Let’s be clear from the outset. The lead up to the September 14 election will not be a respectful contest of ideas, a civil battle of policies and plans. It will be a bare-knuckle street fight between personalities, with no holds barred. The Abbott way countenances no other approach.
To seize the top job, the Abbott way is to have many lines of attack. A keen observer of the Abbott way is the source of the principles and strategies detailed below. Some may appear counterintuitive, but they work:
Feelings are more important in winning elections than rational thinking.
Capturing hearts trumps changing minds.
Emotionally laden words beat fact-based logic.
Here is the Abbott way of applying them:
Facts and logic point to the virility and robustness of Australia’s economy. So many of its parameters are laudable: low unemployment, low inflation and falling interest rates, low debt to GDP ratio, growth near trend, even rising business and consumer confidence and increasing retail sales in recent months.
Although we hear of job losses as industries affected by the persistently high Australian dollar shed workers, all except 5.6% of the workforce have jobs, historically low by any standard.
Mortgagees enjoy the lowest interest rates since the lows of the GFC, avoiding thousands of dollars a year in interest payments. Self-funded retirees who depend heavily on interest bearing investments for income complain a little, but there are not many of them; most have investments and property.
But ask the people how they are doing, and they say they are doing it tough.
Yet they live in a vibrant economy, where CPI data tell us that while petrol and power prices are up, food and supermarket prices are falling. Even where some costs have risen because of putting a price on carbon, households have been more than compensated. But ask the people about prices and they vow they are getting higher and higher, despite evidence to the contrary. It is embedded in their psyche that ‘they are doing it tough’.
Facts and reasoning, even commonsense, are replaced by the feeling that things are crook.
With such an economy, the Gillard Government ought to be miles ahead in the polls and be rated as good economic managers, but not only is the Coalition well ahead, polls show that it is consistently rated as the better manager of the economy. It defies logic.
But it does demonstrate the principle that how people feel is more important than what they think. Facts are irrelevant if there is an entrenched feeling to the contrary.
How has the Abbott way achieved this outcome?
It’s been easy. No matter how laudably the Government has been managing the economy, no matter how well Treasurer Swan is regarded in international circles, the tactic has been simply to tell everyone that the economy is tanking, that Labor never could manage money, that it is addicted to spending and debt, that it will never bring in a surplus budget, that it is creating sovereign risk, that its recent superannuation changes were 'shades of Cyprus', and that now even its coveted triple A ratings are under threat, then add that the Coalition knows how to run an economy, has done it before during the golden Howard years, and can do it again. Never mind that the economic circumstances of the Howard era and the current Labor era are radically different. People won’t even think about that if it’s not mentioned.
Which brings us to the second set of Abbott principles:
Truth is irrelevant in politics, but plausibility is not.
No matter how far from the truth, if a statement is convincing, and especially if it matches preconceived prejudices, it will be believed.
Remember Goebbels’ dictums: “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” and “The bigger the lie, the more people will believe it.”
The Coalition has applied these principles to its great advantage. It has created an atmosphere of distrust, even despair about the economy among consumers and businesses, and they have swallowed the gloom holus bolus. When the gloom has been challenged with the facts of a buoyant economy, it has been easy to contradict it by endlessly repeating that people are doing it tough, and exemplifying this with news stories about disgruntled families struggling to pay their mortgages and their household bills, especially power bills. It doesn’t matter if some of these families are earning $150,000 plus. With kids at private schools, a second car in the garage, and a large mortgage to pay off their McMansion; they really feel life is tough. These stories are intended to anger those who see themselves in a similar position, and to muster sympathy from those who aspire to such a position. The next step is to convince them and everyone else that it’s the Government’s fault and that they would be better off with competent managers in power – the Coalition of course.
