Monday, 19 August 2013 

One of the myths about the major political parties is that these days they are primarily focussed on winning elections. This may seem terribly hard-edged and cynical but, like most hard-edged cynicism, is delusional. We have already seen, with the dumping of Rudd in 2010 and the Liberals’ choosing of one of its least popular politicians as its leader in 2009, that other factors are at work. Both parties were formed to assert particular social interests and, while that role may have effectively long gone, the legacy remains.

With Labor that legacy was primarily institutional, especially the unions and the factions, with the Liberals, it’s ideological. While Labor’s convulsions over the last three years have seen its traditional institutional severely weakened, Abbott still remains a product of the party’s more ideologically inclined. The challenge for Abbott is to manage the conflict between protecting the largely redundant party “brand” while remaining electorally viable. He has managed this delicate balancing act by relying heavily on the Howard years as a mythical age of ideologically purity and electoral success, while erasing memory of the less ideologically pure way it ended.

The downside of this tactic is that it makes the Coalition look wedded to the past, something that Labor looks to exploit with its “New Way” slogan. However, so far in the campaign Labor has struggled to take it much beyond the slogan. Labor’s problem seems to be that having shrugged off the institutional legacy, it is looking prone to just as confused thinking from what has replaced it.

With the decline of the social bases of the both parties, into the vacuum has entered the political consultant. Like most professional consultants, the primary focus is not getting the result as such, but getting paid by the client. For political consultants this means not so much winning elections, but flattering themselves and their clients whatever the result. For the left this flattery is usually in the language of hope, vision, progressive, etc. for the right it is usually about being in touch with “real people”.

The consultants reflect a view of the electorate increasingly held by the parties themselves. While appearing apolitical towards traditional agendas, it is better to describe it as “political thinking” in its purest form. It treats the electorate as an abstract concept susceptible to media narratives that take on a life of its own. This type of thinking, unintentionally parodied by The West Wing, comes especially to the fore during an election campaign.

One of the favourite concepts of such political thinking is polling “momentum”. This seems to make perfect sense in political circles but makes no sense in the electorate itself. In political circles sharp moves in polling can build their own steam and carry on, whereas for the voter, the idea they are more likely to for someone because others have now decided they will, makes little sense.

For example, on Rudd’s return, much of the discussion in the media, always prone to such political thinking themselves, was how long the momentum would last, and whether it would fade away. Yet there is no reason why there would have been any “momentum” at all. Rudd was hardly an unknown factor. His last stint in office was not that long ago and it wasn’t as though there hadn’t been warnings of his return. Voters would surely have had a reasonably good idea of what would happen to their voting intentions if he came back.

So it was unsurprising that indications of how voting intentions would change on his return were pretty well exactly what happened when he did. Where the vote went afterwards was not driven by some metaphysical momentum but simply depend on what Rudd did next. Given that the first thing he had to do was to deal with precisely the issues he didn’t want to talk about, asylum seekers and the carbon tax, the Rudd camp should have been reasonably pleased to have largely held their gains.

Rudd’s success in the first weeks was dealing with the political thinking on his own side. This had emerged over the last couple of decades from the transformation of the NSW Right’s traditional role as intermediaries between business and the unions to that of political “strategists”. This Sussex St thinking tended to see political issues in their own terms, usually as framed by the Coalition, rather than as they existed in reality.

On the economy and asylum seekers, Rudd benefited from breaking out of the dead end the Gillard government had got itself into by reposing both issues in terms of how they existed in reality and perceived by the electorate. On the economy, Rudd stepped away from pretending as though the economy was under its control and that a budget surplus was its to determine. On asylum seekers, Rudd’s New Regionalism reposed the asylum seeker issue as the regional issue it always was.

Yet having dealt so effectively with his own side, the campaign has become less bold dealing with the Coalition, instead retreating back into lazy “political thinking” of its own.

One example was the Captain’s Pick of Beattie to the seat of Forde. While widely hailed by Labor supporting commentary as giving “momentum” to the campaign, to this blogger it had dubious benefit. First by drafting such a long-standing Rudd hater with political ambitions, it re-raised a leadership issue that should have been buried with Gillard’s dumping and the party rule changes. Secondly, while Beattie may have been popular in his time, as shown by the subsequent collapse of the state party to a rump, things have changed. To think that Beattie can somehow be considered separately from the party he led seems fanciful.

