January 20, 2004

What's with the positive campaigns?

Compare and contrast, that’s the rhythm of all political campaigns. All campaigns that is, bar this one. In this campaign so far, both sides seem to be going out of their way to ignore each other. Earlier today I was looking for quotes from Springborg criticizing Beattie’s tree clearing policy. It took me quite a while searching Google News to find this one. Then I realized that I had hardly heard any criticism of Beattie from the Nationals at all this election, and vice-versa.

Madonna King follows this thread in this op-ed in today’s Courier Mail when she says the Coalition “[c]ampaign needs [a] trip to emergency”. King picks up on the fact that Health is regarded by the largest percentage of CM poll respondents as the most important issue in the election but that the Opposition does not appear to be dramatizing the Government’s failure in this area. She also points to a number of other areas where they have failed to capitalise on government mistakes and mishaps like Merri Rose and the Families Department fiasco. She sees this failure as standard incompetence, but could it be something else?

Instead of the Opposition following her prescription, today’s front page news story was Springborg promising to support a referendum for 4 year terms, something that I have yet to see any voter spontaneously nominate as an issue that will decide their vote.

So far I haven't seen an Opposition ad running on TV, but this evening I saw another from the Beattie stable which is relentlessly positive, cheerful and energetic in a very vague way about the need for Beattie to finish the job in health.

When I learnt how to campaign I met many people who said they were sick and tired of politicians criticizing each other, but who then went and voted for the most negative campaign. I learnt my lesson. Not that negative campaigning has to be abrupt. In 1989 Wayne Goss ran a very “positive” campaign – just about every pamphlet had Wayne Goss’s 5 positive policies for change on it (never 4 and never 6, another lesson there I suppose). Inevitably Goss had run out of good ideas after 3, so points 4 and 5 went along the lines of “fix the neglect of “X” by the Liberals…” or words to that effect. Cleaning out some boxes recently I discovered 1977 speaker’s notes for the Federal election that year which employed a similar rhetorical device.

Then there is the “implied” negative, where you produce a policy to fix a problem where the real message is not what you will do, but what your opponent has failed to do. Humour is another way of softening the blow of a negative campaign. In 1995 we extensively used Mac Vines cartoons to illustrate our points on DL size cards dropped in letterboxes in target seats.

This evening I realized that so far what distinguishes this Queensland campaign from any other I have seen is that there is little negative campaigning, and as a result neither side is engaging with the other. The Greens aren’t engaging either when the staple of their campaigns has to be negative because no-one expects them to ever be in a position to deliver on promises.

In a way I shouldn’t be surprised. Springborg has made much of his promise to run a positive campaign without any personal abuse and has promised to release over 100 policies in the course of it. This seems like madness to me, but perhaps it isn’t. We completed the first of our focus groups this evening (a report will go up in a couple of days when we have completed a second). All of the participants seemed to appreciate
Springborg’s positive approach, whilst they were at the same time quite negative themselves about the government.

At this stage I’m going to stick with analyzing election strategies from the tried position, but I’ll hold the possibility of changing my mind open if we keep getting the same responses from later focus groups. Not that I think Beattie can or will lose this election, but a better than 5% swing to the Coalition would suggest their campaign had more than average success. Certainly the responses to our qualitative survey suggest that there is fertile ground for a campaign which is critical of Beattie. But then, while Beattie holds a commanding lead there is no need for him to break cover with the first negative ad or critical comment.

Perhaps when the polls fail to move sufficiently in the Opposition’s direction we’ll see some forensically penetrating advertisements. But then again, maybe not. I've always characterised politics in terms of blood sport, but with Beattie and Sprinborg apparently determinedly addicted to their morning exercise they may see it more as a running race, and in running you can cross the finishing line first without once addressing your opponent.

Posted by Graham at January 20, 2004 11:25 PM

Graham, I think everyone is underestimating the "protest" vote that will go to the Greens
-not just Labor voters who are fed up, but a number of Liberal voters, particularly in the cities will preference them in the spirit of concern for tree clearing, water catchments, etc. As yet the voters have not been told if/where preferences will go. I believe it will hold a critical balance in this state poll.

Posted by: georgina Pickers at January 22, 2004 12:10 PM
Graham Young
John Black
Mark Bahnisch
Michael Lee