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The Political Message Needs To Get Personal

You have to be able to communicate to connect.

20/07/2016 10:37 AM AEST | Updated July 20, 2016 10:53
David Gray / Reuters
"It is in all our interests to hope they are up to the task."

Election 2016 was a study in two distinct approaches to campaigning; where one leader spoke to the individual and the other to the many. Now that the new Government has been sworn in, what can the campaign style of the major parties tell us about how the 45th Parliament will play out?

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has accepted responsibility for his party's under-performance. Yet even as the Prime Minister said there were messages in the result the Coalition had to learn from, he continued to lay most of the blame for the result on Labor's scare campaign about Medicare.

If he is to learn from the mistakes of the campaign, he must recognise that his party managed to successfully alienate much of its core supporter base with its plans for superannuation legislation. Liberal Senator Eric Abetz has conceded those plans sent "shock waves" through the Liberal faithful and stories are now emerging that some of the Coalition's most senior Ministers including Julie Bishop, Christopher Pyne and Barnaby Joyce, tried to raise the concerns they were hearing in the electorate with the Prime Minister and Treasurer but were rebuffed.

The superannuation changes were presented as part of the May Budget a week before the election was called. They had not been discussed by the party room and Coalition backbenchers were just as shocked by them as the electorate. The strategy on super was flawed from the start and the Prime Minister and his team must acknowledge this and learn from it.

In relation to the 'Mediscare' campaign, it is impossible to scare people who aren't already scared. When it comes to Medicare and the continuing provision of universal health services, the evidence is that voters already had reason to be suspicious about their ability to access health care. A GP co-payment proposed in the 2014 Joe Hockey budget set the tone of concern -- Bill Shorten tapped into those pre-existing concerns and his messages resonated.

Effective political leaders have a responsibility to observe the community and pick-up on signals indicating concerns about specific issues. Overlooking these signals can be detrimental at a range of levels. Whatever your views of the 'Mediscare' tactic, Shorten was able to personalise an issue, distilling it down to its constituent parts of services which people rely on each day for themselves and their families.

This personalised approach stood in stark contrast to Turnbull's bigger-picture strategy. The "jobs and growth" mantra, premised largely on future corporate tax cuts, plainly did not connect at a personal level. The nexus between tax cuts for companies at some point in the future and materially improving prosperity at a household level was clearly not strong enough to prevent a leakage of support. To many, he came across as the CEO of a big corporation connecting at an organisational level. The problem is that entities don't vote.

You have to be able to communicate to connect. Again, there were two different approaches at play during the campaign. For Turnbull it was all about delivering the budget in May and then hanging on for dear life until polling day. For Shorten, coming from a long way back necessitated taking some calculated risks -- a willingness to be a big target on policy and a preparedness to work the media.

It was the difference between defending a lead and playing to win.

Numerous commercial TV programs complained -- on air -- in the final week of the campaign about the prime minister's refusal to appear on their shows. We now know that Sky News was black-banned outright. Shorten, by contrast, did many more interviews across the duration of the campaign -- perhaps he was taking a leaf out of the playbook of John Howard, famous for his willingness to subject himself to the rigours of talkback radio.

There's another key characteristic of successful leaders and that's an ability to deal with mistakes. It was evidently a mistake to lecture people about the perils of voting for independents. As a former university lecturer, the one thing you don't tell your students is what not to do. When the Prime Minister warned that "a vote for Nick Xenophon is a vote for all of the uncertainty of a Greens-Labor-Xenophon-Independent alliance", the consequence was inevitable.

Nearly a quarter of voters preferred minor party candidates and independents. Their message was that they wanted their voice represented through a minor party because they're ignored, even disrespected, by the major parties who yearn for the good old days of two party domination.

Nick Xenophon connected. In fact, he turned Election 2016 into a masterclass in personalising the brand. In a 20-year career in state and federal politics, he's made an art form of personalising issues for South Australians. From a single issue 'no pokies' MP to championing the future of manufacturing, he's shown he's in touch with the issues that matter to his state.

During this campaign, the major parties both saw the danger of losing ground to Xenophon and threw everything at him, yet his brand held up. So much so that his party, the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT), has secured a seat in the House of Representatives to match its growing clout in the Senate, where it is likely to end up with three senators including Senator Xenophon himself.

I have no doubt that lessons in leadership from the business world translate to politics. From my experiences as a CEO, every time you make a mistake you will discover how resilient you are. You will learn more about your character and how well, or badly, you cope when you don't perform to expectation.

How well these messages resonate will substantially inform the way our leaders approach the complicated task of navigating the next Parliament, it is in all our interests to hope they are up to the task.

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