Historical, cultural and systemic comparisons between Australia and the US and their political campaign techniques.
This study requires a critical appraisal of any relevant literature and identification of the gaps in the existing literature, particularly Australian research and public documents. Existing literature in Australia and the US can be compared with current practice in Australia and suggestions made for any obvious variations. An important foundation for this is a detailed look into historical evidence of influences from American political techniques in Australian politics. Once I have exhausted obvious sources of historical references I will begin looking at the current well-regarded American campaign manuals and compare them to known Australian practice. Without the historical perspective it could easily be assumed that current Australian practice is wholly derived from current American (or UK, or local ideas) when in fact there may have been a long historical influence or a long local evolution based on a variety of sources. As we will see, there are already strong theories in existence about the global influence of American campaign techniques and this study will help test these theories from an Australian perspective.
John Hart describes many types of “American exports” which “have found their way into the Australian system of government in recent years and been adapted to suit the antipodean variant of the Westminster model.”
There is undoubtedly far more written about American politics, campaigning and political communication than Australian politics. In the book Handbook of Political Communication Research, edited by Lynda Lee Kaid, Everett Rogers writes that Walter Lippman’s 1922 book Public Opinion was a “milestone in the study of political communications”. His study identified the importance of mass media in the formation of public opinions and in its democratic function. He pioneered scholarly content analysis of the media, a practice that is now widespread, using it to expose political bias in media coverage.
A thesis by Paul Zagami Marketing, Media, Money and America quotes O’Shaughnessy in stating that “the term political marketing was first applied to political campaigns in the United States in the 1960.” That may well have been the first widespread application in the US, but in From Soapbox to Sound Bite: Party Political Campaigning In Britain Since 1945 Martin Rosenbaum describes a political electioneering manual from 1922 which states “Winning elections is really a question of salesmanship, little different from marketing any branded article.”
Zagami correctly concludes that “the changes in political campaigning have arisen because parties are in constant competition with one another for the most modern and persuasive campaigning practices.” However Zagami also draws some conclusions which do not reflect the current practice of political campaigning in Australia and in some cases severely conflict with acknowledged best practice. This is one example of his sweeping statements and a counterargument:
“Channels of political communication have been narrowed”
Channels have multiplied over the past 30 years. Recent additions include cable TV, email, sms and the Internet (in various formats blogs, YouTube, social networking sites)
Zagami states that his theoretical framework is the multi-influence hypothesis outlined by AM Rose (book he refers to is The Power Structure Political Process in American Society, 1967 and also cites “Arthur Bentley, EE Schattsschneider and VO Key Jr amongst others”). He claims that the “multi-influence hypothesis is appropriate” because parties, leaders and candidates are “elites” who attempt to persuade groups (primarily swinging voters). The “network of communication” is research, TV, print, voter contact, phones, etc and the intended audience is usually passive. Zagami concedes the dearth of relevant Australian literature, apart from the highly respected text by Mills, and resorts to field interviews of mainly Liberal Party operatives to validate his arguments. One problem with Zagami’s interpretation of the multi-influence hypothesis is that (as he explains on page 4 of his thesis) the focus on “swinging voters” is based on the increasingly flawed assumption that traditionally partisan voters represent a stable group. Recent elections suggest that all voters have an increasing propensity to swing and voter volatility is becoming a significant factor in all elections. The hypothesis also doesn’t explain the dramatic changes in voting patterns that can occur during by-elections, particularly when one party does not contest – that is “strategic absenteeism”, as described by Nick Economou from Monash University in his research paper The Trouble-Maker’s Ballot Box?: A Note On The Evolving Role Of The Australian Federal By-election.
Zagami’s frequent reference to “parties” as a single entity that undertakes a uniform action could be seen as naïve. References to “parties’ actions”, “parties believe” and “parties have chosen to” are used often and should perhaps have been replaced with case studies or specific examples of behaviour in specific campaigns or elections. A similarly sweeping statement on page 54 is “Whereas once a citizen could go to a public rally to debate and heckle a politician or political candidate as they delivered their message, they must now wait until they are invited to participate in a quantitative or qualitative poll before their opinion will be heard and appreciated by party elites.” This is clearly wrong as many public events and debates still occur at the local level as well as the national level, the 2007 election being a very good example as most of the senior ministers, as well as the leaders and many local MPs, participated in debates. Also, not many voters would even be aware if their electorate was being polled, let alone have the patience and will to wait for an opportunity to participate!
A 1996 thesis by Kristine Klugman Democracy and the new Communication Technologies focused “on the political aspects of the changes in Communication Technologies (CTs)”. Klugman poses the question: “Are the new CTs being used to entrench communication power in the politician and political parties or are they helping to make Australia a more democratic country?” Much of her writing is concerned with how new technologies are helping or hindering participation in democracy and the future of political communication. One of her chapters “surveying the impact of direct mail” is very interesting from the viewpoint of this thesis and the influence of American campaign techniques on Australian practice. From the viewpoint of the practitioners and their “conventional wisdom” the verdict is clear: “Direct mail works! We all know that!” said ALP National Secretary Gary Gray 1993 during an interview and also ALP report. The Liberal response indicated careful research to measure the worth of the exercise: “We monitor (by telephone surveying) after a direct mail-out – (our standing is) usually up 2-3 points,” said Mark Textor in a 1994 interview. Klugman is sceptical that the practitioners are utilising a campaign technique (direct mail) that they have not accurately tested in the field so undertakes a research survey during the 1994 Fremantle by-election. She also conducted interviews with MPs and officials regarding their views about direct mail. Party officers were, unsurprisingly, supportive, as were most marginal MPs who had used it. Klugman’s survey showed there was no measurable affect on ‘floating voters’ (swinging voters). Her measure of the most frequent response to receiving direct mail, from either main party candidate, was ‘uninterested’. Most of the ‘party identifiers (people who would not change their vote) remembered more of the content of their own favourite candidate’s letters. One interesting aspect of the survey from a practitioners’ perspective is that of the ‘floating voters’, only a tiny percentage weren’t “fairly annoyed by both letters” and no one responded that they had changed their vote because of any of the direct mail letters. Obviously there would be other factors influencing their decision and the sample size was quite small (237 voters). Klugman concludes that there is a significant variation between the expectations held by party people and the reaction of voters to direct mail.
Mills describes the evolution of the electronic political advertisement in Australia as beginning in 1925. The early ads in the 20s and 40s reveal that the cult of personality around the leader and his image is not new nor is it fundamentally a product of the new political marketing which evolved in 1960s America.
As political marketing theory became widely discussed a vast amount of work was written testing and challenging various schools of thought. Without outlining its strengths and many weaknesses, I will mention one important study that has been strongly influential in the early debate around political marketing and voter persuasion: Anthony Down’s seminal work An economic theory of democracy which was first published in 1957 and outlined his theory of the ‘rational voter’ and a model for ‘electoral competition’ in two-party systems which identified the ‘ideological centre ground’.
When describing the influence of American history on politics and political marketing across the globe in “The phenomenon of political marketing”, O’Shaughnessy states “Since political marketing is largely an American invention we must look to American history for explanations of the growth of the genre”. He writes that “Americans recognise that there is a marketing dimension to any activity or institution that needs money to sustain it… therefore it is natural for politics to be marketed in a society where everything else is.” He also wrote “the weakening of the (Republican and Democrat) Party encourages and sustains political marketing”, as “the efficacy of marketing is severely limited where there are entrenched pre-existing loyalties.”
The American Enterprise Institute’s series Australia at the Polls, which started in 1975, ended in the 1980s. McAllister’s and Warhurst’s book Australia Votes: The 1987 Federal Flection utilised the 1987 Australia Election Survey, “the first academic survey of political opinion in Australia to be conducted at an election”. The importance of these studies was spelt out clearly in the book’s preface: “elections are the focus for much of the political activity in democratic societies. As such, elections have traditionally attracted great interest, both from academics and the general public.” They described one of the “central features of the 1987 election” as “the increasing role of technocratic campaigning involving centralised public opinion polling, elaborate and expensive television campaigning and presidential, personalised campaigns focusing on the party leaders.”
