the mining industry over the Resource Super Profit Tax; and a more humane approach to sea-borne illegal immigrants. Instead she announced a clumsy citizens’ assembly on climate change; gave ground to the mining industry and replicated some of the most reviled elements of the Howard Government’s detention scheme. Voters would have been forgiven for wondering why the PM who couldn’t fulfil commitments was brutally torn down for another with the same failings.

Gillard was damaged by that early mismanagement of expectations. It will be interesting to see whether the Labor Government, the Greens and the independents are wary of creating (or maintaining) expectations in 2011 that cannot be met.

Main: Re-enfranchised rural Australians are watching carefully

Rural Australians are a canny bunch: they may have grown up in the arms of the Country or National parties, but they are open to any other party or individual who can protect their chosen way of life. This is clear from the diminishing number of National Party members in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Both the ALP and Liberals have developed “country” arms of their parties to capitalise on this opportunity.

Country independents are not new to our parliament. Up until now, most have languished on the cross-benches because their votes were not important. Now with deciding votes in the lower House, the current country independents are being watched very carefully by rural Australia. No doubt, National MPs are closely watching them too. Rogue WA National, Tony Crook, managed to do what the rest of his fraternity could only dream of by swiftly dissociating from the Nationals soon after the election and putting his vote up for auction.

If the independents and Crook can materially improve the lot of rural Australians with their pivotal votes, then National MPs could be faced with the unenviable choice at the next federal election of either becoming an independent themselves or being beaten by one.

Dessert: The Greens run the risk of dis-enfranchising their constituency

More than a decade ago the Australian Democrats held the balance of power in the Senate, just as the Greens will do on 1 July next year as a result of this year’s election. In order to extract certain concessions from the Howard Government, the Democrats agreed in 1999 to support the GST legislation in Senate. This decision was portrayed as a sell-out of Democrat principles. It undoubtedly contributed to the leadership tensions and internecine manoeuvrings that wracked the Democrats from that time on, until they lost their last Senate positions in the 2007 federal election.

When the Greens attain the balance of power in July next year, they will discover as did the Democrats that it’s much more difficult to be a political or policy purist when your vote actually counts. Negotiations will inevitably lead to concessions, sometimes on the part of the Government but also of the Greens. The Greens will need to manage member expectations better than the Democrats did to avoid the pitfalls that decision-making can bring.

Cheese: The current model for election reporting is broken

Much has already been said and written about this final point. Political parties have so tightly orchestrated the involvement of mainstream media in election campaigns that the resulting coverage is so contrived that it’s meaningless. Senior journalists rarely travel with the Leaders’ teams any more, preferring to observe and opine from the comfort of their office. Journalists who do travel with the Leaders are told little, shepherded from venue to venue, and given little time to absorb policy announcements before being given access to the Leader who merely parrots the line of the day.

The current model is broken and probably cannot be repaired. I look forward instead to mainstream media outlets refusing to put anyone at all on campaign buses next election, the parties having to instead produce campaign footage for placement on YouTube, Leaders choosing to hold numerous town hall meetings around the country instead of pic-facs, and MP and candidates dealing directly with their constituents through Twitter, Facebook and Skype.

Now that will be an election to reflect upon!

A kinder, gentler legislative log-jam

It’s no secret that I’m concerned about a small number of people, who garnered only a small proportion of the total vote, deciding who should form the next government of Australia. I can nevertheless understand the optimism vested in this political arrangement to deliver a kinder, gentler, more transparent, more accountable government.

It may well do so. But as a former lobbyist who has worked with governments dating back to the Hawke years, I can see a huge legislative log-jam looming in both houses of federal parliament, which will be bad for the economy and the community.

In the House of Representatives, where just one vote can change the fortune of any piece of legislation, there are four members who have reserved the right to vote on each Bill depending upon its individual merits.

No-one should underestimate what this means. There are literally hundreds of Bills that pass through parliament every year. Many are complex and require a particular policy expertise to decipher. Even if the Independents have secured the promise of additional staff from Prime Minister Gillard, they will be overwhelmed with the amount of detail they will need to master to judge each Bill on its merits, let alone the research needed to genuinely participate in parliamentary committees.

This means that one of two things will happen. It’s likely that in the spirit of transparency and consultancy the Indies will want to study every Bill closely and consult with all stakeholders. It’s also possible that the Indies will eventually shift their sights to pet issues and let the others fall into abeyance. Either way, this will inevitably slow down the legislative program, particularly for those Bills that aren’t related to “agreed” actions or supply. Most people aren’t aware of the scores of unsexy regulatory and policy reforms that languish on the legislative backburner because there’s not enough time in a parliamentary year to get them passed. I personally know about one important Bill that has been waiting seven years to get a slot on the legislative agenda. It still hasn’t passed and I’m sure there are many more.

