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Feb 1, 2013

Labor's plot to make Tony Abbott into Mitt Romney

In naming an election date eight months out, Julia Gillard's inner circle are establishing the first US-style election campaign in Australia's history. Tony Abbott will be cast similarly to Mitt Romney.


God love it or hate it, but there is nothing like Australian political coverage.

The Americans specialise in the sort of ding-dong attitudinising created by 24-hour news channels, unwilling to do reports when think tanks will prove 23-year-old talking heads gratis; coverage of the internal workings of party or policies is out of the question. The British? Well it’s like the parody of race-calling from the ancient Naked Vicar Show: “They’ve started … and Tronsom’s Boy is going much faster than all the other horses … and Tronsom’s Boy has won the race …”.

Only in Australia can a prime minister make an ostensible attempt to kill superficial political coverage by setting a “fixed” date — and have the press gallery respond with an analysis of her new eye wear, and what closed rims tell us about the future of bilateral free-trade agreements.

Nevertheless, for once, discussion of the election date has actual political content. There were various reasons offered: to blindside Kevin Rudd or any other leadership challenge; to take some of the heat out of News Limited’s continually sub-hysterical “crisis looms” coverage; to limit the possibility of a non-confidence motion, with both Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper looking like loose cannons. There was the suggestion that its purpose is to put intolerable pressure on Tony Abbott to release more concrete policies.

But no one seems to have twigged that the main purpose of the long-call is to have a campaign that is not an Australian one at all. Gillard’s inner circle are establishing the first US-style election campaign in the country’s history.

Labor has always been attracted by US politics, especially since the party abandoned the last vestiges of a socialist alternative. Having given up on making history at home, it looked elsewhere for the real thing. But with the rise of Barack Obama, that attraction became an obsession, and since the 2008 victory, and throughout the triumphant 2012 campaign, the party has been looking to the Democrats’ strategies and structures for hints on how to fight a campaign in conditions of turbulence and difficulty. My suspicion is that one conclusion has been that you can’t have a US-style campaign without a US-style duration.

Throughout last year, Gillard’s office enforcer John McTernan and others have been trekking to the States to see what they can learn from the Democrats’ high-tech, ultra-integrated, hard-hitting ’12 effort. They have most likely taken away two things: one, that the rise of the online world as a “third realm” (above nature and material culture) has made sampling, prediction and micro-targeting a more genuinely scientific, or at least systematic, project than hitherto. Contrary to the glorious individualists of the right-wing think tanks, behaviour can be reliably predicted with a sufficiently large sample — and the Liberal Party, the party of individualism, will work on the same sociologistic basis.

But what you really need to make this process work is time — time to try different strategies, get feedback and work on evidence.

Labor will be hoping that, like the Democrats, part of its social base — knowledge workers, for whose vote they compete with the Greens — will give them an edge over the Coalition on this, a more widespread ease with the notion. In the US, the Right were disadvantaged by the irrationalist anti-science culture they had built around climate change denialism. They could hire techs, but they couldn’t mesh their operation with a more systematic approach with any great success. And that left them exposed to the Democrats’ principle product of all that sampling: the evisceration of Willard Mitt Romney.

“It will be a more policy-oriented campaign than in the US — but a more subtly personal one than we have been accustomed to in Oz.”

By the end of the campaign, the Dems knew in which parts of which states which sledge of Romney would work best in — and more importantly, where it would be counterproductive. Painting him as a black-hatted asset stripper in Michigan, they leaned in on him as anti-woman in Colorado. One ad would run in northern Ohio, which is heavily Catholic; another would run in the state’s more-mixed south. The result was a sort of Cubist portrait of Romney as a multifaceted monster, and a bit of an odd fish. Focussing on what he would do if elected took second place to what he had done, itself subordinate to who he was — priorities that had been established through vast quantitative research.

That made it a long process, but so too did the systemic character assassination (based, it should be said, on truths about the man). Changing Romney from the goofy square Republican, far from dislikeable, into the sinister figure he became, took time to layer and develop.