Australian parties have historically looked overseas for information and ideas about effective political campaigning. Mills begins his 1986 book with a summary of the “arms race” which Australia’s two main political parties had been conducting “over the last decade and a half”, since the period Whitlam became Federal Labor Leader, “to find new kinds of market research, new styles of television advertising, new computer applications, in the hope of getting some elusive quantum leap over their opponents.” He describes “a long but silent tradition of Australian politics: the competition for new American-style political technologies.”
“Frequently their search for weapons has led them to the United states, the authentic source and strongest arsenal of the new technology of politics. The first accurate public opinion polls were conducted in the US; the first political TV ads were shot for American candidates; the first in-house campaign pollster was American; the first and biggest direct-mail specialists were American; the first computerised campaign simulations were by pollsters of American politics; the first documented use of a microcomputer in an election campaign was for a local referendum in the town of Bozeman, Montana. For Australians, the lure of these American achievements has proved irresistible.”
Mills suggests that “Despite other fears about the ‘Americanisation’ of Australian politics there is one element of the Australian political style that could and should be immediately adopted: the intense and ceaseless commentary that has accompanied the upheaval in new political techniques in the United States. American journalists, academics and practitioners have been debating the validity of the methods for as long as they have been used.” This debate has been largely absent from Australian public and academic discourse, with the majority of references related to American studies. One of the hurdles in the Australian scene has been the party political nature of our professional political class and their reluctance to divulge trade secrets to wider audiences, even though these practices are commonly discussed in US politics. Academics have accused both sides of politics in Australia of restricting access to knowledge and understanding about the campaign strategies and techniques used in our political contests. The contrast with the long history of American literature on campaigning is stark and Mills cites several prominent examples from the 1950s to the 1980s:
1. Stanley Kelley’s Professional Public Relations and Political Power (1956) was the first detailed study of the new machine men;
2. Since Theodore White began his The Making of the President series of books in 1960 journalists covering elections have been alert to their importance in the behind the scenes campaign;
3. By 1968 Joe McGuiness’s The Selling of the President showed the nasty insides of Nixon’s campaign effort and set the tone for a more aggressive and cynical media coverage of campaigning;
4. In 1972, Joe Napolitan told all in his insider’s account, The Election Game and How To Win It;
5. Gallop’s descendents , who can now be found on the staff of every Presidential campaign, find their research work scrutinised by a Press Corps that has a fairly good understanding of their methods and influence;
6. A by-monthly industry journal Campaigns and Elections began as a quarterly in the 80s and continues to allow practitioners to swap notes on new technology and in methods;
7. For the media, David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be (1979) painted a realistic picture of the influence of the media organisations themselves;
8. Academic judgements have been provided through Professor Larry Sabato’s The Rise of Political Consultants (1981), Ed Diamond and Stephen Bates’s The Spot (1984), Kathleen Jamieson’s Packaging The Presidency (1984), and the journal Public Opinion.
Mills writes that (at the time he wrote his book in 1986) “there has been no equivalent in Australia of any of these efforts.” In fact, more important and influential campaigning texts have been written in America since 1986. Included amongst them is Bruce Newman’s Handbook of Political Marketing in 1999, which famously described the application of marketing principals in political campaigns.
Andrew Hughes and Stephen Dann are firm believers in Newman’s philosophy. In a recent article Liberals Need A New Man At The Top, Hughes argues that “voters now are acting more like consumers than traditional voters who have voted along class lines” and party’s and leaders have to behave in a way “the market wants, not what the party wants.”
Looking at political studies from a marketing perspective, although not well-known in Australia, has been well-established in the US and Europe. It would be an interesting thesis topic to investigate why ‘Political Science’ has a greater public reputation in Australia than ‘Political Marketing’.
As well as the Handbook of Political Marketing Bruce Newman has also written two other well-known texts, The Mass Marketing of Politics: Democracy in an Age of Manufactured Images (1999), and the Marketing of the President: political marketing as campaign strategy (1994).
Shea and Burton’s Campaign Craft has also been a very influential campaign text, reprinted and updated several times since 1996. Shea wrote that he intended his book “to bridge the gap between what scholars understood about modern elections and what campaign operatives knew about the process”, and he did.
In contrast to the lack of Australian books on political campaigning, Peter Loveday wrote in Surveys of Australian Political Science that there were over 20 political biographies written “in each decade from 1890-1970, the peak being 36 for the 1940s.”
The focus on biographies and the lack of political texts frustrates many Australian political writers. Mungo MacCallum laments that the lack of good political writing is largely the result of laziness and puts the blame squarely at our political leadership. In 2005 he described the paradox of “the worst-read and least articulate generation of politicians in our history, should be the one most concerned with legislating for literacy”. In 2005 his sights were firmly set on Howard and no doubt he would describe the current Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer, all avid readers, in better terms.
The Australian equivalent to the American election campaign publications listed above has been few and far between. Probably the most well-known example is Pamela William’s book The Victory, which famously included insider’s descriptions of the 1996 Australian federal election, from both sides of the political divide.
In a critique published in Policy in 1997, Jason Falinski wrote “This is the first book in Australian politics that attempts to give readers an inside look at a Liberal Party federal campaign.”
Former ALP National Secretary Gary Gray has been a significant influence in adopting and evolving campaigning technology for the Australian political landscape. We will look at examples later illustrating how his influence in campaigning methods extended to the UK in the early years of the Blair government. In his chapter of the 1997 book The Australian Political System, titled The Political Climate and Election Campaigning Gray explains the essential relationship between technological change and political campaigning: “Technology affects the way people communicate; politics is about communication.” He cites Mills, mentioning how a further 10 years of changes in technology has introduced more media, more targeted campaigning and more scrutiny.
In 2000 Fritz Plasser conducted an extensive study titled American Campaign Techniques Worldwide which dealt specifically with the “market-driven proliferation of American campaign techniques from a global perspective.”
Plasser “conducted interviews with 502 political consultants and leading party managers in the US, Australia, New Zealand, India, south Africa, Latin America, Western Europe, Russia and Eastern Europe”. He asked them “about their professional experience and their concepts of campaigning, with the main focus on their professional evaluation of various campaign techniques and communication strategies.” Before looking at his survey results it is worthwhile exploring Plasser’s summary of several important definitions, theories and explanations for the proliferation of American-derived campaign techniques. Importantly he begins by differentiating between “singular observations” of “the advanced degree of professionalization in election campaign planning, enlisting the services of external communications and advertising experts” which “at best reflect the continuing modernization and professionalization of political communicators” but does “not furnish any proof of a directional convergence and diffusion process” (which would be reflected in one-way unilateral adoption of specific techniques). Plasser explains the alternative “modernisation theory” being that ongoing structural changes and technological developments common to many societies are resulting in techniques being borrowed from the more advanced, professionalized practitioners. Plasser identifies several “channels and modes” of “proliferation” and “diffusion”: “(1) American political consultants working overseas, (2) campaign training seminars and trade journals, (3) donor-driven democracy-assistance programs and foreign visitor’s programs, (4) professional organisations, and (5) academic programs. He lists examples of each of these modes. From an academic perspective, his final example is the most interesting: “programs like the high-quality curriculum of the Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM) at George Washington University, which increasingly attracts mid-career students, also contribute to the diffusion of US campaign professionalism. For people interested in US campaigns, specialised literature and how-to campaign manuals give informative insights into the American style and logic of campaigning.”
Plasser quotes the well-regarded author (GSPM Associate Dean) Dennis Johnson, of the book No Place for Amateurs: How Political Consultants Are Reshaping American Democracy “There now is academic and practical training in nearly all aspects of campaign specialties. There are a number of short training institutes, such as those given by both political parties at the national, state and local levels, courses in practical politics at several universities and a fully-fledged master’s degree program in political management”.
On the specific subject of this thesis Plasser recounts interviewing 40 “political consultants and leading party and campaign managers” in “Oceania (Australia and New Zealand)” who “spent, on average, half an hour answering the questionnaire’s twenty seven questions about their opinions and professional attitudes”. Plasser also quotes a study of thirty five US overseas consultants by Shaun Bowler and David Farrell, which confirms Plasser’s assertion that 57 per cent of his sub-sample of “top American political consultants” have worked overseas. Of the 58 consultants who have worked overseas, 7 percent (4 individuals) claim to have worked as political consultants in Oceania (compared to much larger figures of 64 per cent who have worked in Latin America or 59 per cent in Western Europe). These figures suggest the influence of American political consultants in Australia is much les than in Latin America or Europe.
