In 2002 I wrote a short report report summarising observations made during my participation in a NZ election study tour sponsored by the Australian Political Exchange Council (APEC). The delegation from Australia included representatives from the Labor, Liberal, National, Democrat and Green Parties. Participants were invited to construct their own itineraries focussing on personal and political interests. I must begin by thanking APEC and Gary Gray, who was then one of the Labor representative on the APEC Board, for this opportunity – I am sure that other participants will agree it was an extraordinary journey into New Zealand politics and culture.
Our activities focused primarily on the New Zealand Labour Party’s campaign. The study tour included visits to Wellington, Auckland and a day at Rotorua. Our itinerary included (amongst other events and meetings listed in the report): Prior to departure, a briefing at the New Zealand High Commission in Canberra; In Wellington, several meetings with Mike Smith – General Secretary, New Zealand Labour; In Wellington – briefings from Jenny Michie – Women’s Organiser and Communications Officer New Zealand Labour; Labour ministerial staff election campaign briefing – led by Heather Simpson – Chief of staff for Prime Minister Helen Clark; Meeting with David Burchett – IT/Communications Manager for Prime Minister’s office; Meeting with Dot Kettle – Senior Advisor to PM Helen Clark; Meeting with Tony Timms – Advisor to PM Helen Clark; Meeting with Marian Hobbs MP – Environment Minister and Member for Wellington Central and Electorate Representative Jordan Carter; Attended a very entertaining old-school town-hall-style ‘Meet the Candidates’ function at Kiora Community Hall (for Wellington Central candidates); Attended fundraising performance by ‘Hen’s Teeth’ for Ohariu-Belmont Campaign; Visited Te Papa National Museum Wellington; Attended Televised Candidates Debate (front row seats!); Lunch meeting with Chris Eichbaum – Senior Advisor to Hon Steve Maharey MP, Minister for Social Services, Employment, Tertiary Education; Meeting with Mike Williams–New Zealand Labour Party President and Campaign Manager; Meeting with Stephen Mills – Managing Director, UMR Research Ltd.; Attended Labour Campaign Launch – International Wharf Wellington; Accompanied General Secretary Mike Smith and Assistant General Secretary Murdo Macmillan at official briefing by Mark Johns, Manager of Operations Electoral Enrolment Centre, New Zealand Post; Briefing with Labour Auckland Regional Organiser Andrew Beyer and Labour Maori Organiser Jason Ake; Attended Campaign Meeting for Maungakiekie campaign (Mark Gosche MP); Meeting with Chris Carter MP at his electorate office; Meeting with Jonathan Hunt – Speaker of the New Zealand Parliament; Assisted with preparations for Helen Clark visit to Manakau Westfield shopping centre; Met Prime Minister Helen Clark at Manakau Westfield (and have a bad photo as proof!); Visited Waitakere Campaign Office in Glen Eden; Meeting with Labor candidate for Waitakere Ms Lynne Pillay; Meeting and briefing with Waitakere campaign manager Don Clarke; Sign Painting, door-to-door canvassing, billboard construction in Waitakere; Campaigning in Atoa Markets – campaigning/leaflets; Briefing with John Utting and visited UMR polling centre in Auckland; Attended Auckland Labour Party campaign directors meeting; Meeting with NZ Engineers Union organisers and activists at Auckland office; Going door-to-door to get out the voters on election day; Scrutineering during the election and in the evening during the count; and (on one day of rest) visited Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley and Maori village at Rotorua.
MMP – New Zealand’s Parliamentary system
The Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)* system was adopted in New Zealand in 1996 via referendum as a solution for the electorate’s frustration with the existing first-past-the-post system. Voters were fed up by the behaviour of previous governments, which abused the unchecked mandate delivered by a first-past-the-post system. MMP effectively ensures that no single party can rule in its own right. The election on Saturday 27 July 2002 was the third election under the MMP system. Under MMP each voter receives a single ballot paper on which they choose (by placing two ticks on the paper) a local representative candidate (from the list of candidates for the local seat), as well as a party vote. The New Zealand Parliament has 120 MPs. 61 MPs represent 61 general electorates. 6 MPs represent 6 Maori electorates (elected by voters on the Maori electoral roll only). 53 MPs are elected from the party lists in a manner that ensures their party’s final proportion in the parliament reflects their party’s ‘party vote’. In order to be represented in parliament, a party must either reach a 5% threshold in its party vote or hold at least one local electorate seat (in which case 2% of the Party vote will get you a friend elected as well from your ‘party list’). As far as the major parties are concerned, MMP necessitates that the focus of the election campaign is maximising your ‘party vote’, even at the local campaign level. A high party vote ensures that the maximum number of candidates from your ‘party list’ is elected and you are more likely to be part of the inevitable coalition Although Labour won three quarters of local electorates it still needed coalition partners to form a government. As it only won 41% of the party vote it only received 52 MPs in total.
Campaigning is campaigning: The NZ election campaign in a nutshell.
The New Zealand election showed that successful election campaign methods are universal: Assess the environment; define your strategy and implement appropriate However, despite the complicated calculations when counting the MMP ballot – the basic political tactics during this campaign remained the same as under any electoral system. Electorally successful parties (Labour, New Zealand First, United Future) increased their popular vote by: having a simple message that resonated with voters, repeating that message ad nauseum in their campaign material, maximising the coverage of their message in free-to-air media and canvassing for votes. Electorally unsuccessful parties (the Nationals and the Alliance) never had a fighting chance because their original strategy was flawed. They targeted the same constituency (with the same message) that had got them elected in 96 and 99, despite all the signs that the political landscape had seismically shifted around them. The leaders of both the Nationals and Alliance spent the last two weeks of the campaign in damage control.
Labour won almost three quarters of the local electorates and ended up with three extra seats – enough to form a minority Coalition Government with Jim Anderton (a reliable ex-Labour coalition partner) and another minor party. The National Party was decimated, receiving only half of the Labour popular vote. Traditional National Party voters deserted in droves to other conservative parties who had stolen their traditional message (and constituency) during the campaign.
The full report can be found here: AusPol Exchange Hallaj report (apologies for any typos in this 12 year old pdf version of this report).
I’ll come back to this post or a linked post to give a run-down of the current New Zealand electoral landscape as well as some coverage of interesting events and observations from the 2014 NZ election campaign, due later this year.
In the meantime, here’s the best place to start if you’re an aspiring psephologist: http://www.elections.org.nz/events/2014-general-election
Oh dear, look what is being shared on facebook today: http://www.scribd.com/doc/235287519/2014-Michelle-Nunn-Campaign-Memo
Who I hear you ask is Michelle Nunn? Read this if you want to know more: http://www.michellenunn.com/
Or read this if you just want to know more about deciphering the leaked strategy: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2014/07/28/how-to-read-the-leaked-michelle-nunn-campaign-plan/
Below is an article I co-wrote with a Canberra-based history academic Chris Monnox regarding last year’s federal Labor leadership ballot. it was published in the Canberra Times just before the result of the ballot was officially declared.
Labor leadership ballot a win/win By Elias Hallaj and Chris Monnox
Labor’s Federal Leadership ballot has been a valuable recruiting and organising opportunity for the ACT Branch of the Party, as it has for each state and territory branch. Eligibility to vote in this historic ballot was bestowed on everyone who was a member of the ACT Branch of the Australian Labor Party on 7 September. Around 1,000 people in the ACT joined 50,000 across Australia and had an opportunity to have a direct say in who would be the next Labor Leader.
Labor is the only party in Australia that gives its ordinary members this opportunity and it signals a new era of reform and participation within our party. As national secretary George Wright told Sky, there is a “big appetite” for participatory democracy.
The immediate benefits to the party have been obvious to all those who work in or near its offices and representatives both in Canberra and across Australia:
1. Membership has increased. More new members have joined and more existing members have renewed their membership. The enfranchisement of all members, regardless of length of membership and amount of meetings they have attended was a stroke of genius. It gave an immediate reward to all the new recruits who signed up on the battlefield of the 2013 campaign.
2. The ballot has been an opportunity to test real-life grassroots engagement and communication skills for many experienced and new hands. The ultimate test in genuine democracies is popular support. This ballot has been a test of messages, networks, campaign techniques, and in some cases relationships and loyalties. All this adds to the campaign capacity and skills base of the party and enables better outcomes in future public contests.
3. The candidates have led by example in ensuring mature and convivial competition and debate, without resorting to personal attacks, despite regular baiting from the mainstream media and the party’s numerous external (and sometimes internal) critics. This has been particularly cathartic following the end of the most recent Gillard-Rudd leadership contest.
