Meet an election specialist
I first met Jennifer Lees-Marshment over ten years ago when she was based in the UK but was working on Political Marketing and Political Science projects as a visiting fellow at ANU and presented some of her findings at seminars in the Australian Federal Parliament. We joked after one of her seminars about the defensive critiques she was receiving from some of the “practitioners” in the room. I won’t name names but needless to say our shared frustration with the overt cynicism many practitioners have for political scientists helped break the ice.
Jennifer is an international leader in political marketing which explores how politicians and government use tools like branding and market research to win and retain power. Last year she pioneered the development of a new Stage Three course at Auckland “The Practice of Politics” (the only of its kind in New Zealand), which teaches students about the diversity of career options in politics and the challenges they may face. Jennifer has a BA (Hons) in History and American Studies from Keele University in the UK, an MA (with Distinction) in Politics from Manchester and a PhD in Politics from Keele. She was a senior lecturer at Keele and Aberdeen universities before joining Auckland’s staff as a senior lecturer in 2005. She became an associate professor in 2012. Associate Professor of Political Studies Jennifer Lees-Marshment is academic adviser to New Zealand’s Vote Compass – the online election tool, hosted by TVNZ, which enables voters to find out how their views on a range of issues compare to the positions of parties in the build up to New Zealand’s 20 September General Election.
Her research and writing broadened the scope of political marketing from campaigning to behaviour and from elections to governing and has been widely cited and influential with review comments including ‘an enormous contribution’; ‘a must-have-on-your-shelf volume’; ‘authoritative and accessible’; ‘sophisticated, learned research’; ‘an important and innovative book’; ‘sagacious views’; ‘a wealth of insights’; ‘a hugely informative study on an important field’; ‘ground breaking’; ‘a timely and extremely important book’; ‘a valuable addition.’; ‘pioneering collection’; ‘a significant contribution.’ She has authored/edited 13 books and reviews have noted the practical advice within them: ‘crucial to our understanding of how this world works — not just in theory, but in practice’; ‘all those who claim to understand modern political strategy, all those pundits and government-relations experts we see on TV, should keep this volume at hand as an essential reference’; ‘this book will be a bible for political operatives to be kept close at hand for frequent reference.’ She has also interviewed over 200 political elites and involved practitioners in events and publications throughout her career. Her newest book is The Ministry of Public Input to be published in January 2015.
In July this year Associate Professor Marshment made a brilliant presentation to the 2014 Campaign Management and Political Marketing Workshop held at Sydney University in July (and I will eventually write a separate post about her presentation and a few others when I find some more spare time). In the meantime, your best understanding about her work will be derived from purchasing her latest book: Political Marketing Principles and Applications which is well worth the investment for the interview-derived case studies alone.
So tell me about yourself. Who are you in a nutshell? I am a gardener academic – I like to break new ground and nurture new ideas and people to grow into the tallest of trees people came climb and get a different view from. I produce ground breaking research that aims to change the way people think – early in my career I argued that political marketing wasn’t just about selling or campaigning; I am now arguing for new views on political leaders and public input in government. I also want to take university out of the ivory tower and connect it with the real world through research led but practice oriented teaching. As a nurturing leader, I look for ways to support new ideas, new scholars, new studnets all the time, and work across the usual hierarchies of power, discipline and geographical boundaries. Of course, doing all of this puts me up against some pretty big brick walls – being a leader, who seek leadership as about supporting others not just promulgating your own ideas and power, and thinks academics are there to serve society not just create knowledge for knowledge sake is “disruptive thinking” for most institutions, and goes against the grain of traditional culture. But when I look back on my career I have achieved so much in terms of changing views of political marketing, connecting and supporting people I remain proud of this wonderful – if challenging – path I choose to take.
Where do you live/work/study/teach? I work at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and teach Political Marketing, Political Management in Government and The Practice of Politics.
What compels you to write and research politics? A fundamental passion to write about what is really going on in politics, uncover things people do not normally see, communicate those new findings, generate debate about them, and use them to inform better practice through teaching and professional training. For example I have helped to show that political marketing is happening throughout the world not just in campaign time and involves a whole range of marketing tools and concepts. And more recently with my work The Ministry of Public Input I found that politicians are integrating a range of public input into their decision making and being reflective and deliberative. We don’t see that from the outside so I think it’s important academics find it out and let everyone know. Whilst I think academia needs to connect with the outside world, I still believe in the value of traditional critical objective research, but I just then go one step further in trying to take that research to the real world. It’s not so much changing what we do as changing what we do with it.
