Liberal Party ads from the 1940s speak today’s political language

The Menzies government was voted in with the help of the John Henry Austral ads. National Library of Australia

After languishing in an archive box at Melbourne University for more than 20 years, an astonishing piece of Australian political history has recently been dusted off and digitised.

The university has unearthed the only remaining recordings of the Liberal Party’s landmark 1948 “John Henry Austral” radio serial - the first Australian example of a professional, media-centric political ad campaign.

In some ways the ads are very much a product of their time: communists lurk under every bed, women’s place is in the home and the eponymous narrator speaks with the kind of highbrow Australian accent that hasn’t been heard since Fraser was PM.

But their content, presentation and strategic positioning are also recognisably modern in ways that raise an interesting question about today’s political campaigns.

John Henry who?

The John Henry Austral series was Australia’s first nationally coordinated and professionally produced political ad campaign. It ran twice-weekly as a 15-minute radio serial for 20 months leading up to the 1949 election, in paid spots on about 80 radio stations across Australia.

Campaign scholar Stephen Mills estimates that it cost the Liberal Party some £2300 a month to run the series; this equates to around $125,000 in today’s money and makes it one of the most expensive political ad campaigns the country has ever seen.

Although John Henry Austral was a fictional character voiced by actor Richard Matthews, his purpose was very real: to foster antipathy towards the Chifley Government and so pave the way for a Liberal victory in 1949.

Does shopping shorten women’s lives?

The tactics used by the campaign’s mastermind, Sim Rubensohn, to achieve this goal would be very familiar to political campaigners today.

Each episode addresses a big national theme - industrial relations, monetary policy, national security - but explores this through the prism of people’s everyday concerns. Industrial turmoil and industry reform are boiled down to questions about job security; rising inflation finds expression in a housewife’s struggle to make her husband’s wages stretch to the week’s shopping.

The series also addresses different segments of the electorate in a way that foreshadows today’s focus group-tested political campaigns.

In an episode called “Does shopping shorten women’s lives?” we follow a frazzled housewife as she queues for hours just to buy the day’s dinner, while in “Educate or perish” we eavesdrop on a conversation between a group of working men who aspire to join the middle class through better education.

Focusing on these issues not only validated the concerns and ambitions of these voters, it also suggested that the Liberal Party understood and would take action where the government had not. Although Rubensohn and the Liberal campaign team did not use today’s elaborate market research techniques when designing the campaign, it is clear that special effort was made to reach out to specific parts of the electorate using language and themes which had special resonance for them.

Sound familiar?

Mainstay modern political tactics such as the selective use of statistics; the polarisation of “us” - the hard working, dedicated and self-reliant middle classes, and “them” - the snivelling, lazy trade unionists and Socialists; and the regular deployment of powerful national motifs like the bush and the flag also get a regular workout in these innovative broadcasts.

Put together, the result is a campaign that wouldn’t seem all that out of place in today’s electoral arena.

Ahead of its time, or timeless insight?

Authors such as Mills and the University of Melbourne’s own Dr Sally Young have argued that the remarkable modernity of the John Henry Austral campaign shows that the Liberal Party was ahead of its time in pioneering professional campaign techniques.

But looked at from another angle, we could also make the case that it shows how little political campaigning has really changed in the past 60 years. The question we should be asking then is not: “why was this campaign so good?” but rather: “why haven’t campaigns since got much better?”

The answer may be that although technologies and timeslots change, the underlying strategy of electoral campaigning remains the same: to show that politicians hear us, that they understand what we want and need, and that they alone are the ones to give it to us.

That means bringing complex ideas down to the day-to-day level most of us inhabit, giving clear expression to the jumbled mix of information, emotion and perception that constitutes public opinion, and sweeping away the clutter so that our choices are framed in the starkest terms possible.

This type of campaigning cops a lot of flak from democratic theorists who decry the degradation of rational electoral discourse, but it’s the model that seems to work best for imperfect and irrational voters — in other words, most of us.

Framed in these terms then, the John Henry Austral campaign and those which have since followed its example are not modern; they’re timeless.

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