Direction, Markers and Symbolism

Two weeks since the Coalition formed government under Tony Abbott’s leadership, it is very clear to me that they’re about to run rings around their political opponents (at least in the short term while the ALP remains leaderless). In this post I’ll attempt to go over how they’re going to do this.

People are very uncertain about the direction of their lives and the direction of the nation. What this means for the government is they need to provide firm and achievable markers for people in order to communicate what they’re doing in a way they can both digest and understand.

The previous government failed miserably in this respect. There was the marker of a budget surplus but it wasn’t achievable due to the volatility in the global economy which the Coalition exploited at every opportunity with great effect.

Some examples of markers the new government have established are very familiar: “stop the boats”, “end the waste”, “repay the deficit”, “abolish the carbon tax”, “abolish the mining tax”, “restore trust”, “cut red and green tape” etc.

In terms of the way policy and outcomes are viewed within the Canberra bureaucracy, this stuff is vague, overly simplistic, unspecific and potentially dangerous but to voters who have short attention spans due to the complexity and demands of their day to day lives, this is very clear and understandable because it’s emphasising actions and values rather than numbers and data which people generally find meaningless.

“You have uncertainty everywhere, we’re making things certain” is the Coalition’s message in a nutshell. Whether they can deliver what they promise remains to be seen.

The direction is in the overarching message, the markers are in the sub messages which relate to particular issues e.g the economy, climate change, asylum seekers, infrastructure and so on.

As someone who identifies with the progressive, moderate, socially democratic “side” of the political spectrum, I’m constantly frustrated when I see “my side” attacking the Coalition on things they’ve already inoculated themselves against.

Last week, Tony Abbott announced his cabinet of twenty which included only one woman in the group: Julie Bishop. The outrage was predictable as it plays into the “left’s” preexisting line that Tony Abbott’s a blue tie wearing misogynist etc. This attack has been used for the last three years with literally zero success but it keeps getting used regardless.

All this sort of attack does is reinforce the view that Abbott’s opponents are desperate, spiteful and insecure while positioning him as a centrist. What’s worse is there’s no actual issue being addressed. It’s just name calling for name callings sake. Abbott has made a successful political career as a parasite for this sort of combat since his days at university.

The far more powerful point that “if 95% of people at the top are male, it’s not a meritocratic system” and that this should be judged as a systemic failure of the Coalition’s ideology and values tends to get lost in this noise.

The dots aren’t being joined for people in a way they can understand and digest.

It’s the same thing with these sorts of T-Shirts.

Abbott hater t-shirt

People might not like Abbott, however the professional people advising him clearly understand this point and have adjusted accordingly. These sorts of attacks say more about the attackers and their political views than they say about Abbott.

What is most clear to me about the new government is priority will be placed on the way things are done over policy detail. The best example of this so far has been the decision by Scott Morrison to stop reporting the numbers of boats that arriving in Australian waters. There are two important points that need to be made in relation to this announcement:

1. The proxy issue of boats was never about the boats in and of themselves. It was about the symbolism of bombardment in people’s lives which hooked into issues like the economy, education, transport, infrastructure and so on. The symbolism of a boat arriving to the “right” was an amplifier of this bombardment. By not reporting the numbers of boats, the government is addressing what people want emotionally: stability. Whether this is a good or bad thing, again remains to be seen.

2.  The point many have raised i.e “imagine the outrage from Abbott if Labor did it” misses the key point that Abbott was in control of the outrage in opposition and this announcement was deliberate meaning the government is now in control of the outrage on the issue once again. Abbott successfully played with fire in opposition on multiple issues however in government this approach might come back to bite him.

It will be interesting to see how the new ALP leader (Anthony Albanese or Bill Shorten) responds to these markers and symbols. I think they’re both on the ball but we shall see.

Thoughts on the election campaign so far

These are ads from the ALP’s campaign so far. None of them are good (I feel like I’m going to get stabbed after watching the first one).

In a previous post, I mentioned that the structural base votes of the two major political parties are somewhere around the region of 38% for the ALP and 43% for the Coalition. For the ALP to win elections, they need to make inroads into the Coalition’s vote. The Coalition can afford to target their base when the ALP doesn’t offer an alternative because they have a larger base to work with.

All of the ads above are doing is targeting the ALP base and not in a way that is electorally appealing or effective in my view.

The major issue for voters over the last term of government has been the widespread disillusionment with politics and the perceived lack of direction from their elected representatives and it has been specifically focused at the top job: the Prime Minister. This then plays into the emotions of voters and inevitably gets linked to major issues like the economy, job security and people’s day to day lives.

