Arthur Sinodinos on Brand Loyalty, Team Spirit and Party Discipline

Brands, brands, brands! Teams, Teams, teams! They infest Australian political commentary these days the way gondolas infest Venice. Right now, for example, the challenge for ALP members is to get in behind Bill Shorten and rebuild the Labor brand while Tony Abbott’s ascension to the office of Prime Minister reveals ‘the continuing appeal of John Howard’s brand of populist conservatism to voters’.

Talking about political parties’ brands is a usage that passes unremarked even though it indicates a passive acceptance that politics, these days, is largely about marketing. To state the bleeding obvious, political parties compete for voter support in the same way that commercial corporations compete for market share. We take it for granted that that is the just the way politics is done and, because everybody’s doing it, it’s no big issue – until something happens to remind us that it’s actually a bigger issue than we’ve learnt to think. Such as the little ‘Oh FFS!’ moment Assistant Treasurer, Senator Arthur Sinodinos, produced on Monday’s Q & A in an exchange with Jeff McMullen.

The exchange happened during a discussion on this question from Adrian Falleiro on recent ‘ructions’ within the New South Wales branch of the Liberal Party:

ADRIAN FALLEIRO: My question is for Arthur Sinodinos, as former president of the NSW Liberal Party. The democratic reform that saw Bill Shorten elected as Labor leader this weekend highlights a stark contrast to the New South Wales Liberal Party, who made news last week for suspending a party member who dared to speak in favour of internal democratic reform. As both Tony Abbott, John Howard and many other MPs and former MPs are on the record supporting democratic reform in the New South Wales Liberal Party, are these suspensions an abuse of factional powers in New South Wales and an attempt to stifle debate or are you not allowed to comment on this matter for fear of expulsion yourself?

The party member referred to in Falleiro’s question is John Ruddick, a long standing member of the New South Wales branch of the Liberal Party who had the temerity to give the 7.30 Report a ten-second grab on his proposals for to democratising the Liberal Party. Janet Albrechtsen has more on the subject here[i].

Falleiro’s question was batted around the panel for a bit then Jeff McMullen put in his very astute two-bob’s worth and Sinodinos immediately gave his ‘Oh FFS!’ response:

 JEFF MCMULLEN: … It is a mockery of democracy to gag someone who goes on the national broadcaster to try to discuss reforming party behaviour.

I mean that is the problem in both political parties, that you ask your members to keep their opinions to themselves so you don’t really get conscience until you have a conscience vote. You don’t really get principle because it stays in the back room.

So until you have the gumption to allow your individual party members and your members of Parliament to stand up and say what they really think, then we the people in this democracy will go on thinking it is a club. It is not democracy.

ARTHUR SINODINOS: Can I just directly answer that, Jeff, because when I joined the political party, the contract I enter into is that I am joining a particular brand because, in general, I subscribe to the values and beliefs of that particular brand, if I can put it like that.

These are movements. For me – and I don’t want to speak for Penny, but these are vocations. But you realise when you are part of a team it is like when playing a sport, you do things as part of the team. And I’m not saying you do things against your conscience. If it gets to that point, I’d rather go.

But my point is, when you are a member of a team you have to accept there are rules in being in the team and that you’re not always going to win on all issue and sometimes you have just got to accept the majority verdict and move on because that will help you to achieve the greater good that you are seeking by subscribing to the values and beliefs of that particular group.

There’s a lot of muddle-headedness crammed into Sinodinos’s remarks, starting with the stuff about joining a political party means entering into a contract where you join a particular brand.

Consider brands in the commercial context – I’ll use antiperspirants as an example. Basically, these are manufactured commodities (as are soaps and shampoos). The active ingredient in any anti-perspirant will be an inorganic chemical drying agent – usually a compound of aluminium such as an aluminate or aluminium chlorohydrate. That will be dissolved in a mixture of water and ethanol with, finally, some cheap, mass-manufactured, smell-good esters. The formula is well established and allows little variation so, to motivate consumers to choose your product over the just as effective no-name brand you make the purchase of your brand psychologically rewarding.

So you select a target demographic – such as adolescent and post-adolescent males – and you give your anti-perspirant a name like ‘Freshwood’. You design a package that includes as many phallic features as you can get away with displaying in the ‘personal care products’ aisle of a supermarket. Then you produce advertisements with a strong element of sexual fantasy so that, ultimately, when your buyers have finished squirting your product into their bum-fluffed armpits after the morning shower they’ve cracked a fat. As long as the fat-cracking continues, the brand loyalty of your customers is assured but you don’t have to worry too much about losing it. The same plant that produces and packages ‘Freshwood’ also produces, for the older male whose sexual powers are in decline, ‘Softwood’ with a slightly different smell and a much different advertising campaign.

Whatever features you put into the design of your product packaging for ‘Freshwood’ there’s one that won’t be included: that’s an explicit statement on the side of the aerosol tin telling your adolescent consumers that in buying this product they undertake to go and live out the ‘Freshwood lifestyle’ as depicted in your advertisements – even though they will do their utmost to do so. That’s not what branding is about in either commerce or politics.

There’s no improvement when Sinodinos switches to the sporting metaphor and the need to play as part of the team and submit to team discipline – within the limits of personal conscience of course. Implicitly, in his remarks on his ‘contract’ with the Liberal brand and his elaboration of the  sports team metaphor, Sinodinos is advocating the pre-eminence of party discipline over free and open debate on policy and other issues that we might naively believe to be important in a liberal democracy. Bill Shorten displays a similar hint of Stalinism in his declaration that he will have ‘zero tolerance for disunity’ in his new front bench team.

And so we come, finally, to an interesting question: how will those little hints of Stalinism from Sinodinos and Shorten play out in future and how will  the Liberal Party brand and Labor Party brand be affected?

[i] I haven’t read Albrechtsen for quite a while so it came as something of a surprise to find that she had, in the linked article, produced a piece of genuine journalism.

About Paul Bamford (aka Gummo T)

Gummo Trotsky is the on-line persona of Paul Bamford. Paul recently placed his intellect at risk of finally becoming productive by enrolling in a Lemonade, Lime & Bitters degree via distance education. He also plays the piano but Keith Jarrett he ain't.
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8 years ago

Entropy will win in the end Gummo. All things proceed from order to disorder. This party ill-discipline is not going to stop now that it has started. Rattling the cage is just too much fun, and the consequences just aren’t terrible enough.