Political parties have become products. The back-room wunderkinds will tell you that standing for something, being guided by values and philosophies, having purpose, are sure ways of alienating voters (consumers) and never tasting power – and isn’t that the only purpose that matters?
Because power is an end in itself, getting there, and staying there, occupies far more attention at modern party headquarters than any considerations about the higher purpose of power.
Gough Whitlam was a paragon of purpose and conviction, but he was also pragmatic. He understood the futility of principle at the expense of power, as he famously derided the implacably left-wing end electorally unsuccessful Victorian branch of the ALP in 1967. He recalled, 40 years later:
“I had to combat a growing attitude in some quarters that expressing the purity of our principles in permanent opposition was better than applying them in government. As I had to admonish the Victorians: ‘Certainly the impotent are pure’.”
But nobody could accuse Whitlam, or Labor under him, of standing for nothing. When Whitlam said in his 1969 election policy speech, “We of the Labor party have an enduring commitment to a view about society”, Australian politics could not be further removed from today’s small-target, policy-free election campaigns.
Tony Abbott’s supporters will argue that “stop the boats”, “abolish the carbon tax” and the “PPL” were policies.
But these were not part of a coherent nation-building plan or premised on set of fundamental principles; they were opportunistic, cynical and in the case of the paid parental leave scheme off-the-cuff, ill-conceived and economically irresponsible.
Political parties have always had to “sell” their election manifestos, but at least Australian elections used to feature competing platforms. Slogans once underpinned policy credos, now the slogans stand alone.
The election manifesto has become a barren parody of itself: the political version of a Harvey Norman sale catalogue – lots of big numbers and pizzazz.
For Abbott in the 2013 election it was the $5 billion PPL and the 15,000-strong Green Army; for Rudd it was big-ticket items such as shifting naval headquarters from Sydney to Brisbane and making the NT a low-tax special economic zone. Sale, sale,sale. Every semblance of policy integrity must go.
Political parties as washing powders
Political writers and headline writers have picked up the “brand” concept with the same practiced ease that a marketing reporter writes about the “unique value proposition” of a washing powder. Take these examples:
- “POLL: ALP brand battered by spill,” Newcastle Herald, 21 March 2013. “Prime Minister Julia Gillard faces an uphill battle rebuilding her party’s shattered brand after Labor’s crippling leadership crisis…,” ran the story from Fairfax’s Canberra bureau.
- “Federal woes trashing state Labor’s brand,” The Age, 2 May 2013. “The big question causing considerable angst within state Labor ranks is the extent to which the ALP’s federal woes have infected the state Labor ‘brand’,” wrote state political editor Josh Gordon, who at least applied killer quotation marks in mitigation. But not so Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews who in the same piece said of a disappointing byelection result: ”I think it would be naive and it would be less than straight to the Victorian community if we pretended there are not challenges for Labor in a brand sense.”
- “Brand new: How to sell Campbell Newman,” brisbanetimes.com.au, 26 July 2014. “What do you do with a brand like Campbell Newman?” posed political reporter Amy Remeikis. “The Can-do brand has been tarnished. And with it, the government has seen its popularity…crash”. Next comes insight not from a political science don, but ANU marketing lecturer Andrew Hughes: “They need to rebuild that brand, because the family market has now seen someone who has turned on them… their perception is it has made their lives even harder than it already was – and remember, perception is the reality… If Campbell Newman becomes can’t-do, not can-do, then the brand is gone.”
- “Dysfunctional brand at the core of Labor’s current crisis,” The Conversation, 14 April 2014. “If the disastrous results and campaign in the WA Senate re-election are anything to go by,” wrote University of Adelaide politics professor Carol Johnson, “the ALP seems to be losing the ability to brand itself and its policies as appealing to the public.”