4. The numerous leadership forums and seminars and debates have ensured a new pattern of regular interaction between the leadership of the parliamentary wing of the party and the membership of the party. The ACT Branch experience is that these interactions are normal, with relatively easy access to our elected representatives. The public display of this access and its reinforcement at all levels will make the party stronger in the future.
5. The federal leadership ballot has utilized a new acceptance (some say obsession) within modern politics of the latest communications tools. Not only did the candidates and their organised teams supporters use the latest communications techniques more effectively than ever before, the party membership and supporters also used new techniques to engage directly with each other and these new techniques complemented well more traditional town-hall style meetings and telephone conferences all over the country.
6. Not all the administrative and organising for this ballot has been conducted by the formal party administration. The loose networks which are a normal part of any human social activity, normally referred to as “factions” in politics, have also played an active role. And (surprisingly for some) the factions behaved very well. The previous PM might be alarmed to learn that one outcome of his innovative decree has been the evolution of the national factions to a point where they have, in a matter of weeks, demonstrated consistent sophisticated and diplomatic communication and organisational techniques and skills. Factions are an inevitable and normal part of democratic politics, but for too long in Australian politics the downside of factions dominated the public discourse. If they behave in a mature and intelligent manner, organised groups of adults (teams in sporting parlance) can achieve great things. When the major groups or factions in an organization can compete AND cooperate fairly, the whole organisation can benefit. After this ballot, we also now have a clearer line of leadership and authority within the two main factions that will make future cooperation, consultation and negotiation simpler and more efficient.
These have been the benefits. There have been costs as well, most obviously opportunity for the party’s regular critics to accuse it of “navel-gazing” and “in-fighting”, despite the obvious examples of policy debate and organisational success the ballot has brought. The ballot has also been hard work. When asked what her favorite part of the leadership ballot was, a young party members instinctively responded “it’s about end, thank god”. Unfortunately it’s hard to imagine that the future timing of these ballots will not inevitably coincide with the end of a hard-fought campaign, so the participants will inevitably be exhausted until both end.
This process of evolution for this ballot is continuing. From an ACT perspective the democracy has been superb and the opportunity for our local political activists to participate fully in such a historical initiative has been wholeheartedly welcomed. This sentiment has been shared in every city and town which has had an opportunity to host a candidate’s forum, or two (as was the fortunate case in Canberra).
Some of the less predictable aspects of the ballot (such as members sharing pictures of their votes on social media) were unpredictable but may become more normal practice in future public campaigns and elections. We have no doubt that the process has been an overwhelmingly positive one that has strengthened relationships and campaigning skills within the Party. Even Christopher Pyne agrees. In 2008 he penned his opinion on this issue, arguing the Liberal Party should adopt the same process. http://www.ipa.org.au/library/publication/1210898292_document_pyne.pdf
This article represents the personal views of the authors. Elias Hallaj has been the ACT Labor Secretary since 2009 and was previously an Assistant National Secretary of the ALP. Chris Monnox is a PhD Candidate in political history and recently wrote an extensive history of the ACT Branch of the Australian Labor Party as part of his research at ANU.
Photo by Andrew Meares sourced from the same article in the Canberra Times http://www.canberratimes.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/everyones-a-winner-in-a-clean-fight-20131012-2vfaz.html
The ‘Ground War’: nuts and bolts campaigning techniques
As mentioned previously, there are several excellent recent US ‘campaigning manuals’ such as Campaign Craft by Shea and Burton, Winning elections by R.A. Faucheaux, and
No place for amateurs by Dennis Johnson. A recent UK addition to this stable is The political campaigning book: real lessons from the front line by Lionel Zetter. These manuals explain important foundations such as campaign strategy, research and targeting as well as ‘nuts and bolts campaigning like use of databases, direct mail, doorknocking, phoning, candidate and team training, volunteers, community issue campaigns, use of local media and the like. Errington and van Onselen cite Shea and Burton in the paper Electoral databases: big brother or democracy unbound? They explain how the professionalisation of American campaigns includes the hiring of consultants for database management. Similar (though decentralised) databases now feature prominently in Australian political campaigns as well as MP’s offices. The authors note that “over a decade after their introduction” the major parties are still unwilling to discuss the details of their electoral databases, although they do obtain training and operation manuals of the Feedback database system from Liberal Party sources.
It is explained that “the development of the Liberal Party’s Feedback database was part of a national review of the Coalition’s 1990 election campaign” in which it “was generally recognised that the ALP had out-campaigned the Coalition in key marginal seats”. Lessons were learned from the US Republicans about the superior “development of targeted campaigning” and although the relevant software was not imported, due to “technical difficulties, and differences between the two political systems”, a similar system was developed locally.
The party-control of the Feedback and Electrac systems in Australia contrasts with larger political market in the US, “where the decentralised major political parties, as well as private campaigns for ballot initiatives, have ensured the development of a lively political database industry.”
Voter contact is an essential element of any political campaign, especially for challengers facing greater resources from incumbents. A great selection of examples of different voter contact techniques can be found in Margaret Saville’s book The Battle For Bennelong : The Adventures of Maxine McKew, Aged 50 Something where she recounts tales of doorknocking, community meetings, phone canvassing, shopping centre visits, school fetes and more.
Playford to Dunstan provides some great examples of doorknocking prowess in 1960s Australia. It states that “the major parties geared their campaigns to the obviously marginal seats” and “local strategy in the marginals emphasised personal canvassing” and “troops are out in the biggest sustained doorknocking exercise the State has known”. One candidate claimed to have “doorknocked 90 per cent of the homes in the district” and his opponent “in the two years since his endorsement he had managed to visit every home in the constituency twice.” Another candidate complimented his “seven months of doorknocking prior to polling day” with “over a dozen” public meetings with “an average attendance of 150”.
Much of the literature in the US about nuts and bolts campaigning techniques speaks about ‘voter turnout’ or ‘GOTV’ (get out the vote) and there is a false assumption amongst many campaigners in Australia that our persuasion-focused strategies mean that these techniques are not relevant. Although it can be argued that voter turnout strategies and techniques are not directly applicable in the Australian context, anyone who has been doorknocking in both the US and Australia (as well as in the UK and NZ) will concede that good personal contact techniques are largely universal. Even though they may not be directly applicable, they are certainly (like any good campaign technique from any source) adaptable to an Australian political environment. For example, the technology and investment in a microtargeting survey combined with a doorknocking campaign can be used to maximise voter turnout of partisan voters as well as swinging voters. The survey questions may need to be refined, as well as the scripts for the volunteers, but the fundamental mechanical process would be very similar, as would the cost (in money and volunteers)
In a 1999 study Does Canvassing Increase Voter Turnout? A Field Experiment based on a randomised field experiment involving 30,000 registered voters, Gerber and Green concluded that voter turnout was “increased substantially by personal canvassing, slightly by direct mail, and not at all by telephone calls (from a phone bank).” The research found “personal canvassing has a far greater influence on voter participation than three pieces of professionally crafted mail delivered within two weeks of Election Day”. A very interesting aspect of this paper is the hypothesis that “the decline of personal mobilization has arguably contributed to the erosion of voter turnout in the United States since the 1960s.”
This correlates to the arguments made by others in Australia such as Sally Young and Andrew Leigh that an overemphasis on new campaign techniques such as mass marketing through television has discouraged voter interest in political discourse as they become more personally detached from it and often only see negative aspects via the mainstream media. This also meets with the professional campaigners viewpoint in that although people traditionally complain about disruptive election campaigns and no-one likes to have their busy home-lives interrupted by political canvassers, there is an expectation that all MPs and candidates will spend a significant amount of their time and resources keeping in touch with their constituency, listening to their voters and personally finding out what is happening to people throughout their electorates. Candidates who display these desirable traits should, all else being equal, be more attractive to voters.
Earlier American research, such as Blydenburgh’s 1971 paper A Controlled Experiment to Measure the Effects of Personal Contact Campaigning recorded how several candidates performed in a campaign for local office. The experiment was designed to measure the impact of door-to-door canvassing and telephone solicitation. He cites similar studies in the US dating back to elections in the 1920s and although concedes that variables between candidates and different election types cloud his results, comes to the reasonable conclusion that local campaigning will have a greater effect in contest where the message is not influenced by mass media, such as in local government elections.
