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Pre-election advertising and strategy show both sides believe the campaign will be fought on the issue of  character. By Karen Middleton.

Strategists believe the election will be won on character

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese at the National Press Club in Canberra on Tuesday.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese at the National Press Club in Canberra on Tuesday.
Credit: AAP / Mick Tsikas

A Liberal Party video doing the rounds on social media falls back on an old political meme. Featuring Anthony Albanese atop a weathervane, jerkily creaking back and forth, the ad’s text asks where the Labor leader stands on a list of issues from “Labor’s retiree tax” to mining jobs, border security and “vaccine payments”. It ends with the cut-out Albanese spinning crazily, out of control.

As the end of January marks the unofficial start to the political year, the Coalition has launched its latest round of social media advertising this week. Largely reruns of messages it test-drove last year, the 16 ads began appearing in Facebook and Instagram feeds on Sunday. Among a handful promoting the Coalition’s economic record and its response to the Covid-19 pandemic, 10 are anti-Labor attack ads. Of those, eight feature Albanese. They portray him as weak, indecisive, inexperienced, too much of a risk. In one single ad, he’s described as a puppet of the unions, the Greens, the premiers, “woke warriors” and even his unpopular predecessor, Bill Shorten.

“These are trying to push every single button that they possibly can,” says Rebecca Huntley, principal social researcher at Vox Populi Research.

Huntley says leadership will feature more strongly than ever as voters make their choices at this year’s federal election, particularly for those currently undecided. “It’s probably the only important thing for undecided voters – how they feel about [the leaders].”

That personal assessment can be brutal. Huntley says voters use “a combination of gut instinct and rat cunning – Howard used to refer to it as ‘the wisdom of the mob’ – which is not always evidence-based, but it’s not always wrong”.

Because of the harsh assessment of Shorten last time in seats that swung the election, the Liberals want to link their current opponent with their previous one.

In its most recent Australian Election  Study, published after the 2019 election, the Australian National University included the findings of a voter survey on leader likeability, conducted after every election since 1987.

It found Bill Shorten was the second-most-unpopular leader to face an election in either major party in the preceding 32 years, after the late former Liberal leader Andrew Peacock.

There was daylight between Morrison and Shorten on likeability at the 2019 election. Morrison was still seen as an almost accidental prime minister – a depiction that did not entirely reflect the subterranean positioning before Peter Dutton challenged then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in August 2018.

“He seemed inoffensive,” Huntley says of Morrison’s image at the 2019 election. “He ran a clean, focused campaign of not much – which is always going to trump a politician they think is more untrustworthy than the average.”

Three-and-a-half years into his prime ministership, however, Australians now know “ScoMo” pretty well. As a result, Huntley argues, this election is all about Albanese. “It will be a good Albo, bad Albo campaign.”

Qualitative researchers and party pollsters are still finding that voters regard Albanese as a bit of a blank page. While that’s better for Labor than the strongly negative sentiment Shorten attracted, it’s shy of the positive recognition that its strategists would prefer.

Some believe that benign image could allow wavering voters to project their own values, hopes and aspirations onto him, and see them reflected back. That could turn out to be to his advantage.

The Liberals are eager to instead tip the lack of familiarity into wariness and hesitation. The text of one of the Liberal Facebook ads says Albanese has “never held a financial portfolio, never held a security portfolio, never delivered a budget” and “can’t say what he stands for”. Some of the more frustrated people on the Labor side have been making that last point for months.

On balance, the Liberals see Albanese as a potential asset to their campaign, at the same time as their own candidate has gradually become more of a liability.

Those twin conclusions are why the coming election is getting so willing so early. Issues of character, or more specifically leadership characteristics, are high on the list of factors likely to influence the vote.

If voters have started to question whether they still like Scott Morrison, the prime minister’s job is to persuade them that the alternative would be a lot worse.

Adjunct professor of politics at Griffith University Dr Anne Tiernan says the leadership question is particularly acute this time around, in the context of the global pandemic.

“I think part of the reason why character has become so important is because of the potential for crises and unexpected events,” Tiernan explains. “And that is because under pressure, people revert to type … I think character matters because it is about the values and purpose and therefore the behaviour we can expect leaders to exercise in office. And because the crisis seems so much more ubiquitous … we need to rely on their character coming to the fore.”

She points to the political storm engulfing the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, who has been accused of hypocrisy over private late-night parties held in his office when the rest of the country was in strict lockdown during the pandemic.

“It’s like sport,” Tiernan says. “Politics reveals, rather than builds, character.”

She adds that it’s not only the leaders themselves who will be so judged. “The people around a leader will exhibit similar character traits, won’t they? Because that’s why they’ll be chosen.”

Tiernan lists the standard considerations in a leadership character assessment: trustworthiness, loyalty, respect for others, self-restraint, compassion and willingness to accept responsibility.

“Citizens should be concerned about character because that’s what’s going to come out in trying circumstances,” Tiernan says. “We need to be interested in the character piece because of the potential for great power to be wielded by people in deeply uncertain and worrying circumstances.”

