Politics is a tricky business. Being in government is even trickier.
But it should be pretty simple. It’s like any other business, isn’t it? It’s all just marketing. You find out what they want, you tell them what you’re going to do, and then you give it to them.
So is it simply a case of “selling” yourself a bit better, as independent MP Andrew Wilkie posited last week on ABC Radio National?
If that is the case, what does the government need to do?
Ask any good salesperson the key to making a sale, and they will tell you that there are two parts to a successful sales pitch.
Making the sale
The first step is to create or highlight a problem in the mind of the customer. As one highly successful salesman once told me, “You need to build the anxiety… build the need.”
The second step is to provide a “logical” solution to the problem, thus dissipating any anxiety. The key is to work with what the customer currently believes, because it will be easier for them to accept the solution.
Underpinning all of this is the need to remove any sense of complexity. The key is to make the problem and the eventual solution sound both plausible and simple. The selling process is about the fantasy - “Imagine what your life would be like if you bought this product” - not the reality.
It’s pretty basic stuff, and it works most of the time.
Research in the area of antecedents of voter behaviour suggests that a key factor in determining voter attitudes is their perception of which party provides them with the strongest sense of security.
Security is a fairly abstract concept, and can mean a whole range of things. For some, it might mean shelter, for others, a job, and for many, the very nebulous concept of national security. So, if you are an opposition leader, the best way to erode trust in the government is to create a belief that you (the voter) are not secure.
A relatively unsophisticated, but highly effective example of this is the use of the term “border security”, and the creation of a perceived “invasion”, by boat (which highlights our exposed shores), of asylum seekers. By dealing in the fantasy, and avoiding any complexity, the opposition has been able to establish control of this particular narrative to their advantage. All they have to do then is sell the solution. A simple response, such as “Stop the Boats” is presented as the logical and sensible. And by buying into the fantasy, the government gives the “problem” oxygen and sustains it in the mind of the voter.
This is contemporary Australian politics. Constituents are customers. Votes are a commodity. Being in power is the organisational objective. The selling philosophy drives the political process.
Ditching the product
But the current state of affairs in politics is not unique. What is happening in politics is a reflection of broader social, cultural, and political shifts. The ironic thing is that politicians are partially to blame.
By training voters to view the world predominantly through an economic prism, we have reached a point where everything becomes a commodity that is “sold” to the consumer (voter) in terms of utility, based on their individual needs and wants. When we aren’t satisfied with our current product (the government), we desperately look for the next, believing they will do the job better.
It’s not ideal, but it does reflect the reality.
Which brings us back to selling, and promotion. Can the government simply promote itself better as a solution to their current woes?
The biggest problem that Julia Gillard and the Labor Party have at present is that they seriously eroded voter trust when they removed Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister.
Despite his unpopularity, the general perception amongst the population is that Rudd’s removal was clandestine and deceptive, and we (voters) had no say in the process.
Although arguments can be made that voters elect the government, not the PM, over time both political parties have created a perception that we actually elect the PM, because much of the branding is built around the party leader, not the leader.
In the minds of the voters, Gillard was placed at the centre of the exercise because she took over as leader, and has inherited the halo effect of this mistrust.
The alternative to the market leader
Tony Abbott, on the other hand, is playing a smart game. He knows that the government is a bit on the nose, so he is in a perfect position to create an “imagined” existence of what might happen if he was in government.
Despite polling suggesting that most Australians don’t really like him, our assessment of Abbott as the alternative PM is in relation to the reality of the current PM. In other words, Abbott is able to conjure up a surfeit of problems with the government, and then create the fantasy of what he will do to fix it, whereas Gillard has to work in the real world.
In 2007, when Kevin Rudd was in opposition, he had a similar advantage to Abbott, in that voters had lived with the reality of John Howard for 11 years, whereas Rudd was all about the fantasy. When Kevin07™ said to the Australian people, “I’m offering the Australian public new leadership, both to help working families under financial pressure and new leadership for a plan for our country’s future,” he was offering something abstract, different, and just a little bit exciting.
When contrasted with the desperate reality of John Howard and the Coalition clinging to power, Kevin Rudd’s fantastical story was something voters wanted to believe, and many did. For quite some time.
Yes, he did sell himself well, but ultimately people voted for Rudd because they trusted him more than they trusted Howard. The other stuff, such as Kevin07™, was simply a means of creating a psychological shortcut to the “idea” of Kevin Rudd.
Getting the trust back
So, contrary to Andrew Wilkie’s sage advice, it is no longer a case of the ALP “selling” itself better. It is about wrenching back some trust in the idea of the Labor Party’s heavily eroded brand.
An advertising or sales campaign is unlikely to do that. We know from research in psychology that rather than processing all new information independently and rationally, people adapt and interpret new information through the prism of their current views. Things have already gone too far, and voters will view any promotional campaign with suspicion.
What has to happen is the government has to rebuild trust in the ALP brand, and its survival is built upon trust and consistency. Indeed, because trust in the brand has been so eroded, even when the ALP tries to promote a seemingly sensible new idea or policy, voters simply view it with distrust, and distinguish it as a desperate attempt to hold on to power.
So how do you regain that trust? (I know… I’m starting to sound like Rudd)
Ultimately, a successful brand is one that has a consistent and compelling story. Something that allows people to understand the essence of what the branded product stands for.
Unfortunately, the Labor Party is a victim of its own clever strategy from 2007. As I wrote back then, about another party and another time (and for the purposes of this exercise, simply replace Howard with Gillard, and Rudd with Abbott):
“Many Australians perceive (whether it’s true or not), that Howard (Gillard) simply wants to hold on to power for the sake of it, rather than offering anything new to the electorate. The party is desperately trying to take control of the agenda, but it might be the case that Rudd (Abbott) has created his own inertia, and if you understand the reverse mere exposure effect, you will see that the more the electorate perceives that Rudd (Abbott) is going to be the next PM, the more likely it is that they will vote for him. The key question on the lips of all Australians is:
What does the Liberal (Labor) party stand for?”
If the Labor Party can answer this question and then explain it (predominantly through its actions, rather than advertising campaigns), consistently, respectfully and incrementally to the Australian people, they may well be able to resurrect trust in the ALP brand, and combat the fantastical Tony Abbott and his magical Coalition.