In an article titled Political Consultancy Overseas: the Internationalization of Campaign Consultancy David Farrell describes how international consultants have contributed to “clear similarities in campaign styles across the world” and although “inevitably there is some adaptation to local institutional and cultural contexts”, “in essence the campaigns are very similar”.
Of the 40 Aussies and kiwis in his study, Plasser found that 21 per cent (8 individuals) had “cooperated with a US consultant in the last few years” (compared to 30 per cent in Western Europe and 58 per cent in South America). Plasser writes “Australia is a difficult market for US consultants because they have to compete directly with Australian experts and consulting firms with highly professional campaign know-how. Consultants from the US were first employed in 1969. Since then, the Liberal Party and the Australian Labor Party have made use of the know-how of top US consultants, and dozens of Australian Party professionals have travelled to the US before parliamentary elections to familiarize themselves with the latest techniques and innovations of US campaigning. However for advertising campaigns, West European full-service agencies, such as Saatchi and Saatchi, are also employed.”
Soon after Plasser’s study, a Rachel Gibson study in 2001 tried to explain “the variance in the extent of campaign professionalization among parties”. The study, although focussed on US and European examples, was written while Gibson was at the ANU. She identifies that conservatives in the US and the UK were the first to professionalise their campaign techniques, and we know the same to be true in Australia based on the Mills research into the Menzies campaign in 1949. Two factors she describes ring true in the Australian context: that “adoption of the new marketing technology happens usually after a heavy election defeat” and “ideologically, the principals of marketing and use of outside consultancy firms underpinning professionalised campaigning are more consistent with the principals of a right-wing party.”
Mills reinforces Plasser’s views when he uses an economic metaphor to juxtapose a ‘free market’ and ‘mixed market’ of “political entrepreneurism subject to government intervention.” In an American system, where voting is optional, candidates are pitted against each other rather than their opponents parties, where the supremacy of freedom of speech undermines regulation on expenditure and defamation – all these contrast with the Australian system. Mills concedes that examples of government regulation and intervention in Australia still “stop well short of the level in European democracies which, for examples, prohibit political parties from buying TV time.”
Evidence of the “the advanced degree of professionalization in election campaign planning, enlisting the services of external communications and advertising experts” which Plasser theorizes is almost inevitable exists in Mills’ account of the Liberal Party’s self-analysis after Fraser lost to Hawke in 1983. “Colin Curnow and other Masius executives offered their advice to the Liberal’s … that it was not good marketing practice to endeavour to reach the vast audience of every person over 18 years in a campaign spanning (only) three weeks…and thus the Party shifted to the long-term campaign, and in doing so it explicitly accepted the model of commercial marketing to achieve its political goals.” Mills includes some detailed statements from Stephen Litchfield, NSW Liberal Director during the Greiner years, in which Litchfield likens marketing strategies for cornflakes, coke and beer to “the way you ought to market political parties” before lamenting “the difficulty in politics of course is politicians don’t like to be likened to beer. They all have their own gut feeling as to what ought to happen. They all know better.”
Mills describes how Litchfield used his recent trips to the US to study the latest direct mail marketing techniques to great effect. “In September 1983 a letter over Greiner’s signature was mailed to thousands of potential Liberal voters… Enclosed was a ‘critical issues survey’, a questionnaire seeking responses to questions about union power, corruption and other issues which the Liberals thought could run their way. The survey had several aims – spreading the message, raising funds, getting names and addresses for future mailings. But it was most strikingly used as a basis for an ad campaign” which went to air a whole year before the next election was due.
Mills writes how many of the news organisations now commissioning their own polls have “created some problems of imbalance in their own political coverage” because “in-house polls are naturally reported extensively by the newspaper or TV station that paid for them… But sometimes no-one is left in the media to summarise without vested interest the overall state of knowledge about public opinion and to assess whether polls in general are performing well.”
This phenomenon, which Mills referred to in 1986, was repeated again in 2007 during the federal election when what is best described as a “flame-war” erupted between the Australian newspaper and several bloggers well-known within Australian psephology circles. A barrage of emails, editorials and letters, both online and in print, (commonly referred to as ‘the Newspoll wars’) displayed how bloggers and online scrutiny were able to undermine the “spin” with which some newspaper journalists were misinterpreting their polls.
Decades after their peers in the US, Australian journalists are increasingly viewing political research with suspicion and less likely to accept “secret party research” at face value. A recent article by newspaper journalist Peter Hartcher describes his surprise and offence at being provided what he describes as “biased internal Labor Party research” about Peter Costello from the 2007 federal election campaign.
Mills describes how in 1982 the Liberals State Director in NSW, Stephen Litchfield, used new direct mail techniques he had learned from the US direct mail guru (and ultra-right-wing publisher) Richard Viguerie and an official of the Republican Party, to conduct a successful fundraising drive (which won an award from the Australian Direct Marketing Association) and wipe out a $2 million debt. Copies of the written 1982 agreements between the Liberal Party (signed by Litchfield) and the American direct mail and fundraising expert are included in the index of the Zagami thesis.
But Mills explains “Fifteen years before Litchfield brought home direct mail from the US, it was the Labor Party that was looking to America for inspiration in planning the first truly modern political campaign in Australia.” Adelaide was where this ground-breaking approach was being taken. “Don Dunstan’s re-election campaign for Premier became the first Australian campaign to use the American formula: sophisticated opinion research and extensive television advertising, both borrowed originally from the world of American corporate marketing.” Mills describes how in ‘Playford to Dunstan,: The Politics of Transition’, it is revealed that the “ALP’s advertising agency acquired – through its American parent – copies of a series of advertisements used in the previous year by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and reworked them for Dunstan’s ads.”
In the book Playford to Dunstan the 1966 Rockefeller ads were “regarded by media men in the United States as a model of television electioneering” and “had been produced by an American agency noted for its policy of communicating with the consumer through a kind of dialogue, rather than bludgeoning him.”
Mills writes “In 1972 Labor repeated the formula at the federal level, sweeping to power for the first time in 23 years. The slogan ‘It’s Time’ had been thought up by Paul Jones, a Sydney ad executive nicknamed “Very Big Stateside” for his immersion in the jargon of Madison Avenue.”
“The success of the ‘It’s Time’ campaign institutionalised market research and mass TV advertising in Australian political practices. It rewrote the book, setting new high water marks for centralised and costly electioneering. In the same year, David Coombe, who had been Dunstan’s public relations officer in the 1968 campaign, visited the US to observe the Nixon-Humphrey presidential campaign and met up with two of America’s foremost political consultants, Robert Squire and Joe Napolitan. For Combe, who became federal Secretary of the ALP in 1973, plugging into the Squire-Napolitan network of consultants and political technicians meant regular contact with the nerve centre of the new political style.”
Zagami uses a quote from Newman’s Marketing of the President to claim that the It’s Time campaign “had the three key ingredients of a marketing campaign: market segmentation, product positioning, strategy formulation and implementation, [Isn’t that 4 ingredients?] but does not go into detail about which aspects of the campaign represented those ingredients. Zagami writes without having worked in an electorate office or on a marginal campaign. Trying to illustrate the narrowing of communication channels, he states that “Instead of parties and the public communicating with each other through a wide range of channels, almost all information that flows between the parties and the public now passes through narrow means of market research and television”. When this thesis was written in 1997 several media channels (newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, cinema, video) helped communication information to voters, as well as public meetings, word of mouth, election campaign materials, etc And if communication from voters to MPs had to be vetted by researchers the machinery of government (and opposition) would quickly come to a grinding halt.
In a familiar story, the loss to Labor in 1972 was a “wake-up call” to the Liberal machine. Mills describes how in 1973 the Liberal Party began “reviewing and enlarging its research and public relations functions.” Although they missed their mark in 1974 (in circumstances in which Mills describes in-fighting between the advertising agency and Liberal leader Snedden) Liberal research, message and tactics finally came good in 1975. Mills describes Liberal advertisers Masius’s ads for the 1975 campaign (‘Turn on the lights’ and ‘Three dark years’) as “among the finest, most inventive and powerful ever produced in Australia.”
