Monthly Archives: April 2013

Winning the psychological game

“The purpose of wedge politics is to define and limit the political space within which Labor must operate” – Andrew Norton

Paul Keating has often said that in federal politics a general rule of thumb is the ALP have a structural primary vote of 38% and the Coalition have a structural primary vote of 43%. The “structural vote” is the amount of the electorate that can be relied upon to support either of the political parties at an election.

If the ALP consistently goes above a 38% primary vote and the Coalition goes below a 43% primary vote in the national polling, you can say the ALP are winning the “middle ground”. If the Coalition’s primary vote consistently goes above 43% and the ALP’s primary vote goes below 38%, you can say that the ALP are losing their “base” vote.

Right now, the federal ALP’s primary vote is consistently below 38% (well below 38%) which we can take to mean that they are losing their base vote.

With that in mind, what I’m going to address in this post is the subject of winning.

Winning federally to the ALP is anything over a 40% primary vote. You could make the excuse that the ALP could win federally with a primary vote of 38% or 39% backed up with preferences from the Greens and other minor parties but any victory from that position is always a very narrow one. The ALP have only won two federal elections on a primary vote below 40%: 1990 and 2010 and both were won by the skin of their teeth.

A 40% primary vote for the federal ALP goes a long way to securing victory.

That’s the simple part. The hard part for the ALP (for some anyway) is what winning entails.

If your structural vote is 38% and you need a primary vote of over 40% to secure victory, you need to face a few realities.

Firstly, it’s very difficult for the ALP to win with a defensive, passive, risk avoidance strategy. In the current situation of the hung parliament, that is especially true.

Politics is meant to be a contest of ideas. What the ALP have done over the past three years or so has been to abandon the ideas contest in favour of talking about processes. For example, the carbon price has never been explained or spelled out in terms of addressing dangerous climate change: the greatest moral challenge of our time, transitioning the economy into the modern world or making the future safe and secure for our children and their children. Far from it!

All we’ve had is the mechanics and the process of the policy: the price will be $23 per tonne, it will be imposed on the 500 biggest polluting businesses, households will be compensated in order to deal with the rise in electricity prices etc etc etc. This is not the language of victory!

There isn’t even any talk about how an issue like climate change invalidates half of the Liberal Party’s ideology of “let her rip” free market fundamentalism and what that should mean to people in relation to what they value in their lives. It’s just been boring lines that mean nothing to nobody.

Put simply, the ALP have failed to engage the Coalition ideologically, let alone define the Coalition’s positions on issues or limit the political space in which the Coalition operate within.

Take compulsory superannuation. The idea that the ALP have created a $1.5 Trillion financial services industry in Australia is something that would emotionally trigger many people inclined to support the Liberal Party. “Wealth creation” and “saving money” are ideas that attract many people to support the Liberal Party yet it was the ALP who created and built the industry in Australia from the ground up and it was the Liberal Party who opposed it every step of the way.

What’s more, an issue like compulsory superannuation goes straight to the psychological jugular in relation to why the Coalition exist politically. Do the Coalition oppose the idea of every person in Australia being responsible for their own retirement or do they support the idea of having an extremely large cohort of elderly people depending on the government pension after they retire from the workforce? Do the Coalition oppose the idea of every person in Australia being a financial capitalist? On this policy, the conventional framing on the economy has the potential to be completely reversed but the opportunity always seems to be missed by the ALP as they’re simply not in that head-space.

Consider the mechanics of the Coalition’s Paid Parental Leave scheme. Tony Abbott has known since the time he became leader of the Liberal Party that one of the big personal issues running against him has always been that women don’t approve of him and he tried to neutralise it by offering a ridiculously generous parental leave scheme.

When pressed on the issue in April last year on the John Laws radio program, he conceded the word game by calling it a tax, yet the ALP didn’t capitalise on the key point: the ideology, not the policy. This is a policy Abbott talks about that offends people in the business community and yet the ALP can’t score points on it because they are too timid or simply uninterested in targeting that sort of constituency. “They aren’t “Labour rusted ons” so why bother” tends to be the misguided rationale. In this particular case it’s not the word “tax” in and of itself that was the issue but the emotional values and the associations behind the use of the word (not the word, but “the use of the word”).