The Coalition has been tactically clever in promoting this ‘ain’t it awful’ mindset, because it has made it difficult for the Government to counter by telling people that they are doing just fine. So Labor too has joined the ‘doing it tough’ chorus. In fact, only a few weeks back Joel Fitzgibbon said the people working the mines in his electorate on $140,000 a year were doing it tough, and a constituent on $250,000 was ‘struggling’. No amount of reminding these people about how good the economic figures are makes any difference – they remain convinced they are struggling and resent anyone telling them otherwise. So all the Coalition has to do is to repeat the ‘doing it tough’ message over and again.
Which takes us to a third set of Abbott principles:
Repetition is essential.
Never let up on sending your message, no matter how bored some may become. It might look like brainwashing, but it works.
Keep the message simple.
Ensure the message is memorable.
The Coalition has specialized in short sharp messages – opponents call them slogans. It doesn't care, so long as they stick. The message does not have to be true, or even logical, so long as it is believable and catchy.
Take the 2010 election catchphrases: ‘End the waste’, ‘Pay back the debt’, ‘Stop the big new taxes’, ‘Stop the boats’ and ‘Help struggling families’. Remember how easy it was to have the public embrace them. Who wouldn’t want an end to waste? There was no need to advance evidence of waste as already this had been done with the adverse publicity over the HIP and the BER. Who would object to paying back the debt? There was no need to show how the Coalition would do that, or even whether it might be a prudent thing to do at that time. Who would disagree with stopping big new taxes? Explaining what that meant was unnecessary as the carbon tax, vivid in everyone’s mind, was painted as ‘a great big new tax on everything’. All except a handful wanted the boats stopped to avert the risk of drowning. There was no need to say how the Coalition would do this, and at what cost. And the motherhood statement ‘Help struggling families’ was a no brainer. What fool would contradict that? How the Coalition would do this did not need to be spelt out; implicitly the catchphrase assumed it could and would.
Despite the brevity and lack of detail in these slogans, they worked a treat, because they were catchy, easily recalled and plausible, albeit superficially.
More recently, in the pursuit of a more positive image, the Coalition has used another catchphrase in its booklet: Our Plan – Real Solutions for all Australians to portray its ‘plan for the future’. Note how clever this is. ‘Real’ appeals, as does ‘solutions’! People want solutions and if they are ‘real’ what more could they ask? The fact that these words are meaningless without substance matters little. Solutions for what? How do solutions become ‘real?’ Can solutions be ‘unreal’? The meaning of the catchphrase is irrelevant so long as it sounds attractive and plausible. Substance is unnecessary. How many will read the booklet? The title is left to create the desired positive image, and it probably will.
Which segues into the fourth set of Abbott principles:
Use the ‘Humpty Dumpty’ approach – words can mean whatever you want them to mean.
If anyone challenges what meaning has been given to a word, simply say that that is not its meaning.
If anyone confronts you with a damaging statement a Coalition member or staffer has made, first deny it. If the chatter persists, insist that what was said was misinterpreted. If it continues, brush it away as ‘past history’, insist that action has been taken, and that ‘the matter is now at an end’.
For example, when the Coalition's Paid Parental Leave scheme was announced, the words ‘fair dinkum’ were used to describe it. Aussies like things to be ‘fair dinkum’; it’s a bit like ‘real solutions’. The words also had the effect of diminishing the value of Labor’s scheme; by definition it could not be as ‘fair dinkum’. To pay for it, a 1.5% ‘levy’ would be imposed on around three thousand companies with the largest profit. Everyone knew that would be portrayed as a ‘tax’, but it was easy to insist that it was a ‘levy’ and a ‘modest levy’ at that, and it would be offset by a similar reduction in company tax. The Coalition insists it is still a levy, and definitely not a tax. See how easy it is to make words mean whatever you want them to mean.