Any election review will inevitably call for fresh ideas and outside expertise. But American expertise has not always been welcomed with open arms in Australian politics. Interestingly, Mills notes that although it was deemed perfectly acceptable to send Australians to the US to study with and learn from American consultants, it was deemed inappropriate to employ them during Australian elections. He writes that in 1975 “Coombe and other Labor strategists considered bringing Napolitan to Australia to help boost the fading political fortunes of the Whitlam Government. The plan fell through for fear it would leak and cause more damage than benefit.”
Various Australian academics have made attempts to uncloak the internal machinations of the political party campaign professionals in recent years. One of the more widely read books on this topic is The Persuaders: inside the hidden machine of political advertising by Sally Young, a Melbourne Academic who has become a leading research authority on the way politicians and parties use modern media to political advantage.
What we don’t see in Australia is a flurry of post-election books and analysis from recognised experts. A regular Australian Electoral Study at ANU has filled a gap in political research that was once most comprehensively filled by the American Enterprise Institute, a right-of-centre Washington Think Tank that once produced a regular post-election volume of articles by Australian Academics. The AEI study has covered every Australian election between 1975 and 1983.
From Mill’s book it’s clear that evidence exists new campaign techniques were being eagerly applied at the national and state levels, but not much advanced (or unadvanced) local campaigning took place in the much larger number of ‘safe’ seats prior to the 1980s. In the Australian Journal of Management publication ‘The Campaign Managers – The 1988 NSW Election Campaign – by the people who ran it’ Barrie Unsworth states “we could no longer be so arrogant in expecting that an ALP How To Vote card in a safe seat would deliver us 50% plus one of the vote…. We had to campaign much more effectively…”
Zagami points to several examples of where parties in Australia have attempted to score political points against their opponents by labelling their opponents activities as ‘American’ or ‘Americanised’. Labor has done it recently in its message that the Howard government was ‘Americanising’ our health system, or our education system, or our workplace laws. Zagami writes of an episode where Keating accused Hewson of “bringing in the worst of American politics”. Zagami’s thesis is very well written and includes great insights into political campaigning and the mindset of some of his subjects. Zagami writes that “Despite the compelling evidence, Australian political parties are quick to deny any substantive links with parties and political consultants from overseas, particularly from the US. Lynton Crosby claims that the percentage of techniques and methods used in Australia that originated in the US ‘would be closer to zero than anything else’. Susan Cavanah, the director of the CLP, says that the CLP have never used campaigning techniques pioneered overseas, even though the CLP have used qualitative and quantitative polling, television advertising, direct mail, negative advertising and allegedly push polling.”
Although he is certain of the American influence, Mills also quotes examples of non-US influences on Australian political campaign techniques. He writes that “Canada has been an important source of ideas about direct mail techniques” and “the ALP borrowed from New Zealand a system of computerised data management to aid doorknocking”. Mills also describes a “thriving international network of individual consultants” The international Association of political consultants “includes a small band of Australian consultants. One of the Australians, lobbyist and veteran Liberal party consultant Jonathon Gaul, served on the IPAC board of Directors.” There is a two-way street of political campaigning ideas and techniques being shared around the globe. This is nothing new. Mills also describes the example of how “The advertising agency for the British Conservative Party, Saatchi and Saatchi, looked at the Liberal’s ads produced for Malcolm Fraser in drawing up their campaign for Margaret Thatcher.”
Elaine Thompson lists a large number of Australian political campaigners who have gone to the US to study campaigning techniques in her chapter Political Culture in the book Americanization and Australia. She writes “Of the key party machine men of 1996/97, David Epstein, Chief of Staff to the Leader of the Opposition; Mark Textor, chief pollster to the LPA and the CLP; Mark Arbib, NSW ALP Organiser; Qld ALP organisers Wayne Swan and Mike Kaiser, have all spent time in the United States observing campaigns in detail. In 1996 Arbib attended a political consultant’s conference and in 1997 the Australian Democrats employed the American political consultant Rick Ritter, who had worked on Clinton’s campaign and later worked in the United Kingdom on Tony Blair’s successful election.”
Recent discussions with Andrew Leigh from the Australian National University suggest that better evidence-based analysis of campaign techniques exists in American academic journals. This is to be expected given the larger volume of work would come from a larger number of US-based academics and institutions. One would also assume that the nature of the political industry in the US, with its relatively enormous number of professional consultants competing against each other for reputation and business, feeds a competitive and regular publishing and advertising imperative. Professional campaigners in Australia on the other hand are still largely employed by Parties and have a greater incentive to keep their innovations, techniques and competitive advantages within their professional circles. Examples of recent US and UK studies and articles on campaign techniques (such as those with randomised field experiments) include: The Effects of Canvassing, Telephone Calls, and Direct Mail on Voter Turnout: A Field Experiment. Constituency campaigning in parliamentary systems with preferential voting: Is there a paradox? ; Partisan mail and voter turnout: results from randomized field experiments ; and Voting May Be Habit-Forming: Evidence from a Randomized Field Experiment .
Similar Australian studies are much rarer but can be found. Interestingly, the authors are usually not necessarily home grown, for example Rachel Gibson is a prominent political scientist based in the UK and Ian McAllister started his political science career there. Their study Does Cyber-Campaigning Win Votes? Online Communication in the 2004 Australian Election looked at the electoral potential of cyber-campaigning.
Ian McAllister was also a co-author of The Electoral Connection in Australia: Candidate Roles, Campaign Activity, and the Popular Vote, a study which measured the electoral effect of various campaign activities on electoral outcomes, based on 1990 Australian election data. The study relies on self-reported election campaign activity such as speaking at public meetings, talking to media, planning and organising the campaign, door knocking and letter boxing, and raising money for the campaign.
It is important to also cite counter-arguments to political marketing theories. Phil Harris argues that one is “political parties and candidates are complex intangible products which the voters cannot unbundle and thus have to decide on the totality of the package”. In his paper Political marketing and political communication: the relationship revisited, he highlights some of the unresolved theoretical conflict between political scientists and marketing experts such as the different requirements needed to describe strategy and technique.
Blumler and Gurevitch note the similarities in the use of the terms “globalisation” and “Americanisation” when discussing politics, economy, culture and the media throughout the world. Their study of the US presidential election in 1996 and UK general elections in 1997 confirmed findings they had made in the previous decade that both systems were changing rapidly and “areas of national divergence” were emerging “alongside ongoing processes of convergence.” The significant differences they noted included aspects of campaign finance, media commercialisation, volume of coverage, new-found populism styles of mainstream journalism. This study then revisited the framework for the original comparative analysis, something which would be beneficial (time permitting) in an US-Australian comparison.
An important consideration in political perceptions is the significance of American media in Australian culture. In the introduction to his study of political campaigns Political campaign Strategy, doing democracy in the 21st century Stephen Stockwell utilises three movie references, all American, to describe the nature of modern political communications: The Simpsons, The West Wing and Wag the Dog. Stockwell goes on to explain how, as “democracies became mass societies, the old networks of personal contact no longer held sway and prospective representatives had to find new ways to gather the votes they needed to win election. The advent of new media such as offset printing, radio and television prompted the creation of new persuasion techniques such as advertising and public relations to take commercial messages to the masses and politicians were quick to recognise the usefulness of these media for their own persuasive purposes.” Other American movies which Stockwell refers to in his list of “fictional campaigns” would also be familiar to Australian psephologists: The Distinguished Gentleman, Speechless, The War Room (documentary), Primary Colours and Spin City.
The subject of the popular West Wing series often comes up in political and academic circles. A recent episode of the language program Lingua Franca on ABC’s Radio National discussed the influence and relevance of this example of American political theatre from an Australian perspective. “Here in Australia, our 2007 federal election campaign looks more quasi-presidential than ever: the major parties and the media are encouraging us to see it very much as Howard versus Rudd. But after The West Wing we know that John Howard is no Alan Alda and Kevin Rudd is no Jimmy Smits. We know from past experience that we won’t have an open, free-ranging debate between the leaders. We’re unlikely to have more than one debate; it will be very controlled, and there’ll be no debate between the deputies [author’s note: this transcript was written well before the formal campaign and as it turned out there were actually a surprisingly large number of televised debates between Ministers and their Shadows in the final weeks of the 2007 campaign] …. One thing we can take from political theatre as good as The West Wing is a spark of interest in public affairs, and respect for the seriousness of the political decisions we make.”