It’s the same deal with the Coalition’s Direct Action policy. Professor Ross Garnaut gifted the ALP a line in February 2010 in relation to it being akin to “Soviet Union style resource allocation” yet the ALP only figured it out last month: 3 years after the fact! … 3 years too late!

The ALP don’t seem to grasp the potential for dividing the Coalition at an ideological level. It’s just processes all the way down to them.

There is no understanding of the values or the emotional triggers underlying the policies and how to influence them so that they make a significant difference in the ALP’s favour.

The Coalition by contrast appear to “get it” (at the present moment). They aren’t afraid to go after the ALP’s working class constituency because they understand the misery it’s causing the ALP psychologically and how that translates into the rest of the national conversation. They know that if they get the ALP trying to salvage their structural vote (38%), that translates into people on the far left splintering off to the Greens and the Coalition being able to claim more of the middle ground (anything above 43%) for themselves.

What the ALP need to do instead of thinking in terms of merely “winning the next election,” is focus on destroying the Coalition’s ideology forever. That sort of mindset has a few implications. For a start it means thinking on a huge scale and being big picture focused. It also means being secure about issues like industrial relations. What the ALP failed to do after 2007 was destroy the Coalition on the issue once and for all. Instead what they’ve done is attempt to create a contest where one didn’t need to exist in order to appeal to a rapidly declining constituency.

Another implication is that the ALP would need to create a foundation and a narrative that transcends and includes the Coalition’s ideology, in effect making them a redundant political force. This is true right now, but the ALP never spell it out both because they don’t seem to know how, or worse, they deliberately would prefer not to do it for internal organisational reasons.

Instead of going on about things like “Labor values” and such and such is a “Labor policy” they need to talk in terms of the country and spelling out the big picture in a persuasive way so that the community can digest it.

I could go on a very long tangent but I’ll try to land the plane.

Winning the psychological game from the progressive “side” of politics requires having your act together psychologically. That means organisation, energy, belief and thinking on a very big scale. The real reason why people vote for the ALP is to get the big things done and to make the economic and societal transitions necessary for the country to preserve and prosper from the future.

Australian’s have very high expectations in relation to how their governments perform and when those expectations aren’t met, it is often greeted with mass disapproval. The way to overcome it is with repeated psychological victories and playing in order to win rather than accepting noble defeat.

You can’t exceed the people’s expectations or win by adopting the Charlie Sheen approach to victory: mindlessly posting updates on twitter with hashtags that reflect various psychotic states of delusion …

While the thinking and the actions of the federal ALP remain small, internal and process driven and generally treating politics like a football game or a crude television show such as The West Wing (just the thought of that show makes me want to vomit), you can expect their primary vote to remain well below 38%.

Why the ALP should return to the Hawke and Keating period of electoral governance

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about the ALP returning to the Hawke and Keating method of electoral governance in relation to solving the ALP’s problems of the present day.

On one side, there are people like Simon Crean, Bill Kelty and to a lesser extent Mark Latham who want to return to that mode of electoral governance and on the side there are people like Bob Carr who say that the ALP shouldn’t get nostalgic about the period. There are also people like Ken Henry who say that the Hawke and Keating period had as heated a political atmosphere over policy issues as the one that dominates politics in the current day.

As a member of Generation Y (an age group that never really experienced the Hawke and Keating government), I understand first hand why the ALP must embrace the Hawke and Keating mode of electoral governance.

When I went through my schooling years, John Howard was Prime Minister for pretty much the entire time. The only memories I have of political events centered around his Prime Ministership (the only other political figure I remember clearly when I went to Primary School was Pauline Hanson). When I finished my Bachelor Degree in late 2008, Kevin Rudd had been the Prime Minister for less than one year.

Politics to my generation before 2008 WAS John Howard. No one else. You might have heard a little bit about Kim Beazely or Simon Crean or Mark Latham, but they never won elections. Howard was the Prime Minister and he was the one who was making the decisions.

