22 May 2016

What the dead cat tells us

I still think Turnbull is running this campaign as one long validated learning exercise. It might not do him any good, but if there is any method behind the madness I'd suggest that is it.

US campaigns run for more than a year; political consultants from there struggle with our relatively compressed campaigns, and with compulsory voting. The last election campaign pretty much ran from Gillard's announcement in January 2013 until September, and within weeks it was all invalidated as Abbott negated the no-cuts pronouncements that got him elected. The last short, sharp election campaign we had was in 2010, upon which nobody from the major parties will look back fondly.

Long campaigns could well become the norm in Australia, especially in an environment where so many long-accepted verities are biting the dust. There are three things we've learned, and no doubt many more we are yet to learn:

Can't count, don't count

Had Peter Dutton's comments about illiterate, innumerate refugees taking our jobs and welfare simultaneously been delivered in the final week of the campaign, with the government well behind in the polls, it would be easy to pile on with all the other commentary that the government is desperately panicking, or panicking desperately. It is quintessentially conservative to go back to what once worked for you regardless of prevailing circumstances now.

But we're not in the final week of the campaign, are we? Polls are fairly even. If it wasn't for social media it might be difficult to find anyone who cares much about this election. We're all in a position to have learned something from Dutton's statement - hardly new or groundbreaking, was it? Dutton isn't pleading with the uncommitted, he's not engaging with Labor policy, he hasn't exacerbated the already dreadful conditions asylum-seekers under our care suffer now. It isn't as though he has trashed his brand: it's exactly the sort of pig-ignorant, nasty stuff he has said throughout his career. There's none of the classical allusions from Enoch Powell, nor the smart-alec lines from Morrison.

We've often been told that I am, you are, we're all terrible racists who vote accordingly. Pauline Hanson was a one-term MP who only won her seat in parliament by accident 20 years ago and has lost every race she ran in since. Tampa was not that big a deal in the 2001 election, neither a spike nor a dip in a trajectory that took Kim Beazley from Tomorrow's Man to Yesterday's Man that year without him ever having his day. But if a week is a long time in politics, surely fifteen years is epochal?

Labor doesn't really offer much difference in policy terms from the Coalition. Only partisans regard Dutton or Morrison or Ruddock as more intrinsically evil than the Labor ministers who held the portfolio. Labor's current immigration spokesperson, Richard Marles, is exactly the sort of bloodless functionary who whimpers "I was just following orders" when it all finally catches up with them. Pre-polling won't open for another month (you there, stop weeping).

Dutton's remarks can be said to dogwhistle dumb racists - the Hildebrand constituency, if you will - but in another way they signalled to another constituency altogether. Those who instantly spotted the contradictions of what Dutton said (we all know fine people who fled murderous regimes and contributed greatly to this country, and how can anyone steal my job while being too lazy to work?) are the very people who will play down the significance of asylum-seekers or racism generally as real issues: red meat tossed at the excitable lower orders, talked down and away by all thinking people such as we.

Personally, the only animosity I've ever felt towards boat people is these guys; if the various vessels being built in South Australia can fend them off it will be money well spent.

There could not be a better time to let Dutton off the leash, with plenty of time to adjust based upon evidence. The nbn raid rather complicates things, but generally we can expect one of four outcomes:
  • Polls will go heavily (4%+) in the Coalition's way: Asylum Seekers Took My Baby schlock reinforced as an issue.
  • Polls don't change: asylum-seeker policy seen as a non-issue.
  • Polls go heavily for Labor: a) Asylum Seekers Took My Baby schlock reinforced as an issue, but Coalition won't know what to do with it and Labor won't believe their luck, and/or b) nbn raid really takes centre stage.
  • Polls don't change much (-/=3%) either way: signal to Coalition will be unclear, but there will be a tsunami of media hype out of all proportion to what the issue really means.
The follow-up polling with Hildebrands will be fascinating. Racists are always called upon to redirect their attention to social services or other class-based issues, and they almost always jeer at the call. Whatever happens, it will be a teachable moment about the reach and appeal of this kind of scare campaign.

