Mark Textor is the most domineering, divisive pollster this country’s ever seen — and the most powerful. Even his Labor adversaries admit no one on their side of politics can match him.
“There are probably only two or three good political qualitative researchers in Australia at the moment,” veteran ALP pollster Rod Cameron said in 2010. “The Liberals have got one [Textor]. Labor haven’t got any.”
Stockily built, with a David Brent-style goatee and a head that shines like a billiard ball, Textor has been a key player in the Liberal Party’s last six federal election campaigns. He’s also worked for corporate giants such as Qantas, Telstra, Wesfarmers, Woolworths, NAB and many of the country’s most influential industry groups.
Textor — a protégé of Richard Wirthlin, Ronald Reagan’s chief pollster and strategist — is more than just a numbers man. He’s a genius at transforming raw research into compelling communication — someone who presses people’s emotional buttons, identifies points of division, and boils complex issues down to their core.
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It was he who, while quaffing on a glass of wine, came up with Tony Abbott’s 2010 election mantra: “We will stop the boats, stop the big new taxes, end the waste and pay back the debt.” It certainly left Julia Gillard’s “moving forward” for dead.
With the Libs out of office in Canberra, Tex, as he’s universally known, doesn’t wield nearly as much clout as during the Howard era. And he’s spending more and more time overseas (he’s currently working on London mayor Boris Johnson’s re-election bid). Still, he remains a force to be reckoned with.
He helped the mining industry quash the resources super profits tax in 2010 and is advising the oil industry on how to stem community opposition to coal seam gas exploration. Last year, the expert panel on indigenous constitutional recognition called him in for advice on how to achieve the (almost) impossible: convincing Australians to vote yes at a referendum.
When you’re as brilliant as Textor, you don’t need to be likeable — which is lucky for him.
“A lot of people really dislike Tex,” says a Liberal Party insider. “He’s very assertive; he’s rude to people who don’t agree with him.”
“You never know what’ll come out of his mouth; he can say some quite shocking things,” says a former Crosby/Textor colleague. “He’s complex. When you expect him to be charming, he’s prickly; when you expect him to be prickly, he’s charming.”
Luckily for The Power Index, Textor is in a convivial mood when we meet him in his Sydney office — even granting us a tour of his collection of political memorabilia. His latest addition, bought at a fund-raiser for the National Disability Insurance Scheme campaign, hints at his ironic sense of humour: a framed “It’s time” poster of Gough Whitlam.
We’re also surprised to spy a copy of progressive culture warrior David Marr’s new book Panic on his desk. “You’ve got to know what the mad Left is up to,” he quips.
In fact, Textor’s views on abortion, gay marriage and drug policy are closer to Marr’s than, say, Miranda Devine’s.
But he can’t stomach Panic‘s central thesis: that Australians are easily whipped into fear by crusading shock jocks and manipulative politicians.
“There’s a very poor view and very patronising view in the elite media that somehow what they call the punters … can be fooled,” he says. “The mad left’s obsession with ‘dog whistling’ is absurd. They’re essentially saying to people they’re dogs when they’re actually discriminating, discerning consumers and members of society.”
Textor, the Darwin-raised son of a Northern Territory policeman, says he’s learnt two important things from his 25 years tracking the nation’s mood. Firstly, Australians are “collectively very smart and they’ll spot a rat early”. Secondly, polling should be used to help politicians sell a message — not to create policy.
“John Howard, for example, was a reformist prime minister: the guns buyback, the introduction of the GST, two tranches of industrial relations reform. Our take is that successful prime ministers must have an agenda. A research and communications firm helps them ensure that agenda is communicated effectively.”