Dorothy Wainwright
'Template campaigns' dumbing down elections

In political circles, they’re called template campaigns. They’re big and clunky and expensive. Usually, they’re characterised by centralised control from the headquarters of political parties and have about as much connection with real people as a frog has feathers.

In the 17-odd years I’ve been involved in politics, sometimes working for and at other times consulting to one or either of the major parties, templatitis has become a plague in political campaigns at the local, state and federal level.

Template campaigns are designed to provide structure, discipline and consistency of message, and to maximise voter appeal. In reality, they deliver a lazy, one-size-fits-all platform for recycled political ideology. They are characterised by slogan-based mantras that demean voter and politician alike. In short, they dumb down democracy.

Indeed so predictable have the campaign strategies of the major parties become that core messaging resembles Groundhog Day every three years. The basic scripts read like this: “Labor can’t be trusted with the economy or border security” and “the Coalition only cares about the big end of town”. It’s the political equivalent of the Ford v Holden dichotomy, and if the major political parties persist with this outdated model, they are likely to suffer the same fate as our homegrown four-wheelers.

Despite the recent changes to senate voting laws, the Australian Electoral Commission has approved a record 56 parties to contest the federal election. If that does not signal great dissatisfaction with the major political parties and their method of campaigning, then
I don’t know what does.

But is anyone listening? Are the major parties capable of change? Based on my experience and knowledge of the personalities of the backroom players, my answers to these questions are: maybe and I hope so, but probably not this election.

For the Liberals, Tony Nutt appears to be trying to produce a more nuanced campaign in line with what he produced for New South Wales Premier Mike Baird in 2015. But he is being held back by an intellectually sluggish Liberal Party whose candidates gorged themselves silly on “axe the tax”, “repay the debt”, “a stronger Australia”, “stop the waste”, “debt and deficit”, “open for business” and, of course, “stop the boats”.

For Labor, George Wright’s “fairness” campaign is really nothing more than an updated version of his 2007 anti-WorkChoices strategy, but is ramped up with all the worst of old-school Labor class warfare.

Neither side is doing much to inspire us that “there has never been a better time to be an Australian”.

So why are both Labor and the Liberals addicted to template campaigns? There are many reasons, but two stand out for me. The first is that centralised template campaigns hide the lack of real policy work; the second is that they provide a ventriloquist makeover for even the most ordinary of candidates, because their own parties don’t trust them to stay on message. And perhaps that’s with good cause, as evidenced by Chris Jermyn’s “Jaymes Diaz moment”, when he was unable to explain the Liberals’ policy on Medicare. Basically, neither party believes their candidates are smart enough for anything more than a rudimentary and rigid set of instructions. Hence the template.

But ultimate responsibility here does not lie with Jaymes Diaz or Chris Jermyn, it lies with the processes of political parties that allow candidates to be selected who clearly do not understand what their chosen party’s policy position is on crucial issues.

When it comes to the calibre of candidates in this country, the talent pool is despairingly thin. Apart from the inevitable collection of ex-staffers and union hacks, very few “real people” put their hands up. Once preselected, the party machines give them very little guidance in terms of how to handle the media or how to understand and explain their own party’s policies. Instead, they are told to fundraise, fundraise, fundraise. Fundraising targets can range between $150,000 and $250,000 for local and state government campaigns, and upwards from $250,000 to $500,000-plus for a federal seat, more if it is a marginal seat being specifically targeted.

Former federal director of the Liberal Party Brian Loughnane was a champion of the template campaign and its focus on fundraising. General consensus was that this is all he could handle. Anything else was too complicated. On his watch, the three-word slogan came to be the magic bullet for any and every issue affecting the nation. Anyone with a contrary view, such as former deputy federal director and now senator James McGrath, was fired.

A similar “my way or the highway” level of tolerance was displayed by Loughnane’s wife, Peta Credlin. Political parties supposedly identify the issues that matter most to voters through focus groups and exhaustive push polling. But, as Tony Abbott’s chief of staff, Credlin banished pollster Mark Textor from the prime minister’s office for 16 months after the 2013 election win. She didn’t like having anyone smarter than her in the room. Credlin preferred to govern by the template of her own political ideology – a strategy that did not end up working out too well for either her or Abbott.