Conversely, in Constituency Campaigning In Parliamentary Systems With Preferential Voting: Is there a Paradox? Bowler, Farrell and McAllister argue that “local campaigning has a very limited impact on the vote” and “concludes with an explanation for the apparent paradox of why candidates bother campaigning when it does not make a difference to their vote” by hypothesising that the activity is designed to impress their colleagues and the party as much as it is design to gain an electoral advantage. The paper focuses on data from the 1993 AES. The first possible problem with this analysis is that 1993 was a very unusual election in that it revolved around a very public (i.e. undertaken via the mass media) discussion about the new Goods and Services Tax which the Hewson Liberals were proposing. Secondly, the study categorises “constituency work” as “local campaigning” and even though it includes the disclaimer “the actual degree to which local constituency work attracts votes is still a matter of debate” it does not differentiate between “constituency work” and “local campaigning” in any marketing or voter canvassing context.
An alternate view can be found in the UK, which correlates more closely with the American research. Whiteley and Seyd show in Local Party Campaigning and Electoral Mobilization in Britain that “local campaigning by Labour party members had a significant influence on the Labour vote share in the 1987 election, but not on turnout.”
In another UK article Hanging on the telephone? Doorstep and Telephone Canvassing at the British General Election of 1997. Pattie and Johnston reiterate the findings of Gerber and Green and warn “it would be premature and counterproductive for parties to write off their electoral activists” as “face-to-face canvassing paid electoral dividends.” 146 p 322
Denver and Hands et al in Constituency Campaigning in Britain 1992-2001: Centralization and Modernization”. Write that constituency (local) campaigning in British general elections has been transformed over the past ten years or so. Firstly, national party headquarters have taken an increasingly large role in planning and managing constituency campaigns. Although the pace of change has varied across the major parties, all are heading down the same road. Secondly, campaigning on the ground has also changed. Technological and other changes have led to a decline in the use of traditional campaign techniques and increased use of new methods, especially in `key’ seats.
In her 2005 research paper for the Australian Parliamentary Library Sarah Miskin stated that in the 2004 federal election, “Direct mail continued to be an important campaign tool, especially in the marginal electorates. The media estimated that the two major parties spent $5 million each on this method of wooing voters. A 2001 study found that such spending was justified because direct-mail and letterbox-drop literature was the primary source of policy information for 41 per cent of those canvassed.”
Miskin also cites Errington and van Onselen as having “discussed the sophisticated national databases that the major parties now maintain in order to build profiles of voter interests and target party messages accordingly”.
Errington’s and van Onselen’s paper “Electoral Databases: Big Brother or Democracy Unbound?” is very detailed in it’s explanations of political databases like the Liberal Pparty’s Feedback program.
Miskin also quotes their article in the Sydney Morning Herald “X files are keeping odds stacked in favour of MPs” where they state
Databases are all about helping political parties ensure that their messages are relevant to the recipients. The big parties are already spending less money on broadcast advertising and diverting their resources towards more targeted campaigns.”
Miskin notes the criticisms from some political commentators “that sitting MPs were able to use taxpayer ‘bucks’—in the form of parliamentary printing and mail allowances—to pay for their direct mail.
In an interview with Age reporter Michelle Grattan, Former Victorian Liberal Party president Michael Kroger was quoted as saying that the benefits of incumbency (including staff, office and phone as well as printing and mail allowances) were worth $1.5 million to an MP over three years.
Mills describes in detail how “the advent of direct mail to Australian politics highlights the American derivation of many of our new political technologies.” Richard Viguerie “is the acknowledged high priest of direct mail” and he “encouraged the Liberals to become the first Australian party to use direct mail.” Using Viguerie’s advice, the Liberals became successful fundraisers in the early 1980s, “utilising the American techniques in copyrighting and list management.” Because of the size of the American market, their commercial techniques are naturally more thoroughly tested and proven. In 1984 The NSW Liberal’s Key Electorates Appeal direct mail fundraising campaign won a gold medal from the Australian Direct Marketing Association.”
Mills writes that “the secret of direct mail is emotionalism. Direct mail copywriters have an old formula called AIDA, an acronym for Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action. According to one direct mail specialist, the message has to be extreme…” But this extremism in language can backfire in an Australian context. Mills writes that “the moderate success of the (Liberal fundraising) election mailing was marred by the resentment caused amongst some swinging voters by the forceful language used in the letters.” This is particularly concerning given the compulsory voting laws in Australia and highlights a weakness in adopting American campaign techniques without some consideration of the need to adapt or modify them for the Australian political landscape.
New technologies are anticipated. Recent use of sms as a local organising tool, for internal communications such as to alert candidates and volunteers to campaign messages and activities are becoming more widespread. Although there have been examples of sms use in public campaigning, it is still in its infancy, mostly likely restricted by the ability to send out a thoughtful and intelligent message in 160 characters or less! Sally Young writes about a recent example in a Gold Coast by-election in which nightclub owners supported an independent campaign against the incumbent Mayor, who was proposing to restrict club opening hours. The nightclub owners collected mobile numbers during a promotion with their clients and used those numbers to send several messages to their clients including “Gary Baildon thinks your vote won’t count because you’re young and go to nightclubs. He wants you in bed by 3am. Don’t let him tell you what to do! Vote him out!”
Plasser notes that the new campaign techniques, as modelled on lessons and observations from the US, have not replaced traditional Australian campaign techniques but have, as Warhurst describes, “been superimposed on the latter and has displaced it from the focus of attention.” He writes that “although there seems to be plenty of evidence that Australian campaign styles have moved closer toward the US model” there is also “convincing evidence for the viability of prevailing country- and culture-specific Australian campaign styles, determined by regulatory frameworks, the alternative preference vote, compulsory voting, public finance of elections, and the party-driven dynamics of political competition.”
Not all that is written about local campaign techniques by political parties in Australia is accurate because the parties have until recently gone to great lengths to maintain competitive advantages over their rivals by keeping details about various techniques confidential. In his book on the 1987 campaign Warhurst writes (based on a couple of different newspaper reports) that the ALP used “a telephone survey called Polfile” and in one electorate alone “sixty-five separate personalised letters were sent to electors selected through telephone surveying”. Most likely this second-hand account describes the use of a direct mail and database program called Polfile (the clunkier predecessor to the ALP’s Electrac, which Errington and van Onselen have written about extensively). Polfile is not a telephone survey, although it can feasibly be used to generate the contact or calling lists for such a survey, as can any list based on the electoral roll and white pages, both publicly available through commercial sources such as those described earlier.
Previous notes about the 2005-2007 ACTU YRAW campaign have referred to its importance in framing debate during federal election and the online component, but it is important to remember that its success was largely based on its mobilisation effort.
Under the sub-heading “UNION MOBILISATION—SOME IMPLICATIONS” in the article Election 2007: Did the union campaign succeed? Spies-Butcher and Wilson explain that “In America, politics in recent years have been shaped by greater mobilisation of the union vote for the Democrats under a reformist AFL-CIO leadership that won office in 1996 (and their new rivals in the ‘Change to Win’ coalition). Union mobilisation of the vote is an offshoot of political unionism that (recognises)… the union movement depends not only on a strong shopfloor presence but on a favourable legal and political environment as well.” The lessons of union mobilisation in the US were applied successfully by the ACTU and its affiliates in Australia in 2007. “Like the American labour movement, the ACTU has offset its declining natural constituency by more strongly mobilising its remaining membership, renewing it in the process. And so the tactics the ACTU employed during the 2007 election were much closer to those of a grass roots mobilisation than to the simple increase in resources, or targeted promises, that accompany other marginal seat campaigns. This is important both in highlighting the continuing power and importance of the union movement in Australia, and in opening up the possibility of the broader significance of electoral mobilisation by social movements. Perhaps the era of activist electoral politics is not yet dead, but waiting to be remobilised.”
Andrew Leigh’s home-grown studies (with some theoretical underpinning from US and UK research) demonstrate very elaborate investigation into demographics and electoral behaviour. Using “a large repeated cross-sectional dataset from 1966 to 2001” Leigh undertakes innovative research which shows partisan tendencies based on various demographic characteristics such as wealth, neighbourhood, age, gender and immigration.
The Literature Review Part 4 – the ‘Air War’: advertising, earned media, TV, the Internet and new technologies
Comparing the ‘Air War’: advertising, earned media, TV, the Internet and new technologies
Competitive Australian political practitioners have always been keen to learn from the most professional democracy industry and innovators in the world. Young describes Labor’s experimentation with TV in the 1960s “Part of their inspiration and source of some of their ideas came from observing US elections and imitating American campaign techniques.”
