Flat White

Don’t focus on the focus groups

5 February 2020

5:00 AM

5 February 2020

5:00 AM

There is a way to win elections that has nothing to do with performance. I am reminded of this when reflecting on Winston Churchill’s 1945 electoral defeat by Clement Atlee. Churchill had a strategy, an all-encompassing and successful strategy to protect western civilisation from the greatest tyrant the world would ever know; a tyrant armed with modern natural science who boasted that the Third Reich would last a thousand years.

Churchill’s successful strategy left insufficient carry-over credit with the British people at the 1945 election for the simple reason that Churchill had not a strategy for post-war reconstruction. Neither did Atlee, but that’s another story.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison had no policy for winning an election last year yet, against all the odds, he won it. He won it, not with any demonstration of his superior political wisdom regarding military matters, or even any superior ability at promoting economic growth or national social cohesion. But he did have a marketing strategy.

In fact, Morrison has demonstrated no particular political wisdom during his political career, other than an ability to talk his way out of trouble. But in 2019, he happened on an electoral strategy that worked because his opponent in a head-to-head contest was unelectable.

Morrison’s interests before politics were in marketing and his election campaign was an advertising and public relations campaign. This is an important point to remember.

Our republican government is government for the people. This means that the first thing a government must always do is to ask itself what do the people need. That is a very different question from: what do the people want. That is the question that underlies every advertising campaign: Make them want it, you or me, whatever.

When you ask the question what do the people need, there are only a few answers: gainful employment, social cohesion and national security. Putting the first and last to one side, if we define friendship as wanting the best for our neighbour, the social cohesion means a nation of people who are by and large neighbours and friends.

During our recent bushfire crisis, our friendship for one another was demonstrated by many on the fields of fire. Morrison, however, took the opportunity when away from the public eye to go on holidays. It was a strategy nightmare.

After a panicked return to Australia, the PM sought to overcome the Hawian-shirt bad look by shaking hands with some people who had lost everything. Another marketing strategy nightmare ensued when said people refused the Morrison hand of false friendship.

Sometime before Christmas, I suggested that Morrison should make a statement to the Australian people, wishing them a happy Christmas and emphasising the good neighbour or friendship quality of Australian life. It is not only consistent with the spirit of Christmas, it is the essence of that mateship which is the Australian spirit.

Morrison did not give that Christmas message. He fled to Hawaii and when forced to return and apologise, his party released a marketing video of his PR meetings on the fire-fields.

The people of Australia were rightly outraged and it was a complete disaster. He remedied his strategic failure with some large buckets full of money – hardly statesman-like.

What is most notable about the PM December experience is that it showed that he had only one strategy. Whether the political task before him was to win the election or to make those decisions for the good government of the nation, his one strategy was to manage public relations and if that failed to spend money like the ALP.

Morrison does not have a vision for Australia. But that is common with marketing people who need a brief of the client’s vision to get started. So, consider this: Morrison has no strategy for dealing with the bush fire crisis so he has announced a royal commission. The evidence given will go to the government as recommendations for a future strategy. That is how he will get a brief.

Until then, the government will be telling you that they are getting on with business. That’s not leadership; it’s marketing.

The government’s only saving grace is that the ALP gave up on the sort of grand vision that a real man like Ben Chifley had. In the place of that grand vision, they have become woke and irrelevant to the vast majority of Australians, like tofu addicts at a Bunnings sausage sizzle.

Dr David Long is a retired solicitor and economist.

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