What do you love about politics? Ultimately it’s about how to make life better for everyone. My real underlying passion is how can we get politicians to be more responsive to the public and provide them with – or work with them to create – a better life. It appeals to my sense of what democracy is all about. And I love trying to understand it, seeing my theories proven right – and learning all over again when they might be found to be wrong or need updating!
Is there anything you don’t like about modern politics? The cynicism towards politicians. As employers of politicians we do not manage them well. All we do is see their bad points; we fail to see how hard they work, how reasonable most of them really are; and how they are just doing their best to create a better society. I’ve presented my research on political leaders recently and been really taken by the huge negativity that comes towards you when you suggest – on the basis of research – that politicians might actually act and think in a way that is positive. People don’t want to hear it; they much prefer to think badly of politicians. That isn’t good for democracy.
Compulsory or voluntary voting? Voluntary
Who are your favourite writers? I like any story about someone triumphing over obstacles. No particular favourite authors.
What are your favourite websites and news sources? The NZ Herald as it has a free app that is easy to use. For the NZ election I am recording the one news by TVNZ so I keep up to date with it all but normally I wouldn’t as it’s kid dinner bath bedtime.
What’s the first thing you do each morning? Feel tired. I don’t get enough sleep/rest.
What is your one recommended must-read for aspiring psephologists? Well you invited the plug so I would say The Political Marketing Game as it gives a great overview of what political marketing is all about and has material from interviews with 100 practitioners in it, not just academic theory. Either that or the textbook introducing the field – Political Marketing: Principles and Applications 2nd edition. Or Shopping for Votes by Canadian journalist Susan Delacourt which is an easy but informed and objective read into the use of marketing in Canadian politics.
What’s your favourite political movie/book/documentary/TV series? Commander in Chief was good. I liked Scandal and House of Cards but they get a bit far fetched/too much about stuff that isn’t politics after a while.
Is there a funny or brilliant political ad you’d like to share? This is a funny one done by the National Party against Labour in NZ in 2005 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P96VcHcg3zM
Then there is Dave the Chameleon done by UK Labour against David Cameron which illustrates some of the problems with over marketing politicians – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bRKhTQHrtdk.
What are you currently reading or working on? Nothing! Well, not a publication anyway – I am doing Vote Compass for the 2014 New Zealand election; and distributing a report from The Ministry of Public Input to government staff to get the idea of creating an all of government unit to collect, analyse and communicate public input going round government. And trying to get a book series in political marketing underway. So then again, quite a lot…but having completed 3 books in the last two years and having no new book to write as yet it feels like a lot less work.
Which other psephologists do you recommend I interview soon? Andre Turcotte at Carleton University in Canada. He’s a political marketer who runs a course on political management but also carries out market research so he would definitely be good.
Jennifer recently gave an interview to a University publication about her life, her work and interests. below is a photo of the published interview, with a transcript further below.
What did you love doing when you were a child? I read a lot of books. My favourite author was Enid Blighton. I also wrote plays and stories when I finished the set work in class. I was born in Birmingham in the Midlands and then moved to Staffordshire when I was about 10.
Tell us about your first job? The first job I had was picking strawberries. From the 30 pounds I earned, I brought a special disc for my typewriter so I could type italics.
Did you have a favourite teacher? At Sir Graham Balfour High school in Staffordshire, my history teacher Mr Stephen Day generated my love of political history. He brought it alive by comparing 18/19th century events to those happening in the 20th. At University my PhD supervisor, Dr Matthew Wyman was very supportive of my new ideas on political marketing and we’ve kept in touch, authoring a chapter on teaching professional politics. I got the idea for doing a Practice of Politics course from the one he created in the UK.
How and when did you decide what your career would be? My mother did a degree in psychology at Aston University in Birmingham when I was five and I vividly remember going into university lectures with her in school holidays – daycare was not so available then. I distinctly remember this professor putting up on an overhead projector a simple picture of a house with windows and doors and I thought: “I could draw that. I could be a professor.” He was probably talking about environmental psychology and was doing a very complex analysis but to my child’s eye it seemed easy! I also grew up in the time of Margaret Thatcher. It was absolutely brilliant having a woman prime minister; you had the sense that you could do anything.