Kevin Rudd initially addressed this issue when he regained the ALP leadership by talking about ending the negative politics from both sides and addressing the public’s disillusionment with the national debate. It wasn’t the negative politics in and of itself that was the issue but the framing of the national debate Kevin Rudd was using to attack his political opponents (from all sides).

Since the campaign began, Rudd has contradicted this message by firstly trying to make a conspiracy out of the Coalition’s plans for the NBN by insinuating the editorial attacks from Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers against the government were due to a conflict of interest in regards to Foxtel and trying to link Tony Abbott to sexual harassment after Abbott said one of his candidate’s had “sex appeal” (Tony Abbott has spent the last three years politically inoculating himself from these sorts of attacks). He would have been better off to leave both of these incidents alone.

What these sorts of things inevitably lead to is getting dragged into the malaise that has dominated the national debate over the previous three to four years.

The Coalition’s campaign slogan is “Hope, Reward, Opportunity.” When I hear these words I don’t feel any hope, reward or opportunity, I feel fear, doubt and uncertainty. I genuinely want to know what their plans are for the nation’s future, yet I don’t feel that they have had any serious pressure put on them by the ALP so far in this campaign. Many ALP supporters will blame the media for being partisan. Story’s like this one in the Australian Financial Review today contradict that view.

In the absence of any pressure or competition at the electoral centre from the ALP at an emotional level on issues such as job security, cost of living pressures, economic management (specifically as it relates to ideological agendas in uncertain times) and the nature of politics in it’s present form (where Rudd’s electoral popularity stems from) the Coalition’s campaign wins by default.

And all this time, I’ve been smoking not so harmless tobacco!!!

While the so called “political class” keeps talking about issues that have either been neutralised in terms of their negative electoral impact or up for speculation, the government is shifting the agenda to something people actually care about in their lives: health.

The way the government has gone about doing this is by increasing the tobacco excise by 60% ($5.3 Billion) over the next four years.

If we look at Essential Media Communications polling from  July 23 2013, we can see how important voters consider health as an election issue.

Q.  Which are the three most important issues in deciding how you would vote at a Federal election?

 

Total

23 Jul 13

Total

17 Jun 13

11 Feb 13

19 Nov 12

30 Jul 12

5 Dec 11

6 June 11

25 Jan 10

Management of the economy

45%

47%

62%

66%

64%

62%

61%

63%

Ensuring a quality education for all children

25%

25%

29%

35%

26%

22%

26%

23%

Ensuring the quality of Australia’s health system

42%

45%

52%

57%

47%

47%

49%

48%

Protecting the environment

12%

13%

14%

14%

11%

13%

15%

16%

A fair industrial relations system

10%

10%

12%

8%

12%

11%

8%

na

Political leadership

21%

22%

14%

15%

25%

18%

17%

23%

Addressing climate change

11%

11%

9%

9%

9%

10%

15%

16%

Controlling interest rates

13%

11%

9%

11%

9%

11%

13%

15%

Australian jobs and protection of local industries

39%

34%

40%

32%

41%

36%

32%

33%

Ensuring a quality water supply

3%

5%

4%

5%

3%

4%

5%

12%

Housing affordability

17%

14%

11%

14%

13%

13%

16%

14%

Ensuring a fair taxation system

20%

19%

21%

17%

18%

16%

17%

14%

Security and the war on terrorism

8%

8%

6%

5%

5%

4%

8%

9%

Treatment of asylum seekers

14%

11%

6%

6%

10%

8%

5%

na

Managing population growth

9%

11%

9%

7%

8%

8%

12%

na

Ensuring the quality of Australia’s health system is rated second as an important election issue behind management of the economy. This isn’t new information. What is a bit newer is the next bit.

Next, from the same poll, we’ll look at which party is better trusted to handle these election issues.

Q.  Which party would you trust most to handle the following issues?

 

Labor

Liberal

Greens

Don’t know

Difference 23 Jul 13

Difference 17 Jun 13

Management of the economy

29%

44%

3%

25%

-15

-18

Ensuring a quality education for all children

40%

31%

4%

25%

+9

+1

Ensuring the quality of Australia’s health system

34%

33%

7%

27%

+1

-5

Protecting the environment

19%

21%

39%

21%

+18

+10

A fair industrial relations system

41%

30%

4%

24%

+11

+3

Political leadership

28%

35%

5%

31%

-7

-19

Addressing climate change

20%

23%

30%

27%

+7

Controlling interest rates

26%

40%

2%

32%

-14

-17

Australian jobs and protection of local industries

34%

35%

4%

26%

-1

-7

Ensuring a quality water supply

19%

26%

22%

32%

-7

-14

Housing affordability

26%

28%

6%

39%

-2

-12

Ensuring a fair taxation system

31%

33%

5%

31%

-2

-11

Security and the war on terrorism

23%

38%

4%

36%

-15

-18

Treatment of asylum seekers

22%

33%

13%

31%

-11

-22

Managing population growth

20%

33%

8%

39%

-13

-19

Only a 1% difference between the parties in terms of who’s better at managing the health system!