Using documents from the National Library, Young writes that “In 1964, Cyril S Wyndham, the general Secretary of the Labor Party, had argued in an internal memo that “Ultimately, the Party will have to face up to the need for an effective television scheme” (Sourced from NLA manuscripts, MS4985, Box 141, folder 178, 1964. ‘Improvement in public relations – Memo from General Secretary to the national organising Committee.’)”
Bob Hogg describes how the 1966 federal election campaign led by Arthur Calwell “was at the exact moment (in Australian politics) when the hall meeting was overtaken by television.” Hogg’s explanation though is that this TV revolution did not occur for any reason of American influence or presidentialisation of the campaign. He explains that the campaign simply continued earlier practices of focussing on the leader “just as it did in Curtin and Chifley’s days” and the “capacity of the leader to handle new forms of communication had always been critical to a successful campaign”. He goes on to explain that the leader’s campaign effort was but one piece in a complicated jigsaw and successful Australian political campaigns require a similar effort (to that of the leader) from the whole front bench as well as local members.
Young states that the “revolutionary” nature of the “It’s time” TV ads was the way it transformed the techniques used and replaced the “dull talking heads of a speaker talking to the camera” with a market-tested slogan. Young also points to influences from a famous American book “The Selling Of the President” by Joe McGinnis, which gave an inside account of the lead up to the 1968 US presidential election. Nixon’s staffers were told to ‘give him words to say that will show his emotional involvement in the issues. He is inclined to be too objective, too much the lawyer building a case, too cold and logical.” Two years later, the market research prepared by ‘Spectrum International’ for the ALP advised the lawyer Whitlam to ‘state his policies in emotional rather than factual terms’.
In 1984 a book was written by Ed Diamond, which followed a study of political TV ads and concluded that all followed “an unwritten style book of conventions”. The book The Spot outlines four phases of a typical advertising campaign: Introduction, Argument, Attack and Vision.
Mills identifies several shortcomings in the Diamond theory, namely that there is no allowance for targeting, there is the assumption that the audience for all the ads is similar and the uniqueness of the Australian context, where a two-type typology is more logical: negative and positive. Yet Mills gives a detailed account of one example of a US TV attack/negative ad (the 1956 Democrat ad against Eisenhower) in which a “How’s that again?” is used to highlight and question a statement by the opposition candidate and undermine their credibility. Mills explains that both Labor and Liberal parties used a similar ad in 1975.
Since 1984, every Australian federal election campaign except 1987 has featured a televised leader’s debate. McAllister notes in The Personalization of Politics (2005) that “the popular focus on leaders is now commonplace across almost all the major parliamentary systems, where parties once occupied centre stage.” McAllister identifies the common explanation of “the growth of electronic media” but also states that “no single explanation accounts for the increasing personalisation of politics in democratic societies and that what has been occurring is complex and multi-causal.”
Plasser writes that now “campaigns are fought and won on television” and “numerous studies have dealt with the impact of television on prevailing campaign practices from a comparative perspective, reaching more or less identical conclusions: television has changed campaign practices in an unprecedented way.”
Mills describes the “manifestation of what American researchers have labelled the metacampaign – competition for favourable judgements from the political elite (pollsters, senior journalists, donors, etc.) about their ‘electability’.” Mills explain how “each of which has a multiplier effect amongst the general voting population.”
Reporting designed primarily for political junkies such as Sky News would further exacerbate Mills’ “multiplier effect”. Sky News captures only 0.5 per cent of the Australian TV audience but is compulsory viewing for campaign and political professionals and those who write about them. Modern online communities described as “netroots” and “blogocracy” also sometimes persuade stories and opinions in the mainstream media. The metacampaign and its multiplier effect are further complicated by the filtering of political message which the mainstream media conducts as a matter of course. Sally Young found “that the average election-news story is only two minutes long – and during this story, the reporter and host speak for more than half the time while politicians speak only in 7 second soundbites”. Worse still were examples from “town halls-style” speeches such as the Liberal Party campaign launch where “John Howard delivered a speech for 42 minutes but that night on the evening news, voters heard only 10.4 seconds of it. We know from American research that the soundbite has shrunk over time, keeps on shrinking and that they have less soundbites on their news compared to ours. So, if we follow American trends in news production – and we often seem to – this will happen here as well.”
Philip Senior wrote in 2007 that “Although the influence of political leaders in determining electoral outcomes has been the subject of research in the United States and Canada for a number of decades (see Stokes, Campbell and Miller 1958; Miller and Levitin 1976), it is only since the 1980s that it has received scholarly attention in Australia. Over the past two decades a significant volume of research has emerged examining the existence of leadership effects in Australian elections, and the fact that the popularity of party leaders exerts an influence on vote choice is now well established Leadership effects are significant and visible features of national elections, and have regularly accounted for 1–2% of the national vote, and as much as 4% or more on some occasions”. However, Senior’s analysis reveals that the evidence does not support the conclusion that voters have become more sensitive to evaluations of major party leaders over the period examined (six federal elections from 1990–2004).
In a 2002 study “Television Effects and Voter Decision Making in Australia: A Re-examination of the Converse Model” Denemark used Australian data “to re-examine Converse’s thesis that the mass media’s electoral effects are felt most strongly amongst voters with the lowest levels of political interest and awareness.” His results show that voters with the lowest levels of prior political awareness are the most responsive to effects of overall television news exposure, and they employ those media cues in their vote decisions late in the campaign.
‘Earned media’ can be used to repeat and promote advertisements which would otherwise go unnoticed by the general public. The key is to get the interest of the professional media in reporting aspects of the political strategy, message or plan.
Greg Daniel was Managing Director of the NSW Liberal Party’s advertising firm The Campaign Palace in 1987 and also discusses the Liberal TV ads which appeared during their ‘dress rehearsal’ prior to the 1988 election: “We needed the dress rehearsal particularly to convince the media that we were a professional unit. Until that time they’d regarded us – with some degree of correctness – as a bit of a joke in terms of our ability to organise and run a campaign. So we had to change that perception and one of the simplest ways to impress journalists seems to be with television commercials. So we prepared one that said we were ready when we weren’t. The commercial was made with the hope that it would galvanise the party into believing it was ready and members would start acting out the role the commercial portrayed, with Greiner as Premier already. This is a lesson we learnt from Brian Dale’s book (Ascent to Power, Wran and the Media, Allen and Unwin, 1985) about Wran’s win in ‘75/’76. Labor created the feeling of the inevitability of government.
Andrew Hughes defined negative advertising as advertising that targets the attacked candidate’s weakness in issues or image and that highlights the sponsoring candidate’s strengths in these areas by sending a negatively framed message.
Sally Young describes how there is a large body of US research which has found that the use of negative political advertising grew dramatically in the US during the 1980s and 1990s. In Australia however there has been only “informal speculation” that variously describes the increasing negativity of TV advertising as the “Americanisation” of Australian political advertising or “American-style TV attack ads”.
Sally Young also refers to writing by Ward & Cook (1992) which expresses fear that there are considerable dangers to democracy in Australia ‘whilst the parties continue to imitate American campaign methods.’
In a 2004 parliamentary library research note Political Advertising In Australia Sarah Miskin and Richard Grant explore some important aspects of Australian political advertising, including the current legislation, the debates over ‘truth’ in content and the claims that Australia’s political parties are opting for ‘Americanised’ election advertisements “primarily based on negative or ‘attack’ advertising”. An accusation by former Labor leader Mark Latham that a Liberal Party advertisement targeting his alleged failings as a mayor was ‘dishonest’ and ‘personal’ and reflected ‘American-style negative advertising’ contradicts findings from political scientists like Sally Young who show that, “rather than reflecting a shift to Americanised techniques, negativity in campaigning was already a quite distinctly Australian feature”, although she “acknowledges that a more recent move towards personalised, rather than general, negative advertising in Australia can be seen to reflect American campaign-advertising styles.”
Sally Young’s research shows that “comparing the results with overseas studies which have used the same methodology suggests that negative political advertising is higher in Australia than in most comparable Western democracies—including the US. However, there are still some important differences in emphasis. Negative ads in the U.S. focus more on the personal characteristics of opponents than in Australia—where negative ads still generally focus on policy and performance issues.” Young also writes that her research suggests that “negative advertising in Australia is not an entirely new trend, nor a result of ‘Americanisation’” but has in fact “a long history in Australia” due to a fiercely partisan two-party adversarial system”.
In an article of the 1998 Australian federal election in the journal Electoral Studies, David Butler writes “Both sides spent heavily on extensive and overwhelmingly negative television advertising. Voters in marginal seats received a lot of direct mail.”