On a less idealistic level, the pressure to keep on top of the whole legislative program will also expose the Indies to “helpful” lobbyists, keen to alleviate the load by providing “pre-cooked” legislative analysis. One needs to think no further than the assistance that Manildra will provide them on ethanol or Telstra on the NBN.

I believe we face a similar conundrum in the Senate. While the eight Green senators will have better resources, and a party platform, with which to assess every Bill, they will still hold out for their preferred position on every piece of legislation. Inevitably this will slow down the legislative process too.

While some might say that a legislative log-jam is a small price to pay for a kinder, gentler Parliament, I would disagree. Legislative uncertainty and delay can lead to less transparency and less accountability, as well as economic uncertainty. None of these are good for the Australian community.

This post was also featured at The Notion Factory

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.

Nielsen poll – wakeup call for protest voters, not Gillard

This morning Australian voters woke to read that the tide has turned on Prime Minister Gillard, with the Herald/Nielsen poll showing the Coalition now leading on a two-party-preferred basis.

The commentariat are saying that the bell is tolling for Gillard. This interpretation may sell papers, but it is wrong. We are still three whole weeks out from polling day. Previous contemporary elections have shown that around 5-10% voters do not firmly make up their minds until the last week. 2-3% do not decide until THE DAY. This percentage is still enough to decide the election.

Today’s poll shows nothing more than an expression of protest by those voters not happy with this week’s ALP campaign. It costs voters nothing to shift their “vote” around during the weeks of the campaign. What they tell pollsters they will do, and how they actually DO vote are two different things.

A more interesting result from the poll is that 69% expect Labor will win the election, while only 21% believe the coalition will. Another is that 21% of voters have not yet firmly made up their minds.

This reflects the wormers’ views after Sunday night’s Leaders’ Debate – when asked to finally choose between Gillard and Abbott, the vast majority chose the PM.

Today’s poll is nothing more than a wakeup call for protest voters. Expect Labor to press the point – do voters unhappy with Julia Gillard REALLY want Tony Abbott to be their next Prime Minister?

If votes swing back, then the superficial protest will be confirmed. If the trend remains, then we can start to toll the bell for Julia.

Julia’s tenet – no government has ever fallen to a bored citizenry

Zombies vote often, vote late

John Howard was pilloried during his time as Prime Minister for saying he wanted the Australian people to be relaxed and comfortable. It was, said the commentariat, evidence of Howard’s singular lack of vision, particularly when compared to his predecessor the vaudevillian Paul Keating.

No doubt Howard saw himself more in the mold of political warhorse than political visionary. He knew that an electorate generally satisfied with its lot would unlikely countenance the risk of changing its government.

It appears that Julia Gillard is deploying a version of Howard’s strategy, which is to keep the electorate bored, somnolent and disengaged. In the same way that Howard felt secure with a comfortable electorate, Gillard is depending on the tenet that no government has ever fallen to a bored citizenry.

Consider the limited number of times that federal governments have been thrown out in recent decades. Fraser, Keating and Howard all incited considerable wrath within the community before they were ousted at the ballot box.

The Prime Minister’s strategy is observable in her public demeanour and utterances. While some have likened her new cadence to PM Thatcher, it strikes others as more a cross between our current Queen Betty and a pre-school teacher; soothing but protective, reassuring but authoritative. At times during the Leaders’ debate I recalled late-night horror movies where people were hypnotised through their crystal sets and wondered if this time it was for real.

It may well be that this strategy will pay dividends for the PM, but I suspect it will backfire because Tony Abbott is also trying to bore the electorate. Clearly he is not doing it for the same reason as Gillard. Abbott is using the small target strategy that worked so well for Rudd and Howard when they were both opposition leaders. It is the “I am a safe pair of hands and I don’t have the other lot’s nasty policies” strategy. Abbott too is trying to be reassuring but authoritative, so as not to alarm the electorate into reverting to the incumbent government.

So how will this play out on polling day? Taxi drivers all over Australia will tell you that their fares think this is the most boring election in memory. Will voters shuffle to their polling station like zombies or somnambulists and vote for the status quo because it is the path of least resistance?

Or will they rebel, mutter a pox on both houses, and vote green or not at all?