Kath and Kim, Jen and Ken, Lynton and Mark

Our new home is on the wrong side of the Nightcliff peninsula in Darwin, the Rapid Creek side where part-Aboriginal families were housed from the early 1960s. The area long ago began to be gentrified, but it still bears the imprint of its recent history in somewhat lower house prices than the adjacent suburb of Nightcliff proper.

The snob value didn’t worry Jen and me. We reckon it’s a better location, north-facing, looking out to sea and along the wide open spaces of Casuarina Beach. But I can’t help wondering whether maybe a sub-conscious part of the appeal of Rapid Creek might have been the Kath and Kim syndrome. You know, the episode where Kim and Brett were looking for a house to buy and Brett expounded the real estate theory that you always buy the worst house in the best street. “No Brettie,” said Kim. “I reckon you buy the best house in the worst street, so you can look down on the neighbours and feel superior“.

It’s the aspirational mentality, the psyche of the group John Howard understands perfectly and to whom his messages of greed, fear, snobbery, envy and resentment have mostly been pitched over the last 8 years. More than anyone else, the men who created and honed these messages and fashioned Howard’s four federal election victories have been former federal Liberal Party Director Lynton Crosby and Coalition polling guru (and Territorian) Mark Textor. Both are now over in Britain trying to conjure similar political miracles for new Tory leader Michael Howard (inter alia, by engineering a refugee/immigration scare disturbingly similar to their successful 2001 campaign for the Aussie Howard).

But however much many on the left may detest Crosby and Textor, they’re undeniably brilliant political operators. Both have an understanding of the black arts of politics that no-one in the current ALP seems able to match. I’m sure there are lots of elements that I don’t even begin to understand, but one about which Crosby makes no secret (and which strikes me as critically important) is this:

Attacking the prime minister – and reeling off a series of policy initiatives – is not enough, Crosby is telling staff as he reminds them of the importance of his buzzword: values. “People don’t generally vote simply on the basis of issues,” he told a conference in Canberra last May. “They vote as much on the values and motivation of political parties in taking a particular position on an issue… It is the values you communicate, and the motivation you have, that influences the way people vote.”

Precisely. But values based on negative emotions like greed and fear are not the only ones available to be tapped. Positive ones more attuned to traditional social democratic concerns can be every bit as powerful.

What values? They’re pretty obvious really. Liberty, equality, fraternity. The Coalition pushes the liberty value untiringly, but only the economic kind (which appeals to people’s aspirational instincts) not the civil liberties kind. Moreover, even economic liberty is looking a bit tattered these days under the impact of Howard’s big government, tax-and-spend electoral pragmatism. And equality and fraternity don’t even get a look-in under Howard.

Surely these must be the keystone values around which Labor’s rhetoric, policies and strategies are rebuilt. They’re not outmoded in any sense. As Australians, we still see ourselves as holding dear the values of mateship (fraternity) and the fair go (equality). Not the levelling-down, envious sort of equality (of outcome), because that rightly antagonises our aspirational instincts. Hence the failure of Latham’s attempt to demonise wealthy private schools, and the anger generated by promising at one foul swoop to abolish the jobs of Tasmanian timber workers to appease the Greens. Equality of opportunity, not outcome. Latham cottoned on to part of these values and motivations with his “ladder of opportunity” imagery, but he failed to sustain it in any consistent way either in a rhetorical or policy sense.

Sadly, I can’t see the Great Convoluted Communicator Beazley managing to fashion the right mix of values, message and policies either. But we live in hope.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Rafe
2022 years ago

Great post! Pity it is past my bedtime so I can’t think of any helpful comments because I agree and disagree in about equal measure.

On the topic of values, there was a very interesting evidence-based paper by one of the Kemps about the spread of values in Australia circa 1970 and the way that values lined up with party affiliation and voting patterns. He seemed to be onto something that is very relevant at present, although the Whitlam interlude appeared to violate the pattern that he detected. Will attempt to find paper and comment further.

David Tiley
2022 years ago

Ironic that people are commenting in a disparaging way about high school teachers obsessing on the “values” that a work espouses. We all know there is a zeitgeist thing going on.

Great post indeed. But I am troubled by Crosby’s remark about voting on values. Aren’t we still stuck with the fact that people voted for safety, in a context where they saw no reason to take risks? I presume that is a personal but not a public value.

I suppose values in our context is embedded strongly in the public persona of the leader. Hawke, though he came late to Federal politics, had a considerable reputation when he arrived. Whitlam took six years to create his values aura. And they have been the two cut-through ALP politicians since 1954.

Latham, though his value instincts were sound, did not have nearly enough time, if these other examples hold. And he tended to be superficial but also not general enough. Reading to kids felt trivial, but he never reached the rhetorical of talking about how families share time and love.

The card which hung in the air and was never played properly was youth. If I was the ALP I would really be going for that in preselections. How closely could your Rebecca relate to people of Beazley’s age? He is older than us – and we are on the way out.

How many of our politicians are capable of being fully emotional in public about values? To bring an audience to the light on the hill, in a chain of rhetoric?

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

T’would be interesting if someone mapped how Labor’s “My fellow Australians, let’s build a better country together” message lost ground to Lynton/Crosby’s “Fuck ’em. I worked hard for what I’ve got and you and you and you out there can’t take it away from me” – against the rise since the mid-eighties, and now accelerating, of cocooning technologies like video, credit card purchases by phone, home delivered food, the internet, DVDs, and now broadband web access.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

Oh, and David, speaking of getting out there and enjoying the society of the spectacle, I’ll email you shortly about doing the Airshow, once gmail gets back online.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Still waiting for entries in the Troppo contest from Messrs Nabakov and Tiley and Dr Sheil. [please excuse metablogging comment – good post Ken].