I didn’t plan on doing politics at university though – I’d wanted to be a barrister but didn’t get the grades at age 18 to do law, so instead I did a foundation year which turned out to be the best thing as I realised I really wanted to do politics and history. I found political marketing during my masters at Manchester when discussing how Tony Blair was changing the British Labour Party and life-long Labour voters like my Dad were very unhappy. My lecturer said “what about looking at political marketing”? And off I went…
What is the purpose of your present position Research wise I explore what goes on behind the scenes by looking at political marketing and public input into government. I then teach this to my students so they know what’s going on and so they are prepared for the workforce. I see my job as an academic as to conduct high-quality research but to make it useful to the community through applied politics teaching and reporting recommendations for best practice.
What do you love most about your job Challenging conventional wisdom through research into real world practice. One of the key contributions I made early in my career was to argue that political marketing wasn’t just advertising. For my latest research on political leadership I interviewed 50 government ministers and found that they recognise they have limited power and knowledge and need input from the public to create workable policies. I also love the fact I get to travel and meet loads of people around the world. Vote Compass came out of a book I co-edited with Canadian colleagues on Political Marketing In Canada. I was once flown to Malaysia and met the Prime Minister there; and I‘ve done interviews in the White House, Downing Street and Buckingham Palace.
Do you believe what you do changes people’s lives I know I’ve made a big difference in my field. When I started researching political marketing it was ridiculed and seen as just spin-doctoring and adverts. Now it’s viewed as much more ubiquitous: it affects government decision-making and policy and is discussed in the media and in movies. I’ve made that happen not just through my own books (I’ve published 12!) but through supporting and connecting other scholars and linking academia with practice.
What do you do when you’re not working Gardening and my two young children. It’s the same kind of thing as my career really: nurturing potential and seeing it grow.
A couple of weeks ago I published an interesting interview with famous Australian Psephologist Malcolm Mackerras. At the end of the interview I asked him for some suggestions about other psephologists or election specialists that I should add to my list of interview targets. One of his highest recommendations was Peter Brent, who Malcolm seemed to be very fond of. I have met Peter several times over the last decade or so, usually at political science conferences and seminars around the country. I also got to know Peter while he was still working on his PhD thesis at ANU on the topic of the AEC “The Rise of the Returning Officer”. He reminds us all about the very unique creature that is the AEC which, as Australians, we should all be very proud of (despite what Clive Palmer suggests).
I also developed a bit of respect for Peter over the years as I watch him regularly deal with armchair electoral generals (initially mainly through his blog and then, as it became a mainstream medium, through twitter) with his standard straight-bat dryness and sarcasm. He’s a real sensation on twitter and you should all follow him immediately, although I suspect if you’re reading this many of you already do. BTW I’m not the only one who thinks Peter has a particularly dry wit as the following tweet attests.
@mumbletwits Yes, a plug for Mumbles in there. “Dry cynicism”…. You think?!! It’s sometimes so dry it shrivels my brain.
— Grasshopper (@BuPaul) July 31, 2014
Also, to hammer the point home, when I asked Peter to provide me with his preferred portrait for the interview, this is what he sent:
So tell me about yourself. Who are you in a nutshell? Left-brained, observant, neurotic.
Where do you live/work/study/teach? Canberra, from home and parliament.
What compels you to write and research about politics? It’s an illness. I used to suffer more from it. I don’t consume as much political news as I once did, which is kind of ironic, or paradoxical, as I now write about it for public consumption.
What do you love about politics? Not much, particularly the Australian version. I used to believe it was superior to, for example, American and British politics, but no longer do. Not sure if this is chiefly due to changing perception on my part or changing reality.
Is there anything you don’t like about modern politics? Lots. The adversarial nature, Question Time is a travesty. The profession of politics encourages some people to misrepresent what opponents have done and misrepresenting their positions. For some, it must corrode the soul; you would not be a politician for quids. This no doubt applies across most democracies, but probably particularly so here. Like many, I think the parties’ obsession with polling and research is a problem. Labor seems particularly afflicted with WestWingitis. Just between us, party polling gurus are not as clever as the political class believes.
Compulsory or Voluntary voting? Voluntary, but I don’t feel strongly about it. There are ok arguments either way. Compulsion is I think too coercive and I don’t think the benefits outweigh the negatives. If we got rid of compulsion, turnout would drop and we’d get a better idea of the level of political engagement, at federal and each state level. That’d be a good thing.
Who are your favourite writers? Don’t have any. When I was young I loved Orwell, like many. (Still like him!) My reading tastes are more low-brow than they used to be. For example, I always snap up the latest Michael Connelly book.
What are your favourite websites and news sources? Oh … you know, this and that. This week I downloaded and sent several long reads to Kindle from New Yorker magazine.
