If you want to understand what’s happening in Australian politics right now — or anywhere else for that matter — sit down and watch Toby Haynes’ Brexit: The Uncivil War. It’s a one-and-a-half hour dramatisation of what former Tory prime minister Theresa May called “the biggest democratic exercise in our history”.
May wasn’t quite right, but 33.5 million voters did cast a valid ballot and the Leavers outnumbered those who wanted to stay with Europe by just under 1.3 million votes. These are the big numbers that make Haynes’ film so compelling. The story is even bigger, and what it shows is as arresting as politics gets.
The central character is Dominic Cummings (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) described by former prime minister David Cameron as a “career psychopath”. He returned to the front line in 2015 as the mastermind of the Leave campaign, promising to find voters he said others didn’t even know were there.
Now Cummings is the senior adviser to current PM Boris Johnson and, despite being surrounded by chaos and apparent loss, he is calmly confident he and his boss can prevail in getting Britain out of Europe at any, or all, cost. His tactics are driven by a mastery of digital politics — for the Leave campaign he enlisted a Canadian company, AggregateIQ, which said it could find and activate 3 million British voters who’d disappeared into forgotten streets and council estates.
What happened in the Brexit referendum and what might be happening now is pointed to by senior commentator at The Spectator, Katy Balls. “On the day of the EU referendum, Labour MPs say they began to get a sense that something was adrift when they saw people who lived in council estates with historically low turnout coming out to vote,” Balls wrote last week.
“Current polling and prediction systems struggle to take this group in. There is a fear [Cummings] has managed to find a way to factor these voters in and is looking at very different electoral modelling to everyone else. That would explain why No 10 [Downing Street] is so bullish. The [alliance working against Johnson] might be for nothing if it turns out it is fighting the wrong battle.”
What this has got to do with Australian politics and Scott Morrison is simple. Watch Brexit: The Uncivil War and you feel like you’re watching a mud map for the Coalition’s campaign against Australian Labor in May this year.
It’s a brutally simple strategy. You find out what makes a cohort of available voters crazy and shout that message at them so loudly that you make their heads explode. To seal the deal, you have someone do the ugly work you don’t want to be associated with and you make those up-for-grabs voters think the message they can’t stand is coming from your opponents.
In Britain, the Leave campaign had the unacceptable faces of UKIP in billionaire funder Arron Banks and Euro MP Nigel Farage. Here, Morrison had Clive Palmer.
Look at the focus group scene towards the end of the film and watch this political strategy in its most brutal, raw form. It will stop you in your tracks.
In Britain, the United States and here, the conservative side of politics is way out in front when it comes to the digital air war and at the moment there’s no sign the gap is being narrowed in a meaningful way.
What makes Morrison stand out of from any of his predecessors is his belief in the constant campaign. We hear politicians talk about it, but they usually pay it no more than lip service until the looming election nears. Morrison is not going to follow that playbook. It’s why his political strategy is to do the most basic of government activity — literally just building stuff on the infrastructure front and cutting taxes — while he plays hardball with his opponents.
This is the thinking behind his relentless foot-on-the-throat approach to Labor, outlining a series of “tests” (or wedges) for the ALP. It’s so unsophisticated the opposition hasn’t realised what’s really happening.
This never-ending campaign strategy is also seen in the multi-billion-dollar taxpayer-funded “building a better tax system for hard-working Australians” advertising campaign which ran before the election and has been revived just this month. Signed off on August 9 by Greg Williams (who runs the government’s “independent communications committee”), the ads in “phase two” of this campaign are running on free-to-air and pay TV as well as featuring on social media pages — including the one run by the Australian Tax Office. “The Australian government has cut taxes so you can keep more of your money,” says the ad. You bet it has.
Dennis Atkins is a freelance journalist based in Brisbane where he was a national political editor during the Howard government. He is filling in for part of the time while Bernard Keane is enjoying a break.