Sally Young compared the ads in the 2000 US presidential election, where “71% of American ads contained a personal attack, compared to only 6% of ads used in the nearest Australian election in 2001.” But in 1993 “a massive 75% of federal election ads in Australia were negative compared to 37% of American political ads in 1992.”
One would expect this negativity in Australian ads, whilst already much higher than American comparisons, will actually increase over coming years since regulations were dramatically liberalised in the 2004 federal election when “the Federation of Australian Commercial Television Stations (FACTS) ceased its self-appointed role of scrutinizing the content of political ads for veracity after discovering that the requirements of the Trade Practices Act of 1974 did not apply to political advertising.”
Young also quotes an observation by Stephen Mills and H O’Neil (of which I have been unable to find an original copy) that “Australian ads deal… more with arguing and attacking than American ads”.
No historical overview of negative political advertising in Australia would be complete without discussion of ‘John Henry Austral’, a character in a radio drama created by Sim Rubensohn, Liberal advertising agent in 1948. Mills describes Menzies re-election in 1949 as “the first use in Australian politics of recognisable ‘modern’ advertising techniques.”
Don Whitington, in his book, The Rulers, describes Menzies as the first Australian politician to seriously exploit the electronic media and to cultivate a public image through extensive PR work.
Bridget Griffen-Foley describes how the Liberals Federal President Richard Casey wrote to Menzies “about a discovery he made as ambassador in Washington. Casey learned from American friends about a new profession called ‘Public Relations’ that had developed in the 1930s. After consulting a leading practitioner in New York, Casey became convinced of the need to create a favourable atmosphere to advance one’s cause.”
Casey hired Rubensohn in 1947 after learning he had split from his former federal Labor employers over the Chifley Government’s plans to nationalise banks. In a letter to Menzies in 1949 (cited by Sally Young from the National library) , Rubensohn describes his preference for negative advertising:
“My experience is that vigorous attack directed against chinks in the other man’s political armour is of vital importance in assuring the effectiveness of election advertising. I feel very strongly on this point. I am convinced that non-militant advertising no matter how ‘positive’ its underlying message may be, is ineffectual, lacks attention value, is unconvincing and a waste of money.”
Rubensohn utilised the popular radio drama format of the 30s and 40s to deliver Menzies’ political message into the lounge rooms of Australian voters. He created a character ‘John Henry Austral’ who, according to Mills “for more than 18 months presented dramatised accusations to the nation about the Chifley Government’s socialist sins.”
Mills delves deeply into the John Henry Austral story and bases much of his analysis on the archived letters between Menzies and Rubensohn held in the national Library, as well as thesis by Sim Rubensohn’s daughter Victoria Braund titled Themes in political advertising, Australian Federal Election campaigns 1949-1972. There is also an online article by Robert Crawford Modernising Menzies, Whitlam, and Australian Elections which cites Mills and Braund and links the two campaigns and “their innovative use of electronic media” as the prime examples “which helped usher Australian politics into the modern era”.
It’s clear from the descriptions that Austral’s commentaries were a clever combination of anti-communist fear-mongering and nationalist concerns. Mills explains that “Austral’s preference for the Liberal Party as the panacea to the nation’s problems was never too deeply hidden’ but that Austral “presented himself as an independent commentator whose Liberal sympathies sprang less from partisanship than from nationalism and common-sense rejection of the amorphous and emotional horrors that Labor was inflicting.” The Liberals spent a relative fortune on this radio campaign and used it as a complement to another advertising idea borrowed from America “Country Quiz” which the Liberal party sponsored. Mills states it was estimated that the Liberals spent a million pounds winning the 1949 federal election. The important lessons of the campaign (such as the use of electronic media to broadcast aggressive and emotional advertising as well as the centralisation of the campaign in the federal party organisation) “were not repeated for the 23 years of Liberal rule. Even after Rubensohn came back to the Labor side, such a campaign was financially impossible and probably politically impossible too.”
Victoria Rubensohn writes that during the 23 years of Liberal rule following the 1949 election, “Australian elections tended to be fought with pre-war, pre-mass-media techniques” with text heavy print advertisements of policy promises and dogma.
It was not until the 1972 ‘It’s Time” campaign that electronic advertising seemed to again play such a dramatic role in an Australian election. Again, Rubensohn was part of the team, his agency having previously merged with the American advertising giant McCann Erikson. Mills writes that the “It’s Time” campaign “bears most of the Austral insurgency hallmarks of long-term advertising and disciplined centralisation.”
Wherever there is negative advertising there is also a need to counter it. Sally Young writes in 2005 that “Aside from ‘It’s the economy stupid’, it’s less well known that Bill Clinton’s campaign team had another unofficial slogan in 1992: ‘Speed Kills’,” referring to the need to speed and flexibility to make response ads and get them on air quickly.
We saw a great example of this in 2007 during the federal election when Labor used a video image of Kevin Rudd turning off a TV attack ad which had been aired by the Liberals (the day before) with a remote control and then addressing the camera to deal with the allegations. The Liberals responded with a spoof of the Labor ad, showing Howard turn off the original Labor response ad. Comedians on the TV program “The Chaser” then stretched the concept to the limit, showing a continuous loop of people turning off each other’s TV ads with remotes.
Mills details one of the earliest instances of successful negative TV advertising during the 1980 federal election when “The Liberals broadcast one of the most negative television commercials of Australia’s political history, the famous ‘wealth tax’ advertisement which haunted middle Australia with the threat of new Labor taxes on home owning.” Despite “Bill Hayden’s Labor’s Opposition putting together the most disciplined research and communications campaign it had ever managed, one that was clearly better than the Government’s” and Hayden “regularly polling better than Malcolm Fraser”, Fraser was returned to office.
Lynton Crosby, in his post-1998-election analysis, explained that negative advertising is not meant to be liked or enjoyed “Political advertising is unique, a fact that the dozens of marketing and advertising experts who seem to be wheeled out to make commentary during and after a campaign do not seem to understand. Election advertising is not designed to be liked but rather to have an effect on people’s voting behaviour”
During the recent 2007 federal election, the Howard Government attacked Labor’s new leader Kevin Rudd repeatedly and also attacked the Labor brand using scare campaigns about ‘wall-to-wall Labor’, ‘Union bullies’ and Peter Garrett’s environmental policies, all to little effect. In her essay Exit Right. The unravelling of John Howard Judith Brett describes how Howard’s attacks on Rudd surprised even the visiting American pollster Frank Luntz, who described them as “the most blunt terminology I have ever seen a leader use”. Luntz joked that for every question journalists asked Howard, he found a way to criticise Rudd with the answer. “If someone asks him: Where’s the toilet? He answers: Exactly where Australia will be if Kevin Rudd becomes the Prime Minister”
Commentating on the recent CLP comeback in the Northern territory in August 2007, Senator Mark Arbib wrote “While some people think that wedge politics originated in the USA with the Republicans, it was the CLP who specialised in it much earlier: using law and order to drive a wedge between the local indigenous and white community. It’s a tactic that has helped them win many elections and almost got them home last Saturday.”
It is important to remember that the systemic differences between US and Australian elections result in different strategies being pursued by seemingly similar campaign techniques. Many US studies focus measurement of campaign effect by looking at voter turnout, which can be more easily measured than subjective statements about why people vote a certain way based on the effects of persuasive arguments and messages. It is often suggested that one of the electoral strategies in negative campaigning in the US is “voter suppression” or “turnout suppression”, where the content and volume of negative messages and materials dampens turnout. Gerber, Green and Green conducted randomised field experiments which “indicate partisan campaign mail does little to stimulate voter turnout and may even dampen it when the mail is negative in tone” As far as the author could find, no similar randomised studies exist about the effect in Australian elections. 31
During the 2006 US congressional elections the author witnessed first hand the results of a local Republican voter suppression strategy and techniques utilising robocalls targeted at Democrat voters in Philadelphia. One voter called to complain to the Democrat campaign after receiving three messages in four hours. Each pro-Republican call misleadingly began, “Hello, I’m calling with information about Lois Murphy…” and many were received late at night and early in the morning, designed to inconvenience and upset Democrat supporters who would hang up on the calls before hearing the Republican tag at the end. Many called the campaign office, mistakenly believing the calls were made by the Murphy campaign and disgusted that the Democrat campaign would harass voters in such a way.
