Oz Blog News Commentary

What the dead cat tells us

May 22, 2016 - 09:03 -- Admin

I still think Turnbull is running this campaign as one long validated learning exercise. It might not do him any good, but if there is any method behind the madness I'd suggest that is it. US campaigns run for more than a year; political consultants from there struggle with our relatively compressed campaigns, and with compulsory voting. The last election campaign pretty much ran from Gillard's announcement in January 2013 until September, and within weeks it was all invalidated as Abbott negated the no-cuts pronouncements that got him elected. The last short, sharp election campaign we had was in 2010, upon which nobody from the major parties will look back fondly.Long campaigns could well become the norm in Australia, especially in an environment where so many long-accepted verities are biting the dust. There are three things we've learned, and no doubt many more we are yet to learn:Can't count, don't countHad Peter Dutton's comments about illiterate, innumerate refugees taking our jobs and welfare simultaneously been delivered in the final week of the campaign, with the government well behind in the polls, it would be easy to pile on with all the other commentary that the government is desperately panicking, or panicking desperately. It is quintessentially conservative to go back to what once worked for you regardless of prevailing circumstances now.But we're not in the final week of the campaign, are we? Polls are fairly even. If it wasn't for social media it might be difficult to find anyone who cares much about this election. We're all in a position to have learned something from Dutton's statement - hardly new or groundbreaking, was it? Dutton isn't pleading with the uncommitted, he's not engaging with Labor policy, he hasn't exacerbated the already dreadful conditions asylum-seekers under our care suffer now. It isn't as though he has trashed his brand: it's exactly the sort of pig-ignorant, nasty stuff he has said throughout his career. There's none of the classical allusions from Enoch Powell, nor the smart-alec lines from Morrison. We've often been told that I am, you are, we're all terrible racists who vote accordingly. Pauline Hanson was a one-term MP who only won her seat in parliament by accident 20 years ago and has lost every race she ran in since. Tampa was not that big a deal in the 2001 election, neither a spike nor a dip in a trajectory that took Kim Beazley from Tomorrow's Man to Yesterday's Man that year without him ever having his day. But if a week is a long time in politics, surely fifteen years is epochal? Labor doesn't really offer much difference in policy terms from the Coalition. Only partisans regard Dutton or Morrison or Ruddock as more intrinsically evil than the Labor ministers who held the portfolio. Labor's current immigration spokesperson, Richard Marles, is exactly the sort of bloodless functionary who whimpers "I was just following orders" when it all finally catches up with them. Pre-polling won't open for another month (you there, stop weeping).Dutton's remarks can be said to dogwhistle dumb racists - the Hildebrand constituency, if you will - but in another way they signalled to another constituency altogether. Those who instantly spotted the contradictions of what Dutton said (we all know fine people who fled murderous regimes and contributed greatly to this country, and how can anyone steal my job while being too lazy to work?) are the very people who will play down the significance of asylum-seekers or racism generally as real issues: red meat tossed at the excitable lower orders, talked down and away by all thinking people such as we. Personally, the only animosity I've ever felt towards boat people is these guys; if the various vessels being built in South Australia can fend them off it will be money well spent.There could not be a better time to let Dutton off the leash, with plenty of time to adjust based upon evidence. The nbn raid rather complicates things, but generally we can expect one of four outcomes:

  • Polls will go heavily (4%+) in the Coalition's way: Asylum Seekers Took My Baby schlock reinforced as an issue.
  • Polls don't change: asylum-seeker policy seen as a non-issue.
  • Polls go heavily for Labor: a) Asylum Seekers Took My Baby schlock reinforced as an issue, but Coalition won't know what to do with it and Labor won't believe their luck, and/or b) nbn raid really takes centre stage.
  • Polls don't change much (-/=3%) either way: signal to Coalition will be unclear, but there will be a tsunami of media hype out of all proportion to what the issue really means.

