The Liberals' Election Campaign Is Straight Out Of The Crosby/Textor Playbook
If you think you've seen this all before, you have.
A little over a year ago, voters headed to an election ready to turf out a first-term conservative government with a popular, socially progressive leader, after years of unpopular budget cuts.
In its place, they were going to elect a centre-left party, led by a slightly dorky dude who couldn’t quite believe his luck, which was riding a wave of popular momentum. At least that’s what the polls said. (The polls were wrong.)
If all that sounds familiar, it’s because what happened in Britain in 2015 is remarkably similar to what’s happening in Australia now. And if you want to see just how similar the campaigns are, you need look no further than the government’s tactics just two weeks in.
Let’s start at the start. This photo:
This style of photo is straight out of the Crosby/Textor playbook. Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor are two Australian political strategists largely credited with much of former prime minister John Howard’s success when he was in government. They've run campaigns for centre-right parties across Australia, New Zealand and the UK.
That photo above is the image they produced at the start of the federal election campaign.
Here's how it looked in the UK last year.
And this is what it looked like in the 2013 federal election ...
... and the 2015 Queensland state election.
Crosby was also the director of the David Cameron’s incredibly successful 2015 campaign. (It was so successful that Cameron gave Crosby a knighthood.)
But the similarities don’t end there.
"Coalition of chaos"
This election campaign kicked off with a big debate about whether Labor would enter into a coalition with the Greens in the event of a hung parliament. At every turn, the government warned that Australia couldn’t risk a repeat of the Labor/Greens alliance formed after the 2010 election. Here’s how it looked in Australia.
And here’s how it looked when the Conservatives did exactly the same thing last year, warning that Labour would form a coalition with the Scottish National Party (SNP).
The message was so successful, the Tories unveiled a glossy ad, featuring Labour leader Ed Miliband literally in the pocket of SNP leader Alex Salmond.
In an interview with The Guardian following the UK election, Crosby said this tactic was key to the Tories’ success in 2015.
“It was part of our strategy to target Miliband’s perceived weakness. We knew a whole year before the campaign started that people were concerned that he [Miliband] would succumb too easily to powerful interest groups. The poster was just an expression of that popularly held perception. It didn’t create it, it just drew attention to it," he said.
The Dead Cat
It’s already one of the most overused clichés of the election season, but with good reason. The Dead Cat is a favoured Crosby/Textor political tactic.
Former mayor of London and current Tory UK MP Boris Johnson (who used Crosby/Textor for his successful campaigns) once described the Dead Cat beautifully.
“There is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table – and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend (Crosby), is that everyone will shout, ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’ In other words, they will be talking about the dead cat – the thing you want them to talk about – and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”
For Australia, the Dead Cat was plonked on the table last week by immigration minister Peter Dutton, who warned that “illiterate and innumerate” refugees would take Aussie jobs.
Whether it’s true or not wasn’t really the point. Labor and the Greens were up in arms over the comments, and they dominated headlines for days. Suddenly the conversation wasn’t about health or education spending, but a topic the government loves talking about: the boats.
(In the UK last year the Dead Cat came in the form of a government MP warning about a Labour/SNP coalition by saying that Ed Miliband was “willing to stab the United Kingdom in the back to become prime minister”.)
Same old Labor/Labour
You’ve probably seen prime minister Malcolm Turnbull warning people not to re-elect the “same old Labor”. It’s a theme the government has been running on all campaign.
In fact, treasurer Scott Morrison managed to work the phrase 20 times into one press conference just the other day. Here's part of the transcript:
And this is what it looked like in the UK.
One of the hallmarks of Crosby/Textor campaigns is their simplicity - they find a simple message and repeat it over and over ("Jobs and growth" anyone?), and that extends to the visual images used in campaign advertising. Like this effort from the current campaign.
And here's another one from this year, alongside one from New Zealand a few years ago.
And here's the UK 2015 version.
So if you're wondering what will happen next on the Aussie campaign trail, you really only need to look back to the not-too-distant past.
Ultimately, despite what the polls had been saying for weeks, the final result in the UK election was a landslide victory for David Cameron's Conservatives, which should act as some encouragement for the Turnbull government as yet another poll shows it is trailing Labor.
It's a fact that wasn't lost on treasurer Scott Morrison when he was interviewed on Monday morning. Asked about the latest Newspoll, Morrison simply replied, "In the UK, Ed Miliband was supposed to be the prime minister of the UK now. So … "