The Liberals’ discipline throughout the 2013 election campaign was only remarkable for those not paying attention. Since 2010, a single-minded focus on winning government has papered over internal disputes, making the contrast with the ALP even more stark. But will this thin veneer of a united team survive being in government? And if it does, what does this mean for politics more generally?
Much of our esteemed national punditry has been salivating lately about the discipline of the Liberal party campaign, and I suggest, of Abbott himself. But this is not a new phenomena – instead built up over the last three years. Eyes firmly on the prize, lips sealed, leaks plugged and centralised strategy triumphing over local tactics.
The LNP campaign machine used this discipline to contrast to the chaotic ALP government, and then campaign. Abbott’s relentless exercise regime has become a proxy for the tight, utterly focused three year operation that Loughnane and his LNP team have run. This is not a new idea, nor unique to the LNP, but it is worth reflecting on, given the results. Abbott in his lycra falls into the same symbolic handbasket as the shiny policy-lite booklet and the constant sloganeering. This campaign did not come out of thin air, nor was it just about the five weeks of the election campaign. Instead, the LNP has been working towards this for some time.
In 2008, after losing the 2007 NSW State Election, the LNP made huge gains across Western Sydney Councils, through both grassroots campaigning against ALP development scandals, and through running Liberal branded candidates in previously uncontested areas. They nearly got control over key councils – this should have been a warning.
The 2011 NSW State election again saw seats picked up in regions that had always been the ALP heartland. And in 2012, the next round of Council elections saw the Liberal Party control for the first time, councils such as Liverpool and Blacktown. The same happened on the Central Coast and in the inner-city suburbs.
In Queensland in 2008, the in-fighting between the Liberals and the Nationals was buried, publicly at least, to create the LNP. This was in direct contrast to 2001, where they had been left with a handful of seats and 2007, where Campbell Newman ended up being the most senior elected LNP person in Australia in 2007.
In Victoria, the now-hailed Julian Sheezel was implicated in an anti-Ted Ballieau blog penned by two of his staff that aired a great deal of private fighting in public. Contrast this to the swift change of Victorian Liberal premiers earlier this year and subsequent lack of public dissent. Liberal preselection fights have mostly been kept behind closed doors, while the ALP let it all hang out.
During the campaign itself, candidates were kept on a tight leash. Jaymes Diaz may be the most high-profile to avoid the media, but across the country, LNP candidates did not attend public forums, answer media calls or engage with groups doing election policy comparisons. The LNP campaign well knew that any gaffe would become the story of the day, and distract from the ferocious focus on winning government. Any flack they received for being absent was deemed less damaging than having candidates say something off-message. Instead of investing in preparing candidates with talking points and media training, the campaign resolved to just excise this usual form of political engagement.
The key role of Abbott’s Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, is well known. Credlin and Loughnane have been a formidible force in shaping both Abbott and the current LNP. This 2011 profile of Credlin outlines clearly the strength of their focus on the top job and the behind-the-scenes work that has gone into the polished public facade. However, Andrew Elder asked questions at the time about whether the fragility of this approach would survive if the LNP ever came to government.
While this tactic helped shore up the overall strategy of being seen to be ‘adults’ and disciplined, it has left the newly elected MPs with considerable ground to make up in learning their political craft. Or perhaps this is a new kind of politics, where that traditional engagement is no longer important; allowing space for grassroots campaigns, such as Indi, to flourish.
It remains to be seen whether the LNP’s strategic focus on a unified, strictly controlled central message will work in government, rather than in opposition, given that it relies on inexperienced back-benchers keeping their traps shut. Without the training ground of making mistakes, learning from them and building credible local support bases outside of the branches, will the challenges of government start to crack this disciplined facade?
And what does this approach mean for how our political system works? Will those elusive candidates, now MPs, continue to avoid parts of their communities that disagree with them? How will campaigns engage with MPs unable to advocate publicly for positions in any way divergent from their Prime Minister’s? The comforts of an office in Parliament House are a long way from a store-front in the local shopping strip. Perhaps these comforts, and being in power, will be enough to maintain this brutal enforcement of party discipline, but our politics will be poorer for it if it does.
Originally posted at AusOpinion.