The rule of thumb is that the Coalition are always stronger on issues such as the economy and national security and the ALP are always stronger on issues such as education and health. For the ALP to be only narrowly in front in terms of the perceptions gap on the issue of health is something that would be major cause for alarm.

So the government now is trying to address their problem on perceptions of the health issue by raising the tobacco excise. Smoking kills people. Lets raise a tax on cigarettes to reduce consumption and death. This is a pretty obvious point. What’s interesting though is the coordinated way the ALP have gone about addressing the issue.

Firstly there was a press conference yesterday in which the Prime Minister said

“Around 30 per cent of cancer is caused by tobacco consumption and it’s estimated this will kill 15,000 Australians each year, that is far too many and it’s also really expensive for the country to deal with. We need to get serious on this major driver of cancer in Australia. There is a limit to the number of taxpayer dollars available to health”

So that’s out there. Then comes the next bit which was released last night in the form of an advertisement (when I typed in Tony Abbott on youtube, this was the first result that came up).

So now it’s become a personal issue for Tony Abbott that he has to deal with. How does he respond to this claim. Will he deny the claims made in the advertisement or will he attack the government for engaging in “negative politics.” If he denies the claims, he accepts tobacco donations (bad). If he attacks the government for engaging in “negative politics” he accepts tobacco donations, is engaging in “negative politics” and giving the ALP a soundbite to use in election material by getting caught in the word game Rudd has established (triple bad).

The immediate response from the Coalition was to point out that Rudd as a backbencher took hospitality whilst on the backbench from a foundation that provides equipment to the smoking industry in Germany. It sounds so tame by the Coalition’s standards. So tit for tat. So boring. So easy to address by someone with their act together.

Already, we have the Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey attempting to make this an economic issue and not a health issue.

Note the use of the words “it’s not a health measure.” When you negate the frame, you evoke the frame.

It should be fascinating to see how this plays out over the coming weeks and months. The ALP have not been this organised in their attacks on the Coalition for years. If the ALP can regain their strength on the issue of health, that will be more positive ammunition for the ALP to use during the election campaign.

It’s early to make this judgement, but finally the ALP seem to have their act together!

“Negative Politics”

In the first week of Rudd’s leadership we had the words “diplomatic conflict” used in relation to the Coalition’s asylum seeker policy which sent conservatives into both a frenzy of “Kermit arms” hysteria and political mistakes.

Yesterday, the ALP released their first advertisement for the upcoming election campaign. For those who haven’t seen it yet, here it is:

This advertisement has thrown a couple of new verbal grenades into the national debate. The first was “negative politics” and the second was “raise the standards.”

Cynics and the “political insider” crowd might deride this sort of communication as “spin” however this ignores the fact that Rudd is directly addressing a serious issue for people in relation to politics in this country: the public’s disgust at the negativity used from both sides of politics and the perceived decline in the standard of the national conversation.

They’re powerful lines on their own but in the combination they have been used in this advertisement, they’re deadly!

Firstly, Rudd is qualifying himself for people in order to establish a high standard of performance as Prime Minister. In other words, he wants to do the best job he can possibly do.

He’s not mucking around.

It’s very important to make this clear before we go into anything else because it’s the key to how this sort of communication works. If it was simply about countering the “evil menace” Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party, the whole thing falls apart.

As a leader, he is defining the criteria for people to make their own assessment on his performance. This is the base for everything that follows.

Secondly any attack directed at Rudd based on the content of this advertisement by the Coalition has already been framed as “negative politics.” Any move they make has the hue of negative politics to it before they even decide to move a muscle.

Lastly any type of “negative politics” used by the Coalition is by definition not “raising the standard” of public debate (what people desperately want right now) and therefore adding to Rudd’s credibility and the ALP’s election campaign material.

On top of all that, Tony Abbott has already been narrowed and defined to the words “negative” and “no” over a three year period, so for him to break free of this word prism he has placed himself in, he’ll have to be acting inconsistent with his public persona which would make the communications material coming from the Coalition even more of a complete mess than it is already.

