If Queensland’s Liberal National Party reclaims government at this Saturday’s election, you can be sure the politicians will be quick to take the credit. But behind the scenes, much of the credit for the LNP’s political revival belongs to the strategists driving a remarkable rebranding strategy, dubbed “Operation Boring”.
It’s been all about keeping the government and Premier Campbell Newman on message and out of unnecessary fights – though in recent days, that strategy has seemed to waver.
Just before the long weekend, there was a flurry of lawsuits against broadcaster Alan Jones, followed up by changing claims about bikie gang donations. But by Australia Day, Operation Boring was so clearly back in force again that reporters complained about not getting any questions answered.
This is the story of what first prompted such an abrupt change in governing style in Australia’s third-biggest state; the people behind that change; and how crucial Operation Boring has been in reducing the LNP’s chance of becoming a one-term government.
From picking fights to playing it safe
Only six months ago, suburban Brisbane voters delivered the Newman government a beating that would make a maxillofacial surgeon cringe.
The July 2014 by-election was brought on by Brisbane medico Chris Davis quitting the LNP and politics after Newman sacked him as assistant health minister for speaking out about government policies. In response, voters in the inner northern seat of Stafford delivered a 19.1% swing against the Liberal National government.
Even by the robust standards of Queensland politics, this was a severe thumping. The LNP defeat saw the election of another doctor, maxillofacial surgeon and Labor candidate Anthony Lyman, who had made his name as a campaigner against booze-fuelled violence in the city.
The smashing defeat came only months after another by-election loss in late March in the bayside seat of Redcliffe, following the resignation of the LNP’s Scott Driscoll over allegations of multiple fraud offences (that case is still before the courts).
The swing against the LNP there was 14.4%. Of the message sent by voters, Newman said:
We understand. That many of you felt that perhaps we haven’t listened enough, that we perhaps moved too quickly, that we haven’t consulted you. We hear it, we acknowledge it and we will do things differently as we go forward.
Yet he didn’t. Within weeks of the Redcliffe loss, Jamie Walker observed in The Australian:
Newman needs to get on message, and quickly. Instead of talking about bikies or feuding with judges, he needs to put the state budget Nicholls is framing front and centre, and tell his strutting Attorney-General, Jarrod Bleijie, to put a sock in it.
When the voters of Stafford sent the same message, only louder, it finally triggered a major shift in strategy, which looks likely to help re-elect the Newman government on January 31.
The Monday after the Stafford defeat, Newman called a media conference on a school oval in Brisbane’s southern outskirts, surrounded by his cabinet colleagues.
Amid lots of foot shuffling, and a too obvious eagerness by cabinet members to be at the back of the pack, Newman told the assembled hacks: “I’m sorry today if we have done things that have upset people.” He announced several largely cosmetic changes designed to appease critics of his approach to the judiciary and outlaw motorcycle gangs.
With the 2015 election looming, the LNP government needed some expert help – and it knew where to get it.
Conservative campaign wizards
Crosby Textor are campaign strategists who drove the Queensland LNP’s smashing, historic win in 2012.
It was a victory that reduced Labor to just seven seats and decapitated a generation of future leaders, some of whom have returned in 2015 to run in safer seats.
Founded in 2002 by Australians Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor, the now global strategy consultants have since run hundreds of other campaigns worldwide, boasting that “there is not an inhabited continent where they haven’t worked”. As a profile of pollster Textor in the Good Weekend magazine last year noted:
The pair has advised New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and British Prime Minister David Cameron as well as Tony Abbott. They have operated in Fiji, Zimbabwe (where wealthy US donors quietly funded their work in support of the Movement for Democratic Change), the Middle East, North Africa and South-East Asia.
Crosby, a former federal director of the Liberal Party, is based in London, where the UK media calls him “The Wizard of Oz”.
The Australian end of the business is run by Textor, who is usually based in Sydney but has been in Brisbane helping the LNP election campaign.
Textor is a Territorian, who cut his teeth polling for the Country Liberal Party in the late 1980s. His forte is research and he understands the idiosyncracies of Queensland’s political culture.
How Operation Boring changed the government
The first step was to remove from public gaze those ministers who were seen as having offended public sensibilities: notably, Newman’s “strutting Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie”, as he was described so colourfully in The Australian newspaper. Blejie’s disappearance from the media brought jokes in the Twittersphere about Harold Holt and North Korea.
Others put into isolation included Police Minister Jack Dempsey and – perhaps less effectively – Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney. As opposition leader, Seeney made way for Newman, so to some degree he can do what he likes, much to the chagrin of Treasurer Tim Nicholls.
Newman himself became more constrained and conciliatory in his public language.
One of the ground rules of Operation Boring was that Newman had to curb his naturally combative personal style (glimpsed again in recent days). Newman’s greatest campaign asset, his wife Lisa, had refused to participate in the political process after the disgraceful ALP smear campaign of 2012. She has since returned to a prominent role, particularly in his electorate of Ashgrove.
Nicholls was a key player in getting Crosby Textor to take a tough line with Newman. Newman’s own media outfit has been ineffective. His communication chief was former director of news at Nine Queensland, Lee Anderson. This year former ABC Queensland reporter on both politics and sport, Ian Eckerley, moved from Health Minister Lawrence Springborg’s office to support Newman.
The new strategy also looked for ways to celebrate the government’s areas of achievement, as well as its high achievers.
Among the winners have been Transport Minister Scott Emerson, Education Minister John-Paul Langbroek, Arts, Science and IT minister Ian Walker, along with Treasurer Nicholls. Each of them is media-savvy, tertiary-educated and from comparatively well-off urban electorates (Indooroopilly, Surfers Paradise, Mansfield and Clayfield); all have won more clear air to showcase their policy achievements.
Has the strategy worked?
Since late last year, polling has shown the LNP staging a comeback. While many voters many not have liked everything the government has done, more have been convinced that the LNP at least deserves a second term.
“Operation Boring is working,” one senior LNP member told The Brisbane Times late last year. “It’s working for Campbell Newman and for us.”
It’s not the only factor at work. The collapse in support for Clive Palmer and the loss of his state Palmer United Party MPs have also helped.
But Newman’s personal standing with the electorate has improved only marginally. He has remained on the wrong side of a majority on first preferences in Ashgrove since mid-2012.
Unless something extraordinary happens, the LNP government will be returned and Operation Boring will be notched up as another Crosby Textor success.
The main question remaining is Newman’s own fate, and who would replace him if he can’t survive in Ashgrove. Would it be the Country Party old guard of Springborg or Seeney? Or one of the shining stars of Operation Boring: Nicholls, Emerson, Langbroek or Walker?
Read more of The Conversation’s Queensland election 2015 coverage.
Editor’s note: After a reader’s query, the author updated this link: “…"after the disgraceful ALP smear campaign of 2012”.