NB This post makes extensive use of the footnote plugin. The footnote numbers are very small, but they are hyperlinks so you can jump to them by clicking.
NBB The fact that I argue below that a major reason for the demise of the Newman government was the standard template opposition strategy that I outline/discuss does not mean that I personally approve of LNP policies or performance (or those of Tony Abbott for that matter). In fact I think the LNP richly deserved to be booted out (anti-bike laws, politicisation of judiciary etc). However, I don’t think the ALP would have gone within a bull’s roar of winning in the absence of OGS101, nor is it obvious to me that Labor will be a significantly better government. After all, they’re not even promising to repeal the VLAD (anti-bikie) laws, just to “review” them (in itself a classic example of OGS101 in operation).
Yesterday’s seeming electoral triumph of Annastacia Palaszczuk’s Labor rump in Queensland after a single term of LNP government underlines the extent to which the secrets of successful continuous campaigning for an Opposition party have come to be reduced to an almost foolproof formula that almost guarantees successful undermining of all but the most wily or dead lucky incumbent government, even by a telephone booth-sized Opposition with very little visible talent or experience.
The formula largely accounts for the results of the last 3 federal elections and at least the last 2 Victorian and Queensland state elections. It is found in a political spin doctor’s playbook called Opposition to Government Strategy 101 (OGS101). The formula is well known to spin doctors on both sides of politics but has been kept secret from the general public until now. Fortunately I have now obtained a leaked copy and reproduce the Executive Summary over the fold:
- Target one or two poorly understood newish government policies and demonise them for all you’re worth.1 Effective practitioners of this aspect of OGS101 will not hesitate to indulge in gross exaggeration or invent complete fabrications about the targetted government policies. They know that the Internet age MSM has neither the time, resources nor expertise to subject even the most patently spurious Opposition arguments to any meaningful critique or analysis. Nor is it in the media’s own self-interest to do so. All they want is ceaseless colour, movement and binary conflict to fill the 24/7 media cycle.
- Automatically oppose every new government policy announcement, stopping only if your focus groups tell you that a particular policy is actually very popular despite your best efforts to undermine public confidence in it.2 Then instantly backflip and promise to implement those policies yourself, saying it proves you’re listening to the punters, and thereafter avoid talking about them whenever possible (to maximise elbow room to renege after the election while claiming that you’re not actually doing so).
- When this relentless Opposition negativity inevitably begins to result in sliding government popularity in opinion polls, and then generate publicly evident tensions in government circles3, add to the Opposition’s talking points a requirement to make frequent reference to the government as an incompetent and divided rabble, possibly the worst government in recorded history.
- Avoid announcing your own policies (if you have any) until very late in the official election campaign period, except in the vaguest possible terms.4 This is the part of the recipe usually referred to as “small target” strategy. The dual objective is to keep media and public focus on the government’s policies and performance while avoiding giving the government any opportunity to subject the Opposition’s policies to similar scrutiny. This aspect of the strategy is especially vital in the current era of the PEFO, when policies once announced will be subjected to Treasury analysis to provide a relatively impartial answer to the age-old question: “how are they going to pay for it?” Moreover, it is an especially tricky question in view of the stubborn structural deficit at federal level, because the only possible answer involves one or a combination of the following5: tax rises, spending cuts, increased government borrowing, or public asset sales. Admitting to any of these is the Kiss of Death. Accordingly it’s best to announce all but the most costless promises6 very late in the campaign, so that any Treasury analysis is published in the last few days before election day when even compulsive political hobbyists are suffering information overload. Even then, the best bet is to claim that promises will be paid for by an “efficiency dividend”7; “cutting waste” in existing programs8; “slashing red tape”; or cracking down on tax evasion. As long as you postpone trotting out these excuses until a few days before the election you will almost certainly get away with them. Moreover, any meaningful analysis of them rapidly becomes so complex and technical that most voters will tune out and stop listening after 30 seconds or less.
- Disguise this lack of any visible policy substance by inventing a few catchy short slogans, calling them policies, and repeating them ad nauseam. This has been Tony Abbott’s principal contribution to OGS101. Labor’s current Opposition Leader Bill Shorten hasn’t mastered this trick yet, hence Shaun Micallef’s references to Shorten zingers. Who could forget that Tony Abbott’s entire set of policy promises for the 2013 election consisted of: “eliminate debt and deficit”, “stop the boats”, “no new taxes”, “abolish the carbon and mining taxes” and (to trump accusations that none of the foregoing are positive policies) “build the infrastructure of the 21st century”9? Abbott’s particular genius was to manage to completely distract the media with ceaseless colour and movement to the extent that almost none of them seemed to notice that: (a) several of these policy slogans would inevitably involve substantial cost to the budget;10 and (b) some are mutually contradictory and therefore impossible to achieve.11
The fact that religiously following OGS101 has contributed substantially to the recent election of the deeply unimpressive Daniel Andrews in Victoria and the seeming election of the even less impressive Annastacia Palaszczuk in Queensland illustrates the power of the OGS101 playbook, as does the fact that Bill Shorten currently looks like doing likewise federally despite being the least confidence-inspiring Opposition Leader since Mark Latham or possibly even Alexander Downer.12
Of course, you can’t ignore the contribution that the previous incumbent governments have made to their own downfalls (or are in the process of making in the case of Abbott). However, at least arguably a significant proportion of that contribution is inherent in the OGS101 playbook itself.
