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The Punch: Gillard dumps focus groups, focus groups will like that

3 Aug 2010

Originally published on The Punch 3/08/2010

Our Prime Minister has joined the bandwagon complaining that this is a focus group- driven election – but isn¹t this the way of the Wiki? After all, books have been written about how the wisdom of the masses provide a more compelling truth than the voice of authority.

In an era when communications is moving from the broadcast model of a central voice of authority to the interconnectedness of Facebook, surely focus groups and polls are a legitimate driver of public policy.

It seems that with its group of 150 to guide the nation on climate change Labor is about to put the theory to the test, while the Coalition has long aligned its bearings to the fears and prejudices of the focus group room.

In recent days I have had the chance to put my theory into practise, after being drafted in as Research Director in Peter Best’s run for the top job ­- after all Pete is a candidate totally committed to giving the people what they want.

And what is it they want? Having watched literally hundreds of focus groups over the past five years there are a few common themes that emerge from the mob.

Standing Up For families

Ask a focus group what sort of policies they would like to see from their leaders and invariably standing up for families tops the list. The actual execution of such a policy is broad and sketchy, but it is the frame that many ordinary ­dare I say it – working families view politics through.

Education, health, family focussed work entitlements can all fit into this worldview, but there is a skill in taking people from abroad brushed announcement on hospital or GP funding and the way it will touch your families’ lives. Both sides have developed parental leave policies, which can again fit the gap for some parties. But at its heart, there is a yearning amongst many for leaders to help them make sense of the modern family deal: the edict to juggle work and home, watch the dollars, and manage family time rather than enjoy it.

Do Something For Me

No more big picture, people want to know what¹s in it for them. Politics used to be a contest between the free market and direct state intervention, big strident debates about the best way to manage not just the economy, but the society. The end of the Cold War dampened that, the new ideas fewer as the discipline of the free market took hold. Along the way politics went retail.­

Instead of visions, campaigns have become exercises in convincing people you could offer them more, now. Instead of a new program to support a social policy, governments would simply send money to voters, saying you know how to spend this money the best. For the voters, it sent the message we care about you;­ you may not trust our promises as politicians but cold, hard cash is real. John Howard mastered the art and Harvey Norman was the principal beneficiary.

Make Me Feel Secure

Regardless of the economic cycle, people feel less secure than previous generations. Fewer jobs are for life, mortgages are bigger than ever, it¹s harder to see where you will be in ten years time. The hard truth is that in a global economy big companies will be driven by profits not people and fight tooth and nail any moves to pull them I, look at the mining tax. It is far easier for politicians to establish proxy wars ­ and none worked better than the Coalition’s 2001 border protection policy- respond to economic security by shifting attention to cultural security. The echoes of this strategy continue to dominate the way we view our place in the region.

Don’t Go Negative

Negative ads never rate in focus groups. They make people feel they are being manipulated, they invariably make them question the facts presented.

And yet, and yet, well they really work. After monstering an attack ad, the same group will come back and use the key assertions as a point of reference. The trick is to deliver the negative without getting caught.

Again, Howard was king in this dark art­ Beazley was never ridiculed for being fat, he just lacked ticker. Neither side is being particularly subtle in delivering the negatives this time around, although Abbott’s growing use of wife and family clearly opens up comparisons that he thinks will resonate in some parts of the country.

Don’t Wear Speedos

It’s superficial and trivial, but people with little engagement cling to media images,­ and none creates more mirth and undermines a leaders credibility more than Speedos. Not sure what it is, but the cool guys always wore board shorts,­ and whether the smugglers make you seem like a bigger or smaller man, it just weirds out many, many voters. Ted Ballieu learnt it, Peter Debnam learnt it, Tony Abbott needs to get the message.

Oh, and Don’t Be Driven By Focus Groups

And here’s the rub, often after lively and engaged conversations, people reserve their greatest contempt for politicians who are seen to follow public opinion. Having put their views down, people are looking for leaders who will do something with the information provided, not just send it straight back to them in a sound byte. Australians trust their bullshit detectors as a part of who they are. Sorry Pete, but this is your biggest challenge.

Peter Lewis, Director EMC