There have been many reports about the long-term ill-effects of negative advertising on democracy and voter turnout, as well as explanations of why negative advertising is used. In Does negative advertising work? Harris and Kolovos list numerous marketing-based principals (such as differentiating candidates, memorable messaging, newsworthiness) as well as electoral effects (motivating your base and suppressing your opposition turnout). 114
Mills is adamant in his 1986 book that “largely American-derived marketing techniques” have changed Australian politics “beyond recognition” – but have they? Recent innovations since the 1970s have certainly made politics more professional and expensive but the fundamentals of political success remain the same, if not the technology that is used to help deliver a political message. One of his assertions seems premature (with the benefit of hindsight): “The old ways – stump speeches, town hall meetings, closely typed handbills (ok, he’s right on the money with that one) – have given way to computers and TV and public opinion polls and group discussions and phone polls and direct mail.”
Former ALP National Secretary Bob Hogg is critical of “sentimental arguments” decrying the end of town hall meetings, as well as suggestions that modern campaigns being “too presidential”. In his chapter Hawke the campaigner, from The Hawke government: a critical retrospective Hogg writes that “We have moved from hall and street meetings simply because people now rarely turn up. Decades ago such meetings in much smaller communities were a part of the mass communication of the times. They no longer are. Television and radio are the most effective ways to reach a mass audience.”
But have much of “the old ways” that Mills and Hogg refer to been replaced? Or has the form of mass communication changed to suit various candidates and campaign managers? The lead up to the 2004 federal election saw a revival of the “campaign bus” concept, itself borrowed from the campaign trains and buses of US political history. Although the final result of the Latham campaign bus was immersed in a wider political tragedy, the localised results were impressive, with 600-800 people cramming school halls and bowling clubs for a turn at the microphone and the Leader’s ear. The nightly news predictably focused on the one or two hecklers at each event, rather than the vast majority of participants who were enthusiastic participants in an “old style” unscripted town hall meeting.
2004 also saw the direct import of some email and sms spamming techniques from the US into Australia via Prime Minister John Howard’s son, who had spent some time working closely with US republicans in George Bush’s office. Julianne Stewart described how “Several Liberal MPs used Howard’s son’s Internet company to send email spam to their electorates” and were able to do so because “political and religious organisations are exempt from recent anti-spamming legislation in Australia.”
In the 2006 Queensland election both parties produced websites that, although far from cutting edge, indicated that the internet had become a permanent feature of Australian campaigns. Stephen Dann disparaged the Coalition website from a political marketing perspective explaining “Visually, technically and politically, this is a campaign website that needs five fab web designers and a makeover. The unspoken message from the site is a political campaign nightmare – the design is old, the reference to the PM makes it seem like qldcoalition.com isn’t really a state website, and placement of the policy link as the last on the page says volumes about the party’s priorities. None of this is probably intentional, but it’s all harmful to the political message. This site looks marginally better than you’d expect at Yahoo!Geocities but is definitely is getting beaten at any point in the web design spectrum by the TeamBeattie site.” Describing both sites “There are no revolutionary new media techniques, no adoption of the cutting edge, and that’s probably for the best. Political campaigning as we currently recognise it is incompatible with the open platform “spaces people use” approach of Web 2.0, and far more at home in the Web 1.0 “place you go” style. If you were looking for a revolution in Internet politics at the state level, you’ll have to wait for the next election.”
A few months later in early 2007, the NSW state election brought one new aspect to internet political campaigning – the humorous “jib-jab” style of cartoon singing parody. A Labor YouTube video cartoon and jingle “In the Liberals” made fun of Liberal Leader Peter Debnam, a former naval officer, to the tune of the famous Village People song In the navy. The video’s appearance on mainstream TV helped publicise the anti-Liberal YouTube website http://www.youtube.com/user/debnamrecord.
The humour of YouTube cannot work in isolation. The animation described above summarised the widely held opinion in the mass media that the opposition leader was not a serious contender. The image of him in his speedos came to define that assessment.
One of the unexpected effects of YouTube has been to revive interest and appreciation in some aspects of old-style campaigning, namely good speeches and quick-witted responses during debates and interviews. Within hours of an impressive candidate speech by presidential hopeful Barack Obama or a mistake by President George Bush, it appears on the web for all who care to see and make their own judgement.
In September 2007 the E-Voter institute in the US published an extensive report about the latest developments in Internet campaigning. It is important to look at because it identified several weaknesses in the trend to more online campaigning: voters prefer TV ads as a medium for information from candidates; internet tools are seen as effective for reaching liberal activists (but not conservatives); and online social networking sites a good for “creating a buzz” and “spreading a message” but not necessarily effective stimulants for traditional political activism.
It will be interesting to see if the research following this year’s presidential election bucks these trends, particularly as there have been many recent report that some traditional campaign activities (such as fundraising) are now done just as efficiently online as using traditional techniques (phone and mail).
The 2007 Australian federal election was often referred to as “the YouTube election” (as was the 2006 US mid-term election). Macnamara uses media content analysis to find the term was used no less than 19 times in the mainstream media in the three months prior to the election date. Some of the “new media” which is identified in E-Electioneering – Use of New Media in the 2007 Australian Federal Election includes: Political and election related Web sites including personal Web sites of political candidates; political party Web sites; and independent Web sites including http://www.federalelection.com.au; http://www.google.com.au/election2007; http://www.electiontracker.net; http://www.Youdecide2007.org; Senator On-Line (www.senatoronline.org.au); and GetUp (www.getup.org.au); Blogs of political candidates such as The Bartlett Diaries (www.andrewbartlett.com/blog) and independent election-related blogs such as Crikey (www.crikey.com.au); http://www.newmatilda.com and Possum Pollytics (www.possumcomitatus.wordpress.com); [author – he omits the popular mumble.com.au and Pollbludger.com.au]; Vlogs (video Web logs); MySpace sites (www.myspace.com); Facebook sites (www.facebook.com); YouTube (www.youtube.com); Chat rooms and online forums; Wikis; E-newsletters (online or downloadable in PDF format); E-surveys (online surveys); and other online communication such as online petitions. Macnamara concludes that the effect of new media is still patchy as participation rates are still low, particularly compared to the US, with its higher use of broadband. He also concurs with a recent American study that “some level of digitally-enhanced democracy is occurring” but that the medium is still dominated by official channels.
McAllister and Gibson use figures from the 2007 Australian Election Study to demonstrate the growing importance of new web 2.0 technologies to the modern Australian campaign. From a professional campaign perspective, a randomised field study would be required to support their conclusions of the “significant electoral advantage that accrues to candidates who possess a personal website” however their findings about the turning point that has been reached with these new campaign tools is beyond question. The AES found that “voters themselves reported considerably more use of the internet to access election news than at any time in the past.” Although “the Internet is still far behind television as a source of election news”, “it is rapidly catching up with newspapers and radio.” McAllister and Gibson write how the Kevin07 website “became synonymous with the message of engagement, openness and progressive change that Labor and particularly their leader, sought to embody. Mirroring the efforts of the US presidential candidates, the pages contained numerous calls for voters to donate, volunteer, spread the word online and contribute to Kevin’s blog, as well as links through to his pages on MySpace, Facebook and an official YouTube video channel.
McAllister quotes a Chen and Walsh study which criticised politician’s websites for “low functionality, with basic search and feedback facilities existing on less than half of the sites examined”. Even though they conclude that the use of web campaigning has become more complex, there is no critique of poor political website or Internet practice in the McAllister and Gibson. Practitioners in 2007 and in previous elections are aware of many poor political websites which could possibly lose as many votes as they earn, so there is certainly more room for some case study analysis, combined with randomised sampling to try and measure the effect of different styles of web campaigning and focus on different functionality (video, policy information, still photos, biography, blogging, interactivity, etc.) affects electoral outcome. Practitioners (mostly MPs and their campaign teams) who don’t understand the statistical science behind McAllister’s study will predictably react with the notion that their conclusions about correlation are beyond dispute but that the causal links between web activity and electoral success are still in doubt due to the numerous local, candidate, national and state factors which may not have been considered in the statistics. The author witnessed such an exchange of ideas between an MP and McAllister and Gibson, during a discussion about their 2006 paper linking electoral success in the 2004 election and online campaigning, and the authors have since written “whether such conversion power can be attributed to the viewing of a website is clearly debatable”. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that the disputed premise of their earlier study has in fact proven to be correct from a practitioner’s viewpoint, given the electoral benefits of the Kevin07 online campaign. But it is debatable which elements of the online campaign can be successfully replicated by individual MPs and parties in the future. The practitioners will always be primarily concerned with any electoral competitive advantage that can be gained from such analysis and where they cannot discern it, will revert to methods they believe are more effective.