With that in mind, lets look at what the electorate in the present day considers the most important election issues. This is from the Essential Media Communications poll from February 11th 2013 (there were a lot of issues listed, however for the purposes of space, I’ve narrowed it down to the top three. If you want to see the full table, click on the link below).

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

25 Jan 10

6 June 11

5 Dec 11

30 July 12

19 Nov 12

11 Feb 13

Management of the economy







Ensuring a quality education for all children







Ensuring the quality of Australia’s health system







As the table above shows economic management is clearly judged as the most important issue in deciding people’s vote at a federal election with ensuring the quality of Australia’s health system number two and a distant third is ensuring a quality education for all children.

Here’s how the party’s compare on each of these issues at the present moment.

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




Don’t know

11 Feb

Management of the economy






Ensuring a quality education for all children






Ensuring the quality of Australia’s health system






As we can see, there’s not much difference between Labor and the Liberal Party on issues like education and health (which is not normal as usually Labor would be dominating the Liberal Party on these issues), but on the economy, there’s a major gap between the two major party’s with the Liberals leading Labor by 15%.

The Australian economy right now is the envy of the world given everything that has happened since the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 and 2009, yet the ALP hasn’t benefited politically from it.

What the Liberal Party have done over the last five years or so is frame Howard and Costello as the ones who gave Australia the strong position from which to deal with the Global Financial Crisis and the ALP as wasting the surpluses they accumulated over 11 years in government and plunging the nation into debt and deficit.

“Budget surpluses” = good economic management. “Debt and deficit” = bad economic management. That’s all the Liberal Party have done: word association.

So when most people my age hear this sort of message, they feel extremely insecure about the ALP’s economic credentials because all they remember is Howard and Costello being “good” with the economy. The facts don’t matter, all that matters is what gets triggered in the brain.

So when someone like me in 2008, when I didn’t know anything about politics, thinks about the ALP government and the economy, they had been emotionally primed over an 11 year period to feel insecure about the ALP’s ability to handle worldwide economic meltdown. They might have trusted the ALP more than the Liberal Party on issues like health and education, but they’re not as powerful issues as an issue like the economy (as the tables above demonstrate).

The simple fact of the matter is during that 11 year period, there was no real authoritative challenge to Howard and Costello on the economy. It might have been mentioned here or there, but they were never wrestled to the ground and taken apart.

With all of that in mind, when someone my age, in 2008 sees a clip like the one below, it’s an extreme breath of fresh air because it puts Howard and the Liberal Party into perspective on economic issues.

People my age have no idea that Howard was Treasurer between 1977 and 1983 let alone presided over a recession during that period. It doesn’t matter if the facts Keating states in the clip above are accurate or not (they mostly are accurate), the fact is that this was a genuine contest and the ALP were landing real blows against the Liberal Party on the issue of economic management.

The reason Tony Abbott is able to get away with a lot of the rhetoric about returning to the “golden years” of economic management under the Howard government is because there isn’t anyone in the federal ALP leadership challenging or taking apart his and the Liberal Party’s legacy from the middle.

My age group has no idea what the Hawke or Keating government did to Australia in the 13 years they were in government. They have no idea how they fundamentally changed Australia and set up the conditions for over 20 years of economic growth without a recession (my generation hasn’t directly experienced a recession, which is something to keep in mind) and how Howard and Costello sat on their hands for their period in government and did bugger all except implement a Goods and Services Tax (GST) and WorkChoices.

All they know is the Howard years were apparently good years for the economy and the ALP apparently don’t know what they’re doing.

It’s for this reason the current ALP government needs to rediscover the way Hawke and Keating communicated their strong economic credentials to the electorate because quite frankly my age group … (no let me rephrase that) … the entire Australian community doesn’t seem to have a clue!

Values rhetoric: what the “class warfare” name calling is really about

The big talking points from the last few weeks in relation to federal politics have been around the apparent split in the ALP over compulsory superannuation and whether taxing the top two percent of income earners constitutes “class warfare.”

In a previous post, I made it clear that I’m not a policy person. I honestly don’t know whether what the government plans to do in relation to compulsory superannuation is good, not good or somewhere in between.