The follow-up polling with Hildebrands will be fascinating. Racists are always called upon to redirect their attention to social services or other class-based issues, and they almost always jeer at the call. Whatever happens, it will be a teachable moment about the reach and appeal of this kind of scare campaign.Jeez, mate!Here is yet another dreary piece whining about what evil genius/es CrosbyTextor are/is. Toward the end of the piece there is a mention of how the evil geniuses failed in the London mayoral election, which rather blunts the thrust of the piece. So too does CT's patchy record at state level: since the 1990s Labor has not allowed itself to be outflanked on being seen as "tough on crime", which is pretty much CT's entire gamut of advice at this level. Read the quote from Johnson again: it is not the consultant, nor the party that is their client, who is to blame for getting their message across. They are doing their job. The 'dead cat' messaging strategy works because the journalists covering it are - despite their much-vaunted experience - not clever enough to anticipate the 'dead cat'. They lack the guts and the sense to call it for the distraction that it is, and to keep their focus on issues of greater currency and relevance.With 250 members of the Canberra press gallery, supposedly intelligent, diverse, and competitive to a man/woman, you'd think the very essence of savvy would lie in their ability to recognise and resist a blatant and predictable digression.The very idea that they are helpless (as kittens?) before a 'dead cat' tactic is an indictment of the media, of the value of their experience and nous, and of CrosbyTextor's brothers-and-sisters-from-other-mothers within Labor and other organisations. It is those people who aren't doing their jobs. Digressions and diversions are covered extensively by Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Clausewitz, and other strategists who long predate Crosby, Textor, Johnson, and all those who whine about them. No journalist has any excuse for not being awake to the 'dead cat' manoeuvre. No journalist has any excuse for being sucked in, or doing another piece on how brilliant it is (you don't have to be brilliant to play a press gallery journalists for mugs). Any journalist who thinks they've done their job by describing the dead cat and not looking for the distraction is a fool. Any editor who confuses the 'dead cat' with the story of the day should be boiled in their own piss and then deported. The shame of it is not in planning and executing the manoeuvre, but in the hapless, helpless, and hopeless others who don't know what to do when the inevitable happens.The real leader of the Liberal PartyHere's what happened: Dutton made his remarks, then however much you may have expected of an earlier version of Malcolm Turnbull, the fact is he endorsed the remarks and Dutton himself. Then, after that, for some reason, Mark Textor came out and backed Dutton. What would motivate Textor even to comment on an operational campaign matter? Is he wired up to the media through the campaign, like a V8 Supercar driver or a Twenty20 cricketer? He doesn't have a formal role in the Liberal campaign, like Federal Director Tony Nutt. What happened after he spoke, however, was that the debate over Dutton's comments ended. The endorsement of the Prime Minister, the elected leader of the Liberal Party, didn't have that effect. Once Textor had spoken, chatter about whether Dutton had gone too far/not far enough simply stopped. Dutton's remarks were no longer 'a gaffe', but an intrinsic part of the Coalition campaign: tangible and undeniable as a corflute.Katharine Murphy noted the events but got the analysis the wrong way around:

Presumably my question [about the propriety of Dutton's remarks in the context of the campaign] was impossible to answer before the prime minister set the tone. Given Malcolm Turnbull has backed in Dutton, Textor will now express a view in public.

Turnbull didn't set the tone, he was just another voice among many and the debate continued around him. Textor had the final, closing word in that debate, as a leader does. A consultant should never make themselves the story - except when they do, and they silence the debate to an extent that neither Dutton or Turnbull can, clearly there is something else going on which Murphy and others have missed.Former press gallery journalist, Hewson adviser and now ANU academic Norman Abjorensen, notes that neither Abbott nor Turnbull have dominated the Liberal Party as Menzies or Howard had. Crosby and Textor play that core role in the Liberal Party. They determine its strategy, its priorities, and its policy positions in the ways that used to be reserved for party members and/or leaders. In 2007, John Howard had been a Liberal for half a century, in Parliament for a third of century, and at or near national leadership roles for a quarter of a century - yet he still put his fate in the hands of Crosby and Textor. Whenever other elements in the Coalition disagree with Crosby and/or Textor, the latter prevail - that wouldn't be the case if they were mere back-office hirelings. Leaders have come and gone in the party organisation and the parliamentary party over the past twenty years, but those guys prevailed amid all the turmoil. No matter who won at any particular time or jurisdiction, they all took advice from Crosby and Textor. They cannot be sacked or backstabbed or shafted or dumped; no politician is so invulnerable. That's power. Turnbull and Dutton and Morrison and the rest of them are in office, but Crosby and Textor are in power.The Liberal Party has outsourced its core function, which is why it has no compunction doing so to government services.