The Punch: Seven cautionary tales for people who want to win

Aug 17, 2010

First Published on The Punch 17/08/2010

The last week of elections is white line fever time. It’s the moment when history is written and the stakes are amplified and everything counts from the fliers, to the bunting, to the final ads, to the body language.

Just over 14 million Australians are registered to vote this Saturday – and if you believe the figure that 10 per cent don’t make up their mind until election day that means that the 1.4 million people who will decide this election are still in play.

But rather than glamorous game-changing plays, history is littered with the lessons from campaigns past, where the parties have pushed it that bit too hard to steer it home, and ended up wiping electoral excrement from their face. So here, as a community service to the campaigns at this stressful time, we present the Punch’s Seven Cautionary Tales for People Who Really Want to Win

Lesson One: All that Glitters Isn’t Gold – It was 1996 and Labor were gone for all money but yet, on election eve then Treasurer Ralph Willis thought he had stumbled on some political gold when he mysteriously received a fax purporting to come from Victorian premier Jeff Kennett. The fax detailed concerns that a Howard Government would cut grants to the states in direct breach of election commitments. For a few mad hours, Willis thought he had caught the Liberals red-handed. He released the letter to the media only to see it come back and smash him when it was confirmed a fake. No one has ever claimed responsibility for the dirty leak, although suspicions remains it came from Peter Costello’s office.

Lesson Two: If You Distribute Fake Fliers, Don’t Get Caught – The distribution of fliers via letterboxes is a time-worn communication channel, based on the faith that somewhere between the letterbox and the garbage bin, some connection will be made with a swinging voter.  So when a flier arrives from a Muslim group endorsing a particular candidate, groups of voters who do not share a natural affinity with Islam may decide to vote the other way. That’s the theory behind dummy fliers and it worked a treat in 2004 when a group of Liberals whipped up an endorsement of the ALP’s Bosnian born candidate for Greenaway, Ed Husic. But three years later it all backfired when Liberal campaign workers were caught red-handed distributing fake Islamic fliers in the marginal seat of Lindsay.  The matter only got worse when it is laughed off by sitting member (and wife of one of said geniuses) Jackie Kelly as a bit of Chaser-esque fun.

Lesson Three: Don’t Shake Hands With Your Opponent Like a Mad Person – If the eyes are the window to the soul, then the handshake is the political version of a tango. When candidates meet, there are all sorts of body language at play. If you are greeting your opponent in front of the cameras, look them in the eye, look confident, smile agreeably. Do not however, follow the lead of Mark Latham in 2004 and attempt to wrestle your opponent to the ground by breaking their fingers. And receiving a ‘wet fish’ from your opponent is no excuse, that’s just playing into their, eh, hands.

Lesson Four: Don’t Leave the Mic On – We have to steal this one from former British PM Gordon Brown who, a week out from polling day, met a couple of lively constituents who took him to task on his lax immigration policy (sound familiar, anyone?). Forgetting he had a radio mic turned on, he got in his car and moaned about having been hijacked by a ‘bigoted woman’. Within hours he was back was his new friend eating humble pie topped with the last vestiges of his election dream.

Lesson Five: Avoid Angry Rallies – It’s easy to get excited when you are surging to victory, bug don’t fall for the 1993 John Hewson trap of staging street rallies on your road to power.  The advance warning needed to draw a crowd also gives your opponents time to mobilise and before you know it you are orchestrating angry slanging matches as your campaign pic-fac.  Australians don’t like conflict in the streets, even less than they liked voting for Paul Keating.

Lesson Six: Don’t Put a Lame Message on Your Bunting – As the above video shows, bunting is a big part of election day. Booths are swathed in plastics, delivering the parties key message – turf is keenly fought for, to secure the last thing a voter sees on entering the booth is your message. So it is vital to get the message right. In 2001 Howard nailed it simply – ‘We Decide Who Comes into the Country – as direct as it was malevolent. In contrast, all Labor could must was a vote for John Howard is a vote for Peter Costello. It was a dud on two levels – first in conceded Howard was untouchable secondly it presumed he would ever walk away from the job. You can’t help thinking Labor wouldn’t have been better off negotiating open space.

Lesson Seven: Even Politicians Can Get Caught Exaggerating – Every government is entitled to run on the theme ‘Don’t Risk It’. Indeed, this election the Opposition is running on it to. But the risks need to be real and credible. When he was staring into the abyss in 1983, Malcolm Fraser warned us that if Labor were elected we would need to put our money under the bed. The hyperbole drew one of the all-time great comebacks from Bob Hawke – I thought that was where all the Reds were”, alluding to an even earlier era of scaremongering.
With these lessons in mind, we eagerly await the final week, secure in the knowledge that some sleep-deprived volunteers – or better still a candidate – will find a new way to over-reach and set a new standard in campaign stupidity.