Struggling: Tony Abbott.

Struggling: Tony Abbott. Photo: Jonathon Ng

The clumsy politics and garbled messaging around the federal budget suggests that the Abbott government should heed its Treasury advisers and business supporters less and its campaign professionals more.

On election night last September, the newly elected Prime Minister Tony Abbott claimed that the Liberal Party had conducted its “most professional campaign ever”. It’s a big claim. But the Liberals in opposition were certainly united, disciplined and focused around an electoral strategy that had been designed and implemented by the campaign professionals in their head office, led by federal director Brian Loughnane.

They harnessed market research and advertising better than Labor, their message was more effectively pitched to key persuadable voter groups, they were better funded and their parliamentary leadership was more willing than Labor’s to buy in to the necessary simplifications and soundbites of an election campaign.

But now in government, confronting the challenges of implementing the campaign promises while running the country, the party’s discipline is fraying and the influence of the campaign professionals appears to be waning.

The lesson from successful long-term governments of previous decades – especially the Hawke and Howard governments – is that the campaign professionals were central players, not just during election campaigns but for the whole of life of the government. Seasoned professionals such as Labor’s Bob McMullan and Bob Hogg in the Hawke era, and Lynton Crosby in the Howard government, shaped and informed the government’s electoral strategy and helped keep it on the rails.

My research, published in The Professionals, underlined the highly influential but rarely reported role played by party officials and the head offices in both the Labor and Liberal parties.  As national campaign directors, the Liberals’ Brian Loughnane and his ALP counterpart George Wright carry ultimate responsibility for developing and implementing their party’s political strategy, both in opposition and in government.

Loughnane, who succeeded Crosby in 2003, played a similar role in the last years of the Howard government but now, having engineered the Liberals’ return to office, appears – at least on the evidence of the budget – not to be centrally involved in designing or selling the new government’s political strategy.

The soundbites are still rolled out on debt and deficit, Labor’s mess and axing the tax. Head office still scripts the Prime Minister’s YouTube videos, to disseminate the government’s key messages without interference from the press gallery. But coming now from a government, not an opposition, these words sound less convincing. They are contradicted by the government’s actions. And right now they are being swamped by the opposition, minor parties, community groups and media.   

Meanwhile the Labor Party has started to get its act together and has recovered its position in the polls. Its professionalism appears to be on the rise.

An internal review has candidly exposed the disunity that plagued its 2013 election campaign – disunity in the caucus over Kevin Rudd’s destabilisation of Julia Gillard followed by more disunity between Rudd’s office and Wright’s campaign headquarters.   

Now in opposition Labor has leadership stability for the first time in four years; perhaps ironically, it is Bill Shorten who benefits from the leader election rules imposed as a defensive mechanism by Rudd. In the party organisation, too, Wright has been re-endorsed with a renewed mandate as national campaign manager, the final decision maker in every aspect of campaign management.

Labor is also continuing to retool its campaign machine through further investment and training in an electioneering tactic known as “micro-targeting”.

Micro-targeting requires parties to build huge data bases of individual voter identities, preferences and behaviours, which drive intensive social media, phone calling and doorknocking by trained volunteers. Unlike the broad-brush approach of television advertising and direct mail – staples of election campaigning since the 1980s – micro-targeting claims to individualise campaign messages and to open up “conversations” with individual voters.

Labor has home-grown expertise in this form of campaigning, thanks to the organising traditions of the union movement – exemplified by the Your Rights at Work campaign against the Howard era WorkChoices legislation. But Labor is also soaking up expertise from the US Democrats, for whom micro-targeting was an essential element of Barack Obama’s back-to-back presidential victories.

According to US journalist Sasha Issenberg, the Democratic Party has established a bigger lead over the Republicans in this area of voter data and analytics than either party has enjoyed at any previous stage in the modern campaign era.

The same pattern may be emerging in Australia. The Liberals are strong in social media – Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – but appear wary of the micro-targeting initiative. Large data bases are costly to assemble and keep up to date and volunteers are difficult to select and train. Labor shows no such concerns. If Labor is to reclaim the campaigning superiority over the Liberals that it enjoyed in the 1980s, it will be through this kind of technology-intensive individually targeted campaigning.

So are we living in a political world that inherently favours oppositions? Are the burdens of office just so heavy that governing parties will always fall victim to relentless and disciplined oppositions – as Howard showed in 1996, Rudd in 2007 and Abbott in 2013?

The answer, of course, is no. Incumbent governments are still more likely to be re-elected than thrown out and still enjoy significant campaign advantages: they can implement policy, allocate spending, command media attention and set the national agenda.

The Hawke and Howard governments show that parties can manage, in office, to survive and implement long-lived social changes in the face of negativity. The secret of the repeated electoral success of both these governing parties was the close alliance between their political and organisational wings

This is the challenge for both parties right now. Labor needs more than a box of tricks to win an election; its lesson from 2013 is that no amount of technology can overcome the crippling weakness of disunity. The Liberals need to show that they can put their box of tricks away and develop a united and credible response to the challenges of government.

Stephen Mills is the author of The Professionals: Strategy, Money and the Rise of the Political Campaigner in Australia (Black Inc.) published this week. He is a lecturer at the Graduate School of Government at the University of Sydney.