Labor clearly intends to do that with Abbott. It will be a more policy-oriented campaign than in the US — but a more subtly personal one than we have been accustomed to. Such a campaign will make Abbott look like an odd fish rather than a good bloke, not the sort of bloke you’d feel comfortable with at a barbecue, and simultaneously make Gillard look closer to the norm, even though the shape of her external life — heathen witchy childlessness, to some — conforms less than Abbott and his brood of smiling daughters.

But of course the reverse is the case. Gillard is a modern person, adjusted to the contemporary world and at home in it, and Abbott is a nut job, a graduate of the B.A. Santamaria school of cultural pessimism. Gillard is comfortable in her own skin; Abbott is a neurotic, obsessed with perfection, purity and control, more willing to jump on a bike and do a flawless 100 kilometres than sit down and master a pre-debate health brief.

That echoes the Obama-Romney match: Obama, about as “exotic” as an American could be, was in reality much closer to the mainstream than Romney, whose Mormonism made him, ultimately, more loyal and bonded to his closed church community than to America as an ideal. But Romney’s oddness had to be smoked out — he had to be given enough time for the bizarre collocation of beliefs that animated him to become visible, and for Obama to seem like the guy you can talk to.

Narcissist-neurotics like Abbott and Romney also have a tendency to screw up because, deep down, they want to — they don’t want to risk the destruction of their ego-ideal that failure might bring. Small stuff-ups give them an excuse, an out.

Romney’s torrent of gaffes in the first six months of his campaign was far beyond the usual ratio; later, his son and campaign advisor Tagg would say he had “never seen a man who wanted to be president less than my dad”. Tagg meant it as a testament to Mitt’s humility; a bruised and battered Republican Party probably viewed it less charitably. Abbott’s gaffes and mis-speaks may prove a liability. An eight-month campaign might be enough to generate a rich crop of disasters.

So Labor hopes. But while Romney and Abbott have much in common, the other element in the Democratic triumph was Obama and, well, I know Obama (from TV), I worked near Obama (in the press enclosure of large stadia), “Barack Obama” sends me four emails a day asking for money, and Gillard is no Obama. There was a team of deeply impressive activists around Obama, but it was the man himself who set out some bold directions in leadership, and that has been lacking in the Gillard camp.

There are times when Gillard’s progress resembles that of the hapless Nicola Murray in The Thick Of It, a last-chance leader shoehorned in, and going from one crisis to the next.

Eight months is a hell of a lot of room to pile one crisis on top of another. The virtue of short Westminster-system elections is that you can change perceptions in a week, and the vote is over before the backlash appears. With a four-week campaign, Gillard would have stayed in the money right to the end. With an eight-month run, she may be gone beyond rescue by April.

Still, the glasses will probably swing it.


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26 thoughts on “Labor’s plot to make Tony Abbott into Mitt Romney

  1. Holden Back

    Cue “FrameWatch” or “FrameGate”? Or is it a way of getting closer to Michelle Grattan?

  2. lulu2503

    Obama’s campaign was characterised by an extensive, highly motivated and able network of community organisers and supporters, who used social media effectively to drive the campaign’s messages home to voters at the grassroots level. It would do no harm to the Gillard campaign to adopt a similar strategy.

  3. GF50

    Guy, I think you article is somewhat off beam. LNP and LOTO have been in GOP style campaign mode for over 2 years.
    LNP/LOTO have set the agender. Fact free, lies, use of the justice system, slogans (direct from GOP handbook) personal villification, repeted ad nauseum as fact by complicit MSN/ABC.
    The PM is not crisis prone nor is her Government, this is a confection of MSM/ABC opinion not fact.
    I can only hope that the LOTO’s perma tan and whitened teeth, will be treated in the same vein as the comment on the PM’s glasses.

  4. Alex

    Has Labor considered the fact that Mr Rabbit migh have god on his side? I say “might”, ’cause god might find him as insufferable as many of us do, despite him being such a good Catholic frog. For myself, if Mr Rabbit does get up, I’m gonna renounce my atheism and hunt down ALL gods and kill ’em! After a good round of well deserved water-boarding, of course!

    That is all.