Jeez, mate!

Here is yet another dreary piece whining about what evil genius/es CrosbyTextor are/is. Toward the end of the piece there is a mention of how the evil geniuses failed in the London mayoral election, which rather blunts the thrust of the piece. So too does CT's patchy record at state level: since the 1990s Labor has not allowed itself to be outflanked on being seen as "tough on crime", which is pretty much CT's entire gamut of advice at this level.

Read the quote from Johnson again: it is not the consultant, nor the party that is their client, who is to blame for getting their message across. They are doing their job. The 'dead cat' messaging strategy works because the journalists covering it are - despite their much-vaunted experience - not clever enough to anticipate the 'dead cat'. They lack the guts and the sense to call it for the distraction that it is, and to keep their focus on issues of greater currency and relevance.

With 250 members of the Canberra press gallery, supposedly intelligent, diverse, and competitive to a man/woman, you'd think the very essence of savvy would lie in their ability to recognise and resist a blatant and predictable digression.

The very idea that they are helpless (as kittens?) before a 'dead cat' tactic is an indictment of the media, of the value of their experience and nous, and of CrosbyTextor's brothers-and-sisters-from-other-mothers within Labor and other organisations. It is those people who aren't doing their jobs. Digressions and diversions are covered extensively by Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Clausewitz, and other strategists who long predate Crosby, Textor, Johnson, and all those who whine about them.

No journalist has any excuse for not being awake to the 'dead cat' manoeuvre. No journalist has any excuse for being sucked in, or doing another piece on how brilliant it is (you don't have to be brilliant to play a press gallery journalists for mugs). Any journalist who thinks they've done their job by describing the dead cat and not looking for the distraction is a fool. Any editor who confuses the 'dead cat' with the story of the day should be boiled in their own piss and then deported. The shame of it is not in planning and executing the manoeuvre, but in the hapless, helpless, and hopeless others who don't know what to do when the inevitable happens.

The real leader of the Liberal Party

Here's what happened: Dutton made his remarks, then however much you may have expected of an earlier version of Malcolm Turnbull, the fact is he endorsed the remarks and Dutton himself. Then, after that, for some reason, Mark Textor came out and backed Dutton.

What would motivate Textor even to comment on an operational campaign matter? Is he wired up to the media through the campaign, like a V8 Supercar driver or a Twenty20 cricketer? He doesn't have a formal role in the Liberal campaign, like Federal Director Tony Nutt. What happened after he spoke, however, was that the debate over Dutton's comments ended. The endorsement of the Prime Minister, the elected leader of the Liberal Party, didn't have that effect. Once Textor had spoken, chatter about whether Dutton had gone too far/not far enough simply stopped. Dutton's remarks were no longer 'a gaffe', but an intrinsic part of the Coalition campaign: tangible and undeniable as a corflute.

Katharine Murphy noted the events but got the analysis the wrong way around:
Presumably my question [about the propriety of Dutton's remarks in the context of the campaign] was impossible to answer before the prime minister set the tone. Given Malcolm Turnbull has backed in Dutton, Textor will now express a view in public.
Turnbull didn't set the tone, he was just another voice among many and the debate continued around him. Textor had the final, closing word in that debate, as a leader does.

A consultant should never make themselves the story - except when they do, and they silence the debate to an extent that neither Dutton or Turnbull can, clearly there is something else going on which Murphy and others have missed.

Former press gallery journalist, Hewson adviser and now ANU academic Norman Abjorensen, notes that neither Abbott nor Turnbull have dominated the Liberal Party as Menzies or Howard had. Crosby and Textor play that core role in the Liberal Party. They determine its strategy, its priorities, and its policy positions in the ways that used to be reserved for party members and/or leaders.

In 2007, John Howard had been a Liberal for half a century, in Parliament for a third of century, and at or near national leadership roles for a quarter of a century - yet he still put his fate in the hands of Crosby and Textor.

