Eau de Gillard reeks of defeat in brand race

The party is the product time to read the labels more carefully.

The party is the product time to read the labels more carefully.

YOU don't know what you stand for. It is an accusation that goes with being on the losing side of politics. Yet recent polls suggest one might as well accuse a type of deodorant or shampoo of not knowing what it stands for, because today's political contest is all about brand association. Policy platforms seem to count for bugger all.

It's hardly a novel analysis to lament the decline of policy development and the dumbing down of debate. It is still extraordinary that last month's Age/Nielsen poll found replacing Julia Gillard with Kevin Rudd as prime minister would change voting intentions from a landslide defeat for Labor - 42-58 per cent on the two-party vote - to a 52-48 victory over the Coalition parties. Just changing the leader, without policy changes, yielded a 20-point turnaround. (The question was not asked in this week's poll, but Rudd still had twice Gillard's support as leader.)

The polls have been so consistent - Tony Abbott's Coalition has a two-party vote of 56-58 per cent - that one might assume Australians simply agree with Abbott that the Gillard government is hopeless. Around the time of the Rudd-replaces-Gillard finding, two Essential Research polls asked voters what they thought of specific government decisions and policies. The two-party votes were consistent with other polls. But when it came to policies, the results defied expectations.

Total approval/disapproval percentages were as follows: increased health funding 89-5 higher age pension 78-14 lifting superannuation to 12 per cent 75-13 managing the economy to keep unemployment and interest rates low 70-21 spending on school buildings 68-24 introducing a national disability insurance scheme 63-13 GFC stimulus spending 61-28 paid parental leave 60-30 taxing large profits of miners 58-29 building the national broadband network 54-34 stopping live cattle exports to tackle welfare concerns 53-34 abolishing WorkChoices 51-33. Only on sending asylum seekers to Malaysia (39-45) and introducing a carbon tax to tackle climate change (33-53) was Labor losing the policy argument.

How does one account for such strong support, by an absolute majority, for 12 out of 14 policies when the government and leader responsible for them are so unpopular? It's not that Abbott is wildly popular, although he has done a remarkable job of focusing attention on the government's most disliked policies. In this week's Age/Nielsen poll, Abbott trails Malcolm Turnbull by 44-28 per cent. His 54 per cent disapproval rating is the highest for an opposition leader since just before Turnbull was dumped. That may help explain how, in an opinion poll at least, a return to Rudd changes everything.

Of course, anyone who believes such polling tells us the election result is ignoring electoral history. In more than two dozen postwar elections, only in 1966 and 1975 has the margin exceeded 10 points. More than half the results have been 52-48 or closer. In April 2001, the Howard government's two-party support was 40 per cent and the Liberal-National primary vote fell to 31 per cent. With an approval rating about as low as Gillard's, John Howard was written off as a goner. Seven months later, albeit aided by the twin impacts of the Tampa arrival and September 11 terrorism, his approval had soared above 60 per cent and the Coalition was returned by a 2-point margin. The next election is due only in two years if - a huge if - Labor can last that long. It will have to hold its nerve as well as the Coalition once did.

A decade on, voters' support is even more fickle, as the Gillard-Rudd polling suggests. The depressing aspect of this is the role of marketing. Parties are brands to be sold via leaders associated with the scents of success, rather than with a defined set of principles and policies. Considerations of marketing and focus groups make allegiance to distinct policy identities seem archaic. Shampoos and deodorants require this marketing, relying on celebrities or positive personal associations, because the ingredients of one brand are not all that different from another. Brand Gillard is on the nose, regardless of its contents, while Abbott is not cool but works as Opposition Leader in a ruggedly old-fashioned Brut kind of way. The sting in this for the Coalition is that voters are almost certainly not wedded to its policies they can easily change their minds.

The main concern - apart from the stupidity of it all - is that politics has much greater real-world consequences than a consumer product. Superficial branding adds an extra element of political instability in a relentless 24-hour news cycle. Everything is for sale, but a marketing misstep can destroy brand value almost overnight, regardless of product (policy) quality. It's easy to change your shampoo if you aren't bothered about its ingredients.

That leads to a second problem: if voters favour a party much as they would any other product - without paying much attention to how its policies might benefit, or disadvantage, them and the country - parties are driven to focus more on the selling and less on the substance. We are told what we want to hear, not what we need to know. Politically, we are anything but informed consumers. The sound-bite proves more persuasive than evidence. The result is a high risk of dud products sold by snake-oil salesmen who don't even believe their own claims. If ever there was a time for buyer beware, this is it.

John Watson is a staff writer.

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