When I ran the Queensland Liberal Party's 1995 state campaign, one of the first things I did was to take the marginal seat candidates to McDonald's. It wasn't because we were hungry, nor was it because I had a Clintonesque craving. Rather it was a matter of survival.
For almost as long as I had been a member of the Queensland Liberals they had been losing elections. It was clear we needed a new approach.
Labor had won the 1989 “Fitzgerald” state election, the 1991 Brisbane City Council election and the 1992 state election because under the Waynes - Swan and Goss - they'd revolutionised their communications. They'd learnt to pick and stay on a message and deliver it devastatingly with the state's most professional ever television, newspaper and direct mail campaign.
When you looked at the parties in hamburger terms, the Libs were running a “greasy spoon” and Labor had the bright and shiny new franchise down the road. The McDonald's visit was to teach candidates a lesson. If we were going to beat Labor, we needed a better business model than the one we were using - one more like Labor's.
My message to Liberal Party candidates was that they might “own” their individual pre-selections and campaigns, but we - the executive - controlled the brand. They might be putting their own personal capital into it, but so were we, and we were going to tell them how it could be spent. If they didn't meet hurdle rates, they could lose the franchise (and Pauline Hanson did in a subsequent federal election). We were going to specialise. They could look after the shop, but we were going to look after the business.
So we put in place management systems. We also consulted them, but not with a view to changing the direction of the campaign, just communicating to them why we were doing particular things. These were campaigns that relied heavily on public opinion research to determine what should be said, and how it should be phrased. The elector was always right, no matter what the party policy said.
In 1995 the result was obvious and tangible. We beat Wayne Goss and went from Dunce to Dux, albeit by less than one seat.
In 1998 I took a public stand on One Nation. Since then I have become a commentator on domestic politics, including the Liberals. From time to time I am critical of the party, or report details some would prefer to remain behind closed doors. This has upset many and there is a constant threat of expulsion hanging over my head. It's not uncommon for people to buttonhole me and say, “When you were running the campaign, you told us disunity was death. Follow your own advice.” I try to explain to them that not all rules apply across all circumstances. Political parties shouldn't be about uniform positions, they should be about diversity and transparency and coming to compromises. Democracy isn't something that happens in secret, it is a public activity.
This experience illustrates one of the most serious problems of contemporary Australian politics. To win elections parties need to act like corporations, but enforcing the corporate line doesn't always serve the business of politics well. It locks up debate within parties, and undermines the concept of representative democracy. As a result, voters have as much input into political decisions as customers do to what's on the menu at McDonald's.
The corporate conception of the political party sees politics as just another business. Policies are goods, to be sold, and the party organisations are manufacturers and wholesalers. The upper levels of the organisation are staffed by professionals who make decisions about which of the goods will be sold, and how. Professionalism discourages volunteerism. A long career of community involvement is no longer regarded as being a good enough CV for political office. Parties look to establish career paths for representatives, and the representatives themselves need to be specialists, so we end up with a disproportionate number of former staffers elected.
As the party is viewed as a way of earning a living rather than making a difference, nepotism sets in and virtual fiefdoms are put in place and branch stacking becomes rampant.
So, what to do about it?
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