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Australian politics’ Kodak moment spells trouble for the major parties

While selfies have become a staple of political life, voters’ loyalty beyond the moment can no longer be taken for granted – a new reality the major parties must adapt to if they want to survive. Lukas Coch/AAP

When people talk about disruption, they mostly tell the stories of what has happened to big businesses such as Kodak, Blockbuster, Barnes and Noble, and most of the world’s newspapers.

Consumers have stood by and watched the near destruction of the company that created Kodak moments. As I saw as a newspaper editor, people have also increasingly stopped picking up the newspapers that once recorded their own births and marriages, instead gleaning their news from digital and social media. Jobs have vanished with the businesses that funded them; jobs have changed or been created in ways we might not have imagined.

Senior Australian politicians are increasingly recognising those disruptive forces and the need to adapt by rethinking everything from the way we’re taxed to how businesses compete in a fast-changing global economy.

The same forces of disruption that are shaking up industries and economies around the world are now having a discernible effect on another area of established power: Australia’s major political parties. That means politicians and political activists alike should be rethinking how they work too.

Snapshots of change

Exhibit A of the rapidly changing political landscape was January’s Queensland election. A government that had been elected with Australia’s largest majority three years ago was voted out of office.

Exhibit B is Tony Abbott, leading a Coalition government with a near-record majority, who is still fighting for his political life ahead of next month’s crucial federal budget,

Whether in Queensland or in Canberra, each of those governments has lost favour more quickly than the Instamatic camera and film. Their time in the sun has proven to be as fleeting as a Kodak moment.

Exhibit C, perhaps surprisingly to some, is the March 28 New South Wales election. While popular Premier Mike Baird and his Liberal National government were re-elected, there were some extraordinary swings across the state, particularly in regional areas. As Sydney Morning Herald columnist Paul Sheehan described it:

subsumed within the relatively bland overall numbers was a wave of violent voting shifts across the electorate.

But this political shift didn’t just begin this year.

For Exhibit D, take a closer look at the 2013 federal election results. As ABC election analyst Antony Green has shown, there was record support for minor parties and independents in both the lower and upper houses of federal parliament. More than one in five (21.1%) votes in the House of Representatives and nearly a third (32.2%) of Senate votes were directed away from the major parties.

Yet just like many of the business leaders who didn’t want to admit the world was shifting beneath their feet, many in the political class appear to be deluded about the disruption they’re now experiencing.

It’s easier to blame your problems on an inattentive media and electorate, unable to digest complex issues, than admit that perhaps it’s time to rethink the political product you’re selling. This is the same mistake the victims of business disruption have made.

Lessons from business for politicians

Just consider what disruption has done to business. Kodak didn’t go bankrupt in 2012 and lose its place as a dominant global consumer brand because people lost interest in taking photographs; there have never been more photographs taken than today.

When Kodak was still king: a Kodak Instamatic camera advertisement, published in Ebony, August 1964. Classic Film/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Instead, consumers simply moved on, adopting new technologies, brands and devices. That left Kodak as a shadow of its old self, forced to reinvent itself mainly in corporate rather than consumer markets.

Similarly, more news is being read and talked about than ever – but the source is increasingly not a newspaper. Again, changing technology has driven a shift to new devices and brands, and sparked a revolution in consumer behaviour that has left many established media businesses struggling to find new business models.

Big political brands on the wane

The story of politics over recent decades has been the story of greater and greater alignment to brands in the commercial sense, and less alignment to dogmatic positions that defined politics in the cold war era. This has practical and measurable benefits for the politicians, their party organisations and the industry of market researchers and advertising agencies that hang off them.

It made voting a similar decision to consumer choice. While the big brands are strong, the loyalty sticks. But it’s a very different story when the brand weakens and the loyalty loosens.

That’s what has happened to politics. Swings of 10% or more between elections are now frequent, as are one-term governments and leaders who struggle to make it halfway through an elected term, as the prime minister has discovered. None of this helps the brand, which only adds to the lack of loyalty (or promiscuity) of the voter.

So if we follow the patterns of digital disruption in business, where could this lead us in politics?

New political solutions

We can be confident that the business of government and politics will continue. After all, its survival is legislated. And the public kind of likes democracy.

So far, the politicians and party organisations have dabbled with some of the tools of disruption to protect their positions. Most politicians tweet, share stories on Facebook and line up for selfies with their true believers. But this is at the margins rather than the core of political practice.

Fundamentally, politics is still built around internal loyalties and a win-at-all-costs approach to a range of complex issues. Yet most of the choices they face involve the decisions we must make to share the available resources among a growing population on a finite planet. If the tensions those choices create isn’t disruptive, I don’t know what is.

The changed consumer needs, aligned with technology, must change the practice of politics; the only question is how.

One answer might lie in the latest manifestation of disruption, the evolution of the sharing economy. This involves the use of digital tools to harness unused capacity and put it to productive use: for example, Uber as a ride-sharing app and AirBnB as an accommodation service.

What might this look like in politics? Imagine a mobile app where a third-party provider can harness support for an issue and deliver it as a bloc to a group of politicians willing to make available their legislative capacity.

Fanciful? Well, in effect, that’s what has already happened to the transport industry and the accommodation industry. It will take just one balance-of-power crossbencher in an Australian parliament to take up the idea to give it traction. And isn’t the basis of politics to understand what the public wants and to deliver it efficiently?

If politics follows the pattern of disruption, it will do just that. But the old brands risk falling by the wayside unless they face the reality that hanging on to the old ways almost certainly guarantees oblivion. Just ask Kodak.

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