Another example is the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan to combat climate change. Note ‘action’ is a key word, one voters like, and this time it is ‘direct’, which of course makes it ‘real’. It has been easy to conceal from most voters the fact that the DAP will impose a burden of $1,300 on every household and cost taxpayers many billions every year, will require many new regulations and hundreds of new bureaucrats to enforce them, will rely on the creation of a 15,000 strong Green Army to plant 20 million trees on what semi-arable land can be procured, and on burying tonnes of biochar in farmland. By using the term ‘Direct Action Plan’ – three stylish and comfortable words – the Coalition has been able to deflect attention from details that some voters might find discomforting, and from all the negative appraisals of the Plan by economists and environmentalists, leaving them with just those reassuring words that have given the Plan a comfortable aura, words that would have made even Humpty Dumpty proud.
On the principle of brushing off damaging statements, the Coalition has managed to do that remarkably effectively over ‘Ashbygate’, and the Mark Roberts ‘slit your throat’ outburst.
This leads to the next set of Abbott principles:
To achieve any of the above, a compliant media is required.
The mainstream media in this country is the conduit for convincing the people of the veracity of what the Coalition says.
The value of having media proprietors onside is inestimable.
Be prepared to do whatever it takes to get them onside.
Foster support from the wealthy and powerful as they have influence over the media.
This has been a Coalition success story. The Murdoch media has shown its willingness to not just support the Coalition, but oppose the Government. The Coalition could not have asked for an easier ride from the MSM. The Australian and the Murdoch tabloids have been strongly supportive and ready to put the Government down at every opportunity. News Limited’s Newspoll has been used not just as a measure of support for the parties, but the results have been written up in a way that no matter what the figures show, Labor has been shown up at a disadvantage. Rupert Murdoch gave an early indication that he wanted the Gillard Government gone, and he has been true to his word. Let’s face it, the Coalition could not have been in the favourable position it is in without the help of the Murdoch media, and now with its good friend Gina Rinehart a big shareholder at Fairfax, another large media outlet is onside.
The ABC was hard on Abbott in the Leigh Sales interview about the BHP Billiton Olympic Dam deferral, but her latest interview was a soft one, no doubt the result of lots of angry protests filed by Coalition supporters against the earlier one. It was easy to avoid her questions and control the interview. The ABC too looks like coming on board.
This leads to the fifth set of Abbott principles:
It is not enough to counter your opponent’s policies; you have to counter your opponent.
Demonization of opponents, particularly leaders, is essential. It is a form of ‘shooting the messenger’.
Demonization can be achieved by accusing an opponent of some misdemeanour, over and again, no matter how remote in time.
The misdemeanour need not be of any consequence, as the object is simply to raise doubts in voters’ minds about the integrity of your opponent.
Labelling an opponent pejoratively is a sure fire method, as no matter how improbable the accusation, some of it will stick.
If a theme of malfeasance or incompetence can be established, so much the better, as each instance reinforces the others.
Even if a Coalition member is guilty of the same misdemeanour, laying it on an opponent is the best counter. For example, if you tell lies yourself, accuse your opponent of lying.
Even if journalists contradict your assertions, even if they question their validity, always insist that you are correct. Never retreat. Repeat them again and again as if you haven’t heard the contradiction.
Making the electorate angry with your opponent is essential; it is vital to build up resentment and an aura of blame, so that no matter what good things your opponent does, they will be negated by the antagonism, anger and hatred that you have generated against your opponent.
It is essential to have allies in the media before engaging these strategies.
The Coalition has been successful in employing these principles.
Julia Gillard has been demonised as a liar, and labelled untrustworthy. The Coalition was gifted with her statement about not introducing a carbon tax. We know that only half of what she actually said has been circulated, but that matters nothing. The Coalition has many video clips of her saying these words that it will use over and again in election advertising, painting her as an untrustworthy liar. No amount of logic or reasoning will erase that. It is a sure winner. And hasn’t the rehashing of the Slater and Gordon matter been effective in casting doubts on her integrity!
