When politics is a game of perception not policy, everyone loses | Lenore Taylor | Australia news

In Politics
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Almost nothing induces throw-something-at-the-television rage more than politicians, or their advisers, happily admitting (after the fact) that they misled the electorate – and being smug about how very clever it was.

Take Tony Abbott’s former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, that she and Abbott always knew a floating carbon price wasn’t really a “tax” and gloating about how their success at making this falsehood “stick” meant Julia Gillard was “gone”.

, saying he was actually “agnostic” on the science of global warming and he only backflipped to support the idea of an emissions trading scheme to combat climate change before the 2007 election because of the “perfect political storm” that was gathering on the issue.

And now we have the Liberal party’s review of the 2016 election campaign, which “criticised the lack of concrete policy sitting behind the Coalition’s ‘jobs and growth’ campaign slogan”.

No kidding. That happens to be what many commentators and and experts said at the time – the evidence backing the contention that the centrepiece $48bn in company tax cuts would increase jobs was, at best, debatable. But Malcolm Turnbull stuck to his script, as every well-disciplined leader is advised that he must, and we never really got to the crux of the whole election campaign – what evidence was there that this was the best way to spend the money.

The absence of evidence did seem to make some difference to the Senate’s willingness to swallow the plan. As we know it only agreed to the tax cuts for businesses with a turnover of up to $50m. Economists continue to argue over the tax cut’s ultimate benefits, with Grattan Institute

This could have prompted a debate about whether this was the best use of the revenue forgone, but the government declined to argue the case in those terms.

Defending the fact he had not produced modelling for the package that was eventually passed, the treasurer, Scott Morrison, noted: “I tell you what, if you go down the pub and you talk to small-business people, they’re not talking about econometric models. What they’re talking about is how they’re going to grow their businesses,” elevating the “pub test” to a whole new level of importance in economic decision-making.

Morrison also suggested the problem was not with the lack of specific data upon which to base a decision, but lay with big businesses themselves, for “not address[ing] the broader collective reputation issues large businesses have with the Australian public that are being cynically exploited by an opportunistic Labor party”.

“Large business needs to apply itself collectively and urgently to this task of communicating their value, not for the sake of the government, but in the interests of the , their employees and their own shareholders,” Morrison said.

He’s not demanding, you’ll note, that big businesses apply themselves to making sure none among their number avoid tax, underpay workers or flout environmental laws, thereby improving their collective reputation as growth and job providers. Just that they undertake a collective marketing and sales campaign.

In fact there’s not much the government doesn’t think can be solved by some excellent public relations.

Musing about the Coalition’s close call in last year’s election, the immigration minister, , said that “one of the things we didn’t do … was neutralise the GetUp! and the Labor party’s scare campaigns on Medicare and otherwise”.

“It’s easy to scare people in politics and Shorten has mastered it. And we have to expose it and if we do that and continue to do that in the run-up to the election then we will see the polls turn around.”

Let’s put aside for aside a second the fact that Abbott must surely take line honours for scare campaigns. Labor, in my view, did run a scare campaign around the “privatisation” of Medicare based on the government’s plans – later abandoned – of outsourcing the ageing back office payments system, which isn’t the same thing at all. But it only “stuck” – to use Credlin’s terminology – because the had also had numerous policies that would have undermined Medicare, including the copayment. Surely the best “neutralisation” strategy would be a clear long-term commitment to Medicare.

And in any event, all of the analysis of problems and possible successes is based on the idea that politics is mostly a perception game, assuming that the right slogan and the best sales campaign will give one major party the edge over the other, regardless of the real-world impact of the policies that sit behind them.

was seen as good news for Labor, because the ALP outflanked the Liberals on most measures of which party was best trusted to look after particular groups in society, and especially in the demographics that most often contain swinging voters.

Labor, for instance, was 14 percentage points ahead on the question of which party best represented families with children, 33 points ahead on who best represented working people on low incomes, and 15 points ahead with families on average incomes.

But that ignores some other truly interesting figures. Thirty percent, , almost one third of voters, didn’t know which party best represented families with children, and almost as many didn’t know which best represented working people on low and average incomes. And each of those numbers is strikingly higher than when similar questions were polled by Essential six years ago – with an increase in the “don’t knows” corresponding to a decrease in those nominating the Coalition. Given how hard all parties try to claim the mantle of representing ordinary hard-working families, this surely suggests the Coalition is doing something wrong and Labor isn’t doing enough right if you raise your gaze from the two-party binary.

Perhaps, as politicians fight over who can “sell” their “narratives”, or be “seen” to be in touch, or “perceived” to be competent – or at least more competent than the other major party – voters are correctly “perceiving” that this is more often than not a game, a marketing exercise, sometimes even a disingenuous misrepresentation, that has precious little to do with actual arguments that would really do something for those “ordinary” people’s wellbeing. Conceding there was a lack of concrete policy behind the central argument in your election campaign would surely reinforce that very astute perception.

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