Brut de Abbott – Michelle Grattan and the Mr Positive Product Launch

It seems Sundays are the time for me to do a bit of a deconstruction of an opinion piece from the Canberra Press Gallery. Today’s subject is the well respected Michelle Grattan, who has been there for quite a long time. She seems in this piece to be pooped by the prospect of covering another election campaign that will be about very little. This is why her piece sounds more at times like an almost uncritical reporting of a product launch rather than an analysis of issues. As ever, her words in italics.

Political science: altering Abbott’s polarity from negative to positive

Expect some rebranding as the Coalition campaign begins.

'Abbott is starting the year confident but not complacent.'‘Abbott is starting the year confident but not complacent.’ Photo: Rob HomerAlways good to have a picture of Abbott trying to look serious and explain something. Looks like it would be home on an Abbott election leaflet.  It would be interesting to compare this to many of the pictures we see of the Prime Minister in media articles.

TONY Abbott is likely to be residing in the PM’s office later this year. Even though the polls have tightened and things can change dramatically, on both sides of politics, that’s the assumption.

From whom? By whom? A pretty big statement to start with – and I can only assume that it’s the press gallery about which she speaks without any provided evidence to the contrary.

A second assumption is that a swag of New South Wales seats will help him get there. It’s no coincidence that Abbott is starting his mini-campaign this morning with a rally (invitation only) of the Liberal faithful in western Sydney’s Lidcombe. The home territory of those ”Howard battlers” is fertile ground for Abbott.

It seems Michelle needs to do a bit of research before talking about areas outside Melbourne and Canberra. Lidcombe is far from being “home territory” of “Howard battlers” at all. It is in the seat of Reid, which is the home of a variety of nationalities, including many newly arrived refugees.  It is also, these days, a much more marginal seat than in the Howard days, due to a number of factors.  If Michelle knew Sydney well, she’d know that the “Howard Battlers” – a lazy term that fits nicely with the Liberal Party strategy documents of the Howard years – was more associated with seats like Lindsay, Greenway, Macarthur and Hughes; containing suburbs that Mark Latham called the “white flight” areas.  Not Lidcombe at all. The move by Abbott to target Lidcombe as a launch site for a campaign (no, sorry, unofficial mini campaign) is more a rallying cry for a marginal seat strategy.  (I am amused by the idea of the Liberal faithful setting off from their plush suburban digs and setting their GPS devices for Lidcombe.)   Having seen the way members of the Canberra Press Gallery showed little understanding of the western suburbs in 2010, I’m not all that surprised that Grattan would say that Lidcombe is just a Howard battler location. It is more a location, however, where the anti-refugee policies of Abbott would have traction amongst those who live in Reid that were either refugees in another era or boat dwellers of the Anglo Celtic variety.

Labor has a total of seven seats in western Sydney and on the NSW central coast that are sitting on margins of between 0.9 per cent and 5.1 per cent. Labor was extremely lucky with some of these last time and a double miracle is unlikely, although the party will make a big effort – a government industry statement is coming, directed at manufacturing workers in such areas.

“Extremely lucky” and “miracle”. Grattan appears to be positioning the Coalition as being unlucky to not win in the western suburbs seats – as if it should have been inevitable. Not a mention of the possible impact of Coalition workplace policies, which would be pretty close to the top concern of seats like Reid.  Indeed, they have been quiet in the press gallery – and the Liberal Party – about IR for a while.

This week’s Coalition campaigning, complete with TV advertising and a booklet detailing values, directions and those policies already in the marketplace, is all about seeking to persuade people that the Opposition Leader can be ”Mr Positive”. The key message is that the Coalition has a (positive) plan. It’s not the first time such an attempt has been rolled out, but this time it is more extensive and serious.

The news that Grattan is discussing here is the release of an advertising campaign and summing up what the angle of that campaign is. It sounds a bit like those articles one reads in newspapers – in lifestyle sections and on page 46 of local newspapers – that just discuss new ad campaigns – that sound something like this –

“Andre Rieu has signed a contract with Chanel, where he will appear in ads where he will stand still and look wistful, with the breeze blowing through his luxuriant hair. The campaign will be seeking to say the violinist is ‘Mr Soulful’. The key message is that Chanel has a (positive) plan to engage with music fans. The spend on this campaign is significant, so it looks extensive and serious”.

It’s a timeless meme in the media. In the 80s, it would have sounded like this –

“Warwick Capper has signed a contract with Brut, where he will appear in ads where he will stand still and look glamorous, with the breeze blowing through his luxuriant hair. The campaign will be seeking to say the Swans star is ‘Mr Flamboyant’.  The key message is that Brut has a (positive) plan to engage with football fans. The spend on this campaign is significant, so it looks extensive and serious”.  

But I digress. Onwards…

Abbott is starting the year confident but not complacent. He knows from experience how narrow the gap can be between success and failure. In 2009 he obtained the leadership by chance (Joe Hockey almost had it in the bag) and by the smallest of margins; in 2010 he failed by a whisker to get power.

More of the advertorial style, casting Abbott in a positive light. “Confident, not complacent” is a way of describing a footballer starting a season, as to not make them sound like an egotist who thinks everything is easy.  Plus, “by chance” reduces the significance of the campaign by Nick Minchin, amongst others, to install Abbott as opposition leader. “By chance” is a oft repeated half truth.

No wonder he’s risk averse. He won’t contemplate a reshuffle – it just creates whingers. He minimises ”hard” interviews. His office has made an extraordinary effort to counter Labor’s claims that he is ”anti-woman”, with his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, willing to talk publicly about how he encouraged her to use his parliamentary fridge to store her fertility drugs.