    NB. The non-capitalisation of “god” is deliberate and considered.

  5. SusieQ

    I quite like this analysis, except that for me (already bored to tears with the election) there is nothing Labour can do to redeem itself – it has become a slightly left version of the Liberal party – to me, there is little difference between them and that is one of the differences between here and the USA. You can have all the savvy ‘on the ground’ organisation in the world, but if your policies are the same as the other mob, whats the point?
    Oh and a huge brickbat to the Age for covering the changes in Julia’s looks over the years – why? Is there going to be similiar coverage of Tony?

  6. AR

    A long campaign will benefit Labor only if the MSM do a half decent job – the portents thus far are not good.

  7. Venise Alstergren

    AR: You have to be joking. The MSM reporting the facts without lies and media spin; and Rupert Murdoch will drop dead I suppose?

  8. Warren Joffe

    As usual Criky bloggers despise the average voters ability to decide what is in his or her interests and vote accordingly.

    On Rundle’s point…
    There are huge differences between Abbott and Romney. Romney’s almost irrelevant ability to run a profitable private equity outfit cautionsly and competently is probably not as important as Abbott’s considerable experience of actual hands-on politics and his ability with words written and spoken, curiously enhanced by his occasional gaffes and incoherences.

    Michelle Grattan is right in saying his undertaking to take his front bench into government unchanged is stupid. But one of his strengths is to change course without much fuss. That is a “promise” he clearly can, and should, change before the election. Even if he doesn’t but doesn’t keep the “promise” after the election it isn’t a “no carbon tax” type of promise. Only a handful of people would notice or care.

    Of course he shouldn’t make any promises at all. Only say what the aims are and that it will depend on what the state of the Budget left behind by Labor turns out to be whether they are achieved in the first term or not.

  9. CML

    @ Warren Joffe – The trouble is, the ability of the “average voter” to decide what is in their best interests is non-existent!
    Most of them who vote for the coalition only have half a brain, and don’t realise that doing so is definitely NOT in their best interests!


    Tony Abbott has not only borrowed the GOP’s modus operandi, he’s also got Rupert Murdoch in the same corner, with all the spurious ‘news’ and distortion of plain fact that entails.

    Plus, the clincher: he has borrowed the Republican’s House majority leader Boehner’s bottled suntan.

    What more proof do you want?

  11. Karen

    Guy Rundle, well analysed, except that Abbott’s and Mitt’s desire for the top job, in my view, can’t be assessed as being at the same level.

    Unlike Mitt, Abbott has demonstrated to date that he actually wants the top job with a zeal and desperation that has seen him plumb the deepest depths of personal vituperation directed at an incumbent PM that has never been hitherto witnessed in Australian political history. Misogyny doesn’t even begin to describe it. Not so with Mitt.

    In Mitt Romney’s case, it was his wife who (a bit like Janette Howard) had displayed an ambition for the top job that arguably was even greater her partner, except here too, both Mitt and his wife were, compared to Abbott, a class act.

    Abbott just comes across as conservative North shore low rent, which is a bit of an oxymoron, but which is one that seems to fit him quite well because of his crude bovver boy image. For that reason, I think he’s actually quite attractive to a particular gender demographic in the swinging seats that potentially may stand to make him politically dangerous. Unless, of course, Abbott can be neutralised by Labor telling this demographic how much of a straitjacketed, unimaginitive weirdo Abbott is, how much Abbott stands to take out of their hip pockets by scrapping education bonuses that no business tax cut is going to match, as well as the extent to which Labor can market its considerable policy achievements under Gillard.

  12. Clive Powell

    Abbot’s a “nut job” etc etc??? Please give your readers some credit of intelligence. Not everybody’s lips are wrapped around the ALP’s cock.

  13. geomac62

    Clive Powell
    To paraphrase Abbott : Just because a person is sick does not mean they are pure of heart . That was the ” nut job ” talking about Bernie Banton after being caught trying to evade journos just so he wouldn,t have to justify his vilification of Banton with a previous comment . How about his sicko ? weirdo ? old old world comment regarding his daughters gift of purity before marriage . Did he have his daughter undergo a medical test because otherwise its pure speculation on an adult female , related or not .
    Actually your wording is a bit odd regarding the ALP though the other way . Political parties have gender ?

