As Malcolm Turnbull releases a video about his single-parent childhood, the Coalition and Labor are working overtime to sell their chiefs’ ‘authentic’ styles.

By Karen Middleton.

Turnbull and Shorten seek to define their character

Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten at the RSL Centenary in Melbourne this week.
Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten at the RSL Centenary in Melbourne this week.

When the storms struck Australia’s east coast early this week, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten telephoned Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

He was asking to be kept in the loop on the storm’s impact and emergency services operations, under the pre-election caretaker convention that provides equal access to important information and consultation on important decisions.

He also suggested that if Turnbull was planning to visit storm-damaged sites, they could go together. The Labor side insists it was meant as a gesture of practical bipartisanship.

Both leaders visited affected areas the following day – different areas, and separately.

“Bill Shorten and I were in touch yesterday about the response to the disaster and of course we are absolutely united in thanking and supporting the communities that have been affected by these shocking storms,” Turnbull said after inspecting the damage and talking to residents at Picton, south of Sydney. “While we disagree on more than a few things at the moment in an election campaign, we are very much on the same page in supporting these communities.”

With the focus shifting to the flood crisis in Tasmania, Labor’s campaign team contacted Tasmanian emergency services, asking if Shorten could visit on Thursday or if it would impede their work.

They were told it wouldn’t be appropriate with the water still rising.

Once authorities gave the all-clear, Turnbull’s team told Shorten’s team that Turnbull would be there on Thursday. Arrangements would be made for Shorten to visit, too.

Shorten rang Turnbull again. According to the Labor side, he repeated his suggestion: Why didn’t they go together, to save the authorities having to do everything twice?

The PM declined again, saying it would be too much of a circus with two media entourages in tow. According to Labor sources, Shorten suggested they could take a pared-down media pool. The answer was still no. Coalition sources say the ruling came from the Tasmanian government, to which all needed to defer under the circumstances.

Turnbull toured the flood zone around Launceston with Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman and federal Liberal MPs Andrew Nikolic, Brett Whiteley and Eric Hutchinson.

Shorten followed a few hours later. Each had his huge media contingent along, too.

1 . “The travelling circus”

For all the bipartisan sentiment, going together would have elevated Shorten to prime ministerial status. Turnbull knew it, although his team says that wasn’t a factor.

And although Shorten’s team argues it was only ever about practicalities, Shorten knew it, too.

Bill Shorten is grabbing every opportunity to get his message out – whether political or on policy – including the opportunities provided by unexpected events. Like all challengers, he wants voters to think of him as leader-like, compassionate and aware of what people are going through. He needs image and message to reinforce each other.

When he first spoke about the floods, Shorten raised insurance cover, hoping the insurers would be “fair”. The sentiment was genuine but the language wasn’t an accident. It’s the theme of his whole campaign.

Neither was his apology after both leaders failed to attend the repatriation ceremony for the bodies of Australian defence personnel from the Vietnam War.

They stayed away to avoid politicising the event. But both misjudged the public sentiment, particularly that it might look like Vietnam veterans were being disrespected all over again.

The Vietnam Veterans Association said it wasn’t concerned and, in the end, it may have been mostly a media-generated controversy. Turnbull chose to explain but not apologise.

Nevertheless, Shorten capitalised on the bad press from the podium of the Returned and Services League’s centenary conference, where he appeared alongside Turnbull by pre-arrangement.

On that occasion, it was Shorten explaining that neither man had wanted to mar the dignity of the event by turning up with “the travelling circus”.

“I should have realised that the moment, the occasion, was actually bigger than that – bigger than all of us,” Shorten said. “And for Vietnam veterans, I wondered if our absence that day inevitably carried that sad echo of a lack of respect from governments past – perhaps an uncomfortable reminder of the old indignities inflicted on Australians who answered our nation’s call. I’m certainly sure that I speak for the political parties in this country when I say sorry.”

It was a chance for Shorten to reveal a bit more of himself and to allude to one of Labor’s key themes: that Malcolm Turnbull is out of touch.

When voters judge political parties ahead of a federal election, the character of their leaders is a significant factor.

Both major parties insist it still comes down to policy in the end. But they acknowledge the character question has to be answered because it provides the context in which policies are assessed.

2 . Turnbull’s video

Turnbull’s team made an intervention on character this week, posting on social media a 90-second video about his relationship with his father, who raised Malcolm alone after his mother left. Turnbull narrates the relationship with a conversational voice, overlaid with pictures from the various stages of his life.

By late this week, the video had been viewed more than 630,000 times on Turnbull’s Facebook page.

Advertising expert Russel Howcroft says that makes it a success.

“I actually thought it was well made,” Howcroft said on Sky News.

“For a certain audience that will absolutely work – I’m convinced of that. People do want to know these stories and I think it’s pretty powerful. And if we use brand language it’s very important to be genuine in the world of brands and it’s very important to be authentic in the world of brands. And that piece of communication is genuine – clearly it’s genuine. And obviously it’s a true story so there’s authenticity to it. And I don’t think they’ve tried to over-engineer it in any way. It is delicate of course. These things are delicate. In the end it is a piece of advertising so it is hard to get right and I think they have. There’s a lot more right about it than not.”

It was reminiscent of the video Kevin Rudd’s campaign team made before the 2007 election, highlighting his childhood near Eumundi, in Queensland, his upbringing under difficult circumstances, and the death of his father when he was 11.

It didn’t seem to hurt Rudd’s campaign – indeed, he won in a landslide. But Hugh Mackay believes he needn’t have made it. “I think in the case of both the Rudd and Turnbull videos, the fact that they made them was a mistake,” the social researcher says.

