Political planning using Maslow’s pyramid

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?


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27/08/2009Ad Astra, have you thought about the impact of the military courts being declared unconstitutional; the commentary about how the Howard government was warned; the pathetic attempts by Brandis to claim it was just as much the fault of Labor, when McClelland is on record warning against caving to Defence? It's probably a bit arcane, though I reckon it might be focussing the minds of a few in Defence about how far they might want to push Faulkner and Labor.

Ad astra reply

27/08/2009Monica As I'm unaware of the history of this matter, I'll steer clear of it until I've read some informative material. Hopefully a well-informed journalist will soon fill in the details.


27/08/2009Poor fella, their Party. This is dreadful. The Liberals are just running around like headless chooks, while others (such as yourself, Ad Astra) are writing them helpful crib-sheets on how to rebuild, so they can be a useful part of Australian politics! It's terrible that we need them. Not like this, of course, but Australia still needs them.

Just Me

28/08/2009[i]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.[/i] Some issues, such as climate change, could be argued to cover more than one level of the pyramid, or shift between levels over time, according to evolving circumstances. Sure, in one sense it is esoteric and removed from daily concerns. But in another sense it is a very basic, increasingly urgent and important factor in fundamental physical, economic, and health security, and the stability of the state. Maslow's pyramid is interesting, but I do not think the connections between those five different levels is as linear and hierarchal as that. For example, to have a stable state and a functioning modern economy, you need some degree of health and education among the populace to start with.


28/08/2009I wouldn't be helping them with gratuitous advice. What, after all, is their attitude to the poor and down & out? Kick 'em in the guts, that's what! Personally I'd be happy to see them out of power for a decade or two. By their actions in government and since being voted out they've certainly earned every minute of a decade + in the wilderness.

Penelope Vos

28/08/2009Excellent story! I'm glad to know they are thinking this way. I would like to tell the Rudd government that I, for one, am over all this fretting about security (Australia has been rich and safe all my life as far as I can tell) and get on with Self Actualization, the top of Maslow's pyramid. I want Australia to be all it can be in the World community, brave and wise and generous!