My understanding is that compulsory superannuation was a policy enacted by the ALP in the 1980’s and 1990’s to turn every member of the workforce into a capitalist and make every working person responsible for their own destiny by making it possible for them to pay for their own retirement rather than relying solely on the pension in their old age.

It had both micro and a macro objectives. The micro objectives revolved around making sure everyone maintained a decent standard of living by providing them with an annuity income to sustain themselves for the rest of their lives after they retired from the workforce (most of this objective got lost during the Howard period of government) and the macro objectives related to issues like the demographics of Australia in the 21st century, making sure wages growth and inflation were under control, building the financial services industry and giving the union movement a renewed purpose in the information age.

This policy has created a $1.5 trillion industry in Australia and is one of the most important economic reforms of any government (ALP or Coalition) in the country’s history.

The actual policy is not the issue I want to address in this post as what I’ve written above is pretty much all that I know in relation to it.

What is very interesting to observe is people who are experts on policy feeling extremely depressed about the national political conversation devolving to petty name calling and accusations of “class warfare” when what the current ALP government is doing in a policy sense is no different to what the Hawke and Keating government did when they were in power.

For example: the current ALP government has tripled the tax-free threshold under its carbon pricing policy, yet this gets derided as “class warfare” and socialism when it’s taking one million people out of the tax system!

How is taking one million people out of the tax system “class warfare?”

The reason it gets lumped in this sort of category and all of that other “bad stuff” the political “right” often accuses the political “left” of doing to the economy has zero to do with the actual policies the government is implementing. The reason it happens is mostly because of the values rhetoric coming from the ALP and more specifically the constituency they’re targeting in their communications!

The mere act of writing that last paragraph probably puts me at risk of being strangled by people dealing with extremely complex policy issues as it trivialises what they do for a living and the many years they’ve spent mastering such knowledge in order to provide value to the community, but it’s the truth!

When Paul Keating talks about compulsory superannuation, you’ll hear him talk in terms of financial capitalism, why it’s strange that the Coalition are opposed to universal compulsory retirement savings when such a policy would be the dream of pretty much every conservative political party around the world.

While doing this, Keating will often tell the personal story of how Reagan economic adviser Martin Feldstein told him that the Republicans would have kissed the Democrats if they had gotten the union movement to agree to the entire workforce saving 1% of their income for retirement let alone 9% with an agreement to get it to 15% and how strange the Coalition were to back-flip on their 1996 election promise to take the super guarantee charge to 15% of employees incomes when it was already agreed to by the union movement and they would have been the beneficiaries of any political benefits resulting from the change.

When saying these sorts of things, Keating isn’t only targeting what you’d consider the average ALP “base” voter. He’s targeting a much larger audience and aligning the ALP’s values to what they value.

When the current government talks about superannuation, all they talk about is making sure that everyone gets a “fair go” and it being an important “Labor” reform. The values rhetoric, the communication style and who the messages are targeted at are entirely different.

Another example is industrial relations. When the Keating government talked about enterprise bargaining, the emphasis of the message was on moving away from the old centralised wage fixing system and towards a system that was focused on productivity while making sure no one got left behind (which is why the “no disadvantage test” was a key part of the policy and one of the big differences between it and WorkChoices).

At the time, this was considered extremely radical. Keating will often describe the process of implementing the policy as similar to “putting the union movement in a headlock and pulling out their rotten teeth with an old pair of pliers.”

When the current government introduced the Fair Work Act, the policy wasn’t that much different to the Keating enterprise bargaining system, yet the policy is derided as a return to the old union biased centralised wage fixing system and all the bad things that were associated with it (wages breakouts, high inflation, declining productivity etc, etc, etc) without any evidence or data.

Maybe this is because the business community and certain sections of the media are angry that the government got rid of WorkChoices and want to punish the ALP out of spite.

I take a different view.

The reason there is now a call from within the ALP for a return to the Hawke/Keating method of governance has nothing to do with the policies of the current government. It’s entirely due to the values rhetoric, communication and tone coming from the current ALP leadership team and their supporters, how it’s unsustainable and how it’s contributed significantly to the ALP government’s significant decline in support.