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

Wot contest? Oh, you mean that blue key thing do you Mark? Struck me as bloody obvious what Lynchie was on about. Amazed yer devoting precious electrons to it.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I’m just trying to ensure you remain the “commenter who always wins comment awards”, Nabs.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

No comment.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

David

No-one was arguing (on the Sawyer/English teaching/po mo threads) that there was anything wrong with responding to a text by exploring its values (or the reader’s values). The objection is to the imposition of a constipating template that prescribes permissible values and requires students to “analyse” the text in accordance with them irrespective of the text’s content or the reader’s response. But I don’t want this thread to be subverted into yet another argument about po mo.

Your comment about personal and public values is closer to the mark. It’s important to note that the sorts of values that Crosby and Textor exploit and build electoral campaigns around are largely personal ones (aspirations and fears) whereas the values I’m talking about (liberty, equality, fraternity) are public ones. It’s certainly true that the personal is a much more powerful motivator of behaviour, to a much greater extent than abstract/public values. The trick for Labor strategists will be to articulate and sell the personal pay-offs that flow from public values like economic freedom and civil liberties, equal opportunity, solidarity/community and the like.

I’m also not suggesting that Labor will be able to avoid employing to some extent the negative values/motivators (fears) of the electorate. You can’t be a Pollyanna if you want to win. But the negative stuff has to be consistent with the positive values, and promoting resentment/envy of people sending their kids to wealthy private schools wasn’t.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Incidentally, it’s probably also worth making explicit something else that flows from Crosby’s observation that values and motives are more important as drivers of voting behaviour than actual issues or concrete policies. That insight partly explains the Coalition’s promotion of debates about things like abortion, gay marriage etc, despite having no intention of taking any concrete policy action, at least in the case of abortion. And even when they do take action, the motives and values conveyed are more important, so the policy action doesn’t really have to make sense or achieve any concrete result except to convey a value or motive with which a large slab of the electorate identifies.

Labor needs to adopt a similar strategy that taps into the sorts of personal values and motives most people have that are consistent with social democratic public values, and simultaneously seek to recast Coalition actions in terms of unflattering stereotypes (so that people respond negatively rather than positively to them). Textor does this by testing out rhetoric on focus groups of voters; I’ve viewed video tapes of sessions he’s conducted and it’s certainly fascinating to watch. I’m sure the ALP does this too, but it needs an amoral genius like Textor who isn’t attached to any particular moral viewpoint and is solely concerned to find out which motivational hot buttons will work best.

David Tiley
2022 years ago

So in Crosby’s terms, going after areas like Iraq, telling lies and asylum seekers is a good idea. They embody the sort of public/private values he is talking about.

The problem is that they weren’t the right buttons. The electorate on this level wanted the conservative ones.

I suppose part of the cut through for Labor is to use those issues to illustrate the larger values of courage, honesty and decisiveness. Latham modelled this (potentially in public if not actually in the negotiating) on the forests business, but the party did not ram home the “standing up for right against vested interests even in his own party and he might lose seats” meme that was potentially available.

On that level, the leader should be picked as the person the party can best pin the appropriate values on. Hawke promised unity in troubled times; that meme is devalued now in favour of stability. Are there any positive values that can be pinned on Beasley? Worries me.

But then this is a third kind of value. There’s button values like abortion; rhetorical values like the light on the hill; and leadership values like inclusion or trustworthiness. Three cards to deploy in different situations. Beneath all that are the emotions like fear and greed. The Libs were pretty adroit in the way they used the emotions to negate the aspirational values offered by the ALP.

I don’t think the resentment/envy emotion plays as a big button in Australia. The feeling that someone else is getting a free ride, which is very basic, is more the feeling that “I am being ripped off by this.”

The amazing thing is that Howard remains so vulnerable on the leadership values level. And the ALP can’t craft an alternative.

Fascinating about unflattering stereotypes.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

I agree with pretty well all your observations, David. But on the Tassie forests issue, it would only have been possible to negate the negative effect by thinking and talking the policy through more carefully in advance, and negotiating a jobs/retraining package involving relevant unions, so that affected workers weren’t instantly made into opponents. The rhetoric/values stuff needs to be matched by competent policy development, selling and implementation, or else the message is diluted or negated: a picture is worth a thousand words.

I also agree that the resentment/envy emotion doesn’t work by itself. That’s why the slag the wealthy private schools tactic failed. Most people didn’t see themselves as being ripped off by the fact that wealthy schools received funding that couldn’t be justified on a needs basis. The envy message simply swamped the positive “promoting equality of opportunity” message that Labor should have been selling. With hindsight, probably even Latham would now agree that it would have been better to leave the wealthy private schools’ existing funding untouched, and simply add new funding for the rest to restore the needs-based approach over time.

Francis Xavier Holden
2022 years ago

ken – have you read Bill Clinton’s book? Whatever you think about his many faults one thing is clear he learnt, from mistakes and successess, how to speak and listen to a varied electorate when he was in the state politics. In my view he manages to write about it in a way I would have thought even an australian labor member could learn from.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I’d agree Francis – and it’s also a fascinating read. With the Labor Party apparently the hub of American politics/history junkies, you’d think this is one lesson that could be learned.