What’s the first thing you do each morning? Computer on (if off). Coffee on. Feed cats if first one up. Sit at computer. Write. I used to listen to Radio National Breakfast but now this is my prime writing time and the radio would be distracting. A great pity.
What is your one recommended must-read for aspiring psephologists? Read more on electoral law, something I don’t do enough.
What’s your favourite political movie/book/documentary/TV series? Sorry, another “don’t have one”.
But in the late 1980s I loved “A Very British Coup”, watched it several times on video. Ray McAnally fantastic as a Labour PM from Yorkshire. It would be very dated now. Primary colours was an enjoyable book—and movie. Wag the Dog was good. Haven’t see the US version of House of Cards (the UK one a couple of decades ago was pretty good, not fantastic imo).
As a rule I no longer read political books—that is bios and memoirs—because I’m much more cynical about the process—all that that backscratching and three-act storytelling (which is prevalent in political journalism per se).
Having said that, Don Watson’s ‘Recollections of a Bleeding Heart’ was a ripper, albeit overwritten. Perhaps the last one I’ve read. No, someone gave me the Latham Diaries and I read that. And I bought Lindsay Tanner’s book; it was ok. (Speaking of that book, I am regularly surprised at what I perceive as an absence of electoral perception—an understanding of what makes voters do what they do—from senior political players. Well, they don’t see things the way I do. Most don’t I suppose.)
Is there a funny or brilliant political ad you’d like to share? Nope!
What are you currently reading or working on? Kindle currently has two books: “My Promised Land” by Ari Shavit and a biography of the Beatles. (First book I’ve read about either.)
I should also ask why are you interested in electoral behaviour? My brain is possibly a bit deformed. At school I was very good at maths. In one aptitude test I scored in the top couple of percentiles in maths but actually below average in English comprehension. Then I began a science degree but kind of bombed out and left uni. A few years later I went to uni and studied Arts; I became interested in politics, addicted really, including the electoral side. Contemplating two-party-preferred, playing with Malcolm Mackerras’s pendulum.
My statistics skills are quite limited though.
Being comfortable with numbers might lead some people to be susceptible to numerical explanations of electoral behaviour, but in my case it’s had the opposite effect: I have little time for “analysis” along the lines of, for example, claiming such-and-such is worth X per cent of the vote. I detest that stuff. Of course events and personalities matter, and in theory their influence on outcomes are quantifiable, but humans’ tools are way too flimsy to do it and it’s dishonest to pretend otherwise.
Peter can be followed on twitter here: @mumbletwits
His most recent writing can be found here on his blog.
And this is what he really looks like!
This interview is the first in a series which I had originally planned to title “Meet a psephologist” and use as a series of interesting articles about people who study, work in and write about elections. However not everyone agrees with me that there is a psephologist in all of us (or that there is a foodie in all of us), so in order to avoid scaring away potential interviewees it is now titled “Meet an election specialist” but I still have a list of psephologists (professional and amateur) as well as academics, practitioners and writers on my to-do list!
I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Australia’s second-most-famous psephologist while he recovered from some hip surgery at Canberra Hospital. Malcolm Mackerras is one of Canberra’s living legends. Anyone who is even slightly interested in politics and elections would be familiar with his writing and his famous federal electoral pendulum, which has had many imitations and which he has himself adapted for many other elections. Malcolm’s first published work on Australian politics was written in 1965, while he was working as a research officer for the Liberal Party. In 1970 Malcolm became an academic and had various posts at UNSW, RMC Duntroon, ADFA and now at the Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University.
Malcolm’s Wikipedia entry reminds us that he is “famous for making predictions about election results” and “he claims a ‘win’ ratio of ‘two in three’ and adds “at least I’m not boring”!
Malcolm is certainly anything but boring! He is happy to discuss just about anything related to democracy and elections and has a wide-ranging expertise on Australian politics.
I asked Malcolm a series of questions and his unedited answers are listed below:
Tell me about yourself Malcolm. Who are you in a nutshell? In academic parlance I’m a political scientist. Although I’m semi-retired I currently work at the Australian Catholic University in Canberra as a Visiting Fellow. I’m also still writing about elections and have appeared regularly to discuss politics on “Switzer” which is on SkyNewsBusiness. I had seven siblings, including a fraternal twin Colin Mackerras, a leading China specialist at Griffith University. I was born in 1939, worked on my first campaign handing out How-To-Vote cards at a referendum in 1951, joined the Liberal Party when I was 16 in 1955 and have followed every election and by-election in Australia ever since. My academic career started when I became what was then known as a “Research Scholar” at ANU in 1970. By-elections are fascinating. Did you know we had 10 by-elections in Australia between 1951 and 1954? Nine were caused by the death of the local member. These days healthcare has improved so much that we rarely have deaths in political office and most by-elections are caused by resignations.