  14. Steve Ellis

    This is the 1st time I have seen an article on Crikey that is utter crap. Labor will not do a Romney/Abbott thing. The election here will bear no comparison to what happened in the states-the difference being, Labor lost the election 2 years ago.

  15. Karen

    @ Clive Powell – and not everyone’s mouth is wrapped around TA’s rigid nut.

  16. Mike Flanagan

    Karen You ‘took the words right out of my mouth’.

  17. Electric Lardyland

    Thanks Christopher, I was beginning to think, that I was the only one that had noticed Abbott’s strange recent colouration. I mean, when I flicked over to his press club address the over day, I was a little bit disconcerted to see something on my screen, that looked half Abbott, half Oompa Loompa. I immediately thought, that the two days without power, had done something nasty to my TV’s colour system, but no, everything else seemed okay. It was just that Abbott had given himself a definite orange hue.
    Apparently, the fake tan is part of his campaign to come across as a more ‘fair dinkum Aussie bloke’.
    Well, Tone, you probably should have been able to spot, that most Australian men don’t have a tinge of tangerine.

  18. Mike Flanagan

    I am interested, to the point of distraction, as to what “national important issue” Mr Abbott, our intellectually deprived Opposition Leader, discovered in his recent tax payer funded trip to London.
    Perhaps you or someone else of intetgrity in the press gallery could ask him!
    Maybe at the same time you could enquire, as to whom did he speak, and were his appointments set up by the Cory Bernadi’s (the Koch Bros and Tea Party representative in our Senate on the Australian Tax Payer payroll) advance party that we discovered on the back pages of the MSM.

  19. Paul White

    It hasn’t occurred to the LNP supporting Australian Media that the principal reason Gillard named the election date is that she doesn’t want the LNP to dump Abbott between now and September, 2013.
    Gillard knows her best chances of winning the 2013 election is a LNP with Abbott as leader.
    Gillard has been running rings around Abbott.

    The LNP polling popularity has been trending down since the introduction of the Carbon Tax.
    Abbott makes Romney look like a genius.
    A Tax scare campaign is a good election strategy ( Remember Keatings GST scare campaign).
    However the strategy is for the SCAREY to occur at the election… not 18 months before the election.
    Abbott’s strategy has been incredibly dumb and every time he mentions the Carbon Tax he is shooting himself in the foot. Gillard loves Abbott and she doesn’t want to loose him to a LNP leadership change.

  20. Mike Flanagan

    Perhaps the Abbott mob could use the following verse, that has been the Murdoch scribblers mantra for the past two years, for their campaign theme.

    Someone stole old Banyon’s pig
    Blame it on the Gillards
    Pinched my cart and rig
    Blame it on the Gillards
    Someone robbed the Sydney mail
    Sacked the jailer and put him in jail
    And if the potato crop should fail
    They’ll blame it on the Gillards
    Blame on the Gillards boys blame it on the Gillards
    Shame shame upon the name, blame it on the Gillards
    If anyone should steal a horse, blame it on the Gillards
    Anybody breaks the law, blame it on the Gillards
    If anyone does something new, or does what you would like to do,
    ..and the troopers don’t know who-
    They’ll blame it on the Gillards
    Blame it on the Gillards boys blame it on the Gillards
    Shame, shame upon the name, blame it on- the Gillards
    They’re posted up on every wall.
    Blame it on the Gillards
    There’s no crime too great or small,
    To blame it on the Gillards!
    They killed a thousand so they tell
    you know they’re bound to burn in hell
    I think I’ll steal a horse myself- and blame it on the Gillards
    Blame it on the Gillards boys, blame it on the- the Gillards
    Someone killed old Jim Divine, we don’t
    Know the place or time,
    But the poor old boy was a hundred and nine-
    Oh, blame it on the Gillards!
    Blame it on the Gillards boys, blame it on the Gillards
    Shame shame upon the name, blame it on – the Gillards