To be continued

The Time Dynamic – the case for going late

There is a lot of speculation right now about when the next election will be held. Will Prime Minister Kevin Rudd try and take advantage of the ALP’s sudden rise in the opinion polls or will he play mind games with Tony Abbott and go to a “late election?”

I’m firmly of the view that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd should decide to go for a late election.

There are a few reasons for this that go beyond the usually yakety yak yak that you’ll hear from the various commentators in the media.

Firstly Kevin Rudd needs to establish himself in the public’s mind as the Prime Minister. This means using the authority of the office to make decisions in the national interest. If this means recalling the parliament to make a few legislative tweaks in the coming months, so be it. Journalist Katherine Murphy in The Guardian last week went into some detail on this point in what I thought was a very good opinion piece.

Secondly, going late allows the ALP to come up with a campaign ground game for victory. This is not something that can be rushed. There needs to be as much time as possible given for the ALP campaign team to come up with a strategy for winning at least 76 seats, state by state, electorate by electorate.

Thirdly, there have been reports of both a membership and donation surge within the ALP since Kevin Rudd returned to the leadership. There needs to be time for this to be measured in order to allocate campaign resources and get the logistic settings for the election campaign as correct as possible.

Lastly and most importantly is the framing of the national conversation.  What going late ultimately does is allow the ALP and the Prime Minister to gain control of the framing of the national conversation. The more Tony Abbott and the Coalition call for an early election and attack on issues where they feel they are strong and where they think the ALP and Kevin Rudd are vulnerable, the more they look, sound and feel like an opposition and the more the ALP and Kevin Rudd will look, sound and feel like both a government and a Prime Minister who are in control of events.

This week, we have seen the Prime Minister deal with three major issues: Australia’s relationship with Indonesia (border protection and asylum seekers have now been framed by Kevin Rudd as an issue within this issue), reform of the New South Wales branch of the ALP and the deaths related to the Home Insulation Scheme which was rolled out during the economic stimulus in 2008-09.

The Coalition have tried to tear the Prime Minister down on each one of these issues without success. The longer they try and the more they fail, the more desperate and the more stupid they will look.

Around October last year, Coalition pollster Mark Textor wrote an opinion piece for the Australian Financial Review in which he said:

“The most successful leaders in the next few years will be those who slow the political and comment process down enough for voters to catch up. After all, the whole point about politics, commerce and leadership is for people to be participants, not passengers in a car stuck in the slow lane.”

By slowing down the time dynamic, the ALP and the Prime Minister give themselves and the community time to digest the big picture and the important issues that will decide this election. If they go early because they think the rise in the opinion polls is everything and there is no substance to what the Prime Minister is doing because they think electoral politics is all about the popularity of the leader rather than anything that affects people’s day to day lives, they will be handing the massive advantage they have presently to the Coalition.

“If the facts don’t fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off”

Galaxy Research and Essential Media Communications have thrown up some interesting qualitative results in the last few days in relation to perceptions of the ALP leadership change.

Before I get to that, I want to examine the AC Nielsen poll results from last month in relation to ALP voters responses on the question of preferred ALP leader.

AC Nielsen, preferred ALP leader, ALP voters 16th June: Julia Gillard 52%, Rudd 46%

Over the last three years, this sort of result was replicated month after month and many on the various social media platforms that discuss Australian politics used these sorts of results to suggest that Rudd wasn’t liked by ALP voters and it was all a Liberal Party/media conspiracy to destabilise Julia Gillard’s leadership.

On Sunday, Galaxy Research produced these results that suggest a very different narrative:

Q. “In your opinion did Labor make the right decision by rejecting Julia Gillard and endorsing Kevin Rudd?”

Total: Yes 57%, No 31%

ALP Voters: Yes 75%, No 17%,

Coalition Voters: Yes 50%, No 41%

Even more profound was Galaxy’s results for the actions of Bill Shorten who was one of the “faceless men” in the June 2010 leadership change:

Q, Do you think Bill Shorten did the right thing for the Labor Party by shifting support from Julia Gillard to Kevin Rudd?