The reason the Fair Work Act gets derided so much by certain sections of the media and the business community is not because of the policy itself. That was evident in the QANTAS dispute in November 2011. The reason it gets derided so much is because certain people in the ALP want to pretend that the policy IS centralised wage fixing in order to play to a certain constituency that they are extremely insecure about holding as their positions and power rely on their patronage and belief in the status quo.

In short: the ALP’s messaging isn’t targeting the entire Australian community. They are only focusing their messaging towards the ALP base and the union movement.

The battle right now that is going on between people like Simon Crean, Martin Ferguson and others on one side and Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan and others on the other side is not one over policy.

The current policy “debate” the ALP are engaged in publicly is merely a sideshow for the real issue which revolves around the party’s long-term electoral strategy. Whenever the Hawke/Keating model is invoked by anyone, it’s really a call to end the ALP’s relentless obsession with targeting their communication to the base and their supporters and start focusing on what resonates with the rest of Australia as well as a reduction of union influence both on and within the party.

Had Hawke or Keating been accused of class warfare, they would have laughed at it because their messaging and values rhetoric was immune to such accusations and whoever was making them would simply look ridiculous. The reason the current government gets bogged down by it is because their messaging and values rhetoric is targeted squarely at “the base.” There is no persuasion mechanism to get people who aren’t voting for the ALP to vote for the ALP.

You’ll often hear Wayne Swan talk about the “fair go” while attacking billionaires such as Clive Palmer, Gina Rinehart and Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest. When the ALP are labelled divisive, this is an example of what’s causing it.

What the ALP should be doing is demonstrating how without their governance and economic stewardship during the events of the global financial crisis, their investments in infrastructure, the productive workforce and the Australian community these people wouldn’t be billionaires.

I think they should be showing how the ALP made these people rich through their actions while framing prosperity and economic aspiration as a concept that can only be achieved by an active, pragmatic government rather than deriding these people as “not one of the base” and taking every opportunity to attack them for that fact.

This week’s poll from Essential Media Communications (2nd April 2013) asked respondents to rate both the ALP and the Liberal Party in relation to what attributes they associated with them. One of the most telling results was on the “divided” attribute.

Here’s the ALP’s results:

  6 July 09 14 Mar 10 27 April 11 28 May 12 2 April 13 Change since Jul 09
Divided 30% 36% 66% 73% 82% +52%

As we can see, the divided attribute has gone up 52% since July 2009. Over the last few weeks, it’s become very evident that the divide is far more than a mere personality contest over the leadership of the party. There is a real divide over policy in the ALP that has manifested itself the public debate and they have been unable to resolve it over the past three years.

Here’s the Liberal Party’s results:

  6 July 09 14 Mar 10 27 April 11 28 May 12 2 April 13 Change since Jul 09
Divided 74% 66% 49% 37% 32% +42%

This table shows that the Liberals divided attribute has fallen from 42% from 74% in July 2009 to 32% now.

I think the reason for the sharp rise in the divided attribute rating for the ALP and the sharp fall in the rating for the Liberal Party is because of values rhetoric. The ALP has forgotten where the splits are in the Liberal Party’s ideology and allowed them to unite as a party against anything the ALP propose, implement or stand for.

One of the reasons the Hawke and Keating government were able to win five elections was because they knew how to take large chunks of the Liberal Party’s philosophy and values (open markets, competition, productivity, achievement, excellence, entrepreneurial spirit) and then re-frame them on progressive, socially democratic terms.

The current ALP government seems to have forgotten how to do that. Policy positions on issues and values rhetoric are not the same thing! Tony Abbott understands this which explains why he has made such a big deal out of campaigning around blue collar, manufacturing, unionised areas and making it clear he won’t reintroduce radical free market policies such as WorkChoices.

While the ALP primary vote remains below 38%, expect the values rhetoric battles within the ALP such as the present one over “taxing” compulsory superannuation contributions to continue.

Remember to tune in for next week’s episode of “ALP Values Rhetoric Debates on public display” featuring an all time favourite of many: asylum seeker policy! … “<inaudible>”