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Brogden shouldn’t even talk about winning.

By Graham Young - posted Wednesday, 15 May 2002


John Brogden has been a good supporter of On Line Opinion. He obliged us with an article for our second edition at a time when it was difficult to find anyone prepared to contribute. He subsequently supplied a second article which laid out his principles as a Liberal, clearly putting him in the "warm heart and hard head" school espoused particularly by former NSW Premier, Nick Greiner. Such was his meteoric rise to fame, (and On Line Opinion’s prominence on the web!) that if you had typed "John Brogden" into Yahoo! or Google on the day of his leadership coup the two top entries were these two articles.

Brogden carries a big burden for those of us in the Liberal Party who identify with a philosophy that is both economically and socially liberal - those who are uneasy with a Liberal government whose winning electoral coalition is compiled by pandering to the fears of blue-collar conservatives at the expense of younger urban voters. Any failure by Brogden will be used to reinforce the current paradigm. The problem is that Brogden’s type of Liberal has been generally very bad at campaigning.

One of the key failings has been in expectations management.

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The 1995 Queensland State Election campaign was won almost entirely on expectations management. This is what the British Press during their election campaign last year dubbed "The Queensland Effect". In its barest essentials, it is the tendency of many electors to vote for an alternative candidate to the one they prefer if they think that their preferred candidate is going to romp home. It is an effect that has accounted for many popular moderate Liberals, including Sallyanne Atkinson, and one of Brogden’s mentors, Nick Greiner. It is also one of the reasons why Kim Beazley is a Labor back-bencher, rather than Prime Minister of Australia (but I’ll leave the exposition of that theory to my budget commentary).

The reason that this is significant is that Brogden’s early performance shows signs that his expectations management strategy is off-line. Against a right-wing Labor government like Carr’s he is going to have difficulty defining policy differences that are large enough to deliver a win. On top of that, to a certain extent he needs to redefine the NSW Liberal Party in terms of policies that fit naturally with his personality and positions. It is likely that come the election his best weapon will be this tendency to vote against politicians perceived to be certain winners.

I am not saying that policy, and just as importantly, style, won’t be important, but you can’t win an election on "issues such as multiculturalism, euthanasia, equal age of consent and drug law reform" (On Line Opinion May/June 2000), or using private public partnerships to develop infrastructure projects.

To succeed as a social liberal, Brogden has to do what any other politician has to do – win more seats than his opponent.

In the last New South Wales election there were virtually two separate constituencies – Sydney and the rest. While the Coalition did creditably outside Sydney, of the twenty seats that the Liberals won, only thirteen were in Sydney, and eleven are clustered in Sydney’s north shore. The Liberal Party will win or lose this next election in the metro area. According to research by Scott Bennett and Gerard Newman at the Parliamentary Library this will require a swing of up to 9% in metropolitan target seats. These are seats like Manly and Ryde, on the north shore, but also seats like Miranda, Menai, Georges River, Kogarah, Strathfield and Drummoyne which cluster close together, and often close to waterways (think Sylvania Waters in one case), in Sydney’s near west.

To have a chance of winning these seats, given his policy positions, Brogden needs to assemble a coalition of support based on cutting the cake a different way from the Howard reliance on an alliance between blue collar and upper-middle class voters. His only viable target is the soft centre, people who have been tending to vote Labor recently because they see the Liberals as stuck in the past and not attuned to their social attitudes. These people are fifty and younger, the demographic where the Howard government has tended to struggle the most. But they won’t vote just for social attitudes, they will want to know what is in it for them. One of Beazley’s failings in the last election was that these people wanted to vote for him, but just weren’t convinced he could deliver. That is a warning for Brogden.

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So, how do you get to this group? By being plausible, one of them, and not over-promising. You also do it by targetting their essential sense of fairness. Carr will have been in government for 8 years at the next election, and will be asking for 12 years. For many people 8 is enough and 12 too many. It will be a danger election. But you don’t do it by taking their vote for granted, or being cocky. The words that Brogden used at his initial press conference, and some of his actions since, suggest that he is sending both of those messages.

The first mistake was to respond to a question at his initial press conference by saying words to the effect that as a Catholic he believed in miracles, and yes, citing newish Victorian Premier Steve Bracks’ win over Jeff Kennett, he could win. The correct answer would have been something along the lines of, "Winning is a big ask, I’ve only just taken over the leadership, I’ll be concentrating on the issues that matter to people, and it is up to the people whether I win. I’ll be giving it my best." An answer on those lines conveys determination and realism. It won’t have your supporters cheering from the roof-tops, but it carries a coded message that you won’t let them down. At the same time it won’t sound insincere to those (in this case probably the majority of people) who don’t think you have any chance at all.

A second mistake in that early period was to appear to want to appease tweedy shock-jock Alan Jones, who doesn’t particularly like Brogden. Despite Jones reputed influence, most people in Sydney don’t listen to Jones, and most who do aren’t in the demographic that Brogden particularly needs to target. Besides, Jones has become such a black beast that there are sure to be votes in making a virtue of ignoring him. The unfortunate subliminal message of even coming to an accommodation is that you will do what it takes to get into office. The subliminal message of ignoring him is that you will put what is right before what is expedient.

Brogden has also demonstrated an unfortunate weakness for photo opportunities with the rich and famous. Mel Gibson, and others from the international "A" list, need to be avoided - just ask Natasha Stott Despoja whose over-fondness for glossy publicity is one of the reasons for the decline in the Democrat vote. And while on the question of photo opportunities, Brogden has a good personal story to tell - born in working class Balmain, forced to come up the hard way with an alcoholic and abusive step-father, putting himself through school by working part-time while simultaneously looking after his siblings. But electors hate people who get above themselves, and are suspicious of the humble origins story. To date I have only seen one photo of John Brogden without a tie. If you want to position yourself properly, shirt-sleeves (preferably rolled-up) and open-necked shirts are the attire of choice, particularly if you want to show that you are still in touch with your roots.

On this front, one of the harsher tests that Brogden will have to face up to is his wife’s employment with Macquarie Bank - "The Millionaire Factory". While the voters Brogden needs to target might be "aspirational" they are also likely to have a fair degree of jealousy, and it doesn’t fit well with the battler background. And there is a further complication. The New South Wales Liberal Party is currently heavily promoting public/private partnerships. As Macquarie is the foremost infrastructure packager in the country, any move in this direction is likely to benefit them, and hence, fairly directly, John Brogden’s family. One thing that is worse in managing expectations than voters thinking that you are taking them for granted and expect to win, is that you only want to win for reasons of personal enrichment.

These criticisms might seem like nit-picking – they aren’t. I have twice been involved in Queensland campaigns in 1995 and 1996 that successfully leveraged expectations into a win or out-performance. Getting the psychology exactly right was part of their success – right down to forbidding candidates and members from talking about what they would do in government, or even where they might base their electoral offices. Optimism is the natural state of a politician, as is wanting to get on with the good and the great. Perhaps that is one reason why Labor governments in general (Paul Keating’s being the mandatory exception) appear less vulnerable to expectations. The Labor tradition requires candidates to emphasise working class solidarity, while the Liberal one doesn’t. To stem that natural optimism and the desire to show off the fact that he is doing well, John Brogden has to think more like a Labor politician. Balmain Boys can do very well in NSW state politics.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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