Supporting views from Miskin, Bruns and Kissane add weight to the argument that one specific aspect of their online campaign, both party’s YouTube postings, were primarily targeted at journalists in the mainstream media, in a successful strategy to capture airtime on TV and online news sites “rather than “craft a message to suit the medium”.
Australian characters have also featured in American online campaigning discourse. In the lead up to the 2007 federal election, Prime Minister John Howard made a widely reported and unveiled attack on Barack Obama and the US Democrats when he described the US Presidential Primary contest and likely win by Barack Obama: “If I were running al Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008, and pray, as many times as possible, for a victory not only for Obama, but also for the Democrats.” Obama, campaigning in Iowa, told reporters he was flattered that one of Bush’s allies “started attacking me the day after I announced (his presidential run) – I take that as a compliment.” The Democratic presidential hopeful said if the Australian Prime Minister was “ginned up to fight the good fight in Iraq,” he needs to send another 20,000 Australians to the war, “otherwise, it’s just a bunch of empty rhetoric.”
Within hours, US television networks were reporting the exchange and it was only a matter of time before comedians like Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report (which humorously poses as a neo-conservative media show) joined in the fray when he let fly with a stereotype-laden retort that was widely distributed via YouTube:
“Bravo Prime Minister, or as they say in Australia, didgeridoo your mateship. (audience laughs) I guess now we know what those kangaroos are hiding in their pouches, (gestures with hands) kookaburra-sized balls (laughter). The conservative Howard knows that in this war you are either with us, or you’re a Democrat (laughter). Which brings me to my next wag of the finger, (pointing sternly at camera) to Australian Prime Minister John Howard, for slamming a citizen of the United States (laughter). Listen you sawed off wallaby, we know ‘fosters’ is Australian for ‘beer’ but what’s Australian for ‘shut your damned trap’? (laughter) Keep your shrimp-stained fingers off Barack Obama. (laughter) Leave the ad hominem attacks on him to Americans. Why don’t you go back to worrying about your little cane toad problem and the fact that your whole damned country’s descended from criminals? (laughter) Oh, and the next time you’re ‘Waltzing with Matilda’, you might want to check out her Adam’s apple, ‘cause she’s a dude! (Audience in uncontrollable laughter, while Colbert composes himself and shuffles papers together, adjust suit and glasses). That being said, I agree with everything he said.”
In many ways the new technologies have replaced more traditional forms of political entertainment that were once provided by Soap-box debates in forums such as Melbourne’s pubs or Sydney’s Domain.
Ian Ward wrote that the although both major parties in the 2007 election did develop a Web2.0 Internet campaign, neither major party engaged an online audience in their campaign in the way modern US campaigns do, or even the way the activist site GetUp has demonstrated is possible. The most watched YouTube political videos were not party ads, but satirical clips such as that produced by a Sydney law student depicting Kevin Rudd in the style of Mao Zedong in Chinese propaganda films, and take-offs of 80s music clips with lyrics that ridiculed John Howard.
Ward writes that “Labor’s pitch to the YouTube generation is one key to explaining the sizeable swing the ALP obtained on November 24. The key point to be made is not that Labor made effective use of Web2.0 to engage Generation YouTube, but that it was able to use its Kevin.07 website and Facebook, MySpace and YouTube to brand Rudd as a new generation leader with fresh ideas, and the ALP as the party of innovation. Relatively few Gen Y voters visited its website or downloaded its ads from Labor’s YouTube channel. Nonetheless Labor was able to employ its Internet presence as a marketing tool, to connect with younger voters more broadly, and to reverse the Liberals’ ascendancy amongst voters in the 18 to 34 age range.”
In an article describing the 2007 election debate about Industrial Relations, Diana Kelley wrote “Perhaps the most effective use of new media came through the progressivist and activist sites such as GetUp and, the ACTU directed Your Rights at Work. These offered opportunities not only to express ideas, debate and discuss issues, describe personal experiences, but most notably to be engaged in the election process, rather than as passive recipients of information.”
The most memorable (because they were the most entertaining) episodes of YouTube campaigning on the Internet were provided by highly engaged voters, operating without party instruction or affiliation. The best examples were from a 24 year old Sydney Law Student Hugh Atkin produced the now famous online “Chinese Propaganda Video” portraying Kevin Rudd as mandarin-speaking clone of Chairman Mao. So popular was this video that it was literally viewed by millions who saw it regularly rebroadcast on TV through shows like “Insiders”, “Sunrise” and various talk-shows. It was a great demonstration of the viral nature of humorous YouTube videos, especially the dramatic effect they can have if the virus leaps into another broadcast medium.
Another popular video was “John Howard 2007 Bennelong Time Since I Rock and Rolled” which was put together, along with many other anti-Howard online videos by a resident of Howard’s electorate of Bennelong, Stefan Sojka. Stefan’s experience as a creative director in a Sydney-based web design company meant he was armed and ready for the 2007 campaign and made the most of his creative humour and intimate knowledge of Howard and his policies to impress a growing online audience.
Macnamara describes how “most journalists and commentators reported that the ALP’s use of new media was more effective than the Liberal Party’s based on online feedback, viewer ratings, volumes of ‘friends’ and public discussion.”
It was frequently reported that the Kevin07 site followed the conventions of new media more closely and that Kevin Rudd was generally more comfortable and familiar with the protocols and etiquette of the Web. One journalist noted: “Launching his MySpace site in mid-July, [Kevin Rudd] deftly promised – in response to a teenager’s criticism that his website was ugly – that he was ‘having it pimped’” (Sydney Morning Herald, 17 November 2007). Another reported that: “John Howard’s foray into YouTube was a complete flop, provoking hundreds of ‘mashups’ satirical responses attacking the PM and his policies. ‘It was like vultures picking at a carcass. Howard failed because he didn’t understand the medium and its rules. He just plonked himself in YouTube without even an introduction,’ [digital marketing expert Julian] Cole says. Kevin Rudd is choosing to campaign with his Kevin07 website, which links to his pages on Facebook, MySpace and YouTube: innovative media choices that Mr Cole says add weight to the ALP leader’s ‘fresh ideas’ philosophy” (The Age, 25 October 2007). Australia’s leading media buyer Harold Mitchell observed that John Howard appeared uncomfortable in his use of new media.
Some of the best users of the new ICTs have been third party groups like Unions and GetUp! In an online article on Crikey, Andrew Hughes explains “the influence of stakeholder groups has long been an issue in Australian politics. Some stakeholder groups have direct influence on the formulation of not just party policy, but party administration, choice of candidates and campaigning. The union movement still exerts a tremendous influence on the Labor Party and there is no doubt that business groups such as the Business Council of Australia have a direct influence on the Liberal Party. Even the so called minor parties are not free from the influence of stakeholder groups – the Greens are influenced by the larger organisations in the conservation movement such as the ACF, the Nationals by the NFF and Family First by the new religious churches such as Hillsong. In its short three years of operation GetUp! has grown more rapidly than any other political organisation in Australian history with its simple product offering people everywhere to have a say on the issue of their choice. They know their power is their massive membership base, particularly in the critical 18-39 age middle class segment. Ask any consumer goods marketer and they’ll tell you that if you can crack this segment then you can nearly control the market. No surprise then that this is now the hottest segment to control in politics. Win this segment and you win elections. GetUp!, with so many of its members falling into this category, has suddenly won a lot of friends and learned how to influence people. If it fails to act impartially then GetUp! will notice that the 18-39 segment is also fickle and will leave it in droves. GetUp! and other stakeholder groups are a fixture of Australian politics whose true influence we are only now beginning to see.
The use of TV commercials which have a strategic role in convincing the media of a theme or message continues and has expanded to include new technologies such as YouTube. In 2007 both sides effectively utilised the news media’s interest in the campaign to promote their message.
Commercials that only had a short run on TV, or in some cases, only appeared on the Internet, even though they were referred to misleadingly as “TV advertisements” got more “airtime” via news reporting of the message rather than the paid advertisements themselves.
In 2007, the media widely reported that the Labor Party was utilising a new campaign technique introduced to Australia by the Liberals in 2004. Automatic phone messages, often referred to in the US as ‘robocalls’ were copied directly by the Liberals from the US Republican campaign handbook. It was reported earlier that one of Mr Howard’s sons had worked on the 2004 Bush/Cheney campaign in the US. In October 2004, the following phone message was sent by the Liberal party to homes across Australia:
“Hello this is John Howard. I’ve taken the unusual step of contacting you with this recorded message to support your local Liberal candidate for Bowman, Andrew Laming. As part of my Federal Liberal team, Andrew Lamming … I know Andrew Lamming and I know he will get things done for Bowman. This is John Howard on behalf of Andrew Lamming. Thank you for your time.”
