South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria are heading to the polls this year to pick their next state governments. All indications are that these campaigns will have more than a dash of déjà vu about them.
Tasmanian Liberal leader Will Hodgman has made an early score in campaign buzzword bingo by labelling that state’s vote “the most important in a generation”. In Victoria, the routine argy-bargy over costings is underway unusually early after Labor’s announcement of an ambitious public transport plan.
All these claims and slogans have had a healthy workout in recent past campaigns. This sense of history repeating is no coincidence.
For a forthcoming research paper, David Bartlett and I analysed 35 state and federal campaigns run by the major parties over 10 years of Australian electioneering. After looking particularly at the core messages and themes of these campaigns, we found that Labor and the Liberals have continually recycled the same six narratives with only minor tweaks and changes for the past decade.
It looks as though the current crop of state parties are gearing up to use these all over again, despite the fact that fewer and fewer people seem to be listening.
Tell me a story
A campaign narrative is the underlying story a party tells about why the election matters, what is at stake and why that party deserves your vote. Campaign strategists will tell you that it should be woven through every aspect of a party’s election pitch, from advertising and letterbox drops to the leader’s launch speech and the frontbenchers’ daily soundbites.
Our research suggests that opposition parties campaigning to take government run one of two narratives: a “New Hope” story offering fresh ideas and a novel approach, or a “Time’s Up” tale that suggests their opponents have made a mess of things for long enough.
For parties in office, there’s the “Job’s Not Done” narrative, which highlights progress and achievement while pointing out how much work is left to do, and the “Experience Versus Inexperience” theme, which casts doubt on their opponents’ governing capabilities.
If the electoral outlook seems particularly bleak, parties will tell voters that they have “Listened and learned” from past mistakes and promise to do better in future. The “Fear” narrative is a handy fallback when all else fails.
The South Australian Labor government has already begun driving an “Experience Versus Inexperience” narrative by emphasising the hard times ahead for the state and the need for a safe pair of hands at the helm. Meanwhile, Tasmanian premier Lara Giddings seems to be telegraphing that her government has “Listened and learned” from angry voters and is refocusing on jobs and economic growth in response.
It’s too early to say with confidence which narratives the Victorian parties will choose for the November state election. Based purely on the political environment, I’d be betting on a “Job’s Not Done” theme for the incumbent Liberals and a “New Hope” narrative from Labor, capitalising on the turmoil of the past three years in Spring Street.
Those narratives are certainly tried and tested. They’ve helped many parties before these ones win elections or stave off severe defeat. But is it wise to continue repeating the same things voters have heard before, at a time when evidence suggests people are tuning out from politics in droves?
Shouting into the void
It is well established that Australians don’t really trust politicians or believe much of what they say. In the 2013 Scanlon Social Cohesion Survey, only 27% of respondents believed politicians can be trusted “almost always” or “most of the time”. A recent CSIRO study found that only about half of all respondents trusted state or federal governments to effectively deliver essential services.
While this lack of trust is a relative constant in Australian political life, the proportion of people reporting a lack of interest in politics has been steadily rising for the past few decades. In a University of Melbourne survey conducted before last year’s federal election, almost one in four participants said they had little or no interest in politics. This proportion rose to 45% in a separate study of people under 25.
This national switch-off is driven by a complex range of factors, many of which are explored through the Australia and New Zealand School of Government’s (ANZOG) Imagining Australian Democracy project. These include a feeling that ordinary people can’t influence political outcomes, frustration with an adversarial political environment, and the lack of openness and transparency in our political processes.
These are serious issues of democratic legitimacy. They certainly can’t be fixed simply by parties updating their campaign lingo. But their repeated use of a fixed and repetitive set of narratives seems likely to make this worrying trend worse, because if voters feel like they’ve heard it all before, then they have little reason to pay attention this time around.
What’s more, if the parties’ narratives don’t change and evolve in response to the concerns and interests that voters have these days, then even the ones who are still paying attention aren’t likely to keep listening into the future.
In short, it’s probably time for Australia’s major parties to find a new set of narratives to engage voters during election campaigns. Better still, those parties could move past telling voters what’s important. They should instead focus on asking them what they value, what kind of future we should be working towards, and how we’re going to get there together.
That’s a harder conversation to have via a DL letterbox flyer, but it might just be the one that gets people paying attention to politics again.