Opposition to Government Strategy 101 (OGS101)

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:

OGS101 Rules:

  1. Target one or two poorly understood newish government policies and demonise them for all you’re worth.[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.] 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.
  2. 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. e.g. NDIS, Gonski education reforms.]  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).
  3. When this relentless Opposition negativity inevitably begins to result in sliding government popularity in opinion polls, and then generate publicly evident tensions in government circles[3. even if it’s initially only a few anonymous leaks from a handful of embittered backbenchers passed over for ministerial preferment], 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.
  4. 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. e.g. “reviving the republic debate”.]  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 following[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]: 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 promises[6. like reviving the republic debate or apologising to the Stolen Generations or convening a 2020 Summit] 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. which actually means sacking lots of public servants but sounds a lot more positive and less scary]; “cutting waste” in existing programs[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]; “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.
  5. 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. 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.]? 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. e.g. “stop the boats” reputedly costs several billion dollars per year] and (b) some are mutually contradictory and therefore impossible to achieve.[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.]

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. Latham actually looked quite impressive for a while, until accidentally publicly revealing unstable, thuggish and narcissistic tendencies arguably bordering on sociopathy.]

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. 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).] 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. 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.].  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.

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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Tyler
Tyler
6 years ago

I think the first Rudd period doesn’t quite fit this thesis. For all of his apparent faults he broadly stuck to his electoral mandate (climate change, FWA, apology, refugees etc) and was only turfed because the institutional forces within the party hated his guts. His polling never plummeted to anything like the extent we’ve seen from the likes of Newman/Abbott despite the liberals adopting an approach of pure negativity once they’d decided to actively deny climate change.

I’d argue that the issue has been the breathtakingly blatant lies and it seems the public will leap at the chance to punish that at the earliest opportunity.

J Cole
J Cole
6 years ago
Reply to  Ken Parish

I agree with all your analysis but think you have a blind spot on asylum seeker arrivals. There’s no way the change in numbers could be from push factors alone – the timing in the surge is spot on, that more people started arriving when offshore processing was scrapped, and the numbers have dwindled again since it was brought back.

Whether or not offshore processing is right, moral etc., your argument that Rudd was the victim of “bad luck” is pretty convenient. That’s some luck that the push factors align nearly perfectly with domestic policy changes…

Lt. Fred
Lt. Fred
6 years ago

Clearly there needs to be a shift in media. Politicians respond to incentives, like everyone. If you’re not called on lies from opposition, why wouldn’t you?

conrad
conrad
6 years ago

“Of course, any alternative is unlikely to prove as surefire a recipe for short-term electoral success as OGS101.”

Jeff Kennett provides the opposite example as John Hewson. His stated policies were basically what he did despite their potential lack of popularity, and it worked fine, and people thought he was a strong leader because of it. Perhaps going broke (versus pretending to go broke) really allows these sorts of policies to be seen in a good light by the public.

An alternative possibility is that John Hewson was bringing in something too complicated and convoluted, so the message was too complex vs. “Lots of people will be sacked, this will save money and you will not even notice unless you are one of them”. Perhaps he should have just stood his ground and put the GST on everything and not put up with Keating making the issue convoluted (and the same goes for his other policies which were always numbers, numbers, numbers — something too easy to argue over and something the public can never get their head around well and hence are open to exploitation).

Phil Clark
Phil Clark
6 years ago

I think the real problem is in the age old saying that the people get the government they deserve. Why can’t a public ultility be as cost effective as private enterprise? What is the purpose of the a government? What type of society do we want to create and live in? What are our core values and how do we express them? Who are we as a nation? The answers to these questions form the foundation of a nation, the process to enable our collective beliefs creates the present and the courage to question and change maps the future.

I am and will always be Not Trampis
I am and will always be Not Trampis
6 years ago

Ken,

Your problem is no-one saw this coming.

you can rant all you like about the opposition but you need substance to sell policies.
Newman had a bad campaign and seemed oblivious to his deficiencies indeed in the last week he showed them to voters time and time again.

Something large occurred in the last week. Federal issues unquestionably had an influence and added to the above made the earthquake possible.

You should not discount the ‘Borbidge’ effect in the voting in Queensland

Paul Montgomery
Paul Montgomery
6 years ago

OGS101 would not work if the Costello tax cuts were rolled back, because that would remove the structural deficit and relax the constant budget pressure on both federal and state governments.

crocodile
crocodile
6 years ago

I think it is simpler than this. Until really decent candidates, emerge expect to see a large degree of electoral volatility while the punters cycle through them until they find someone they like.

