The Tag Line

The recent election was an exercise in marketing and not much else. Morrison promoted himself and ‘good economic management’ rather than the Coalition while flitting around the country handing out dollars to ‘deserving’ infrastructure projects, usually in marginal seats.

Shorten’s ALP had, by contrast, released a stack of policy over the last few years outlining changes they would make to make Australia a ‘fairer place’ for all. The policies and detail were so devilish, it even tripped Shorten up a couple of times.

Morrison’s claim for good economic management was his claim to have returned (past tense) the budget to surplus next year (future tense) — regardless of the tortured grammar evident in that statement — tax cuts for most wage earners over the next decade as outlined in the budget published in April and really, not much else. Compared to Shorten, Morrison didn’t have much to sell except his budget, himself and hope that the instability of the last six years would be forgotten. We published ‘The Cupboard was Bare’ just prior to the election which suggested that there really wasn’t much policy development work going on in the Liberal and National Parties, probably because they were too busy pulling the knives out of each other and cleaning up the blood on the floor, hoping that no one would notice.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how the Coalition seemed to come from behind and win on 18 May, the fact is they did. It could be, as Morrison has sort of claimed, a miracle. Brian Schmidt, Vice-Chancellor of Australian National University and a Nobel Laurate wrote an article in The Guardian on the Monday after the election suggesting the polls suffered from a confirmation bias which if true, clearly wouldn’t help those relying on the ‘accuracy’ of the polls. Shorten also had a harder ‘sell’ than Morrison, in that he had to appease winners and losers while promoting a fairer society in a world where extrinsic motivation seems to be a real issue.

Marketing slogans can be used for a variety of purposes. They can be negative, such as Abbott’s ‘carbon tax’ lie, unable to be proven such as ‘good economic management’, or even patriotic such as ‘football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars’ (even though the original version of that last one actually name checked apple pies and Chevrolets).

The point here is that Morrison and his party learnt the lesson Abbott and other politicians had passed down. Relentless repeating of a particular phrase will lodge it into people’s minds. The facts around the conversation don’t matter if the phrase is repeated often enough. Sure the ALP had a generally positive message throughout the election campaign in comparison to the Coalition’s negativity, but people remember and gradually believe the slogan rather than the nuanced discussion — demonstrating why advertising works.

And the ‘sell job’ for the Coalition’s next three years has already started — returned WA Liberal MP Christian Porter was on ABC’s Midday News on the Monday after the election claiming that Morrison had a resounding victory? Morrison didn’t have anything of the sort. The reality is that the Coalition just fell over the line in the House of Representatives and has to negotiate to get anything through the Senate, just as Turnbull did three years ago. Howard had a resounding victory in his last term as he had a majority in both houses. Howard then overstepped the mark by introducing Workchoices leading to his government being removed and Howard losing his seat in Parliament. However, just as repetitively claiming Holden cars are entirely Australian (when they never were) is gradually taken as a self-evident truth, Morrison’s slogans and ‘resounding victory’ are being used to gradually shape the ‘truth’ to something more palatable for the government.

After Morrison legislates his budget, his policy cupboard is bare. While Morrison will also be seen as the messiah within the Coalition for the next six to twelve months, after that the same factions and self-interest groups that infected the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison governments from 2013 will reappear, attempting to inject their pet proposals into the discussion claiming they have a ‘mandate’, because they believe their own advertising. Should the ‘mandate’ not be recognised, the self-interest groups will withdraw support leaving Morrison in a similar position to that he was in in the closing days of 2018. Morrison may also be tempted to pinch policy from the ALP or Greens and roll it out. Either way, Morrison could have a problem.

A smart Opposition Leader can sell two messages at once — even Abbott made a reasonable fist of it. Every time Morrison introduces legislation that was not specifically part of his policy at the 2019 election, the Opposition Leader should be asking, “where is the mandate?” If the policy is pinched, the Opposition needs to remind us where that policy is originally from and that while they are happy to see that Morrison can see the benefits, ask why the LNP couldn’t develop such a sensible concept without help? At the same time, the Opposition Leader should be using a tag line to suggest that they could do it better. If the economy goes south (which seems to be the general expectation), the question should be why couldn’t ‘good economic managers’ see this coming and make preparations in a similar way to Rudd in 2008.

Positive policy development is required but they need to sell it as well. Lots of good ideas never succeed because those involved in the idea seem to think the truth is self-evident — it isn’t. Why didn’t the ALP have a clear and consistent marketing program that started the day after Abbott looked on the ropes, which they might have capitalised on when Turnbull’s had his near-death experience at the 2016 election? Because they didn’t, only the rusted-on took the time to appreciate the nuanced discussion on policy fairness that Shorten tried to sell. It really doesn’t work when the other side just kept on saying they had ‘good economic management’ and ‘it wasn’t time’. A tag line can be positive or patriotic, like the Holden slogan from the 70’s. Maybe the ALP should have tried to sell a ‘fair-go plan’ that covered all their policies. It’s a sad reflection that the political party that launched tag lines in Australia has been beaten twice in the past decade because others remembered the importance of a tag line and consistent messaging better than the originator of the concept.



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