Former WA premier, federal MP and national Labor president Carmen Lawrence understands what’s happening. “The major parties are failing our democracy and have been for some time; they are not parties any more, but, win-or-lose, hollow corporations run by a handful of paid officials,” she wrote in 2012. “The parties have been too clever for their own good, embracing simplistic, lowest common denominator policies designed with one eye on the polls and the other on the immediate public reaction, especially from the media.”
Politics shouldn’t be a business, but that’s what it has become. The most disturbing case in point is Clive Palmer’s so-called political party, the Palmer United Party.
PUP takes politics to new low
Palmer’s “party” is nothing of the sort. It’s a business, it’s run like a business, and Palmer is its sole proprietor. He runs PUP in exactly the same way he runs his myriad business interests – unpredictably, idiosyncratically, autocratically.
Palmer United Party, or Clive’s Discount Sofa Barn, same difference: their business is seats. At some point, PUP will be out of business, but in the meantime this non-party has degraded Australian politics to a new low.
PUP’s Senate members may well end up surviving the business and its proprietor. Perhaps that’s why Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie is so keen to promote her “personal brand” above the corporate brand – the calculated outspokenness, the swagger and her “trademark” scarves.
But PUP, Palmer and Lambie are symptoms of the diseased Australian polity. The long-term damage to the core of the nation’s parliamentary democracy is being done by the major political parties.
The professional political class considers the political party a marketing staple no different from great Australian brands like Vegemite, Bushells and Holden; all that’s missing is the foreign ownership. And we shouldn’t discount that possibility either.
Instead of Arnott’s biscuits, we have Abbott’s government. His year in office has left a sour taste in the mouths of consumers. Perhaps the war on terror will keep Abbott in the Lodge beyond 2016, or perhaps the war will prove the final nail.
Political strategists view poor opinion polls in the same way a product manager is concerned that 18-25 year-olds are buying fewer ice-creams. This might explain why we end up with so many plain-vanilla politicians, more concerned with the message that the colour of their tie sends to the electorate than explaining what the hell is going on in Canberra.
Voters that switch off political parties because of internal wranglings, policy failures, ineptitude, lack of direction and poor leadership are treated not like thinking voters who demand better but as dim-witted consumers that can be lulled into signing up for another three years by shiny new logos, catchy slogans and smart patter.
Some people are, and always have been, attracted by the bells and whistles. But judging by the 2010 and 2013 elections, possibly the most vacuous since Federation, voters are switching off in droves as political parties fail to convince people that they stand for something, have a plan for the nation and possess the talent to implement it.
Who will be the first to say ‘no more’?
When parties lose elections, back-room geniuses simply “recalibrate” their political “brands” rather than tackle the real reasons for the voter malaise. It’s not as if nobody can see what’s happening. Carmen Lawrence, John Faulkner, Steve Bracks, Bob Hawke, the late Neville Wran and many other Labor elders have over the years urged their party to reconnect with Labor values, but to no avail.
It’s inconceivable that the political players are blind to the long-term damage being done to Australian politics, but nobody wants to be the first to pull back and say “no more”, lest they lose the political advantage to their opponents.
There is a prevailing view that in the politics of perception-as-reality, nobody gets rewarded for doing the right thing. Labor strategists point to Simon Crean who as Labor leader sought to reform the party’s corrosive organisational structure and for his trouble was deemed colourless, inwardly focused and unelectable. The Liberals have seared into their psyche the dangers of being candid with the electorate and the failed experiment of John Hewson and his Fightback manifesto.
There is no single source of blame for the continual dumbing down of Australian politics into a battle of the brands: the rise of the political class, the demands of the 24-hour news cycle, the apathy of voters, the short attention span of social media consumers … take your pick.
But there can be only one source for the return to a political system which places a primacy on policy, vision, values and integrity. And that’s the political parties themselves, and the men and women who lead them. On the Coalition side, perhaps that challenge will one day fall to Malcolm Turnbull. For Labor, that challenge now rests with Bill Shorten. Whether Turnbull gets his chance, and whether Shorten makes the most of his – or whether the future rests with an entirely new guard – will tell whether Australian politics gets its brand new day.