Template campaigns focus on swinging voters and ignore the base, effectively taking them for granted. The resultant laziness engenders a repugnant level of complacency, particularly in incumbents sitting on a healthy margin and occasionally also in marginal seat-holders who may be the undeserving beneficiaries of an electorate’s historical leaning, a changing demographic profile or name recognition gained through some other avenue.

Template campaigns are also notoriously inflexible, with little scope to be nuanced or sensitive to local issues. Nowhere was this weakness more obvious than in the 2015 Queensland state election. Despite knowing months in advance that Campbell Newman’s personality was the electoral equivalent of drinking battery acid, the Liberal National Party persisted in running a centralised campaign with mandated messaging for all its candidates. A localised campaign focusing on the strengths of individual candidates, even if only in certain seats, may have saved some better-performed LNP MPs, who were undeservedly thrown out with the Newman bathwater. Failure to embrace a localised campaign may have been the difference between retaining government or losing it.

As we enter into the final four weeks of this campaign, both Labor and the Liberals will ramp up the template “activations” – they save the best for last. Here is some of what you can expect:

Doorknocking – perhaps one of the more genuine campaign activities a candidate can undertake, but not so much when only undertaken during the campaign period, particularly in the case of an incumbent, where the candidate outsources it to campaign workers, or alternatively goes home “exhausted” after knocking on just a handful of doors.

Telephone canvassing – there is probably no more infuriating campaign tool. Political parties routinely conduct these calls between the witching hours of 5pm and 8.30pm on a weekday, providing a major source of irritation for families trying to cook dinner and get children to bed – just another example of politicians being sensitive to your needs.

Robo calls – let’s face it, nothing screams “genuine” as much as a computerised voice asking for your insights into the nation’s future. This is the ultimate in lazy campaigning, but remains a staple campaign activity co-ordinated through the central headquarters of political parties.

Shopping centre walk-throughs – always a good source of news footage during campaigns, especially when campaign teams forget to seek the permission of the centre manager, who then asks the candidate and their entourage to leave. Great television.

Letterbox dropping – regardless of whether you’re a climate change believer or sceptic, the denuding of forests to jam mailboxes with pamphlets and flyers that are seldom if ever read doesn’t do much for global warming, although they are good fire starters in winter.

Harassment of voters at pre-poll and voting booths on election day – just when you think it’s over they get you one last time. Voting day presents a whole new level of harassment. Upon your arrival at the polling booth, expect to be greeted as a long-lost friend by a swarm of campaign volunteers, all jockeying for your attention with “gifts” of even more pamphlets you will never read. Try not to be offended when your new friends don’t recognise you when you leave the polling booth.

At this stage of the campaign it seems the template machines of both Labor and the Liberals are likely to cancel each other out. Neither has landed a knockout punch and seemingly neither has one in their arsenal. But, with four weeks to go, there’s still time – time to get real, ditch the templates, and actually connect with people.

If Malcolm Turnbull’s own analysis that “Australian political contests are won or lost at the sensible centre” is correct, then here’s hoping those people haven’t all decided to vote informal.

Turnbull’s best audition for the job of PM remains the one he gave before he even had it, in his appearance on ABC’s Q&A back in February this year. His response to the Dorothy Dixer that night of “How do you restore faith in the political process?” was gold:

“The challenge for us as political communicators is to take complex problems and explain them in a clear way, not in a simplistic way. We have got to be much better at explaining the problems, because once you’ve explained the problem, people will accept the need for a solution and then you’ll have a competition about what the right solution is.”

A dialogue like this is difficult to have in three words. And herein lies the trouble with template campaigns. They’re a bit like a night out on crack – they promise a good time, are highly addictive, but deliver bugger all. Here’s hoping the parties sober up for the good of all of us.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 4, 2016 as "Surely template".

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