We all know Tony Abbott is ‘authentic’, which presumably means that what he says is what he really thinks. We know with Barnaby Joyce, the great ‘retail politician’, that what comes out of his mouth is unadulterated Barnaby. What rational media advisor would have created that talk? But who determines what others in the Coalition say? Is it the Coalition’s media advisors? Whoever it is, how good is their advice?
The Opposition’s media approach is overwhelmingly negative. It carps incessantly about the incompetence of Kevin Rudd and his Government. It paints them as having no capacity to do anything useful at all, and insists that what they have done was not just useless, ill-conceived, badly implemented and incompetently administered, but harmful to the economy, the people and the nation. The only credit the Opposition gives it is for racking up massive debt and deficit. Everything else is an unmitigated disaster, a debacle, a bungle, a mess, a catastrophe. Everything is negative.
It’s hard to envisage how experienced career politicians could be so totally hopeless and ineffectual. What is more to the point, the general public simply don’t buy the story.
The media has accentuated the negativity. News Limited outlets, particularly The Australian have gone out of their way to highlight what they see as the deficiencies of the Rudd Government. Adverse headlines scream out stridently every day about another Government ‘debacle’.
Reflect on the unrelenting campaign The Oz has run about the BER, highlighting every complaint, every problem this 24,000 project stimulus measure has encountered. That many complaints have been established to be unfounded does not put the brakes on its campaign or bring forth an apology; that genuine problems have been shown to already be under investigation by the monitoring authority established at the outset brings forth no concession. Its unremitting antagonism continues to this day.
Think about the media coverage of the insulation saga. As a flagrant example of disingenuous reporting, there has been no equal. For every article pointing out that there were proportionally more ceiling fires before the insulation program began than after, there have been scores that vehemently condemn every aspect of the program. Bootstrapping has been rife. When Rudd relieved Greg Combet of some of his other duties to concentrate on fixing the insulation problems, instead of applauding this, Dennis Shanahan launched an indignant attack on Rudd for having the temerity to announce this ‘reshuffle’ on the eve of Easter: “The Rudd Government has stooped to new lows in media management in its efforts to shield the demoted Peter Garrett and keep the bungled $2.45 billion roofing insulation scheme out of the public eye.” This man’s anti-Rudd rancour seems to know no bounds – he’s still after Garrett’s scalp.
What about boat arrivals. Practically every journalist has sought to paint a negative picture about the arrival of ‘those people’. Peter van Onselen’s article this weekend was a welcome exception. The hundredth boat arrival was highlighted in several papers to ridicule the Government’s border protection policy. It can do nothing right, nothing at all.
The Murray Darling water plan has been the subject of criticism at every step. Everything Penny Wong does is wrong. The now-quiescent CPRS has similarly been attacked and the fact that the Coalition blocked at every step Rudd’s efforts to establish it has not stopped its condemnation of the lack of progress, or stilled the castigation of Rudd for daring to say global warming is the ‘greatest moral challenge of our time’ when he has made so little progress in mitigating it. The fact that progress towards mitigation has been obstructed does not lessen its moral imperative.
Even the Government’s shielding of the nation from the worst effects of the GFC gets no credit from the Coalition and grudging acknowledgement from the media, with some still whingeing about the stimulus, the debts incurred, the deficits to come and the interest rate rises. Even this great accomplishment is not worthy of a decent tick.
The long awaited and electorally popular health reforms have had a lukewarm reception from the media; every problem, every disagreement, ever contrary view, every state premier playing hard ball has been highlighted.
And with the appointment this weekend of Tony Burke as Population Minister the Opposition has resurrected the pre-election accusation of ‘me too-ism’ – because it says it thought of the idea first! Steel yourself for more of this schoolyard banter.
We know Tony Abbott has nothing but negativity to offer, but neither does Joe Hockey, or Barnaby Joyce, or Peter Dutton, or Greg Hunt, or Christopher Pyne, or Julie Bishop when she comes out of hibernation to actually say something. The list goes on. They seem to be programmed like automatons to utter words like debacle, disaster, catastrophe, bungled, flawed, incompetent, waste and mismanagement, rort, debt and deficit, all spin no substance, all talk no action, all promise no delivery. Every sentence about the Government has to be littered with those expressions. Someone seems to have told them – here are the words you must work into every comment you make about Rudd, his ministers, his Government, any initiative they announce, any program they begin, every statement they make. You must never give them credit for anything. And that is exactly what every shadow minister follows; it is only the odd backbencher that occasionally let’s slip something positive. They are like robots uttering political profanities and monotonously chanting – eliminate, destroy, eliminate, destroy.
Yet the ratings of Rudd and the Government by several pollsters including the much-touted Newspoll, continue to be election winning even during the recent decline in popularity. Possum’s Pollytrend is pointing up again for Labor. How is this so? How can those polled be so out of touch with the political ‘reality’ the Coalition and the media portray that they still give Rudd high ratings and his Government so solid a lead? How can they be so stupid, so blind to ‘the total incompetence of the Rudd Government’, ‘the worst government this country has ever had’?