Sancho
Sancho
6 years ago

“It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see…”

“You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?”

“No,” said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, “nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”

“Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”

“I did,” said Ford. “It is.”

“So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t people get rid of the lizards?”

“It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”

“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”

“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”

“But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”

“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?”

“What?”

“I said,” said Ford, with an increasing air of urgency creeping into his voice, “have you got any gin?”

“I’ll look. Tell me about the lizards.”

Ford shrugged again.

“Some people say that the lizards are the best thing that ever happened to them,” he said. “They’re completely wrong of course, completely and utterly wrong, but someone’s got to say it.”

“But that’s terrible,” said Arthur.

“Listen, bud,” said Ford, “if I had one Altairian dollar for every time I heard one bit of the Universe look at another bit of the Universe and say ‘That’s terrible’ I wouldn’t be sitting here like a lemon looking for a gin.”

? Douglas Adams, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

Phil Clark
Phil Clark
6 years ago
Reply to  Sancho

There,s somthing in that but the chances of finding out what are so remote I think I’ll just say what the heck and get on with it.

Phil Clark
Phil Clark
6 years ago

Come on blind Fredy could see why QLD went the way they did, the electorate won’t cop the cost of nearly 40 years of growth and it wouldn’t mater who was in power any one could have gotten in with a bit more time it’s just that Labour already had the base to work from. Do really think the quality of the policies and reteric swayed the ballot, all they had to do was play on the fears of the voters and they were in. I seriously can’t belive this was a surprise, maybe I should lay out some cash on the next election because the times they are a changing. Any one up for a 10:1 on a Lib single term.

Philip Johnson
6 years ago
Reply to  Phil Clark

Phil. What on gods earth are you trying to articulate? Queenslanders have copped the costs of 40 years growth. The population surge north over the three decades attests to this! The only base that Labor worked from in recent times is a simplistic mantra centered on one topic of asset sales.
They have not had the courage to attack LNP on their aggravated attracks on the judiciary via the LNP appointment of the Chief Justice. Nor have they targeted the attrack on the rule of law via bikie legislation.
However the LNP & Newman in particular must bear the blame for this.
The electorate of Queensland will ultimately bear the costs for their primal scream.
This is Greece writ small!

Phil Clark
Phil Clark
6 years ago
Reply to  Philip Johnson

Agreed, but honestly, outside of its rural industries which is common to all Australia QLD has boomed while most of the East struggled to deal with a shifting global economy. They got the goverment they deserved because the general public are disengaged by design in order to achieve a manufactured concent. In regards to the cost of growth I respectfully disagree, the real cost and fiscal impact on domestic spend and goverment expendenture is largely disguised because it’s not achievable in its current form so the electorate, in my opinion, vent there frustration on the indirect impact of the above with view that they already pay to much when in fact they need to pay a hell of a lot more. What sort of collective feeling do you think this would create and how would that impact an election and why was this so obscured from the so called political observers.

P.S

Some of my rhetoric was designed to invoke but not offend, apologies if it did so.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
6 years ago
Reply to  Phil Clark

10:1 in my favour, ie I get 10,000 if the liberals get a majority at the next federal election and you get 1,000 if the liberals dont get that majority? Of course I would take such a bet, given that the odds are pretty much even on the betting markets!

I actually agree with Homer that in the case of Queensland, the policies pursued of the LNP mattered. They alienated the professional classes as well as the bureaucrats and the unions. The latter was perhaps inevitable, but the former was not. In case you have not been convinced already that the LNP’s gerrymandering and trampling of basic notions of the rule of law was jaw-dropping over the last few years, read the submission of Tony Fitzgerald:

http://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/documents/committees/LACSC/2014/CMOLAB2014/submissions/004.pdf

or its easier-to-read write-up here:

https://independentaustralia.net/politics/politics-display/tony-fitzgerald-slams-lnp-newman-and-bleijie,6332

Phil Clark
Phil Clark
6 years ago
Reply to  Paul Frijters

I never bet above a dollar, the last time I lost was to a gentleman who was standing left back of Abbot when the victory was announced at the last election except the odds were my favour but I’ll make an exception and risk a ten’er to see history made

john Walker
john Walker
5 years ago

Ken
Events suggest that you were right, yes?