    With credits to Silverstein RIP and a few adaptations by yours truly

  21. Spike

    Hey Crikey. Your SURVEY: Has no presupposed references for me. I’m male 66 yo + don’t fit any of your titled jobs! When tried to enter year of birth: your system wouldn’t allow before 1993! Danny

  22. Mike Flanagan

    There is a certain rambunctiousness and larrikinism that makes the Australian democracy unique in the democratic nations of the world.
    We even called Bob Menzies ‘Pig Iron Bob’ and referred to Dr Evatt and Arthur Calwell as ‘the Doc’ and ‘Artful Arthur’ respectively in our public discourse.
    But today’s encroachment and influence of USA Tea Party political means of projections is another thing again. It is built on lies, falsehoods and manipulation of the truth and depends on ridicule, cant pejoratives and denigration of the messenger or presenter of the alternatives, not rational debate built on facts.
    Unfortunately the Opposition under Mr Abbott have succumbed to this intellectually lazy modus operandi. And his front bench led by the likes of Christopher Pyne and others have adopted this political strategy, cheered on and encouraged by the Murdoch rags and many in the Fairfax Media.
    Sooner or later both the wiser heads in the Liberal Party and the managers of our media outlets will realise it is a self defeating strategy that debases both the political office and the politician and makes any policy worthless when others copy the strategy.
    It can be remedied by our MSM attending to their fourth estate responsibilities by insisting our politician attend directly to policies that are designed for the long-time good of this nation and its’ peoples

  23. Karen

    @ Mike Flanagan – #22 – well said – unfortunately, TA can sleep in a hammock til election day if he wants, as he’s got the big donors on side and Ltd News writing and spruiking his creepy lines. Pathetic.

    Meanwhile, Gillard & Co. have to run around because the media l*es about self-confected crises, which they then try and hang on Labor, to try and frighten the horses.

    Take the so-called ‘crises’ over Gillard’s calling and election day and dealing with the retirments of Roxon and Evans before the first parliamentary sitting. When you analyse it logically, its kinda like, err, what’s the big deal here?

    Gillard gets hammered for calling an election? Really? Err, like why? Especially when the MSM have been banging on about calling an election. Well, they’ve got it now. Time to think about a new line, guys.

    Secondly, who can blame these particular ministers for leaving? – they were hard workers with big responsibilities who had a gutfull of the pressure and the relentless grind. Them’s the breaks.

  24. Mike Flanagan

    Karen Thanks for your valued comments and I would like to add the following two points.
    Buried in the chatter about Ms Gillard’s ‘failures’ the only thing I didn’t see was the word ‘split’, the press’s standard lazy fall back position
    Tony Abbott dismissed his afiliations with the British and American Tea Party as a simile to having tea and scones at the CWA.
    I would suggest that the matriarchs of the bush, who have helped their hubbies to pull still born calfs and run crutching sheds, before he got out of nappies, might take umbrage at being used by Abbott to further his personal ambitionss.
    These women are independantly minded and have the skill to to identify the difference between a bag of spuds and a horseman in a saddle, even when Abbott maipulates a photo opportunity to garner votes from the Pitt St farmers.
    These women have the skill to pick an inbred brumby at two miles at a fast gallop and that’s without their glasses on..
    If he wants to use them he might find their old men coming running to their calls for help with a long handled fencing shovel not a bloody yankee shiny baseball bat.
    They can kick like a healthy mule, as a few politicians have experienced in bygone years.
    Abbotts polling indicate he his loathed in large sections of the bush.
    So I would suggest he bring his Donaldson strainers and a good pair of gloves next time he comes to ride a horse for photo op, as there might be some fence mending to do.

  25. Mike Flanagan

    And I migh add that Abbott’s along with Cando Newmand and Wannado O’Farrell’s sell out of the bush hasn’t gone unnoticed.
    The deplorable sellout of the bush to the Coal miners and the CSG mob to elicit financial support by these three is not going to serve Abbott’s ambitions very well
    The stalwart matriarch of the bush might teach him how to cook and eat crow.


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