Others emphasise that “character” is just one element among a list of characteristics, or competencies, that voters will assess. These can include “vision”, something that might help offset other hesitations.

One researcher points back to Paul Keating, who many voters thought was “a bit slimy” but “if he set a bold enough vision, you wouldn’t mind”.

A set of unchanging characteristics may also be viewed differently if the circumstances change. Those traits that might be acceptable in one situation or context could be viewed as a risk in another.

As an example, a leader’s personal behaviour or temperament might be deemed less relevant than their perceived strength in times of war. But crisis or not, their competence, especially on the economy, is extremely relevant.

Rebecca Huntley shares the view that an emergency focuses voters acutely on the elements of leadership. “Times of crisis make us more attuned, more anxious about the quality of our leaders.”

She says the quality of individual leadership also becomes more relevant as people experience disruptions to things on which they normally rely, “like going into a shop and there being food”.

“When all of that stuff starts to be disrupted over a period of time, at a time of crisis, then leaders become even more important.”

Huntley points to Morrison having seized on the volatile sentiment, especially in Melbourne, coming out of the long lockdown late last year, that people didn’t want to be told what to do anymore.

While it connected with a strong view, she says, it is risky to assume people want government out of their lives.

“He’s taking a real gamble. I’m not saying that people want constant government intervention, but he’s taking a gamble that that’s the prevailing convention – that people want government to get out of their lives.”

She says what they want is order, some sense of centralised control, and leaders who are seen to be doing their jobs. Inviting that assessment so directly could be dangerous. “The risk he’s taking is that everyone is seen to be doing their job except him.”

Huntley’s in-depth discussions with Australian voters into the second half of last year highlighted concern and confusion as the states and territories went their own ways on border restrictions, lockdowns and distancing rules.

“Somebody in a focus group said it’s like Europe: a common market but lots of division and rivalry,” she says.

There was a strong sentiment around having “too many leaders”, with some asking: “Who’s in charge?”

“The strength of the leader, their ability to be a strong leader, becomes really important.”

That’s where there is such potential potency in describing Albanese as weak. Voters don’t have to like a leader to vote for them, if they believe them to be strong and competent. Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser was not terribly popular but was elected and then re-elected twice more.

On either side, strategists will use research tools to assess how much the characteristics of each leader are worth as a percentage of the vote, which will dictate how much and in what way these leadership issues feature.

Well before the pandemic, the 2019 election was a reminder of how crucial leaders’ characteristics can be. Then, the public assessment strongly favoured Morrison, who went into the campaign as the unknown quantity and was hailed as securing victory virtually single-handed. But this year, with Covid-19 having delivered the opposite of the restorative summer he predicted, his promised reward for public effort evaporated. Instead, it risks becoming a catalyst for voters to punish a perceived lack of effort by government. And he is feeling the potency of those leadership concerns on the flip side.

Now it is Albanese who is lesser known, which could work for or against him, depending on how voters size him up over the next four months.

Albanese got in ahead of the public holiday to reintroduce himself at a now-traditional year opener address to the National Press Club on Tuesday, with Morrison to take his turn on Tuesday next week.

“Australia’s best days are ahead of us,” Albanese began. “Not just the better days that we’re all hoping for right now, but the best our nation has ever seen. Together, we are ready for it.”

By “we” he means himself. His mission is one of reassurance.

Albanese rolled out his own list of personal sledges against his opponent, seeking to reinforce concerns that are already emerging in political research.

On the pandemic, he said Morrison had shown he “fails to listen and more importantly fails to act”. Albanese declared that while the prime minister “talks drivel at the cricket and shows off the contents of his kitchen”, Australians were facing empty supermarket shelves.

Albanese suggested the prime minister was too reluctant, too slow, went missing, and was both too hands-off and leading the “biggest government in three-quarters of a century”.

“Never before has Australia had a prime minister with such a pathological determination to avoid responsibility,” he insisted.

Worryingly for the Liberal Party, sentiment about Morrison has shifted sharply negative, due largely to the pandemic and anger about vaccines, rapid antigen tests and a perceived lack of central authority and preparedness. Morrison is working hard to combat this.

“What I can say to the Australian people again is this is a very frustrating period of this pandemic and there are many challenges,” Morrison said last week. “And people are working night and day to ensure we can come through this as strongly as we possibly can, and that’s what we will continue to do.”

He explained it was likely that the case numbers were about to peak and would begin to ease.

If things get back to near normal before people have to vote, they may move past their anxiety and anger and focus more on the economy. If that happens, Morrison’s chances could significantly improve. Leaning on another old meme about the Coalition being better economic managers, he may yet seek to turn the threat of an interest rate rise into a virtue.

In his address at the national flag-raising and citizenship ceremony on January 26, Morrison emphasised the positive: “gratitude for what has come before and optimism for what is ahead”.

While also seeding doubt about his opponent whenever possible – currently through social media feeds but increasingly overtly as the campaign proper begins – it’s a message he’ll carry right through until polling day.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 29, 2022 as "Strategists believe election will be won on character".

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

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