Bushfire Bill

28/08/2009The Liberal Right, currently in-fighting in NSW, sees no need to disguise the palpable hatred between the factions. They don't care about policy, because they believe (with some justification) that the next election and therefore government is theirs for the taking. Policy can come later, when the blood is hosed off the floor and the body parts disposed of. The federal Liberals have no need for policies either (I might add, the Nationals too... see this link and let it sink in before they realise how stupid they look and change it: http://www.nationals.org.au/Policy.aspx). This is because they have fooled themselves into believing that they were not defeated on policy, but by a clever conjurer's trick perpetrated by the Svengali-like Kevin Rudd and his 20-something (now 30-something) political apparatchiks. Therefore there is no need to change policies, just a need to get more aggro... in Parliament with their interminable points-of-order (most of which are rejected by the Speaker before they are even fully uttered), with the "Barnaby Joyce" school of testosterone-driven invective and ridicule, with the incessant lamentations of Rudd's "nerdiness" and incompetence, with their pathetic reliance on Silver Bullets to short circuit the political process, and with bald assertions that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the Stimulus Packages did not work and will instead bring ruin down upon Australia, if they have not already. You can divide the current conservative parties into three groups. The first group are tearing their parties apart because they believe, or enough of them have deluded themselves into believing, that they will win the next election in a trot. The ones who believe this are quite happy to prematurely divvy up the spoils of office and indulge themselves in ideological stoushes. Many of those who realise that defeat is inevitable are making hay while the sun shines, while they still have offices and staff at their disposal. They are akin to the last days of just about any imperial regime you can think of: drink the champagne because it's free, plentiful and the invaders will only blow it up when they come. These make up the second group. The third group in the Liberal Party are the Realists. These are the ones who typically come onto election night panels, suddenly drop their haughty fronts and become machine-like political calculators. There no room for ideology in the lifeboat. There is only The Numbers. They can see that the Party is destroying itself, but their best bet is merely to minimize the damage (to themselves, first of all). Somewhere in there is Turnbull, trying to impress the various contending forces by agreeing with all of them. But this only ensures that, over time, he earns universal animosity. What he needs is their respect, and the fear born of respect, but he has no power because Turnbull was only ever the only option, a compromise candidate, the last man standing. Costello could probably have united the Liberals but he owes them nothing after they were too scared to buck Howard pre-election and only turned to him when their god was gone. Costello, the ultimate second choice, always. No wonder he flew the coop with a not very well disguised single digit salute to the Party that never availed themselves of his talents. The Liberals are squabbling over the deck chairs on the Titanic, some of them believing they can swim for it when the stern slides under the waves, some of them realising the game is up so let's raid the First Class wine cellar and enjoy ourselves for the remaining few minutes, some of them still hanging on to the idea that the Titanic is unsinkable so why get wet or bothered trying to jump overboard? The few dog-paddling for the lifeboats will form the core of the new Party, that's if they don't succumb to the cold and drown in the coming confusion. These last are not worried about honour, or women and children first. They want to survive the disaster. They also realise there cannot be rebirth without death. The Liberal Party of John Howard, Peter Costello, Alexander Downer, Mark Vaile, Brendan Nelson and the others who have given up must be destroyed before it can be reborn. Only then will some of the diehards realise they are not the government, not even the government in exile, and actually not much of an Opposition either. After that: [i]"POLICIES: Coming Soon"[/i]. Barnarby Joyce and his new logo and his testosterone aren't going to save them, just like Joh didn't and neither did Pauline. Queensland already has it hero, but he's already in the box seat, the nerdy guy who writes essays and is mobbed wherever he goes, the boy most likely to succeed... [i]and he has[/i]. This summer looks like being a shocker, with record heat, crop failures, bush-fires and general misery due to Global Warming's resumption in earnest. They'll need a policy to cope with that, for one. No amount of slagging off Lefties will convince the planet that AGW is a furphy. Adding yet more CO2 to the atmosphere (or selling coal to those who will do it for us) won't work, no matter how good energy exports have been to us in the past. Speaking of energy exports, Australia needs to do something more inventive than dig holes in the ground and sell the dirt to others. They'll need an infrastructure policy geared to 21st century industries to accommodate this necessity. We'll need to come to a mutually satisfactory [i]detente[/i] with China on politics, human rights, trade and defence. Picking up the phone and telling the Chinese President what he is to do on any subject, [i]won't[/i] do. The Chinese don't even [i]have[/i] hairy chests, much less admire them or respond to them. But while the recidivists, the recalcitrants, the denialists, the hedonists, the ravers and the ranters and the bully boys on the Coalition side of politics keep on throwing tantrums, lamenting they was robbed last election (and praying they can likewise steal it back again), none of this will be done. The base of Maslow's Pyramid will be built on sand. That's the stuff that you find in holes, the stuff you dig up and flog off cheap. Sadly though, the biggest hole the Liberals are digging is the one they are digging for themselves.

The Piping Shrike

28/08/2009Labor never ever captured that all-important economic management superiority through 2007 - but they still won, much to the incomprehension of Shanahan et al. Five tier pyramids! Lord even Rudd couldn't see the obvious. Possum's graphs are cool, but I don't much buy the incumbency thesis. Comparing Rudd's economic management during the greatest economic shock in 80 years with Howard's during an economic boom is about as meaningful as comparing Howard's management of national security dominated by 9/11 and Iraq with Rudd's which is not. Things do change!

The Piping Shrike

28/08/2009By the way, recessions usually destroy incumbents (Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke with Keating an exception). The question is why is this another exception?


28/08/2009I would be a little careful about accepting the basic premise that Maslow's hypothesis of a theory of needs, particularlt if rigidly interpreted, has sufficienr strength nand credibility to bear the weight of all that is placed on it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs Note this section from Wiki [OK it may only be Wiki but this is far from an uncommon verdict on Maslow]: "While Maslow's theory was regarded as an improvement over previous theories of personality and motivation, it had its detractors. For example, in their extensive review of research which is dependent on Maslow's theory, Wahba and Bridgewell[9] found little evidence for the ranking of needs Maslow described, or even for the existence of a definite hierarchy at all. Chilean economist and philosopher Manfred Max-Neef has also argued fundamental human needs are non-hierarchical, and are ontologically universal and invariant in nature - part of the condition of being human; poverty, he argues, is the result of any one of these needs being frustrated, denied or unfulfilled.