Whenever other elements in the Coalition disagree with Crosby and/or Textor, the latter prevail - that wouldn't be the case if they were mere back-office hirelings. Leaders have come and gone in the party organisation and the parliamentary party over the past twenty years, but those guys prevailed amid all the turmoil. No matter who won at any particular time or jurisdiction, they all took advice from Crosby and Textor. They cannot be sacked or backstabbed or shafted or dumped; no politician is so invulnerable. That's power. Turnbull and Dutton and Morrison and the rest of them are in office, but Crosby and Textor are in power.

The Liberal Party has outsourced its core function, which is why it has no compunction doing so to government services.


  1. At least we are not talking about 7/11 or Panama papers.

  2. "The Liberal Party has outsourced its core function, which is why it has no compunction doing so to government services." Very astute observation Andrew. This whole raid on Conroy's house/NBN fiasco has had the impression of being orchestrated by an external source. Added bonus is ultimate deniability for the party hacks (PM included). Anyway, if you were the IPA and paying for everything, wouldn't you want to call the shots.

    1. A little update. Over at the Australian, Evan Mulholland, IPA media manager and former adviser to Mitch Fifield boldly defends Turnbull's MTM.
      (a paywall but if you google the address you should get it). The article is a bad joke but the comments appear like an all out Bolshevik assault on Rupert's citadel.
      The IPA is certainly candid in displaying their influence.

  3. I would have thought now was the perfect time to test the electorate's patella on Nauru etc, and the Textor whistle was to indicate experiment over. Disclaimer - I went to school and uni with ABN. Who would no doubt point out it was Sun Zi who wrote the art of war, and didn't Sun Bin write half of it actually?

    1. Sun Tzu and Sun Zi are different Romanisations of the same Chinese word, the phrase meaning "Master Sun".

    2. That's the point of the remark. ABN would say things like that. Calling Sun Wu "Master Sun" is like referring to Doctor Johnson or Bishop Berkeley.

  4. In my view the NBN raids had Crosby/Textor finger prints all over them. What I don't understand is why they put Turnbull's biggest failing center stage.

  5. Now, That's made me think.......thanks Andrew.

  6. It seems that apart from Turnbull's popularity taking another dive, the polls are not for moving.

    My interpretation of that is basically that:

    1. Anyone whose vote turns on either boats or on demonising brown people (which is after all what Dutton was doing, his comments had nothing to do with illegal arrivals who aren't allowed to stay and everything to do with refugees who do stay) is already voting the way they intend to vote.

    2. Turnbull's personal approval rating took another big hit as people who are not yet willing to abandon him completely but do expect better of him were disappointed yet again.

    The fact that none of the swinging voters at the Sky debate in Western Sydney asked about either boats or immigration was suggestive that this is simply no longer a swinging vote issue. Immigration is more a matter of exciting parts of the Coalition base and dominating the airwaves with an issue they don't mind talking about, so they don't have to address health or education or the family tax benefit or climate change or the NBN.

    The point that the media is apparently capable of recognising the dead cat but also feels obliged to talk about the dead cat anyway is well made. The only trouble for the Coalition is that there's more than a month left of this campaign- they can only dead cat immigration so often before even this press gallery gets bored and talks about other things. I think they used their "immigration week" too early. What else do they even have which they will want to talk about? OK, national security. But that's a bit trickier and has less room to wedge the ALP. What else?

    Can't imagine the campaign is going to get any better for Turnbull until and unless he does pull out some last minute desperation progressive policies. Would the Coalition right countenance that if they believed it was the difference between winning and losing? How ideologically pure are they really, when push comes to shove?

    1. They'll say anything if they think it'll win them an election, then abandon it because "fiscal imperative".

      C'mon, remember Tony? Turnbull is Abbott smooth, not Abbot lite.

  7. I've have always admired your analysis of these things but I'll be damned if you are dissing The Lonely Island!

    1. Happy to tow them as far away as possible