There is an indisputable obsession with American politics amongst Australian journalists, particularly political journalists. On Sunday 29 June 2008 Australians awoke to a morning after the rocky by-elections in the federal seat of Gippsland and the state seat of Kororoit, both in Victoria. On this politically significant morning begging for analysis and discourse, where was the host of Australia’s premier political talk-show “Insiders” broadcasting from? Washington! Barry Cassidy was reporting from Washington because “the primaries were finally over and the real race for the white house had begun”! Do many Australians even know what a primary is? Leigh Sales from the ABC’s other flagship political program Lateline was already in Washington for the whole previous week.
The Australian media often works in the U.S., for U.S. corporations/owners, and watches lots of American television and Internet news. They sometimes see Australian politics through American political understanding (e.g. Milne and others misquoting polling research, using American terms like “inside the beltway” etc.). This view is contagious. However, the size and nature of American political industry and scholarly research means it has a critical mass which doesn’t exist anywhere else. Because of its size it’s a natural home to expertise and innovation in this field and will natural have a strong influence around the world.
Despite the media and reporting obsessions, perhaps the influence in Australia is constrained by our unique parliamentary and electoral system? Studlar and McAllister note that “Australia contains elements of both the British and American political systems, combining a strong party system and parliamentary institutions with a federal constitution. Despite nationally focussed federal elections, internal party selection procedures and campaign support for candidates differs considerably from party to party and even from state to state.”
Studlar and McAllister also state that “although the Australian conception of political representation derives more from the British practice than from the American practice, party domination is probably more acute than in virtually any other liberal democracy.” And they observed that “the major focus of (candidates’ and politicians’) political activity, as well as their election prospects, is party- rather than constituent-based.”
In an article about the new independent Senators who reclaimed the ‘balance of power’ in 2008, The Clerk of Senate Harry Evans stated “It’s obvious that party discipline in Australia is far, far tighter than it is in any other place. It’s just part of the Australian political culture.”
Bean’s study The Personal Vote in Australian Federal Elections, which showed the ‘personal vote’ had a lower value in Australian federal elections compared to the US and UK, is cited as further evidence “to support the view that party factors rather than local factors are preeminent within the Australian political system.”
The reasons for the centrality of parties within the Australian system are many, but they include the system of compulsory voting, which guarantees that parties remain on the centre stage of Australian politics, and Australian political culture which values the utilitarian goals of regulation and efficiency over freedom and liberty, which dominate American and British political culture.
Leon Epstein’s A Comparative Study of Australian Parties in 1977 began by explaining the ease with which British comparisons can be made of Australian politics, given its Westminster traditions as well as the “absence in the United States of British-style responsible parties.” He sees the “potent structural federalism” that exists in Australia as well as the early appearance of an organised Labor party is unique qualities which have strongly influenced the evolution of the local political culture.
Events prior to Australian federation include elections mark the earliest recorded exchange of political technology between America and Australia and are described by Stephen Mills: “More than a century ago, one of the very first exchanges of political know-how went the other way, from Australia to America. In the post-Civil War years, American voters going to the polls used to be handed ballot papers printed by the Parties naming all their endorsed candidates for the positions being filled; the electors would simply take the appropriate ballot and stuff it in the box. This made voting in secrecy almost impossible since Party men could watch whose ballot ended up in the box. In search of an improvement, the Americans looked to the radical gold-fields democracy in the Southern Hemisphere where several of the Australian colonies, led by Victoria in 1865, had pioneered the secret ballot. The innovation of casting votes on ballots provided by the authorities, not the Parties, is still called the ‘Australian’ ballot in American political science text books.” Mills is mostly correct. Like many things in America, they are reluctant to acknowledge foreign derivations and also refer to the secret ballot as the Massachusetts ballot since Massachusetts was the first U.S. state to use the secret ballot. But perhaps neither Australia nor Massachusetts deserve so much credit because Article 31 of the French Constitution of 1795 states that All elections are to be held by secret ballot. “Article 31. – Toutes les élections se font au scrutin secret.”
Brian Costar writes in his chapter about the unique Australian electoral system in Government Politics Power & Policy In Australia that “when the new Commonwealth of Australia legislated its electoral procedures in 1902 they mirrored the British and American procedures in two major respects. First, voting and enrolment were voluntary. Second, the electoral system was based on a simple plurality system where the candidate in each electorate who won the most votes (even if not a majority of all votes cast) was declared the winner of that seat.” But improvements were sought to make the system fairer and the “1911 requirement that compelled eligible voters to enrol to vote, extended in 1924 to a compulsory vote. In 1918 the plurality system was replaced by the preferential method. It is the combination of these two practices in elections for the House of Representatives which continues to make Australia’s electoral system unique.”
Ian McAllister writes in a chapter titled Australian political culture, from New developments in Australian politics that egalitarianism has long been established in Australian political institutions and differentiates it from many western democracies, including the US. He cites examples of Americans lagging behind in female franchise, secret ballots, paid elected representatives, and utilitarianism.
Many historical examples exist which demonstrate the closeness with which Australians identified with the US and its culture, including its political culture and traditions. In the early 1900s, Australian Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, in a letter to US President Theodore Roosevelt, wrote “No other federation in the world possesses so many features of likeness to that of the United States as does the Commonwealth of Australia, and I doubt whether any two peoples can be found who are nearer in touch with each other, and are likely to benefit more by anything that tends to knit their relations more closely.”
John Hart describes how the exchange of ideas between the US and Australia is recorded in the 1890s during the drafting of Australia’s Commonwealth Constitution Bill, described by “one of the leading players of the federation movement, George Gibbs”, remarked that the draft ‘leans too much towards American terms and constructions (whole pages are merely a paraphrase of the American Constitution).’
Hart also describes how “the propensity to borrow … practices from the US in any significant degree has been confined mainly to the post-1972 period – a period in which students of Australian government also began to challenge conventional wisdom about the relevance of the Westminster model to the Australian system.”
Elaine Thompson wrote a piece describing the Australian system as the “Washminster Mutation” in 1980.
Hart makes the important distinction between systems of government and political behaviour “particularly in the context of the media and elections” and reminds the reader that “Australia has not imported American-style presidential government, nor even a watered-down version of it… the structural differences between the two systems remain vast…. Assertions about the presidentialisation of the Australian Prime Ministership all too often embody notions of presidential power that are far removed from reality.” Hart describes how the changing role of the Prime Minister in Australian government “is attributable to two major factors: the growth of government itself and the development of the mass media… particularly the intrusion of television into Australian politics.” Hart cites Colin Seymour-Ure who wrote in British Press and Broadcasting since 1945 that the amount of time that prime ministers must devote to media work has increased.
Consequently, “Australian prime ministers now do a lot of things that American presidents do because the consequences of television’s intrusion into politics is almost universal.” Hart uses the example of the American practice of televised presidential-style debates between leaders, which have become part of Australian campaigns since 1983. He describes how the portrayal of prime ministers in Australian media as the “personification of government” inevitably “generates the impression that government is led by one person, then we ought not to be surprised if commentators start to talk about presidential government in Australia.”
In Political Culture, Americanization and Australia Elaine Thompson writes that although the “Australian federal constitutional system was drawn in part from the American model, “Australian federalism is far from a clone of the American” and our federal system “was transmuted into a uniquely Australian version of federalism.” 28 pages 47-61
Much of the confusion in the media and public about “Americanisation” and “presidentialism” probably stems from overt mimicking of some common US practices, such as Presidential debates. Australia’s leader’s debates, often referred to as ‘the Great debate’ in the TV promotions, are modelled on the famous Kennedy-Nixon Presidential debates of 1960.
