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Brace yourself for the rise of the permanent election campaign

By Peter Van Onselen and Wayne Errington - posted Wednesday, 14 July 2004

This year’s federal election will be as noteworthy for the campaign tactics in use as it will be for its policy debates. A new phenomenon borrowed from the USA is an increased professionalisation in campaigning and in the technologies that assist it.

Mark Latham has cried foul about a government dirt-digging unit. His deputy Jenny Macklin has bemoaned the Americanisation of Australian politics, referring to a rise in character assassinations on the part of the Liberal Party. While such personal attacks are certainly symptomatic of American politics, unlike professionalised campaigning, they are nothing new to Australia, and they are by no means limited to the Liberal Party. Historically, Billy McMahon was subjected to horrendous personal abuse in the public arena, including by his own party. More recently, before the 1993 election Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes ran a story on then Liberal Leader John Hewson. He had left his first wife and children on Christmas Eve many years earlier. The story damaged Hewson enormously, and was every bit as vitriolic as the attacks on Mark Latham. Then as now, Opposition Leaders blame government dirt-digging units. In 1993 the Liberal leader’s office believed Paul Keating’s Animals (National Media Liaison Service) to be responsible for the story. In both cases, however, the embittered ex-wives of Hewson and Latham seem to be the source.

Latham is seeking to learn from Hewson’s mistake of refusing to comment publicly on the issue. Instead he is packaging all government and media criticism as out of bounds, strategically carrying the double benefit of implicating the government in the dirt digging and absolving him of responsibility for concerning revelations of a non-personal nature. It is interesting to note that Latham, so critical of the rumor-mongering against his own name without the presentation of evidence, has chosen to accuse the government of dirt digging without evidence. 


Apart from the hypocrisy of such an approach given his very public personal attacks on Tony Abbott (and even more offensive attacks on The Australian columnist Janet Albrechtsen), Latham is providing a strong contrast to the Prime Minister. John Howard in his long career in parliament has never personally attacked Labor Party leaders, nor has he ever used personal attacks on himself as a shield for his various political battles. Through all the claims of racism and Latham’s vulgar description of Howard as an "arse-licker", he has simply gotten on with the job (whether you agree with that job or not). Even if he is not directing the attacks on Mark Latham, and there is as yet no evidence that he is, he will certainly be aware of how such attacks are received in the electorate.

This is where both major parties’ “special units” have an important role to play. Two American political scientists, Mann and Ornstein, have coined the phrase “permanent campaign”. Part of the permanent campaign is continual monitoring of leadership images, including the effect last week’s muck-raking will have on Latham’s public persona.

Regardless of the source, both political parties would not be doing their jobs if they weren’t monitoring and responding to it. Major parties have a range of campaign techniques at their disposal, and the list is growing. Voter-tracking software, otherwise known as party databases, helps the major parties track the public’s response to all manner of issues. Localised opinion polling in marginal seats as well as tightly controlled focus groups further assist the parties in articulating a clear campaign message on issues that matter in the seats that matter most. Like the dirt diggers, many of these are taxpayer funded.

This is how the Coalition won the 1998 election with less than 50 per cent of the two-party vote, just as the ALP did in 1990. In 2001 campaign techniques included regular SMS messaging to ensure candidates remained “on message” as well as aware of issues as they broke. Human error will always prevent such tactics becoming foolproof and, in an example of this, West Australian Liberal Judy Moylan is reported to have broken ranks with party policy over war in Iraq. However the drive towards the permanent campaign, and with it an Americanisation of Australian politics, continues.

This year’s election will see the introduction of electronic phone messaging. In the United States huge communications centres harvest telephone numbers, sending out pre-recorded messages to swinging voters. The technology can read the response on the other end of the phone, be it an answering machine, message bank or human pick up. It can tailor the pre-recorded message accordingly. Voters are told to “hold for an important message from their local Congressman”, or, on occasion, the President himself. If the call is picked up by an answering machine or message bank, the message can be altered to a personal call, deceiving the voter that their local Congressman actually took the time to call them directly. In its infancy such practice will be limited in 2004. The telephone technology is arguably most useful in "getting out the vote" in the USA, given non-compulsory voting where less than 50 per cent of the eligible population tend to vote. Either way, similar practices will only increase in the coming years.

Permanent campaigning is becoming a part of the Australian political way of life. Labor’s accusations of government involvement in muck-raking are as much a part of it as likely Liberal attempts to exploit the speculation surrounding Latham’s past. That’s politics, whether we like it or not.

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About the Authors

Dr Peter van Onselen is Associate Professor of Politics and Government School of Communications and Arts at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia.

Dr Wayne Errington lectures in politics at the Australian National University. His book, co authored with Peter Van Onselen, John Winston Howard: The Biography (Melbourne University Press), is due for release later this year.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Peter Van Onselen
All articles by Wayne Errington
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Charles Sturt University
Edith Cowan University's School of International, Cultural and Community Studies
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