Could it be that the electorate is tiring of negativity? Could it be that it has turned off such talk and has stopped listening, that negativity itself has become a negative for the Coalition?
Now every PR professional will tell us that negative political campaigns do work. Campaign organizers insist they do; those on The Gruen Transfer on ABC TV assert that is so, and the effects of the anti-WorkChoices campaign during the last election seem to bear testimony to that assertion. Given that some negative campaigns do work, are there some that don’t, and if so how can one pick them?
The Great Health Debate is a case in point. Now we all know that the worm is not a precise instrument, but unless it gives results that are the reverse of the truth, unless it gives such unreliable results that it is worthless, its gyrations might tell us something useful about voter reaction, about voter preferences. It behaves like a large focus group in which political parties place such great store.
Possum Comitatus has done us a great service by analysing Roy Morgan’s version of the worm, PolliGraph, which is powered by the Morgan Reactor technology. Possum has done so in two pieces on Pollytics: PolliGraph Debate Drilldowns. Part 1 – The Overview and PolliGraph Debate Drilldowns. Part 2 – Tony Abbott. They are essential reading for worm enthusiasts.
First, Possum acknowledges: “As a direct result of the very short period of time that was available to organise an audience panel to participate in the PolliGraph, the partisan balance of the audience had a slight tilt towards Labor, giving the responses we witnessed on Channel Seven during the debate a small but significant lean towards the ALP.” Note that unlike Channel Nine’s panel of undecided voters, Channel Seven’s comprised a cross section of voters.
Possum’s first piece gives an overview where one of the most significant statements was: “Those over 50’s were actually a lot more volatile than one might expect when it came to their approval of Abbott. Not only were they volatile, but throughout the debate they were the cohort that reacted most negatively to Tony’s jokes.”
It was in his second piece though that the most interesting trends emerged about negativity. Regarding Abbott’s supposed problem with women voters, Possum says: “Not only did male voters as a single cohort have lower generic approval levels of Abbott at the health debate compared to females, but both Liberal and Labor voting males had lower approval levels of Abbott’s performance than their respective partisan female peers.” Later he says: “Not only were males generally less impressed with Abbott’s performance than females, but when it came to the magnitudes of their negative responses – when Abbott said something that caused a negative audience reaction – males really cranked that dial harder than their female counterparts.” And later “Yet, not only were male audience members a problem for Tony Abbott. The cohort that was most likely to respond negatively to Abbott’s answers was the 30-49 year age group, particularly 30-49 year Liberal voters and particularly whenever the Opposition leader canned the insulation program or the school stimulus package.” and “The mention of pink batts and school halls was pretty toxic for males and Liberal voting 30-49 year olds. Another example of this line being dangerous for Abbott came in his closing statement. This time it was Liberal voting 30-49 year olds and Liberal voting males..."
There’s much more to read on Possum’s website, but these excerpts point to the distaste voters have for negativity, particularly males and the older age groups.
So does negative politics work? We know that the negative anti-WorkChoices campaign was effective – polls and focus groups demonstrated that, and to the extent that election outcomes can ever be attributed to single factors, many agree that it was factor in 2007. Why was this so? Was it that the campaign was in the context of an election, that specific advertisements were employed, or that the Howard Government was already on the nose?
Why then does negative politics seem not to be working for the Coalition now? Will it work better during the election campaign, will targeted political ads highlighting the same things work better than the diffuse negativity we hear every day, will negativity work as well against a first term popular government elected by the people only a couple of years ago? We may be able to answer those questions with more assurance later this year.
The thesis proposed here is that at present the negativity that pervades almost every utterance of Coalition politicians and almost every section of the MSM is a turn-off for all except the most rusted-on Coalition supporters, and a cause of intense anger among Labor supporters. And the swinging voters and even some Coalition voters, males and the older, seem to be not listening much anymore, and when they do they are angered and react negatively.
So why do Coalition members continue the negativity day after day, doorstop after doorstop, interview after interview? Is this a spontaneous uncoordinated outpouring of aggression and resentment at its election loss, or is it an organized coordinated campaign orchestrated by the Coalition’s media strategists? If that is so, contemporary evidence suggests they are on the wrong track and that the longer the negativity continues the more the Coalition’s fortunes will slide. They seem to be flying in the face of the emerging signals about the negative effects of negativity.
Maybe they are following the strategy now being used by the Republican Party in the US which has set about destroying Barack Obama’s presidency, no matter what damage that does to the economy, the health care system and the nation as a whole. Aided and abetted by the new movement, The Tea Party, and the Murdoch media, they seem to be prepared to do anything that it takes to make Obama a one-term president. Sound familiar? In this country we don’t have a Tea Party, but we have the MSM, much of which seems set on the same path.
So we need to ask why the Coalition, lemming like, continues to rush headlong over the cliff of negativity to the seething cauldron of public disapproval below. Who on earth is advising them to do this?
As the old adage goes, ‘If what you’re doing doesn’t work, try something else.’ But the Coalition and its media strategists don’t seem to have ‘something else’.
It looks as if the Coalition desperately needs new media advisers.
What do you think?