Your opponents aren’t stupid

If there’s one thing that I see often that frustrates me beyond belief, its supporters of the progressive side of politics believing the conservatives are, for lack of a better word, stupid. The reason is because it’s one of the ways conservatives in Australia have gone about exploiting progressives vulnerabilities since 1995.

One of the reasons John Howard was able to beat the ALP at four federal elections was because the ALP considered him beneath them. In 1996, he simply played the small target, photocopied, hedgehog game against a government that had been in office for 13 years.

The public were ready to boot him out of office in 1998, 2001 and 2004 but every time the ALP thought he was stupid and had him beaten, he managed to paint the ALP as erratic and not reassuring to the public and he did it by any means necessary. In other words, he used his perceived stupidity as his biggest asset to put the focus back on the ALP … and it worked for 11 years!

Tony Abbott right now is adopting the exact same tactics in opposition as John Howard did in government. The ALP think he’s the stupidest politician who’s ever lead a political party in Australian history, yet he’s been leader of the Liberal Party since the end of 2009. It’s been three years and he’s still in the job! Sure, people have very entrenched negative views about him that aren’t going to change without the entire country being exposed to some sort of nuclear fallout, but he’s still there!

I’m not sure about you, but I think he might have figured out something that might be a little subtle and counter intuitive.

What I think the Liberal Party understand is how to provoke, keep things simple and deliberately play dumb. They know that politics is about people and whenever the ALP attack them for what they consider to be stupidity or their provocative political behaviour which goes oh so near crossing the line, they open up opportunities for painting them as out of touch with middle Australia and begin to frame everything around their beliefs and values systems.

I also think the Liberal Party understand that Tony Abbott is a polarising figure and the more the ALP get into the mode of thinking that goes along the lines of “he’s not clever enough to do that” they know they’re in control of what’s happening in the national debate.

The point is that you always have to assume your political opponents are smart and they have some sort of strategy even when you’re grinding their noses into the dirt. Believing your political opponents are and will always be stupid leaves you wide open to your message, your platform and your policies being undermined and defeated.

It doesn’t matter if you’re the government or the opposition, this applies!

Does this mean the Liberal Party are complete political geniuses and one of the smartest oppositions of all time? Of course not. In my view they’ve left himself wide open to a nuanced and sophisticated policy attack based around real ideas and what people value. The ALP however are so focused on destroying Abbott at a personal level, partly because they think it will work, partly to compensate for their own self inflicted identity crisis, that they’ve missed the incredible vulnerability he has with the middle ground in regards to actual policy and real issues.

Of course, if you say something like this, you’ll predictably get the response from ALP supporters that the ALP are focusing on policy and real issues and Abbott’s the one who is being superficial. If that’s true then why am I constantly seeing repeated attacks on Abbott’s chief of staff for pretty much no other reason than the fact that she’s Abbott’s chief of staff and social media gimmicks like #AshbyInquiryNow which are more to do with attempting to damage Abbott politically than anything to do with the actual issue?

This is before we get to the constant aggressiveness towards journalists for not mentioning specific issues and events in interviews with shadow ministers where they think they’re vulnerable which have absolutely nothing to do with their portfolio, contradicting the view that they want a real policy debate.

“If we don’t attack, we’re giving him a free pass” is often the cry. This sort of black/white, good/bad thinking is precisely what allows someone like Abbott to be in control of the terms of the national debate.

The idea that sometimes what he does speaks for himself never occurs to anyone. As someone with a marketing background, I can tell you that there’s such a thing as negative marketing. In other words, the intent of your communication can and often does backfire and end up achieving the exact opposite of your intended outcome.

Abbott frequently puts himself in a straight jacket and the ALP seem intent on getting him out of it at pretty much every opportunity because they don’t see the nuance or the intelligence in anything that he or the Liberal Party do politically. It’s all “Evil Tony” washed, rinsed and repeated! It’s extremely one dimensional and the Liberal Party know exactly how to counter it.

Many progressives watch someone like Paul Keating and think the reason for his political success in 1993 was entirely due to his flicking the switch to vaudeville and aggression and they attempt to imitate it because he seems to have a strong sense of self and know what he’s talking about. They never pay any attention to the way he uses language, the nuance, the guile, the underlying narrative of what his government was about that provided the base for his attacks on the Coalition, his big picture, his systemic view of how things tied together in terms of politics and policy, how that way of thinking beat the Liberal Party, let alone his intuitive sensitivity which people often confused for cold-hearted arrogance. They try to imitate what he does and to use one of his classic lines, it ends up being “all tip and no iceberg.”

By thinking Abbott and the Liberal Party are stupid, many progressives and ALP supporters have blinded themselves to the reality that he’s taking advantage of their thinking. John Howard did it for 11 years in government! If there’s one thing you can rely on it’s that Abbott who is Howard’s number one fan, and the professional people advising him know this type of game from top to bottom. They know from first hand experience that you can ride stupidity all the way into office!

If you ask me, underestimating it and not learning the lessons of history is real stupidity!

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