Total: Yes 52%, No 30%

ALP Voters: Yes 75%, No 13%

Coalition Voters: Yes 40%, No 44%

Essential Media Communications from yesterday showed similar results however, they have breakdowns that show intensity of response. I find these results very interesting:

Q. Do you approve or disapprove of Kevin Rudd replacing Julia Gillard as leader of the Labor Party?

Total

Vote Labor

Vote Lib/Nat

Vote Greens

Total approve

55%

77%

40%

48%

Total disapprove

31%

13%

49%

37%

Strongly approve

24%

45%

12%

8%

Approve

31%

32%

28%

40%

Disapprove

15%

8%

22%

23%

Strongly disapprove

16%

5%

27%

14%

Don’t know

14%

10%

12%

16%

Of particular note is the strongly approved category in relation to ALP voters. If this leadership change was seen as a cynical manipulation of the political process, the intensities of response would not be so strong.

According to this Essential Media poll, 45% of ALP respondents strongly approved of last weeks events!

We aren’t talking about a mere passive approval of what happened which could easily fall off into neutrality and disapproval over the coming weeks and months. We’re talking about a very large group of ALP voters who are very satisfied with what happened. In order to change the perceptions of these voters, you’ve got to do A HELL OF A LOT of work as they’ve emotionally bought what has happened and are in strong approval of it.

It is also worth comparing the AC Nielsen polling above with the Galaxy Research and Essential Media polling from after the event because how people think they will respond to a potential event and how they will actually respond after that potential event has occurred are not mutually exclusive. Put simply: people are extremely poor judges of predicting how they will respond to potential and future events.

George Lakoff in his book “Don’t Think of an Elephant” has a great quote:

“To be accepted, the facts must fit people’s frames. If the facts don’t fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off”

If the Coalition attempt to try and play their game of “let’s all feel sorry for Julia because she was knifed by the faceless men and that evil Kevin Rudd” they will be paddling viciously upstream because first they have to deal with the fact that they will be contradicting the three year period they have spent deriding and destroying her leadership (to ordinary people, the events of last week were a consequence of this behaviour from the Coalition) and second they have to deal with the perception battle because people approved of what happened and in ALP voters case, a majority strongly approved of what happened (the emotional component).

The more they yell, shout and scream the sort of lines they have all parroted verbatim over the last three years, the more they will be building Kevin Rudd’s reputation, authority, credibility and approval from the community.

It’s not just the Liberal Party who have to deal with this uncomfortable reality. Author Kerry Anne-Walsh, whose book “The Stalking of Julia Gillard: How the media and Team Rudd contrived to bring down the Prime Minister” goes on sale today also will encounter this framing from people (that is of course if people actually bother to buy and read the book).

How this plays out with the emotional dynamic over the coming weeks and months should be fascinating.

Sugar do, do, do, do, do, do, oh honey, honey, do, do, do, do, do, do

Over the last five days we’ve had four polls from Morgan, ReachTEL, Galaxy Research and Newspoll which all show similar voting intention results:

Morgan (SMS) 26th June 2013: ALP 38%, Coalition 41%

ReachTEL 27th June 2013: ALP 38.3%, Coalition 45.1%

Galaxy Research 27th-28th June 2013: ALP 38%, Coalition 44%

Newspoll 28th-30th June 2013: ALP 35%, Coalition 43%

In a previous post, I wrote that the structural primary votes of the major parties in Australia are ALP 38%, Coalition 43%.

So far, the parties appear to have reverted to their structural base positions. This is very encouraging news for the ALP and disturbing news for the Coalition who have spent the last three years establishing a very well detailed, sophisticated and effective campaign strategy only to find a sudden change of battlefield and their canned lines having no real significance to people’s lives anymore.

In another previous post, I suggested that the ALP needed to win seats in Queensland in order to win the next election. Early reports suggest that the ALP is seeing a massive turnaround in the state.

Here are some examples over the last year of what Kevin Rudd has been doing in Queensland:

In recent days there have been reports that the ALP is seeing a massive recovery in it’s position in Queensland. Given that Kevin Rudd has been campaigning heavily for over a year against the very unpopular actions of the Newman LNP state government, I wouldn’t be surprised if this local campaign begins to take on a national significance. There’s very little that Tony Abbott or the Coalition can do to compete with this type of personal, sophisticated, localised, relevant and timely campaigning.

There’s also been a few conservative mouth pieces and associates (when this guy starts freaking out, you know they’re in trouble) in recent days attempting to spin the recent rise in the ALP’s position as merely a “sugar hit” that will dissipate in the coming weeks and months as people see how much of a brutal tyrant Kevin Rudd is towards his colleagues, how the ALP are disrespecting “the people’s mandate” by not calling an early election as well as the tired old lines like “tax, tax, tax, debt, debt, debt” and so on.

The only “sugar hit” I’m hearing right now is this one