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Politics … now it's personal

US President Barack Obama and Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard attend an East Asia Summit dinner in Phnom Penh last November.

US President Barack Obama and Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard attend an East Asia Summit dinner in Phnom Penh last November. Photo: Reuters

When Tony Abbott's adviser Peta Credlin went public last weekend about her IVF battles to show her boss in a more compassionate and caring light, many political players rolled their eyes. ''We run presidential campaigns now and apparently we vote for the staff too,'' Paula Matthewson, a former adviser to John Howard, drily observed.

But anyone interested in the woman who could become the most influential adviser to the prime minister after the next election would have read with interest.

As would women battling their own fertility issues who would likewise have identified with Credlin's struggle to juggle an incredibly high-stress job with the invasive and emotionally experience that is IVF.

And while Matthewson, now an industry lobbyist and political blogger, questions how much impact Credlin's personal story will have on the election, she says the focus on identity and personality, imported from the United States, is now central to Australian politics.

For women with ''a sense of unease'' about Abbott, the story won't make a difference, Matthewson says. ''If they just want to know about his position on IVF or abortion then maybe it will help …Wheel out Margie [Abbott] and the girls and the sister. Look at the US, that's what they do.''

Matthewson says ''the personality thing'' was copied from US political staffers. ''In the '80s and '90s we would look back to the US where the databases were being set up and we were replicating everything.''

So Credlin is the latest foot soldier in the identity wars.

Matthewson's former boss, John Howard, struggled for years to convince people he was not against Asian immigration. Paul Keating battled an image of being out of touch with real people due to his love of classical music and antique clocks.

Julia Gillard, who spent the first 18 months of her leadership downplaying her role in history as Australia's first female prime minister, has spent the past few months as a warrior for women.

Despite presiding over a government that has just reduced the weekly incomes of 80,000 single mothers by about $100 a week and a pay gap between men and women that actually increased last year, Labor has had the Coalition on the back foot when it comes to women.

Matthewson says Gillard's pitch to women - and Abbott's attempts to rebuff it - is not actually about women. ''For Julia Gillard it's not about the fact she's fighting for women,'' she says. ''It's the fact she can stand up and fight for a constituency. That's what people want.

''They want someone who will stand up and fight for them and then keep out of their lives.''

Damian Ogden, who worked on both the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns and now trains political candidates, says Gillard is using identity politics to get people to listen to her.

''Every election it's about the person,'' he says. ''Obama was possibly the most effective candidate to do that. People can tell you about his parents and his heritage because it built up a picture of who he was.''

Obama's story was the thing volunteers most often mentioned when Ogden asked them why they wanted to help.

''I asked them what policy issues motivated them and they couldn't name one. For a lot of people, yes, it might be the issue but for many it's the person.''

But Ogden disputes the idea that style wins out over substance, that politics has become nothing more than the ''Oprahfication'' of candidates. ''It's worse when candidates don't have any substance,'' he says. ''If there's no substance, there's no ideas. It's not a popularity contest, it's about having people respect you for who you are.''

Successful politicians need both, he has told the more than 1000 MPs, union officials and campaign operatives he has trained through his Campaign Action organisation.

''People say they want policy and policy is undeniably very important but it's also about the politics of authenticity. When you ask people what they want the number one thing they say is authenticity,'' Ogden says.

''You can have the best policy in the world but if people don't trust you they won't listen. If people know your story, they are connected to you as a person. It's only because they connect to you that they listen.''

A candidate's identity is the most important thing they have. ''If you're not talking about yourself and who you are, you're letting the other side do it,'' Ogden says.

''If you don't do it someone else will do it for you.''

Which is exactly the position Tony Abbott has found himself in.

After nearly two years in which he successfully embedded Gillard as untrustworthy in the public's mind, Abbott was left struggling to define himself once the carbon tax became a reality.

Justin Di Lollo, managing director of the Labor-aligned government relations firm Hawker Britton, agrees with Matthewson that the gender strategy isn't really about women. Labor is ''dog whistling'' when it talks about gender, Di Lollo says, just as the Coalition did under John Howard when it talked about border security.

''The vote-changing potential of the gender issue goes much deeper than the obvious,'' Di Lollo says.

''It stimulates thinking and emotions on a range of other issues that are harder for politicians to talk about directly.

''A legible public stance around gender could underscore spoken or unspoken positions on parliamentary behaviour, aggressiveness in public discourse, stability in government or even seemingly unrelated concerns like politicians' sensitivity to household budgeting challenges. All things with a perceived feminine aspect to them, for right or wrong.''

Ogden, a member of the Labor Party, wasn't the only Australian in America during Barack Obama's successful campaign. Plenty of staffers from all parties were watching and learning with one eye on what could be imported back into Australia for this year's poll. The politics of identity - both of candidates and voters - will only continue as voters continue to become less loyal to parties and more interested in particular issues.

''What I have learnt over 20 years in politics is we have gone from a tribal political philosophy basis to a political values basis,'' Matthewson says. ''That's why the undecided vote has grown. They aren't as tribal; it comes down to values. What are the values that are of importance to your target audience? That's what people will be looking for.''

Those who express exasperation at the Americanisation of Australian politics should just give up, Matthewson says. ''If we want to continue to be the sort of nation that looks to America to learn about political engagement and campaigning then we get the whole box.''

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