Where do you live/work/study/teach? I live in Campbell (Canberra’s inner north) and work mainly from home. I have an office at ACU where I still teach occasionally.
What motivates you to write and research about politics? It fascinates me! I’ve also been fortunate to be in the middle of many interesting political contests. In 1975 I had an article published in the Canberra Times which I’d written 10 days before. I had speculated in the article that the political stand-off in the Senate was getting to the point where Kerr may have to sack Whitlam to break the deadlock. 10 days after I wrote the article it was published. Later that morning Kerr sacked Whitlam. I was actually on radio at 11am prior to the dismissal answering questions about the article and heard afterwards what had happened. That afternoon I was flown to Melbourne to be interviewed about the article and the dismissal an appeared on the TV news that night. It was my best prediction ever! I was also the only psephologist who predicted Howard would lose Bennelong.
I also believe that our Constitutional Monarchy is a unique and beautiful democratic process. Australia has been very fortunate to inherit such a good system of government and also fortunate that it has been modified and evolved so well. Our system is one of the best in the world and I still believe the Republican argument lacks a compelling case. Both our houses of parliament are relatively well populated with good representatives and both function well. The senate is genuinely semi-proportional and serves an important role as a house of review. We have a symbolic head of state (the Queen) and a constitutional head of state (the Governor General). Since 1930 when Jim Scullin established the current rules, the Prime Minister effectively selects the Governor General. This system allows an unsatisfactory Governor General to be replaced easily, as has happened, and this is a model of common sense. A popularly elected President or even one elected by a Parliament, would be very difficult to replace. Australian democracy has worked very well compared to other democracies and we shouldn’t change too much without very good reason.
Is there anything you don’t like about modern politics? There is far too much excessive partisanship in modern Australian politics, with the current Prime Minister being most to blame for it. He is in my opinion the most partisan PM we’ve ever had. Abbott is far more partisan than Howard or Fraser and has damaged the office as a result. The PM’s position should be statesman-like and it should not be as partisan as Abbott has made it.
Compulsory or voluntary voting? Definitely compulsory voting. It makes the results more reflective and representative and if it aint broke why fix it?
Do you have a favourite writer? Paul Kelly
What are your favourite websites and news sources? I still read three newspapers each day: The Canberra Times, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian. My favourite websites include Crikey, Antony Green’s blog, Peter Brent’s Mumble blog on Crikey and William Bowe’s Pollbludger website. I also enjoy watching Insiders on Sunday mornings.
What’s the first thing you do each morning? I’m an early riser. I read my newspapers after I pick them up off the driveway. The Canberra Times usually arrives about half an hour before the SMH and Australian.
What is your one recommended must-read for aspiring psephologists? Read Mumble. Peter is good as a psephologist and he also does political commentary well. Peter calls a spade a spade and his dry cynicism can be entertaining.
What’s your favourite political movie/book/documentary/TV series? The Victory was entertaining. The Stalking of Julia Gillard by Kerry Anne Walsh was also a very good book. I recommend both. The book Battlelines exposes Abbott’s dishonesty. He’s clearly a centralist, yet he used federalist arguments to recently argue against and abolish the mining super-profits tax.
Is there a funny or effective political ad you’d like to share? I thought the anti-workchoices ads from 2007 were particularly effective.
What are you currently reading or working on? I’m working on a book collecting all my writing, beginning in 1957 and I’m about a quarter of the way through. I also wrote two recent articles (in the Australian and Canberra Times) opposed to the Electoral Matters Report on Senate Elections. I disagree with the recommendation to do away with party tickets. The Senate system currently works quite well and I think the main arguments are being made by the government because it doesn’t like the result of what happened in the Senate race in 2013. In the 2013 federal election Labor lost 17 seats, all of which went to the Liberal or National parties. However in the Senate there were six seats lost. Of the seven Senate seats lost in 2013, three went to PUP (one each in Qld, Tasmania and WA), one went to Family First in SA, Rickey Muir picked up a Liberal Senate spot in Victoria (which was meant to be won by Kroger), one Liberal Democrat was elected in NSW and one Green in Victoria.
Thank you for your time and frank answers Malcolm Mackerras!
If you’d like to read more from Malcolm then check out some of the links below:
…and here’s a photo from last year which gives me some real cred as an authentic psephologist’s groupie.