But some things have clearly not been mimicked, such as the widespread use of consultants in the US. Campaign management in Australia is still the bailiwick of the political parties. Although the technology they use is predominantly American in origin. Most new American communication and campaign technologies end up being adopted some years later but most western democracies, not just Australia. Even the terminology can be contagious with terms like ‘sound-bite’, ‘photo opportunity’ and ‘news management’ all American in origin.
Part of the purpose of this thesis is to develop explanations for why some aspects of American campaign techniques and practice has been adopted, but not others. There will be examples shown later of how the technology has been adopted but it’s use has been adapted or constrained by Australian context. Mills notes that “with the advent of the economic and political dominance of the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, export of American political campaign technology became widespread.” This was exacerbated by the “weakness of American political parties”, “apparently infinite availability of campaign funds” and “a vast and innovative commercial industry of advertisers and researchers”. Although the penetration of American political consultants (and their traditional as well as innovative techniques) has been recorded in Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, Australia has remained (relative to cited example nations like the Philippines, Venezuela, Panama) untouched by American consultants. But Mills also quotes Robert Squire that “it is only a matter of time before an American (consultant) is hired in Australia”. Squire states that he “is regularly visited by Australians seeking advice about his work” and is “content to have them sniffing around the field for the time-being” but also predicts “the second consultant will be hired [by an Australian client] the week after the first one” and “when the dam breaks we want to have a relationship”.
Sally Young wrote, quoting a US source in 2005, that there are an estimated “3,000 firms, employing about 7,000 professionals in the US who work on political campaigns and political PR” and that one tenth of the multi-billion dollar yearly expenditure on political campaigning in the US was “revenue to consultants” and for the past 20 years “every major candidate in the US has used political consultants”.
This is in stark contrast to Australia where, as Mills and Young state, most full-time campaign professionals are employees (or regular contractors) with the two main parties. Young also points out that “unlike the US, the advertising agencies used in Australian political campaigns are not specialists.” But this might be a symptom of the relevant size of our campaigns. For example, if we compare campaigns in Australia and the US based on similar expenditure we would expect to find less specialisation and more “generalists” employed as campaigners, along the same lines as full-time campaign professionals employed in the larger party secretariats in Australia.
A recent study in the US by Farrell, Kolodny and Medvic, Parties and Campaign Professionals in a Digital Age: Political Consultants in the United States and Their Counterparts Overseas concludes that “election campaigns have outgrown the institutional limitations of political parties, requiring a role for campaign professionals to fill this increasing gap” and “there seems little doubt that political consultancy is still in its ascendency”. If that is the case in the US, where the DNC and RNC employee upwards of 300 people at their campaign headquarters during election years, then the need to employ specialist contractors and consultants in Australian election campaigns would be even greater, although the financial limitations would be greater as well.
Australian political consultants have also made a name for themselves overseas. Examples will be detailed later of recent appointments of former Liberal Party National director Lynton Crosby by the Conservatives in the UK and the Nationals in New Zealand as have been reported widely (and negatively – it’s clear that Australians aren’t the only ones prepared to criticise foreign influences in our home-grown democracy) in the media in both the UK and New Zealand.
In 1988 Stephen Mills noted in the Australian Journal of Management publication ‘The Campaign Managers – The 1988 NSW Election Campaign – by the people who ran it’ that although “the body of published material about Australian election campaigns is growing rapidly…there is still a shortage of quality literature which can boast the active collaboration of campaign decision maker…” The quantity of literature has increased since the 80s (although partisan debate amongst authors and political scientists still lingers about the quality) with more recent famous titles such as ‘The Victory’ by Pamela Williams and ‘Inside Kevin 07’ by Christine Jackman. Mills then admitted that the idea for their post-election conference and publication was “borrowed from the American model – which gives it something in common with many other innovations on the Australian electoral scene. The Institute of Politics of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University has hosted conferences of Presidential campaign managers since 1972, and it was these which provided the model of the Sydney conference.”
There are other examples of Australian political science research directly following paths previously laid down by American academics. In 1994 Studlar and McAllister replicated an American study of how MPs’ re-election considerations dominate their behaviour, showing that in Australia incumbent MPs “rely on national partisan forces for re-election, while challengers rely much more on their own efforts.”
In her paper Scare Campaigns: Negative Political Advertising in Australia Sally Young describes several fundamental differences between the Australian and American systems which affect campaign techniques, including:
1. In Australia, there is certainly some fear of, and even contempt for, American campaign practices as well as American social and political values.
2. Unlike U.S. presidents, Australian prime ministers are not directly elected. In order to form government in Australia, the winner must obtain a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. The Prime Minister must ensure that their party as a whole polls well, so historically, Australian political advertisements have tended to be more party-focused.
3. Compulsory voting ensures high voter turn-out, therefore, unlike their American counterparts, Australian politicians do not need to spend a great deal of time and money during election campaigns on encouraging voters to turn up to vote, in their advertising; they can concentrate on persuading voters how to vote.
4. In Australia, political ads are still generally confined to the four weeks immediately preceding polling day. By contrast, much of the American literature on political advertising is concerned with presidential election campaigns which run over a much longer period of at least nine months from the primaries to polling day.
5. In the US, television advertisements (or ‘spots’) are ‘widely used, not only in presidential, state and local elections but even in local school board elections. In Australia, even in federal elections, individual candidates can rarely afford their own television advertisements.
6. In the US, party élites have lost much control of the campaigning process to consultants from outside the party but in Australia, the political parties are still very strong. They exercise a tight reign over who becomes an MP and how they vote. Here, the parties have significant control over the conduct of the election campaign, they hire the consultants and advertising agencies, and they disperse the all-important campaign funding.
7. Funding for Australian federal elections is on a much smaller scale than in the US and also incorporates a very significant level of public funding.
8. There are also significant cultural differences in the style and content of American and Australian political advertising.
9. In Australia, the parliamentary system establishes a very adversarial relationship between the two major parties and indeed, the two party leaders. By the time an election is held, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition may have faced each other across Parliament for years questioning, heckling and sometimes, insulting, each other.
Whereas big differences between the UK and Australian systems exist in terms of the combination of compulsory voting, federal systems (which encourage state-based messaging) and allowance of paid TV advertising. In Australia this leads to much greater campaign expenditure on TV advertising. Sally Young states that “In practice, Australia’s lack of (TV advertising) regulation and the reliance on TV advertising is closest to the United States and Taiwan.”
Wattenberg compared the level of ‘party identification’ in the Anglo-American democracies and found that while the “proportion of party identifiers has remained fairly stable in Great Britain, Australia, and Canada” (at greater than 80%), there has been a sharp decline in the United States, from 77% in 1964 to only 63% in 1980. All four democracies remain relatively stable and for an external observer there systems may seem very similar though there are fundamental systemic differences in electoral laws, political parties and campaign practice.
Looking at some examples of the impact of American TV and online culture on Australian politics (and other English-speaking nations), it’s easy to see why the Australian media is so obsessed with American politics; it’s very entertaining if it’s done well.
In an ABC Radio National program, Background Briefing on 19 March 2006 titled “Post-modern politics” Wendy Carlisle reported she was “on a search for truth in a world full of crazy language laundering, upside downism and political spin.” Carlisle noted the emerging influence of US comedy shows such as John Stewart’s The Daily Show and it’s more politically biting offshoot The Colbert Report as modern influencers of political thought and information.
This view is corroborated in the US media. A recent New York Times article describes the emergence of The Daily Show “as a genuine cultural and political force” and “a study this year from the Pew Centre’s Project for Excellence in Journalism concluded that The Daily Show is clearly impacting American dialogue” and “While the show scrambled in its early years to book high-profile politicians, it has since become what Newsweek calls “the coolest pit stop on television,” with presidential candidates, former presidents, world leaders and administration officials signing on as guests.”
