The corrosive effect of political slogans

Spin doctors love slogans.  Their focus groups test them for efficacy.  They launch them, repeat them incessantly until their use-by date, then go onto the next.  They know the corrosive effect the negative ones can have on those to whom they’re applied.  The media too loves them.  Great headlines and acerbic copy flow from them.  Who knows how much they influence the public?

Take ‘Kevin07’. A smart slogan, but it invited variants. Kevin Rudd’s frenetic pace gave rise to ‘Kevin24/7’, but not satisfied with that benign label, the media launched a campaign condemning not Rudd’s own work patterns, but that he was placing the public service under intolerable pressure.  Fatigue, exhaustion, even staff revolt and loss of staff were predicted.  ‘Ain’t it awful’ was the media message.  The public weren’t all that impressed, indeed they not unreasonably expected the public service to get stuck in and support a new Government trying to implement the policies on which it was elected.  This campaign has fizzled as the public accepts that it’s not a bad thing to have a hard-working Government.  But while it lasted, it did have a corrosive effect.

‘Control freak’ is a slogan that evolved from Kevin24/7. The accusation was that Rudd had to have his hands on the wheel at all times; and that this resulted, to use Glen Milne’s words, in a “constipation of process” – everything had to flow through “self-obsessed sclerotic arteries that run from the PM's office”.  The only evidence advanced to support this assertion was the obvious: “every senior bureaucrat knows”.  ‘Control freak’ seems to be dying a natural death, as Rudd’s ministers do their own thing, Stephen Smith travels as Foreign Minister more than does Rudd, and Wayne Swan flies off to New York this week for a Finance Ministers’ meeting without Rudd holding his hand.  But don’t be surprised if it’s resurrected when the Opposition or the media thinks fit.

Kevin 24/7 morphed into Kevin747 when Rudd recently flew to Washington and New York for the meeting of the UN and for talks with world leaders about the gathering financial crisis.  Malcolm Turnbull and Andrew Robb had great fun with it and added ‘Prime Tourist’ to their repertoire, again with great hilarity.  The fact that the PM was attending critically important meetings, at which any sensible citizen would expect him to attend, did not inhibit the Opposition in ‘making hay’.  Again, it had an adverse effect – a relative, not prone to thinking too deeply about such matters, echoed the criticism – ‘Rudd's always flying off somewhere’.  Mud sticks.

Then there was Wayne Swan on his ‘training wheels’.  This might have been just a good-humoured jibe had it not been for the accompanying by-line: “He has no idea what he’s doing.” oft-repeated by Malcolm Turnbull, then Shadow Treasurer.  Now that it is evident even to Turnbull that he does know what he’s doing, and is doing it well, it would be too much to expect that Turnbull, or the media who repeated this line ad nauseam, would acknowledge that he no longer needed his training wheels.  Julie Bishop, who began her short career as Shadow Treasurer with a couple of gaffes and an inauspicious first month certainly looks as if she’s still on her ‘training wheels’, but not a word of this in the media.  ‘Training wheels’ apparently applies to Labor people, not Liberals. [more]

Of course slogan-slinging is not unidirectional.  Keen to label Malcolm Turnbull as a wealthy resident of Point Piper, out of touch with the common man, Labor soon launched the ‘silvertail’ slogan.  The media reported it, but seemed disinclined to pursue it.  But Turnbull, keen to dispel it before it became too corrosive, launched his acceptance address to the press on becoming Opposition Leader by highlighting his less-than-privileged background.  Labor followed up in Question Time when Lindsay Tanner sardonically acknowledged Turnbull’s upbringing in 'a shoebox in Vaucluse'.  Anthony Albanese mocked him with his ‘merchant banker of Venice’ quip after Turnbull’s holiday there.

We all know Malcolm Turnbull has a large ego.  Wayne Swan drew attention to it after Turnbull took credit for pressuring the banks to pass on 0.75 to 0.8% of the Reserve Bank rate cut, but apart from Fran Kelly’s expression of astonishment at this claim on ABC Sydney radio, the media have not pursued it – perhaps having a big ego is considered normal, even when its seems to override common sense.

Perhaps the most potent slogan, oft repeated by Opposition members and the media, is ‘all spin and no substance’ and its variant ‘all talk and no action’.  The fact that these slogans are manifestly untrue, as is evidenced by the stream of initiatives emanating from the Government ever since its election, does not inhibit their monotonous repetition by the Opposition and the pro-Coalition media.  They must have had a corrosive effect, which only implementation will assuage.  Until quite recently, the media has been reluctant to acknowledge that the reviews, committee deliberations, investigations, data gathering and analysis in preparation for decision-making and implementation ARE indeed action, substantive action.  The Coalition has never done so, and won’t give up the slogans until its minders convince it that they are past their use-by date.

Finally, perhaps the most corrosive slogan of all – that Rudd and his Government is ‘a one-term wonder’ resurfaces time and again.  Just yesterday Mike Stekatee wrote a balanced well-reasoned piece with the rather florid headline "Turmoil threatens to make Rudd a one-term wonder", and the abbreviated headline in the margin "Rudd may be a one-term wonder".  I cannot believe that a journalist of his high calibre wrote these headlines, as his references to the chances of the Rudd Government be re-elected in 2010 in such difficult times were couched in much milder terms.  So was this the work of a sub-editor trying to grab attention with a stark headline that did not accurately reflect the tone of the article? Several columnists at The Australian have been pushing the ‘one-term’ line for some time, Dennis Shanahan and Glenn Milne prominent among them.  Is this slogan an attempt to erode confidence in the Rudd Government, and imprint the ‘one-term’ notion in the minds of the public?

Some slogans might be considered a bit of good-natured fun that do no deep harm, but negative slogans can have a seriously corrosive effect – that is why spin doctors, politicians and the media use them.  That it’s not fair play to do so, that it does not serve the public interest, and that it does not result in improved governance, is of no importance to the perpetrators.  Their purpose is erosion, dissipation of confidence and defeat of the adversary.  Sad.


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11/10/2008It is true that there is one set of rules for Labor and another for the Coalition so far as the media is concerned. Think back to 1996 after Howard was elected. A Labor PM would never have got away with setting up residence in Kirribilli House rather than the Lodge yet Howard's excuse that he couldn't upset his kids schooling was accepted, depite the fact that Howard told working Australians to uproot their own families and move to where they might find a job. And this was just the first tiny step Howard took to put himself and his family before the electorate. I wonder what the reaction would have been had Kevin Rudd decided to set up camp at Kirribilli House? It is a sad fact that even the good-natured slogans can have a corrosive and negative effect when used ad nauseam to undermine the character of the adversary. In this modern age there is no such thing as 'fun' in politics. I read Mike Stekatee's piece and agree with you about the headline. George M has said on many occasions the headlines are written by sub-editors. It seems the journos don't have much say in what heads their pieces which is something, if I was a journalist, I would be pushing to change.


11/10/2008How about this one: Never vote Liberal.
How many umbrellas are there if I have two in my hand but the wind then blows them away?