In the 2009 book The Best of Australian Political Writing edited by the publisher of Crikey, Eric Beecher, there is a chapter by Christine Jackman The future guy that was published in The Australian on 19 July 2008 that gives an account of the planning behind Kevin Rudd’s ascension to Opposition Leader and the campaign to wrest government from the Coalition. In it she explains how Neil Lawrence, the advertising executive Labor had engaged to assist in preparation for the 2007 election, applied Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of human needs, which Maslow represented in the shape of a pyramid, to fashion Labor’s election strategy. [more]
With apologies to those who know all about Maslow's pyramid, but for those unfamiliar with his work, Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who in 1943 published a paper A Theory of Human Motivation in which he described his concept of human beings having a hierarchy of needs. His hierarchy included five levels of basic needs. Beyond these needs, higher levels of needs exist. These include needs for understanding, aesthetic appreciation and purely spiritual needs. Within the five basic needs, the person does not feel the second need until the demands of the first have been satisfied or the third until the second has been satisfied, and so on. For more details of Maslow's five basic needs click here. A simple diagrammatic representation of the pyramid can be seen here.
Using Maslow’s concept, Lawrence devised a political pyramid into five corresponding levels. He contended that the most basic need for voters was a stable government, free from the threat of coup or revolution. The next level of need was for a government that exhibited sound economic management. The third level of need was for physical safety – strong law and order, safe immigration policies, and freedom from terrorism. Only after a political party was able to satisfy these basic needs would the electorate be interested in whether the party could satisfy higher order needs, such as a need for an equitable society and the fairness and decency of the Australian way of life.
For many years, the Howard Government had provided stable government, economic management that was perceived by the public to be sound, and relative security from external and internal threats. By contrast, Labor, because of its constant infighting and leadership instability and uncertainty had failed to demonstrate it could provide stable government, and virtually conceded economic management in the 2004 campaign when John Howard used the slogan “Who do you trust to keep interest rates low?” On this the people sided with the Coalition. This was reflected in every opinion poll.
Lawrence believed that with Howard occupying the lower three levels of the pyramid, people would not be all that interested in the more esoteric levels such as education and health – Labor’s traditionally strong areas – unless Labor could displace the Coalition from these three basic levels. Unless Labor could assume the ‘economically responsible’ mantle, the Coalition would characterize Labor’s education and health initiatives as yet more big Labor spending that the country could not afford, reinforcing the perception of its economic ineptitude.
With the election of Kevin Rudd as Opposition Leader, and Julia Gillard as his Deputy, the instability and leadership uncertainty disappeared overnight. Labor was at last seen as a stable party. Then Rudd, who was an acknowledged social conservative, claimed to be an economic conservative almost indistinguishable from Howard. He represented himself as just as safe a pair of hands as Howard but younger. This fitted well into Labor’s basic message that it represented ‘The Future versus the Past’. Labor’s areas of acknowledged strength: education and health, were recast into an economic framework and represented as being essential for prosperity and security. Moreover, it adopted just as firm a stance on security as the Howard Government while promising to remove some of the aspects of it that the people found distasteful, such as detention of asylum seekers on Pacific Islands – the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’.
The strategy worked. The public took to Rudd and the now-stable Labor Party, and the opinion polls reflected this month after month. The polls also showed that Labor’s economic credentials were steadily improving and approaching that enjoyed by the Coalition. As Labor began to share the lower levels of the political pyramid with the Coalition, the Coalition’s advantage in this regard diminished. Labor could then focus on higher levels where education, health and the killer issue – industrial relations and the inherent unfairness of WorkChoices – could come into play. The rest of the story is history. The recasting of Maslow’s hierarchical pyramid of human needs into the context of federal politics, and using it to guide election strategy, was a winner.
The Jackman article demonstrated two things. First that Maslow’s pyramid, which is so useful in psychology, education, health, business and international relations, can be just as useful when translated into a political framework.
Next, as I read the article it became apparent that the situation faced by Labor in 2006 was very similar to that now faced by the Coalition. Party disunity and leadership uncertainty bedevil the Coalition and make it difficult to offer a stable alternative to Labor; its economic credentials are being challenged; and its ownership of security no longer exists. It has been displaced from the three basic levels of the pyramid it occupied for so many years.
To reoccupy the Treasury benches the Coalition will need to re-establish itself at the base of the pyramid. That promises to be a long process.
Coalition disunity exists at several levels. The most obvious, starkly highlighted in recent days, is disunity between the Nationals and the Liberals over the ETS. The Nationals are adamant they will not vote for one, and insist on the right to not agree with everything the Liberals want to do. More worrisome for Turnbull is that some Liberals are siding with the Nationals to split the Liberal vote. Moreover, there have been several recent instances of Liberals crossing the floor to vote against the rest of the party on other matters: the alcopops legislation and changes to immigration policy are two examples. Then there has been Wilson Tuckey’s defiance and public denunciation of Turnbull’s arrogance and inexperience, and the party room scrap that followed. All this has not escaped public attention. In this week’s Essential Research Report 66% of respondents said that because of party disunity “...the Liberals are just not prepared at the moment to take on the difficult task of governing Australia”. As only 21% thought they were prepared, clearly many Liberals too thought they weren’t. To re-occupy even the base of the pyramid where it can offer stable government will be a painful process for the Coalition.
On the economic front, there is work to do to re-establish the Coalitions’ credentials. The 17 August Essential Research Report showed that on economic management Kevin Rudd and John Howard were rated virtually equal, and on the question of who was best ‘to handle the economy in the interests of working people’, 50% said Rudd and 25% Howard. Commenting on this result, in his August 18 post The Fickleness of Political Mythology, Possum Pollytics said “One of the great pieces of political mythology over the last decade was the towering strength of Howard on the Economy and Defence and Security as issues. There was absolutely no doubt he rated relatively highly at the time, but as is always the case with these things, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of incumbency in boosting such ratings.” He went on to say “Having already pulled even with the Myth of Howard suggests he’s [Rudd’s] already there...”
With the Australian economy steadily improving in the face of worldwide recession, attributed by many authorities and a growing number of economists as due at least in part to Government action, Rudd is gaining economic credibility while the Opposition with its ‘reckless spending’ and ‘debt and deficit’ slogans is not getting traction, and is not enhancing its economic credibility. The better the economy looks, the quicker the growth of unemployment slows, the less credence the Opposition slogans will have.
On defence and security, in the same Essential Research Report, Rudd was ranked as superior by 30% and Howard by 35%. There has been nothing in recent times to worsen Rudd’s position; the SIEV 36 event that was used by the Coalition to accuse the Government of ‘going soft on asylum seekers’ has died a natural death, and the recent AFP and Victoria Police arrest of several men accused of planning a terrorist attack on the Holsworthy army base in Sydney has demonstrated that the Rudd Government is vigilant and conscious of security. With its non-incumbency, the Coalition would have great difficulty in displacing the Government from this part of the pyramid.
While the Government is firmly ensconced on the three basic levels of the pyramid, it can venture more safely to the higher levels of education and health and the contentious areas of climate change and emissions trading.
For its part, it seems as if the only route for the Opposition is via a strategy of first re-establishing itself on the base of the pyramid, before attempting to engage with issues higher up the hierarchy. Until party disunity and leadership problems are resolved and the prospect of a stable alternative to the incumbent government is on offer, other efforts are likely to be disregarded as irrelevant.
What do you think?