In a paper discussing the growing influence of “infotainment” on politics, Stockwell noted that “Traditional TV news and current affairs programs (both in the US and in Australia) are shrinking in terms of audience reach and thus significance to public discourse.” He lists several Australian examples “where younger audiences are drawn to new forms of current affairs programming such as comical news and current affairs including Frontline, Good News Week and The Panel that offer a humorous and sarcastic approach to reviewing contemporary news and current affairs reports in other media.” Of course, political TV comedy in the UK is also renowned for its accuracy and influence in Australia. “Yes Minister” and “Yes Prime Minister” are not only closer in style and language to Australian humour but they are also more politically relevant in a Westminster system like Australia’s. And if you read the account of Alan Milburn’s influence in the Kevin07 campaign, as recorded in Christine Jackman’s book Inside Kevin07. The people. The plan. The prize then there is substantial evidence to suggest strong UK influences in Australian political strategy and message.
The premis of most the comedies set on a political stage, as well as the comedies which thrive off the critique of modern politics and rhetoric, is the concept of ‘spin’ and ‘information management’. A lot of detailed research exists about political rhetoric and the language government’s use to try and control information flow and manage media and public interest, expectations and criticism. ‘Public Relations’ is not just the tool of government, but government is typically under much higher levels of public and media scrutiny.
Carlisle interviews Peter Oborne, the political editor of The Spectator magazine. “He’s just made a BBC documentary called The Rise of the Political Liar. His fascinating thesis is that politicians have become walking, talking postmodernists. Politicians, he says, have embraced its central idea that there is no such thing as truth.”
Wendy Carlisle: After a career as a senior bureaucrat which took him to the very top as head of three Federal government departments, including Prime Minister and Cabinet, and then into the corporate world as CEO of Qantas, John Menadue also believes that truth in public life is at an all-time low.
John Menadue: I think it is a much more serious problem than it has ever been. What is different now I think is the scale of the public relations activities, the sophistication and skill with which they operate, and the technology that can be employed instantaneously to get messages around the world.
Wendy Carlisle: A couple of years back, John Menadue became so enraged at the situation he decided to set up his own magazine, New Matilda, from which he campaigns on these and other issues.
John Menadue: What spin does is distorts the truth, and we need in a democratic society, to have a means whereby untruth, error can be corrected. As a result of spin and the inability of under-resourced journalists to combat it, the spinmeisters are able in effect to chloroform the consciences of our community, and that’s what they did over children overboard. They’re suggesting that in fact they were terrorists, they were such awful people they’d even throw their children overboard, and we’ve had more recently of course the Iraq War, and there’s no more serious issue on which a government can be involved than going to war. And the Howard government deceived us about the reason for going to war. It said it was about weapons of mass destruction, then it changed its mind several times. But the real reason why it went to war was to oblige the Americans, and they claim that it was due to weapons of mass destruction and regime change. But that was all an untruth.
The reason why they went to war, was because they regard Saudi Arabia as an unreliable ally in the Middle East and they needed to find another strategic base in the Middle East in substitute or in replacement of Saudi Arabia; if it had oil, even better.
Wendy Carlisle: When John Menadue was head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Whitlam government was setting in motion the wheels to control information coming out of government.
Menadue’s peer at the time was Labor party icon Graham Freudenberg, Whitlam’s speechwriter and press secretary, the man who wrote the ‘It’s time’ speech.
Looking back over that time, Freudenberg says Whitlam’s decision to give every Minister a press secretary laid the foundations for the government media machine we have today.
Background Briefing caught up with him in the lobby of the Holiday Inn at Potts Point in Sydney, on a recent trip.
Graham Freudenberg: We had commitments to the idea of open government, and part of this idea of open government was to release more information. So rather naively, I think, we thought that the way to do that was to equip every Minister with his own press secretary.
Wendy Carlisle: Why was that naïve?
Graham Freudenberg: I think it was naïve to think that press secretaries would facilitate the flow of information, rather than as they did in practice, try to manipulate the flow of information in the interests of the Minister.
So to some extent the present manipulation of information and control of propaganda, you could say originated in 1973 with the Whitlam government.
Wendy Carlisle: And later, it was the Hawke government which refined the propaganda machine even further with the creation of the National Media Liaison Unit, or ANIMALS, as it was fondly known.
Graham Freudenberg: Well I acknowledge that the Hawke government did establish the National Media Liaison Unit.
Wendy Carlisle: This is the one otherwise known as ANIMALS?
Graham Freudenberg: Otherwise known as ANIMALS. And that was an effort at media control in the political interests of the government, and government members.
Wendy Carlisle: Was there any discussion within Labor when ANIMALS was established to the appropriateness of hiring public servants, deploying them in ANIMALS and using them for political purposes? Was that seen as a sort of a corruption of the process of the public service? A politicisation of the public service?
Graham Freudenberg: I don’t know what discussions were held at the time, and I can’t recall what our perceptions at the time. I imagine though, we were not unduly exercised over it. You know, I can’t be hypocritical over this, it’s one of those things that undoubtedly would fall into Gareth Evans’ category of ‘it seemed a good idea at the time’.
Wendy Carlisle: In 1996 when John Howard became Prime Minister, he abolished ANIMALS. Since their election, the Coalition has spent 70% more on government advertising than Labor.
Graham Freudenberg’s observation is that while Labor started the propaganda juggernaut, the communications revolution has changed it into something quite different.
Graham Freudenberg: I suppose Julius Caesar was the first spin doctor. But what is different today is certainly not the loss of any purity of motives, but the sheer pervasion of the operation and of course that itself is partly a reflection of the massive increase in the means of communication. I mean if we call things by what they really are, and if we acknowledge that this huge effort mounted in Canberra with all these public relations offices, media consultants, if we acknowledge that the operation is a propaganda operation, then we face what it is. It is propaganda.
Now propaganda is nothing new. But the means of purveying it are new and revolutionary.
Carlisle continues “Spin of course, has been around since someone persuaded the apes out of the trees. Since the Enlightenment, there has been in the Western world, a sense that truth is possible. There’s been an agreement that reason will solve problems, and that information and evidence, with a dash of wisdom, are the foundation stones of good decisions. Postmodernism began to undermine all that with its assault on reality, saying that it’s all relative, and this idea has seeped into education, religion and politics.”
The counterargument is that although new technologies have provided better weapons to the spin doctors, they have also provided unprecedented public access, rapid access, to otherwise unobtainable information.
Carlisle also interviewed the Chairman and CEO of one of the biggest PR companies in the world, Hill & Knowlton. “Paul Taaffe is a Brisbane boy who’s risen to the very top, and Background Briefing caught up with him at a recent function for the Institute of Public Relations at State parliament.” “Paul Taaffe described a world increasingly fractured along religious and political lines. It was a world, he said, where no-one trusts anyone. In this environment, internet social networking sites and blogs were making the old communication ways, TV, radio and print, increasing irrelevant. It is, quite frankly, said Paul Taaffe, a world full of opportunities for PR professionals.” But Paul Taaffe is also quoted as saying “We are in the business of truth. Public relations is basically helping governments or companies or even NGOs say what they need to say and say it in the right way at the right time to the right people. And that is not about lies, that’s about telling the truth. … The reality is, we live in the Google age. There are no secrets. … There may be secrets for a day, but over time there are no secrets. … Public trust has gone down the gurgler. We don’t trust politicians. We don’t trust the media. So just who should we trust to tell us the truth? He says the PR industry is here to help us.”
Paul Taaffe: What I’m saying is, no authority figure is trusted. Now what communication professionals do is help you navigate that lack of trust, through that lack of trust. So nobody’s trusted, nobody trusts governments, nobody trusts large corporations and increasingly the media’s not trusted. So who do I trust? Well I trust nobody, I trust other people, I go on internet, I seek like-sided voices.
And in a response to Carslile’s pointed question about “spin” he responds:
Paul Taaffe: By the way, just a small point: the first person that coined spin was not the media on public relations agencies, it was public relations agencies on the media, because the media, particularly in political environments, and these were political PR people, accused the media of spinning facts or statements coming out of administration. So the first time I ever heard spinning was about 20 years ago in the UK elections when the media was being accused of spinning to a conservative agenda.
Carlisle’s program shows how the UK has been as influential, if not more so, than the US when it comes to our understanding of political spin and propaganda. Later in the same Background briefing, in another interview with the US pollster Frank Luntz a reporter refers to his love for the author George Orwell and “what Orwell writes… He says, ‘political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.
