A key component of this years political debate will be who can communicate their vision for the nation to the public in a way that can persuade swing voters to vote for them in September.
You’re going to hear a lot of predictable talk about policies but what’s really going on is far more complex.
Ronald Reagan’s pollster Dick Wirthlin figured out that voters don’t vote for policies, they vote for who they measure as superior in the five areas I’m about to summarise and how the policies they advocate for exemplify them.
Wirthlin defines values as the measures by which individuals determine their worth or importance of matters of concern in their lives.
The big mistake many politicians make, especially on the ALP “side” of politics is to confuse policies with values. The best example of this is whenever you hear Julia Gillard talk about “Labor values” you will always hear the word “education.”
Education isn’t a value. It’s a process and a policy area. The real question the ALP should be asking is why value education? Is it because we value opportunity? Is it because we value excellence? Is it because we value equality and social justice? Is it because we value creating a sustainable world? Is it because we value greater degrees of freedom? The deeper question on values never seems to be addressed by the Prime Minister.
The Coalition by contrast make it very clear where they stand on values. Every piece of communication they produce is targeted towards the values of individual success and freedom as well as respect of national history and what they define as an “Australian” identity.
When I first visited Canberra, at a gut level I felt a reasonable degree of disconnection with the rest of the country. I’ve heard this is a common experience. There is a cold, artificial, bureaucratic feeling about the place.
Connection is an area many seem to have difficulty with on both “sides” of politics.
I think it’s fair to say that both Gillard and Abbott don’t connect too well with the electorate. Sure Gillard did connect with many women and men when she lashed out at Abbott’s repeated misogyny last year during Question Time, but that was merely one reactive speech that had been a very long time coming. Besides that one time, Gillard has been unable to connect with many people due to the inescapable negative prism she’s created for herself and most of her political decisions are viewed by people accordingly. It magnifies a lot when she says things like “we are us”, “a line has been crossed” and “I’ve made a ‘Captain’s Pick.'”
Abbott, although incredibly unpopular, initially connected with the public’s base level desires in relation to resolving the perceived uncertainty of the hung parliament, promising to get rid of the carbon tax, the mining tax, “stopping the boats, ending the waste” and bringing back the “golden years” of the Howard government.
As time has gone by many people see his platform for what it is: a fraud and they no longer feel that connection as people have more complex and difficult concerns to deal with and Abbott has shown that he doesn’t understand the public by constantly disregarding how they live their lives.
If normal people did what he has done over the last three years, they’d be fired from their job immediately!
Abbott’s new way of connecting is making everything he says about how bad the Labor Party is and how they need to be booted out of office as soon as possible. It has nothing to do with the policies, it is a very partisan message and it’s directed straight at Gillard, Labor and anything they touch. It connects with people because he has control of the way the national debate is framed and Labor appear too stupid to counteract what he’s doing.
It’s fair to say both Gillard and Abbott are seen to be inauthentic on many issues.
In the case of Gillard the obvious examples revolve around marriage equality and asylum seeker policy. On marriage equality, the authenticity issue arises due to her history as a progressive activist, her de-facto relationship and her atheism. How could someone who lives their life that way and hold those positions on “the big questions” possibly justify being against marriage equality? Sure, she can attempt to justify the position, but getting people to believe it is another matter entirely.
In relation to asylum seeker policy, Gillard advocates for “protecting lives at sea” yet the actual policy of locking refugees away in another country violates basic social justice and progressive principles of humanitarianism. It ends up looking like a desperate attempt to win votes in Western Sydney and pockets of Queensland. Whenever this is denied, it looks inauthentic.
In the case of Abbott, he’s spent his entire political career convincing everyone that he’s a crusader for the conservative cause. He has rejoiced in the nickname “Captain Catholic,” emotionally baiting “left wingers” and feminists as well as the negativity and cut and thrust of machine politics. Now he’s attempting to convince the public that he’s a crusader for taking action on dangerous climate change, women’s rights and social justice. Give us a break!
Trust is a fundamental component of political success. It’s often referred to as “political capital.” How much a government can do in office while maintaining their popularity in the electorate is heavily reliant on how much political capital they have stored in the bank. The more trust is broken by the government, the more unpopular they tend to become.
The trust issue with Gillard has frequently appeared during this term of parliament. Whether it has been the deal with the Greens and Independents on the “Carbon Tax” (saying it’s a carbon “price” is a big authenticity issue because every time it’s said, people think it’s spin), whether it’s been breaking the mandatory precommitment legislation deal with Andrew Wilkie, whether it’s been asylum seeker policy or whether it’s simply been internal ALP politics, it all comes back to trust, political capital and how that relates to certainty.
“How can we trust you given what you’ve done before?” is what it all comes down to and whenever there’s been an attempt at an answer it always gets framed in a negative light because that’s the predisposition towards Gillard’s decisions as Prime Minister.
The trust issue has been used with devastating effect by Tony Abbott (or should I say, Mark Textor) during this term of parliament. Everything they’ve said communicates “you can’t trust Labor and this Prime Minister” in one way or another. Most of this message now is in code as they’ve gone off the direct message and gone into a mode where they want to be seen as positive and constructive when in reality what they’re communicating is exactly the same as what’s been said over the previous three years of this term of parliament.
This will of course come back to bite Abbott big time if he ever becomes Prime Minister because there are very real and complex issues in relation to how he plans to repeal the carbon tax after it has been in operation for over a year and all the complexity that comes with that in relation to what’s happening around the world, how he plans to repeal the mining tax given how Australian’s view the issue and many other areas where he’s drawn a line in the sand without thinking about the long term implications of those promises.
In short, if you make a promise, make sure you keep it or look out!
Identity is interesting in relation to the two major parties. On the one hand, Labor is defining itself through it’s industrial relations agenda whereas the Coalition are defining themselves based upon anything that isn’t Labor unless Labor falls for their framing.
On the question of identity, I believe the most successful political parties are able to find points of agreement with their opponents as well as identifying those areas beneath the surface where the base are disillusioned with the political party they support and exploiting them as much as possible.
During this term of parliament, Abbott has made it his goal to split the ALP from their working class, blue collar, manufacturing base by linking the ALP to the Greens and playing hardball on the issue of border protection and asylum seeker policy.
The ALP by contrast seems to be making minimal impact in splitting the Coalition from the business community. This is probably due to the ALP’s rhetoric in relation to “Clive, Gina and Twiggy” as well as deliberately conflating various economic and industrial relations issues with a return to the time before Bob Hawke and Paul Keating revolutionised the Australian economy.
In my opinion, instead of declaring war on these wealthy people and accusing them of being evil and in control of the Coalition, the ALP should demonstrate how they made these people into what they are and without the policies of the Hawke and Keating governments, the cooperation of the union movement and the policies that saved Australia from recession during the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 and 2009, these people wouldn’t be anywhere near as wealthy as they are today!
To make it brutally frank: the ALP are nowhere near as open to this disenfranchised group of generally Coalition supporters as they should be.
The five areas I’ve touched on above are what comes before we can get to a real policy discussion on any issue because they deal with people, knowing where one stands and being real.
To sum it up in a phrase: policy exemplifies values, connection, authenticity, trust and identity.
It’s all well and good to say you want to copy the sophisticated tactics of Barack Obama’s victorious 2012 US Presidential campaign, but if your policies are out of sync in relation to each other or they’re not communicated in a manner that is consistent with what you believe, it won’t work!
The party that is consistent in relation to this concept and injects optimism and inclusion into everything they communicate is the party that usually wins elections.