The Piping Shrike

28/08/2009Presenting needs as "ontologically univeral and invariant in nature" seems even worse than trying to fit them into a five tier pyramid, in my view. It seems ironic that precisely when the fundamental underpinnings of politics is in such a state of flux, that there is even a greater demand for fixed, ahistorical schema to explain it. I enjoy your site AA.

Bushfire Bill

28/08/2009Piping wrote: [i]"Possum's graphs are cool, but I don't much buy the incumbency thesis."[/i] I guess Possum would say "The charts don't lie." But I take your point... just because something happened once or even a few times, doesn't mean history is bound to repeat. Most of the incumbency thesis is as expressed by the so-called political pundits, who have distinguished themselves by getting just about everything wrong on Rudd that it has been possible to blunder their way into, and them some. I've had a chuckling good time reading them over the past few years as they foot-in-mouthed their way across the political playing field. One example that seems to give them hope is that when interest rates go up, the Rudd bubble will burst. No matter that rates are currently at historic, unsustainable lows and that the public appreciates this (by and large), and that what goes down must come up etc. This entire theory is based on Labor not being able to handle interest rates while the Libs are, but mostly on the premise that interest rate rises are automatically bad for the incumbent. More chartism. What I can't undrstand is why the Rudd government is still below the conservatives on economic management. As PS pointed out Rudd has managed the economy in the greatest economic crisis since the Depression and triumphed. All we have on the other side is a bunch of looney misfits, fighting among themselves, arguing over the spoils of defeat, led by an ex-merchant banker spiv in a sharp suit who can't tell his fake emails from his real ones. Costello isn't even there. I guess that's an argument against Possum's charts in itself: the public just don't trust Labor with the economy, but are prepared to give them a few grudging extra points for saving the nation in its most desperate hour. So much for incumbency. So much for real results. Maybe if interest rates do tank, or inflation does go back up or unemployment does increase to uncomfortable levels the voters will turn on the government and storm Eumundie with torches and pitchforks. Then they'll hand the economy over to.... Joe Hockey and Malcolm Turnbull... sorry, I was having a nightmare. I was dreaming Uncle Joe actually knew what he was talking about,y'know, like he knew all about the Employment portfolio (but only after Howard retrospectively informed him of all the changes made). I was dreaming Turnbull has the respect of the voters. Hey, was I really imagining it when I saw Nick Minchin back in the Finance saddle? I think I must have been.

The Piping Shrike

28/08/2009I think the key question is not why Labor is not ahead of the coalition but why it is not further behind. In the past if Labor had come in and the economy had then turned south (as it did say, for Whitlam), the government of the day would have fully copped it irrespective of the global nature of the crisis. The 1975 oil shock was no less a global event and Australia’s performance at the time was not bad compared to say the UK's or US's, yet because the economy was still seen as a national government responsibility, Whitlam was blamed. I think now economic debate has hollowed out. Government are seen as less responsible for it and therefore get less of the blame/credit. All we have is a vague sort of guilt/blame by association. The Liberals were in during the good times and so while people think it was probably not much due to them, they might have been doing <i>something</i> right. I distinctly remember anyway the incumbency theory being used to explain in 2006/7 why Howard was so entrenched.

The Piping Shrike

28/08/2009I think that also points to the flaw for me in Maslow's theory. It focusses on needs, but the question here is the changing perception of government to be able to satisfy them.

Ad astra reply

28/08/2009Thanks folks for your thoughtful contributions. Have been away from my computer all day, and am on the move tomorrow morning - I'll respond tomorrow afternoon. In the meantime fred, could you please resend your link. It didn't get me to the material from which you quoted.

Ad astra reply

28/08/2009fred Apologies - I've now got your link working.