The idea that Beattie would be a plus perhaps betrays a confusion about personal popularity that may be also being applied to the campaign’s understanding of Rudd’s popularity as well. Beattie was popular because he took the opposition to the political system, always a Queensland forte, to a new level. Having been dumped and excoriated by his own party, Rudd has clearly taken it to a higher level still. But that positioning remains the key to Rudd’s popularity. No matter how many selfies he is in and crowds he pulls, without that positioning against the political system, it would fade away as he becomes seen as part of it.

The necessity to draw out the opposition to the political system is particularly the case when it comes to issues where the Coalition is exposed. One example is gay marriage. It is debateable whether Rudd really needed this to be the one media take-away from a debate that he had made such a big deal of having. But nevertheless there are potential problems for the Coalition in this issue.

The shift towards supporting gay marriage has less come from a shift for gay marriage as such than a falling away of the social and religious objections to it, especially among younger voters. The Coalition’s careful handling suggests it is aware of the dangers of making an ideological issue out of what even many of those who are against gay marriage would see as a personal issue.

But doing much more than reflecting the declining power of old social norms holds little benefit for Labor. It is not reassuring that the Rudd campaign has reportedly drawn from the Obama campaign in the US, the land of West Wing thinking. Obama made an issue of gay marriage at the last election, which allowed the Democrats to flatter themselves as progressive by mobilising on it. But such illusions are possible in a country with a confident political class and voluntary voting, it is harder in Australia with neither.

Politicos self-styling as progressive is annoying as it inevitably implies counter-posing to an electorate who are not. It was something touched on in Rudd’s unfortunate reference to anti-sexual harassment laws in the workplace when dealing with Abbott’s “sex appeal” comments. It is a thinking embedded in the moralism of the left whether on gay marriage or asylum seekers. Whatever the merits of the issue, the Rudd campaign would be wise to keep as much distance from the Campaign for Marriage Equality as it did from the unions’ Rights at Work campaign against Workchoices in 2007.

This interpretation of what the electorate is saying through the prism of political self-flattery, rather than what it actually means, is even more counter-productive when it comes to what should have been the core themes of the campaign, the economy and the way politics as a whole is conducted.

Focus groups are obviously saying that they are sick of negative politics. The response by the Rudd camp appears to be to talk about being, er, positive and “positive plans for the future”, a phrase that dies almost as soon as it leaves Labor’s lips.

There are a couple of points to make about this. The first is that the Australian electorate has never been that worried about negativity per se in a political environment whose robustness can sometimes shock foreign observers. Secondly, the problem that voters have at the moment is not negativity itself but that it has no purpose, especially when it is argy-bargy over ideological conflicts that have lost any relevance outside the political parties conducting them. Thirdly, given that the electorate is highly negative about the state of politics as a whole as a result, it would surely suggest that putting one’s finger on it, even in a negative way, would be welcome.

Labor instead appears to have a more shallow interpretation of the problem, posing itself as positive, which no doubt makes it feel good – but at the same time secretly believing that the public don’t know what it’s saying and that negative ads work, so making it look shifty. Furthermore this “positive” approach from Labor becomes even more counter-productive when it comes to the economy.

Labor has correctly honed in on the Liberals’ coyness about its costings as a sign that the Liberals are planning unpopular cuts after the election. The problem is that Labor hasn’t said why they want to make the cuts. Without drawing out that they are more likely to be driven by ideology than what is sensible for the economy, the voters are left with the impression that it is the latter.

Being evasive about cuts needed to fix the economy so as to win an election may not be ideal, but it is certainly preferable to what Labor seems to be doing, namely throwing money around to win an election even if it may not do the economy much good. In going around putting money behind its “positive plans”, Labor looks to be doing precisely the “reckless spending” that Rudd caught Howard out in 2007.

Labor started the economic debate well, shifting the discussion to an economy in transition. But with little but anodyne plans for “diversifying and productivity” it has nowhere to go but to attack the Coalition’s ideological agenda, which like all ideology, is incapable of coping with change. Yet in failing to make its anti-political attack on the Coalition, Labor is seeing it rebound and they being the “political” (if non-ideological) operators. If running the country on the basis of ideology is annoying, operating on the basis of political expediency, as Rudd already learned when he dumped the ETS in 2010, is even more so.