In his writing about the Greek origins of modern western democracy (and the enduring influence of Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric), Stockwell saw elections and campaigns as “the glue of democracy” but also described how “contemporary politics offers more opportunities for participation than just elections” with the “spread of campaign techniques from elections” to various other activities such as “lobbying, public education, activism and issues management”.
When describing the importance of “image communication” in modern political campaigning, Stockwell refers to Melder’s conclusion that there is nothing really new in these techniques, in fact “the campaigns of old (i.e. from the 1800s) were packaged and managed more completely and simplistically – and in some cases more misleadingly – than any modern-day political consultants could ever engineer.”
There is certainly an argument to be made that modern internet technologies have empowered the casual observer with the tools to divulge and expose all manner of embarrassing truths about political activities, language and messages.
American books like Don’t think of an elephant by Lakoff and Feldman’s Framing the debate point to a higher level of academic analysis as well as public interest in political language in the US that is appearing in Australia on a much smaller scale. As well as Stockwell’s book on strategy, with it’s long discourse on classical rhetoric, there have been books by former speechwriters such as Stephen Mills, Don Watson and Graham Freudenburg that reveal a rich appreciation of Australian political language and it’s evolution.
A recent APSA conference paper by Stephanie Younane ‘Men and Women of Australia’: Political Rhetoric in Australian Political Science and Communication points to new sources of quantitative and qualitative analysis of language in Australian political speeches, advertisements, media coverage, campaign material and public statements. No doubt episodes of TV shows like GrassRoots and The Hollowmen as well as documentaries such as the 1984 classic Democracy and the more recent Rats in the Ranks, as well as the David Williamson classic Don’s Party, will provide rich pickings for future academic study of Australian political language. All feature election campaigning activities from strategy and media management to various examples of voter contact techniques. It would be interesting from the perspective of this research to measure how many American-style techniques or descriptions were used in these Australian popular entertainment productions.
Plasser quotes Elaine Thompson’s entry in the book Americanisation and Australia on the subject of “political culture” to highlight perceptions in Australia of the negative consequences of the proliferation of US campaign practice:
“Television, advertising, polling and image making have all been transmitted from America to Australia and have helped change the nature of election campaigns, money-raising in politics and leadership style. These changes have helped trivialise issues and turned campaigning and fund raising into capital rather than labour intensive activities. The result is to place further distance between the political parties and the voters, making the parties seem less relevant as vehicles for mass political representation.”
Taken out of context, this isolated view of Thomson’s seems unreasonably alarmist, given the context of comparatively stronger influences of US techniques in other western-style democracies than in Australia. She also fails to distinguish (as Plasser explains in his 2000 paper) between “Americanisation” and “modernisation and professionalization” where “what is happening between the US and Western Europe or Latin America (or Australia) is a process of non-directional convergence, which results in an increased similarity between the political communication process in media-centred democracies” Plasser cites Gunther and Mughan 2000, Negrine and Papathanassopoulos 1996, Norris 2000, Swanson and Mancini 1996.
Mancini and Swanson write that “around the world, many of the recent changes in election campaigning share common themes despite great differences in the political cultures, histories and institutions of the countries in which they have occurred.” They pose the concerning question about whether the negative effects of these techniques in the US may be transplanted to their newer hosts or “can such innovations be adapted to compliment and support the host country’s indigenous political culture and institutions?”
Thompson answers that question specifically when she states that the American campaign techniques “are incorporated into Australian politics” in an environment that “mediates them in dramatic ways”.
In their article The “Americanization” of Political Communication: A Critique Negrine and Papathanassopoulos argue that ‘Americanisation’ is largely a symptom of the “convergence of practices” and “modernisation of societies”. They describe an evolution in UK political communication that has mirrored the adoption of new technologies and political marketing techniques in other countries, led by the US, but not necessarily tied to US practice. They suggest that ‘Americanisation’ is perhaps a simplistic term that describes a larger process of social change, where “snippets of information suggest a complex process of interaction between cultures and practices rather than a unidimensional process.”
Negrine and Papathanassopoulos use an interesting citation from Richard Rose’s Lessons from America. It is that the “idea of Americanisation is not a new one – it was first used in the 1830s as a term of abuse”.
Similar examples of this pattern of criticism can be found in Dennis Kavanagh’s article New Campaign Communications, Consequences for British Political Parties from the Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics where he writes of British Labour’s “scorn” of the Conservatives “first use” of an advertising agency “to write and place advertisements for general elections between 1950 and 1964.” Labour described it as “the worst form of Americanisation” and “the antithesis of policy-based campaigning”.
In his 1967 study Influencing Voters: A Study Of Campaign Rationality, Richard Rose described how “the 1959 Labour Party campaign was based upon the explicit rejection of modern media techniques and expertise.” However by 1964 Labour had seen the light and followed the conservative approach to assist it in aspiring to electoral success.
This criticism continues today as the term is commonly used in reference to the negative aspects of political communication which promotes “style over substance”. One of the critics of this style is Jerry Palmer in an article titled Smoke and Mirrors: Is That The Way It Is? Themes In Political Marketing where he repeats a commonly asked question “about the changing nature of politics in the UK and US: to what extent is political decision-making driven by presentation?” Palmer concludes that “although professional literature about political marketing indeed lays great emphasis on communication as an essential tool of policy development and implementation, it stresses that credibility derives from policy delivery, thus arguing for the primacy of substance over ‘spin’, the presence of substance behind the smoke and mirrors.”
In The Media and Political Process Eric Louw from the University of Queensland outlines the influences of US spin doctors on practice in the UK and subsequent importation of the practice into Australia.
One could use the recent examples of the 2007 Australian federal election and 2008 elections in the Northern Territory, and Western Australia and the Australian Capityal Territory to argue that, eventually, voters tire of spin and send underperforming incumbents a strong message.
Scepticism over ‘political spin’ is one recent reason why voters (in both Australia and the US) are losing trust in politics. In The Prince’s New Clothes: Why Do Australians Dislike Their Politicians? Andrew Leigh explains that this dropping level of trust is happening across the developed world and is not unique to Australia or the US. Leigh lists seven major reasons for this including the media, declining interpersonal trust, and declining levels of trust for all institutions.
There is more comparative literature available on US and UK politics than US and Australian politics. In a paper comparing the adoption of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) by Australian and UK legislators, Rachel Gibson et al examine factors that might help explain the differences in adoption of the new technology. They suggest the following factors affect the adoption of this technology in Australia, relative to the UK: stronger party loyalty reduces individual innovation, federalism encourages localised innovation (countering the earlier hypothesis), the ‘tyranny of distance’ would encourage ICT development, cultural diversity would encourage targeted information streams, and higher internet penetration would be a factor in greater use. From an Australian perspective, the first factor rings true. Their research shows no significant difference in the uptake between the two nations, nor does it support their suggested systemic factors. Of more importance is their identification of youth and familiarity with technology as factors in both nations.
One element of Australian politics which differentiates it greatly from US politics is the existence of strong factional allegiances within the major parties, especially at the national level and in the larger states. Although they are disparaged greatly in the media and amongst non-aligned MPs and candidates (as well as former members of a faction!) conventional wisdom has it that factions can play an important managerial and organisational (including campaign advice, mentoring, training and support) role and facilitate internal democratic processes that foster debate as well as help maintain party unity (in theory). Although they existed in various forms in the states for decades, Ian McAllister writes that the first formal federal faction to emerge in the ALP was the National Centre Left (commonly referred to as ‘the centre’) in 1984. Recent internal disputes within the Liberal Party, particularly in NSW, have revealed bitter factional disputes, even though they seem to be less organised than factions in the Labor Party, which many argue are now becoming much less influential. McAllister argues that the factions have played “a significant role, within an organisational hypothesis (by influencing party activists and members) as well as in an electoral hypothesis, by broadening the party’s electoral appeal.” Although there are loose factions in the US Congress (the blue Dog Democrats for example) they are fluid and primarily concerned with policy issues (such as fiscal conservatism) rather than formal leadership and party organisational functions. McAllister writes that a lack of legitimacy for factions can lead to instability, pointing to the fluid “Labor state factions that existed in the 1950s and precipitated the disastrous ALP spilt in 1955.” This contrasted with the greater factional legitimacy in the 1980s, which directly led to government stability and union harmony.