Ad astra reply

29/08/2009Some of you have questioned the appropriateness of Maslow’s pyramid in the context of political planning, and have pointed out that there are detractors. As Maslow remains well known in psychology circles while the detractors are not, his concept seems still to have credence. Others have asked if the model is being asked to do too much, whether [i]“...if rigidly interpreted, has sufficient strength and credibility to bear the weight of all that is placed on it”.[/i] A valid point – any model is useful only if it seems to work in the situation in hand. No model is perfect, none fit all circumstances. Yet some become so enamoured of a particular model that they try to squeeze it this way and that to suit every situation. Transactional analysis is a classic case in point. The most useful device is a toolbox from which a model suitable to the situation can selected from a variety. Maslow proposed a hierarchical model where the lower levels needed to be satisfied before the ones above would be addressed, and in that sense his model is linear, but as you point out Just Me, the levels interact with each other. While it is reasonable to argue that a starving homeless population would scarcely be thinking about the implications for physical safety of climate change, it can just as easily be argued that sometimes higher order needs are important to the meeting of lower order needs. So let’s not try to stretch the model too far. It seemed useful to Neil Lawrence when he re-shaped Maslow’s concept into a political framework to plan for winning the 2007 election. The idea that the people would not be prepared to listen to messages about health and education before being assured of stable, economically sound government, is plausible, but not verifiable. The conceptual framework I find most useful for contemplating complex situations is systems theory. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Systems_theory Chaos theory too is sometimes applicable. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaos_theory Because systems thinking is inherently difficult and perplexing, there is always a temptation to address problems via a simplistic linear model, despite the fact that linear cause-effect relationships are much less universal that dynamic interactive relationships. So take the Maslow pyramid for what it’s worth and where it doesn’t fit, where it’s not applicable, try another. BB, thank you for another incisive analysis of the state of the Liberals and the ‘policy free’ Nationals. The Coalition will not be able to develop policies, even if that was its desire and intent, while it remains dysfunctional with internal dissent, anger between its members and with their opponents, and with the leadership vacuum that Turnbull has created. He occupies the leader’s position but cannot lead. That is as bad as not having a leader at all. Neil Lawrence’s modification of Maslow argues that until the party dysfunction is resolved it cannot offer stable government and therefore cannot address the higher level needs of the people. It’s a credible argument. Anyone who has dealt with families as dysfunctional as this one would feel despair that a rapid return to normal behaviour was possible. So it will be a long and painful haul. I see that you and Piping Shrike have had dialogue about Possum’s view that incumbency is an advantage in establishing economic credentials. I cannot add to that debate. Possum is an accomplished statistician and an astute observer of the political scene. He may have a view about why it is that recessions usually destroy incumbents yet this one is an exception. Piping Shrike, thank you for your several contributions to this post. I’m pleased you enjoy this site; I enjoy your site too and post each new item on [i]Blog Watch[/i] on [i]The Political Sword.[/i] Finally for those of you who express concern that giving advice to the Coalition may assist them, I can’t imagine it would take any notice of what appears on [i]The Political Sword[/i]. It’s too busy being dysfunctional, and even if some saw some political value in the Maslow pyramid, others would disagree and soon kill the idea.


29/08/2009(old sexist joke suitable modified) The liberals are like a person with two black eyes, you can not tell them anything, they have already been told twice but in this case the second telling will not be until the next Fed election, then and only then might they be willing to listen. Maslow's pyramid sounded fine when I was on PM training courses in the IT industry this possible application perhaps needs slight modification but I will leave that to our learned readers

Just Me

29/08/2009Think we are reading from the same page, AA, more or less. Maslow's model is useful, just not definitive or absolute. Not the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, as they say. For a bit of light relief in a similar vein: http://www.flickr.com/photos/adactio/3865726163/

Acerbic Conehead

30/08/2009Malcolm Turnbull on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: Physiological needs: Shit! Here comes Iron Bar and Bronny - where's the dunny? Safety needs: I know I shouldn't have spat the dummy at Andrew Charlton. Never mind, I'll just use my thumb instead. Need for love, affection and belonging: Damn those bloody polls! But all's not lost - at least Mellie my three-legged pooch still loves me. Need for esteem: No problem there - thank god I'm narcissistic. Need for self-actualisation: The leg-up from Kev or the corporate sector will come any day now – it worked for Costello, Dolly and Nelson didn’t it?

Ad astra reply

30/08/2009Thank you Bilko, Just Me and Acerbic Conehead for your injection of humour. After reading Peter Hartcher's piece about Malcolm Turnbull's narcissistic personality disorder http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/doctor-out-of-the-house-nelsons-final-diagnosis-20090828-f2fk.html it seems as if Turnbull’s esteem needs and the power that goes with position, are the prime focus of his attention. As Nelson put it [i]“ "Keating wanted power because he knew what he could do with it for the country … Malcolm wanted position."[/i]


17/06/2010Pingback from bluegrass.com.au Quick track to the top for Rudd’s young guns | Bluegrass Consulting: Grassroots Public Affairs
I have two politicians and add 17 clowns and 14 chimpanzees; how many clowns are there?