The ALP’s reliance on focus-grouped buzzphrases is hurting the Labor brand, argues Ben Davies
In her first speech to parliament as prime minister, Julia Gillard declared: ‘It is my intention to lead a government that is focused each and every day on meeting the needs of working families around the country.’ Like Linus in the Peanuts cartoons clinging tightly to his security blanket, Gillard clung to the ALP’s favourite rhetorical security blanket — the phrase ‘working families’ — as she took up her new position.
Almost everyone would be familiar with the concept of ‘working families’, which became ubiquitous during Kevin Rudd’s leadership. The phrase came to typify his reliance on spin-doctored words. However, few will be aware be aware of the origins of the term. The story of where it came from says much about the contemporary Labor party.
The phrase ‘working families’ was the carefully tailored product of expert spin doctors and focus groups. It was introduced to the political vernacular in 2005 by the ACTU as part of its multimillion-dollar campaign against the Howard government. But we shouldn’t thank the unions for introducing us to the term. Instead, we should direct our attention to a veteran American spin doctor by the name of Vic Fingerhut, who for several decades has provided campaign advice to left-of-centre parties and unions in North America. Fingerhut was engaged by the unions to mastermind their campaign strategy and offered the ‘working families’ slogan.
Fingerhut’s other clients include the peak American union body, the AFL-CIO. Its slogan for the 2008 presidential election was ‘Working Families Vote’. Another client is the Canadian New Democratic Party. In the Ontario province election of 2007, its slogan was ‘A fair deal for today’s working families’.
Fingerhut worked in conjunction with a political consultancy engaged by the ACTU, Essential Media Communications (EMC), which conducted polling and focus group research. Peter Hartcher, writing in To the Bitter End, tells the story of how ‘working families’ was born in four EMC focus groups held in March 2005. These groups comprised a representative sample of middle Australian ‘battlers’ who were asked to pick between four descriptions of themselves held up on big cards: ‘Workers’, ‘Working People’, ‘Working Families’ and ‘Middle Class’. ‘Working Families’ proved to be particularly popular and thus the slogan was born.
The reason why ‘working families’ became so overused by the ALP can, once again, be found in focus group data. A 2007 report by Fingerhut advised that, according to his polling, when voters were asked which party was best at handling the economy, the results were relatively even between Labor and the Coalition. But when voters were asked questions like ‘which party is best at handling the economy for working families?’, there was a shift of up to 40 per cent from the Coalition to the ALP.
Not surprisingly, the Labor party enthusiastically embraced this advice. In the 2007 election campaign, every Kevin Rudd speech was peppered with references to ‘working families’, with one speech containing a record 21 repetitions! Since it was imported to Australia it has proliferated at an astronomical rate in its new host country — rather like a political equivalent of the cane toad. A recent search of Hansard revealed more than 1,400 Parliamentary uses of the term ‘working families’ by federal Labor MPs since the 2007 election, including 140 by Gillard.
Not everyone is happy with this triumph of focus-grouped spin over spontaneity and substance. Paul Keating once famously warned Kevin Rudd not to become captive to the ALP’s ‘tea-leaf-reading focus group-driven polling types’ who ‘won’t get out of bed in the morning unless they’ve had a focus group report to tell them which side of bed to get out’.
Keating’s concern for the spin-driven style of modern Labor is one of the key themes in Simon Benson’s recent book, Betrayal, which tells the story of tea-leaf-reading Labor bosses in the NSW party and their role in the demise of premier Morris Iemma and treasurer Michael Costa. It’s a ripping yarn of disloyalty, treachery and scheming, with Costa and Iemma cast as the innocent good guys and the clear baddies being Mark Arbib and Karl Bitar, the two most recent ALP state secretaries, who have since moved on to Canberra. They are portrayed as shifty party operatives with no concern for policy, devoid of core beliefs and obsessed with their tea leaves and focus groups.
At the end of the book, Benson forlornly concludes that the most important source of power in the NSW Labor party is not the premier, the party secretary or the head of the Labor Council — it is the mystical third drawer in a desk in party headquarters where the confidential polling data is stored.
Mark Latham expressed a similar contempt for the tea leaf readers in The Latham Diaries: ‘The methodology is simple: use opinion polls and focus groups to find out what the public thinks and then tell them we think the same way.’ Michael Costa has described this approach as ‘a kind of voodoo politics that has turned techniques such as focus groups and polling on their head. Instead of using information derived from these techniques to adapt the message around a well-thought-out policy, they use these techniques to develop a policy’.
In Betrayal, Costa recounts how a decision to build a $2 billion desalination plant was a direct result of focus groups that had concluded that people liked big infrastructure projects. Not only is the allocation of billions of dollars of public money now decided according to focus groups, so too are matters of high morality. Consider, for example, Labor’s abandonment of ‘the greatest moral challenge of our time’ in response to adverse polling data.
Paul Keating is quoted approvingly throughout Betrayal and issues a portentous warning: ‘Where goes NSW, so goes federal Labor.’ Keating was prescient, as the NSW government has been the test bed for the expedient poll-driven tactics that now typify Labor in Canberra. Indeed, former NSW party bosses Arbib and Bitar were reportedly Kevin Rudd’s most important sources of tactical advice, right up until they threw in a free set of steak knives. Recent reports have also confirmed that the two Labor tacticians who advised Rudd to ditch the Great Moral Challenge were — you guessed it — Arbib and Bitar.
There appear to be two main reasons for the inordinate reliance on focus groups as a substitute for political beliefs and original thought. The first is that they are used as a crutch by politicians who have very little confidence in their own judgement or their ability to relate to normal people. They therefore regurgitate what the focus groups say the public wants to hear.
The second, even more worrying, reason is that focus groups are seen as an end in themselves by party technocrats — the sort of people who think the art of politics is simply to govern by polls and communicate via contrived phrases. They seem to think that normal people are simpletons who will start drooling like Pavlov’s dogs every time they hear terms such as ‘working families’, ‘nation-building and jobs’, ‘our plan for the future’ and ‘investment in infrastructure’. Indeed, listening to many NSW Labor types is the political equivalent of listening to one of those talking dolls with the string in their back, who repeats a limited number of predictable phrases whenever the string is pulled.
Instead of the talking dolls, let’s have politicians with their own beliefs who aren’t afraid to expr
ess them. Let’s have straight-talking types who can communicate in their own language, not hollow hacks whose substitute for original thought is focus-grouped platitudes. The problem, though, is that this requires political conviction. This in turn requires them to actually believe in something in the first place.