It is here we have a list of things reported by the Press Gallery but not really examined or analysed a great deal – Grattan doesn’t seem overly bothered by the idea that Abbott is being allowed to minimise those “hard” interviews, as if he has the right to avoid scrutiny.

He is obsessed with discipline, though seemingly unable to avoid periodic lapses. He knows he can be his own biggest risk. His deep personal unpopularity and his negative branding are problems to which he will apply his usual diligence. But can he change his image? And how much will it matter in the end?

“His usual diligence” is an interesting expression, as is Grattan’s question as to how important his image is.  Image, image, image is the focus of this article. And, as if to confirm this, Hugh Mackay is mentioned – the social researcher who is the go to person for journalists who usually write about social trends and product popularity.

Social researcher Hugh Mackay believes Abbott’s brand – being negative, destructive and dismissive – has been unchanged for so long that it has become ”indelible” and it’s hard to see him being able to break out of it.

Abbott’s Brand confirms the idea that this article is about a product. Abbott is Chanel – or possibly more accurately, Brut. What we don’t see here is any exploration of why he is unpopular – that it might have something to do with more than image.  Then we slip into my favourite quote in the entire article – the moment that in advertisements that are usually prefaced with the line “Don’t take my word for it, let’s ask one of Abbott’s supporters”:

But one of Abbott’s senior colleagues argues: ”He’s strong on the tangibles. He’s an alpha male. Alpha males are runners, jumpers. They build things.” He believes Mr Positive will be convincing.

They build things? They are runners, jumpers? Such a blindingly simplistic view of politics just slides through unchallenged. Or maybe Grattan is just opening the door to the brain of a Modern Liberal, showing that the Liberals really are that superficial.  Talking of superficial, Kevin is never far away…

If Abbott faced another Labor leader – notably Kevin Rudd – things might be different. But the chances of a change to Rudd have faded (and a switch would involve its own huge problems for Labor).

It seems Michelle has finally dropped her fantasy (a shared fantasy with the senior members of the Press Gallery, it seems) of the Rudd return.  I’m surprised Malcolm didn’t make an appearance.

As matters stand, Julia Gillard, while she has clawed back her ratings, is also fundamentally unpopular. Both leaders know that voters are thoroughly fed up with each of them and the hung parliament. Perhaps that’s why the start of this election year has been rather slower than might have been expected. The less visible the leaders are, the happier the public. As Mackay says, this will be a contest where there is no inspirational figure.

Imagine, ratings, superficiality.  It’s like a Theatre of the Absurd play down there in Canberra. Guildenstern’s cry – “Words, words. That’s all we have to go on” from Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern turns into “Polls, polls. That’s all we have to go on”.  That and broad statements by “social researchers”.

This week’s Coalition campaign will be emphasising the team, including Julie Bishop, Warren Truss, Hockey (slimmed down with the help of surgery for the battle ahead), Andrew Robb and Malcolm Turnbull. Many promised Abbott ministers are recycled from the Howard ministry, which Abbott sells as one of his positives.

Back to explaining the ad campaign, including the helpful comment that losing weight is a good strategy for fighters.  (I am personally looking forward to seeing just how Warren Truss and Andrew Robb will be “rebranded”)

The Coalition speaks enthusiastically about releasing major policies. Well, soon. Those hanging out for its industrial relations policy, probably its biggest policy test, won’t be getting it this week. It’s hard to think Abbott won’t throw out something in Thursday’s National Press Club speech, but manager of opposition business Christopher Pyne said last week: ”We are not planning on announcing new policy in the next week but we are planning on reminding people of what is already out there.”

No policy still.  I look forward to Grattan’s critical reports about the non release of policy throughout the year, like we received in previous years.  *crickets*

How effectively Abbott sells Mr Positive in coming months could be less important to whether he wins or loses as to the size of his majority.

A Coalition government with a modest margin and an unpopular PM would have no guarantee that fickle voters would be tolerant. Abbott almost overturned a first term Labor government in 2010. A robust buffer is needed to withstand the danger of an electorate that can quickly go sour on new rulers.

There is another reason Abbott needs to do more than just scrape in. A strong lower house vote helps the Senate vote and that could be very important for Abbott. Unless the conservatives get a right-leaning Senate, Labor and Green opposition to Abbott’s promise to repeal the carbon tax might force him to meet his pledge to go to double dissolution. And that would be high risk.

This seems to be the best part of the piece, speaking of some real issues Abbott would face if indeed he has a narrow lead. It seems to be a feature of many of these articles that any decent analysis is left to the end. Pity that the rest of it sounds just like the coverage of a product launch. Or maybe that really is Grattan’s whole point – that the Coalition are just about the image. I would love it if she was being that subtle.


5 thoughts on “Brut de Abbott – Michelle Grattan and the Mr Positive Product Launch

  1. Tim Rust (@tim_rust) says:

    Thanks Mr Towers – You’ve hit all the points that were getting me all angried up about that article. There really doesn’t seem to be any promise of follow up, to see if the campaign meets expectations, does there? Like you, I’ll be waiting for critique of the policy content when [if] it arrives

  2. thisisseriouscom says:

    I don’t know how you had the patience to read all the way through that bilge. One small quibble: The LNP have actually been very active in promoting IR change. Most notably through their mouth piece the Arsetralian.

  3. Denis Wright (@deniswright) says:

    She also fails to take into account one of the inevitabilities of Australian politics – that when the Government in Canberra is the same colour as that of the states, the flack from unpopular decisions by either hits them both – but when the state government is the opposite, that effect is reversed.

    In the next federal election, if the federal ALP doesn’t continue to shoot itself in the foot, watch what happens in NSW and Queensland in particular.

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