That is, the almost foolproof election-winning strategy that just about all oppositions now follow contains within itself the seeds of the new government’s own electoral destruction within a relatively short time-frame. Absent a fortuitous fluke,13 the new government arrives in office with no positive mandate at all, because it has deliberately failed to inform the electorate what policies it actually intends implementing, let alone explaining their rationale or persuading people why they are necessary. Moreover, it is likely to have made expensive promises to maintain popular policies of the previous incumbent government under OGS Rule 2 and also made its own deceptively expensive promises aka three word slogans under OGS101 Rule 4. As I noted earlier, that makes wholesale breaking of promises pretty much unavoidable,14. In turn that just about guarantees the rapid transformation of a newly elected People’s Hero PM or Premier into a reviled, ridiculed and unelectable Juliar or Tony the Tosser.
I reckon It’s Time for our political parties to toss out OGS101 and run the risk of developing a more durable strategy for achieving government, one that involves actually taking the public into their confidence about the policies they plan implementing, persuading voters why they should support them, thereby actually gaining a mandate that will allow an elected party to govern and stay in government long enough to implement and consolidate those policies. Surely it must have occurred to a few of them by now that employing OGS101 to achieve a seemingly miraculous victory, only to be tossed out shortly thereafter and reviled as a hopeless loser who achieved little or nothing of enduring significance, isn’t really a career path to be coveted.
Of course, any alternative is unlikely to prove as surefire a recipe for short-term electoral success as OGS101. After all, the last federal Opposition Leader who actually tried to win government by honestly presenting a reasonably comprehensive set of policies was John Hewson, and we all know what happened to him. Nevertheless, I have a few ideas (possibly naive and idealistic) about how one might go about presenting a fairly detailed suite of policies as Hewson did, while avoiding his electoral fate. But that’s a topic for another day.
- 1. Examples include ALP demonisation of GST and more recently Work Choices; Abbott Coalition demonisation of carbon tax, mining tax and asylum seeker policy; and at state level both parties’ tit-for-tat demonisation of asset sales/leasing in Queensland.
- 2. e.g. NDIS, Gonski education reforms.
- 3. even if it’s initially only a few anonymous leaks from a handful of embittered backbenchers passed over for ministerial preferment
- 4. e.g. “reviving the republic debate”.
- 5. unless you’re dead lucky and fluke an election win in the early stages of a mineral resources boom guaranteeing increasing revenue even for the most inept and profligate government
- 6. like reviving the republic debate or apologising to the Stolen Generations or convening a 2020 Summit
- 7. which actually means sacking lots of public servants but sounds a lot more positive and less scary
- 8. which really means cutting the programs themselves, but this excuse usually works because it relies on the fact that most punters are happy to assume as an article of faith that the public sector is much more prone to waste than private corporations
- 9. But only roads, not trains or trams or buses, which are only used by welded-on Labor voters like union officials, dirty hippies, inner urban latte sippers and a few non-self-funded age pensioners who were too lazy to save for their own retirements.
- 10. e.g. “stop the boats” reputedly costs several billion dollars per year
- 11. e.g. “eliminate debt and deficit”, “no new taxes” and “abolish the carbon and mining taxes”, especially when you’ve been forced to implement the caveat to OGS101 Rule 2, as Abbott was with NDIS, Gonski and health funding). In those circumstances, wholesale breaking of promises is unavoidable.
- 12. Latham actually looked quite impressive for a while, until accidentally publicly revealing unstable, thuggish and narcissistic tendencies arguably bordering on sociopathy.
- 13. e.g. John Howard survived in 2001 largely because he benefited from 9/11 and the Tampa affair, which helped him to avoid political oblivion by orchestrating a “khaki” election, and the windfall revenue from the resources boom allowed him to triumph in 2004 by delivering tax cuts and middle class welfare benefits (which with the benefit of hindsight were actually unaffordable and created the structural deficit that helped to doom the Rudd/Gillard government and continues to bedevil the Abbott government).
- 14. Kevin Rudd’s promises to match Howard’s 2007 promised income tax cuts and other middle class welfare provide another good example of OGS101. Along with his and Gillard’s subsequent (and only partly necessary) post-GFC promises to return the budget to surplus within a determinate time-frame, that was one of the major factors in the Labor government’s ultimate demise.