“The very fact that they made them shows how desperate they are to make people think of them in a particular way. It’s inconceivable that Paul Keating or John Howard would have such a video made… When you agree to make a video like that, you’re admitting we’ve got a major problem…. This is an attempt to plug the character gap.”

In Labor Party headquarters, they also think it reveals some kind of deficit.

One Labor source ventures that it’s the kind of thing you would expect from the Labor side, to soften the tough-guy-unionist image Bill Shorten carried into politics.

But Coalition strategists warn observers not to “over-think” it.

“There’s not some problem that has to be dealt with,” one says. “It’s just one of those nice things. It’s very moving. It’s very heartfelt. I don’t think it’s that Machiavellian. It’s more just: ‘This is Malcolm talking from the heart. This is what he is and what has motivated him
in his life.’ ”

The Labor team is doing exactly the same thing regarding its candidate, in other ways.

The first of its campaign TV ads on education opened with a picture of Bill Shorten and his late mother, Ann, who had been a schoolteacher. It was aimed at achieving the same effect.

3 . Coalition targets Shorten’s trustworthiness

The Coalition has had to forgo one of its lines of attack against Shorten over his role in the demise and rise of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard because it engaged in the same practice, removing Tony Abbott and installing Malcolm Turnbull.

“Anything the Liberals wanted to say about a man who knifed two prime ministers was completely wiped out,” Mackay says.

They’re using the line “Same old Labor” to allude to it instead.

The Liberals are seeking to undermine Shorten on the character question with a new advertisement arguing he’s changed his position on company tax cuts.

“Any student of Australian business and economic history since the mid-’80s knows that part of Australia’s success was derived through the reduction in the company tax rate,” Shorten is shown saying in an interview in March 2012.

Shorten is now opposing extending the company tax cut beyond small business to big business.

The ad is less about cutting tax and more about telling voters that he can’t be trusted, that he is inconsistent and driven by political expediency – that he doesn’t believe what he says.

Mackay says consistency and authenticity are hugely influential characteristics in choosing political leaders. He says John Howard had both.

“Many people who were quite uncomfortable with many of Howard’s policies would say, ‘This is a bloke we can rely on,’ ” he says. “ ‘We can’t say that about Turnbull or about Shorten so we are forced to pay more attention to policy.’ ”

Labor believes that in choosing to attack him on company tax, the Liberals reveal that Shorten’s line about Turnbull helping out the big end of town is biting.

Labor detects a new defensiveness from its opponents on the issue, as they shift their emphasis onto selling the tax cut as helping small business first and most.

4 . “People’s forum”

The Liberals think Labor has scored a huge own-goal by putting out a 10-year economic plan containing few figures and conceding they won’t reduce the deficit as quickly as the Coalition promises to do.

Shorten is portraying it as being upfront and straight with voters.

“I think that people want to see more authenticity in their politics,” he said at a “people’s forum” of undecided voters hosted by Sky News in conjunction with Queensland tabloid The Courier-Mail on Wednesday night.

“I think people are sick of being told one thing then something else happening after the election.”

Shorten’s decision to attend a second “people’s forum” was at least as much about presenting himself to voters as his policies, especially when Turnbull declined. Turnbull chose instead to give his first television interview of the campaign, appearing on ABC’s much-higher-rating 7.30.

He said nothing new. Labor strategists think the Coalition – still apparently ahead in the crucial marginal seats – is just trying to run down the clock until the election.

5 . Government’s “dead bat” strategy

Former Liberal MP Ross Cameron also accused the government of playing a dead bat. “I have the perspective of a marginal-seat-holder and it’s basically like we’re saying, ‘Well, we’re going to torch 10 marginal seats but that’s okay because we’re still going to hold government,’ ” Cameron said on Tuesday. “Well, I say that’s a B-grade strategy. That’s a gutless strategy.”

Turnbull has faced criticism from conservative commentators for shying away from one-on-one interviews, when Shorten has been all over the airwaves, especially on FM radio.

Peta Credlin, former chief of staff to Tony Abbott, argues it’s a chance to show a leader’s humanity and warmth.

“Breakfast radio, as long as it doesn’t become mockery and you don’t detract from the office … is a good chance to humanise your leader. One of the criticisms Labor is trying to level [at Turnbull] … is he’s out of touch. It’s a great forum to show that you’re not out of touch And Malcolm gets a lot of the stuff that young people are interested in. To me, it’s an easy opportunity to show that.”

At the “people’s forum”, Shorten smiled widely when one questioner, Richard, disagreed with his policy but opened by saying: “You come across as quite a nice guy.”

On the character question, Hugh Mackay believes with three weeks before polling day, there’s little chance of either man changing people’s minds.

“It’s far too late now,” he says.

He believes both leaders have an image problem and that Greens leader Richard Di Natale and independent Nick Xenophon are seen as more “unaffected”.

Simon Cowan, a research scholar with the Centre for Independent Studies, believes this authenticity is precious in politics. “I think there’s a number of voters out there who are looking for authenticity above all else and they’re not getting a lot of authenticity from their politicians,” Cowan said.

“I mean, look at Donald Trump. The only thing you can say about Donald Trump is his positions might not be authentic, his hair might not be authentic, but he himself is a brand. He is something. I don’t see a lot of that in Australian politics. I think voters would respond to someone who went out there and said what they felt and what they thought.”

The policy debate is actually a character contest, too, and all the parties know it. They realise that as a voter facing a choice, it’s not just what you know but who.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 11, 2016 as "Character test".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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