Unfortunately the 2004 calls seemed to generate a large amount of negative feedback. Robocalls a widely used in the US for a variety of purposes. So widespread is there use (and misuse) that legislation exists in a number of states to limit their use. The legislation is hamstrung by the fractured and inconsistent nature of state-based laws in the US, thus providing as many loopholes as restrictions for candidates and campaign teams in the use of this new weapon. In 2004 in Australia the headlines reporting this new campaign method included “Liberal telephone calls anger voters” and “Liberal phone spam doesn’t ring true, say unhappy targets.” ABC reporter Karen Barlow described how “phone spamming” is “just one of the new ways that political parties around the world are bypassing the mainstream media.” The complaints lodged with the ACA at the time included the use of unlisted numbers and mobile numbers (which resulted in reports of voters being charged to retrieve the phone message).
There was also speculation, although no evidence is provided, that the Liberal Party connection to Acxiom may have been a useful source of the telephone data. Axciom is a US-based international direct marketing technology company which had (prior to his preselection for the federal seat of Goldstein) Liberal Andrew Robb as its Australian Director. Prior to running Axciom for the Packer organisation, Rob was Liberal Deputy Director, then he was opposition leader Andrew Peacock’s chief of staff, and, in 1990, Liberal federal director. In that job he ran the 1993 and 1996 federal election campaigns for the Liberal Party.
Acxiom in Australia, established in 1999, is “a wholly owned subsidiary of US-based Acxiom Corporation. Until April 2002, Publishing and Broadcasting Limited (PBL) owned 50%. PBL have retained a strategic interest in Acxiom Australia. For 33 years Acxiom Corporation has helped companies integrate and manage their internal customer data to increase marketing efficiency. Acxiom’s stock in trade includes merging customer data from disparate databases, mining this customer data, profiling customers to help companies target their marketing efforts and providing consumer and business data to assist in acquisition or retention strategies. With offices in Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland, Acxiom provides these services built for, or tailored to, the local marketing environment.”
In her post-election research paper for the Australian Parliamentary Library, Sarah Miskin wrote that Academics Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen had predicted in July 2004 that electronic phone messaging would be used in the federal election campaign, albeit in a limited way due to its ‘infancy’. She also wrote “Voter reaction to the pre-recorded message calls may have been more positive had the Prime Minister actually made the calls, as one reported comment revealed: At first I thought my God, the Prime Minister’s calling. But then—as soon as I realised it was a recorded message—I just hung up”. She was quoting from another critical article that appeared in the West Australian titled “Voters hang up on PM’s phone spam”
Although Miskin repeats claims made in newspapers by the Liberals “that the calls had helped the Coalition win as many as six seats” this could be interpreted as boastful speculation rather than empirical analysis by Liberal campaign managers. Liberal pollster Mark Textor was quoted in the Age saying that the calls would be used in future elections because they had been so effective: “people appreciated the fact that they got a direct and unfiltered message from a political leader in a new, effective way”.
Miskin writes that “at least one Liberal candidate in the ACT election (held on 16 October 2004) was reported to have opted for the strategy, ‘bombarding the home phones of 17,500 voters with pre-recorded campaign messages’ authorised by the Canberra Liberals’ divisional office”. There is no mention of the name of the candidate or if his/her tactic was successful.
Automatic phone messages were used again but in 2007 it seemed that the Liberals had not adapted their techniques or learnt from previous campaigns. Despite intrusive telemarketing calls becoming a real nuisance for many people, to the point where a ‘Do Not Call’ register had been developed by the Government in response to community anger, the Liberal campaign chose to ignore it. The Labor Party campaign headquarters received numerous complaints about Liberal party automatic phone messages from voters who, as in 2004, claimed that their numbers (including mobile numbers) were not listed publicly or, alternatively, were on the new Australian “Do Not Call Register”. These reports were passed on to and known to the media, who also received information from Labor’s campaign spokesperson Penny Wong, how the Labor Party’s automated phone message was more carefully targeted and the lists used by the Labor Party had specifically only used publicly listed numbers which were commercially available and specifically removed people who were on the new Australian “Do Not Call Register”. Unlike the Liberals, Labor had learnt the important lesson from 2004 about the political cost of annoying calls. Even though there was no legislative requirement, the Labor campaign had made the correct decision to carefully avoid calling people who had registered on the new Australian “Do Not Call Register” and also chose to remove any publicly listed mobile numbers from the telephone lists which it had purchased.
Although many complaints were received about them, the text of the Liberals’ 2007 calls indicated that a decision about targeting strategy had been made, if not implemented carefully:
“Hello, I’m John Howard. I’ve taken the unusual step of contacting you with this message to let you know about our fully funded nine point plan to keep our economy strong. It includes: A big boost to the utilities allowance, anew cost of living guarantee for pensioners and surveillance cameras to keep our streets safer. At a time of global financial instability we need to keep the economy strong, secure your retirement and pay for vital services. To keep our economy strong please vote for your local Liberal candidate Peter Slipper. I’m John Howard and thanks for your time.”
Robocalls are certainly part of the normal campaign routine in the US. A study by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in April 2008 showed that recorded calls are moving ahead of mail and personal calls as an increasingly popular form of political advertising. In Iowa, where the presidential campaign season opened, the number of citizens who received at least one robocall was 81 percent.
In a recent newspaper article a US political consultant explained why the calls aren’t going away: “A direct mail piece now costs about 65 cents for every voter it reaches. Each live telephone call costs about 50 cents. But robocalls cost only about 6 cents each, with the price going down with volume.” While some of the calls are little more than a reminder to supporters to get out and vote, robocalls also can go on the attack. In Indiana in May, National Right to Life, an anti-abortion group, used robocalls to ask voters to reject Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in the state presidential primary. In South Carolina, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton made her own robocalls to slam another presidential candidate, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. But the celebrity calls may be the most effective, Ross said, because studies show listeners stay on the call longer when it’s someone famous on the line. One consultant said “We did a call with Arnold Schwarzenegger and we found people staying on the line even after it was over, waiting to see if there was more.”
One of the new innovative uses of the internet by political parties in Australia is for secure campaign websites, or ‘Extranets’ to facilitate the distribution of campaign information and materials to state branches, MPs, candidates and local campaign teams. Peter van Onselen’s paper On Message or Out of Touch? Secure Web Sites and Political Campaigning in Australia takes a critical view that begins by confusing the terms ‘Intranet’ and ‘secure web sites’ (commonly referred to as extranet’s in ICT circles, as access is largely obtained via the common Internet and other external networks, rather than through a virtual private network or VPN connection). Van Onselen admits that Intranets are commonly used in the business sector as well as the public sector and yet sees this tool as another example of “what has been described in the US as the ‘permanent campaign’” rather than a natural evolutionary use of new technology for better internal (and by design, external) political communication. Instead van Onselen argues that Extranets signify “another important step in the ongoing centralisation of power in political campaigning in Australia” and asks if the new ICTs possibly even “shift parties further toward the closed or cartelised form?” These are very critical generalisations to make without analysing the role that extranets have in improving communication efficiencies in any large dispersed organisation. Van Onselen underlines his criticisms of the party Extranet system by explaining how it was used by Howard’s Government Members Secretariat (the GMS was disbanded by the new Rudd Government) to provide tax-payer funded campaign support and how secure websites are “uplifted [author note – should be ‘uploaded’] as much as one year before the formal campaign period”, thus “disadvantaging smaller parties”. Obvious exceptions to this thesis would be the three current lower house independents and Senator Nick Xenophon, who success has not been affected by Liberal or Labor Extranets.
Greg Barns writes extensively about the Hoard Government’s misuse of the GMS in his book Selling The Australian Government: Politics and Propaganda From Whitlam to Howard. He also explains the genesis from Hawke’s NMLS, Fraser’s GIU and Whitlam’s AGLS.
The GMS was only one aspect of the impressive professionalisation of staff and message which took place when Howard won in office in 1996. Anne Tiernan’s book Power Wwithout Rresponsibility? Mministerial sStaffers in Australian Ggovernments from Whitlam to Howard describes the Liberal Party’s internal post-1983 Valder Report, which recommended how it would improve its operations by employing and training better political staff once it won office again.
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.