With polling improving for the Coalition and less pressure from the Rudd campaign, it is increasingly clear that the Coalition is itching to resume its cultural war and erase from memory the events of 2007 – 2009, just as Morrison tried claiming on Insiders yesterday that it was always consistent on asylum seeker policy, when of course it was not. If Labor is intent on forgetting what that period was about as well, the Coalition may just get away with it.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 19 August 2013.

Filed under State of the parties, Tactics

Tags: , , ,


12 responses to “Momentum”

  1. Bill on 19th August 2013 11:15 am

    I see that Labor is going backwards in key marginal seats in NSW. I wonder how much this has more to do with increasing the tax on cigarettes and unfortunate gaffes such as Sydney’s alternative airport being not much of a priority/’hey you’re not the only city in Austalia’ kind of remark? That has probably disgruntled a few in those seats/probably more of an impact than ‘key issues’ such as the carbon tax/boat people etc !

    I actually thought Rudd ‘won’ the ‘debate’ that night/was stunned Oakes saw it otherwise. Abbott looked shifty to me/largely relied on ‘you can’t trust them’/ it will all be better under the Liberals simply because (‘Hey presto !’) we are the Liberals (and because I say so, so it MUST be true …). The ‘worm’ showed most of that audience tuning out/thumbs down on much of what he said.

    As for Rudd, I didn’t like the look of him turning to notes/ I thought he was supposed to be the ‘master’ of fine details/able to almost effortlessly sponge up data and bring it to his cause at will, like he seems to do in question time. He appeared surprisingly nervy, for someone who I thought would make mincemeat of Abbott. I can’t help thinking Julia might have been more effective in that first debate, had she still been PM.

    Those ‘debates’ probably make little actual difference to voting intentions, but because of the way it was reported by the media/because Rudd couldn’t be said to be the decisive/clear winner by 90%, it most likely made Abbott look more credible to many …

    Within a few months of the Libs being back in power, people losing their perks/civil service sackings/cuts to this and that, a lot of the population will be wondering how they could have been so stupid to vote for Abbott /the Libs just because he WASN’T/isn’t Labor/they had ‘scores’ to settle. The Libs will deliver a surplus (eventually …)stockpile that for their next pork barreling come another election.

    It seems incredible that a government that has an economy that has been the envy of much of the world for years, is about to be turfed out, when many are not doing that bad. Perhaps the bar/expectations are higher for many now (songs come to mind) ‘I want it all, and I want it now !’).We’re probably in a more selfish society where more ‘swinging voters’ are more concerned about how much wealth will be in it for themselves, then being concerned for the ‘greater good’ / the consequences to the less well off masses.

    ‘Stuff the deficit’ / most of us of any intelligence know (including the Libs) that it’s very ‘small beer’ compared to our GDP/quite modest/quite acceptable on a world standing.

    The fact that Beattie looks like being humiliated, adds to the overall look of a government that just can’t get it right. Something extraordinary needs to happen now, for Labor to turn it around.

    We need someone to leak their ‘costings’ sooner rather than at the last minute .. that would give many a re-think. However, it’s appalling that BOTH sides are able to leave such assessments till it’s almost impossible to clearly come up with the right verdict before election day. No wonder much of the electorate, myself included, are disillusioned with politicians/the major parties, etc, in general.

    As for ‘momentum’, it is starting to look like Labor needs a miracle of ‘Tampa’ /’divine intervention’ type proportions.
    Kev, start praying !

  2. D.G on 19th August 2013 11:50 am

    It’s a weirdly incoherent campaign – framing the election as a referendum on who can best handle a challenging economy, then not actually making a case for why they’d be better at it than the other guys. Suicidal for a party that’s lagging badly on perception of economic competence. It looks like Rudd’s lack of nerve under pressure has undone him again. Any strategic cleverness has been abandoned in favour of standard focus group button pressing.

  3. Invig on 20th August 2013 8:29 am

    Yeah I don’t agree with much of that. I mean its a view on the current state of affairs that’s as accurate as looking at the turbidity of sewerage. You can analyse it any way you want but its still shit.

    I agree they’re a pack of dickheads without comprehension of how the electorate perceives them. I also agree they subcontract to consultants, unionists, advertising and preference deals in preference to actually leading and treating us like adults.

    I think the evidence for this is in the NDIS. Did you know its effectively a voucher system? No? I only found out by talking to a disabled person with some knowledge. Why was this never made clear? Because they’d rather treat us via arcane theories than just speak to us like people. Because as soon as we become people, they start to look like poor leaders.