She and her Government have been labelled as incompetent on the grounds that she has changed her position on some issues, and has not been able to bring off some of her changes. Moreover, her Government has been repeatedly labelled as dysfunctional, disunited, illegitimate, ‘a rabble’, the worst government in the nation’s history, worse that Whitlam’s, and ‘a bad government getting worse’. This has steadily eroded confidence in the Government and Julia Gillard. It has been one of the Coalition’s most effective strategies.
Journalists do sometimes challenge the use of words, for example, the use of the word ‘illegal’ to describe asylum seekers. Although strictly speaking that is correct, it strengthens the antipathy to boat people if the word is used. Those who are antagonistic to them don’t care that it is legal to seek asylum. What they want is reinforcement of their existing prejudices.
This brings us to a sixth set of Abbott principles, which are about policies and the media:
Policy statements are unimportant almost until election-day, as an excuse for not making them can always be found, and the Government blamed for their absence.
The longer policy announcements and costings can be delayed the better. Keep the electorate guessing. Be a ‘small target’.
It is much more important to have a strong media unit than a policy unit.
A media unit sets up the leader and shadow ministers with the message for the day.
Simple messages, consistently delivered, are essential.
It doesn’t matter if the message is simplistic or at times incorrect or even inane, so long as it is delivered accurately, consistently and repeatedly.
Remember, most of the electorate is not analytical.
Messages must be plausible and memorable even if they don’t make a lot of sense.
Soft media interviews with complaint journalists are to be preferred.
‘Doorstops’ are easier to handle and wind up.
If a question is asked that is at all threatening, answer instead a preferred question, or address a more convenient subject, one endowed with more political capital.
If questions become tough or insistent, a tried and tested routine is simply to walk away.
It is better to walk away than to go on the record with an embarrassing or inappropriate answer that can be replayed endlessly.
Lengthy, hard studio interviews with probing persistent journalists are to be avoided.
Whatever you do, avoid saying anything that might ‘frighten the horses’. That can wait until after the election.
Use 'Tea Party' style public events with lots of placards and women as a background as that appeals to the people. Try to look like a nice guy, and behave kindly to women. Try to erase past images of nastiness. Insist you can change and grow into the job.
These principles have been used for over two years now, and the Coalition has got away with them.
The repeated slogans have been a winner. Voters don’t think too deeply about them, but they do repeat them on cue, like Pavlov’s dogs. If challenged, some may reflect on their veracity, but who bothers to put them right. Very few! People prefer their prejudices to a reasoned debate. Neither do voters think too deeply about new ideas, like Abbott's ‘development of the North’ and 'more dams' thought bubbles, and as they attract little scrutiny from the media, no detail is necessary so long as the ideas sound good.
The Coalition has been successful at avoiding difficult encounters with the media, and when the going has gotten tough, walking away has been a good solution. They get criticism from a few journalists for doing this, but most go along with the strategy. What can they do anyway?
The situations Abbott avoids are Q&A, 7.30, Lateline and radio interviews with astute people such as Jon Faine. Interviews with the likes of Alan Jones, Ray Hadley, Andrew Bolt, David Spears, Paul Kelly, and Peter van Onselen give the best result. They feed Dorothy Dixers, don’t come with the tough questions, and even when they try, as did van Onselen last week over the Mark Roberts ‘slit your throat’ episode, it was left to the end and meekly retreated from in the face of a firm rebuttal.
And the 'Tea Party' events have attracted a lot of publicity.
So there it is – how to grasp prime ministership the Abbott way, how to seize it from Julia Gillard, and simply slide into The Lodge, or Kirribilli! If it seems deeply cynical, that is because it is. This is the bare-knuckle approach of the man who wants to be this nation's leader, in all its gory detail.
The Coalition is well aware of hubris and says it is not taking anything for granted, but with the polls the way they are, it looks to Abbott as if he is a shoo-in for prime ministership, so long as no one puts their foot in it in the next five months and blows his flimsy cover.
This then is the ugly Abbott way, exposed for all to see; clever and successful in parts, but ugly nonetheless.
You could almost believe it had come right out of the horse’s mouth.
What do you think?
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