  4. atomou on 20th August 2013 9:08 am

    Things have certainly changed, Shrike and in that change, (to look at the two parties from the comfortable distance of objectivity) we see the dreaded irony that Labor’s “New Way” and new “vision” is the one that the Libs are abandoning with great alacrity, so as to move to a new, “neo con-cum-Tea Party” precinct. It’s a precinct which Howard might have also wanted to move into (since he moved into the servants’ quarters of Washington-Pentagon complex with similar alacrity), had he not run out of time.

    Gillard was no better, nor no different to Rudd, so far as abandoning old ideological precincts, so much favoured by those a little left of centre, so as to move into the precincts of Howard’s “ideologically pure” battlers.

    And you’re absolutely right, the selling of these “new ways” by both parties, is done through polling and focus groups consultants and via the medium of self flattery and delusion, exhibited in a most public way; but then, hasn’t that always been the preferred medium during election campaigns –”look at me, I’m good, I’m progressive, I’m moral, I’m humane and I’m tough, so vote for me!” Haven’t these megaphone exhortations stayed resolutely unchanged, since Pericles was a boy?

    Finally, let me expose my utter cynicism in all utterances made by all parties concerned, including the electorate: It doesn’t matter what either of these colluders say, nor indeed what the Greens say or any Independent. When voting time comes the punter will have bugger all choice. Utterances and fine or unfine rhetoric, sleep inducing and nightmarish debates will be forgotten and s/he will have to stare down a how to vote card that in stark effect will give him/her bugger all choice.

    Coles or woolies? Tea Party or Tea Party?

  5. Avalon Dave on 20th August 2013 1:27 pm

    “Secondly, the problem that voters have at the moment is not negativity itself but that it has no purpose, especially when it is argy-bargy over ideological conflicts that have lost any relevance outside the political parties conducting them. ”

    That is THE key point.

    And it is why both major parties, and the media personnel that rely on them, have been so bloody unhinged & bizarre since Tampa.

  6. Audioio on 21st August 2013 12:18 am

    >Labor has correctly honed in …
    What, like a honing pigeon?

  7. The Piping Shrike on 21st August 2013 1:07 am

    Not in the habit of turning nouns into verbs.

    On the possibility of a Tea Party-like politics (is that still a thing?), no doubt there is an itching we have seen in the campaign to “reclaim the right” by Howard and Abbott – but if they win I see little basis for it.

    The dreary thing about an Abbott win is that no doubt we will have to go through the same lessons again of the redundancy of left and right as we did through Gillard but from the other direction.

    But let’s see if that happens first, but it is a weakness of the Coalition’s campaign that it keeps popping out.

  8. John on 21st August 2013 7:30 am

    Please stop crying in your beers. The polls apart from Newspoll which is possibly a rogue are competitive and have seen parties win. Howard lost the populra vote in 1998 but won enough seats to retain office for example. Galaxy has noted a 6% jump in undecideds from 6 to 22% citing uncertainty over the lack of policy detail from Abbott. The Fin Review that bastion of the left has also been scathing on the issue of policy detail and costings. Gary Morgan has also opined that Labor is definitely still in the race.

  9. The Piping Shrike on 21st August 2013 8:49 am

    Think they are too. But the Labor campaign would need to get on top of a few things to win.

  10. dedalus on 23rd August 2013 4:15 pm

    Libs will probably win. They shouldn’t, but they probably will.

    My reasons: almost total mainstream media support incl ABC; misogyny among 5% of male population (which undid Gillard); Rudd destabilising the party and now too late for damage to be undone; Rudd failing to advertise good policy record of last 3 years, particularly the NBN; allowing Libs to take co-ownership of NDIS.

    Only hope is if the many demographics which support Labor come out and vote without stuffing up their ballots. Example, in Macarthur last time Libs only won because the Labor booths returned 12% informal.

    Gay vote, ethnic vote, green vote, youth vote – all these would get Labor across the line except many are too cynical to bother voting.

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    […] The Piping Shrike: Momentum […]

  12. Invig on 25th August 2013 1:09 pm

    Rudd’s only chance was too keep the Carbon Tax and turn it into a point of leadership by graciously admitting that the Greens were right in not trusting an ETS to reduce emissions.

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