The Manipulators, chapter 10 of The Hollow Men
The Manipulators: Leveraging doubt and fear
During the 2005 British election campaign there was controversy about the Australian campaign strategists hired by the Conservative Party to direct their campaign. The Australians – Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor – were accused of advising Conservative leader Michael Howard to use such issues as immigration, asylum seekers, gypsies, law and order and abortion to exploit fear and prejudice to win voters.
The Economist described this phenomenon. ‘Over the past few weeks a new expression has entered the Westminster lexicon: dog-whistle politics. It means putting out a message that, like a high-pitched dog-whistle, is only fully audible to those at whom it is directly aimed. The intention is to make potential supporters sit up and take notice while avoiding offending those to whom the message will not appeal…. It seems likely that Lynton Crosby, the Tories’ Australian campaign director, is responsible for importing dog-whistle politics to Britain.’
The magazine said that ‘when not shamelessly pandering to prejudice, the Tory campaign has been a series of hit-and-run ambushes on the government’s record…. For a couple of days, immigration dominates the headlines, then hospital waiting lists, then abortion, then tax, followed by gypsies and tax again.’ It explained how these tactics work.
Nothing that Mr Howard… said could fairly be described as racist…. Yet it is also true that racists, bigots and the millions of people who are neither of those things but whose fears are fanned daily by a mendacious press will have pricked up their ears and listened to a message aimed squarely at them. And just in case there was any question about who and what the Tories were appealing to, Mr Howard issued his statement on gypsies astride a platform emblazoned with the party’s rather creepy campaign slogan: ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ Thinking, but not quite saying, in other words.1
Shortly after this article was published in early 2005, news appeared in Australia that Crosby/Textor’s next stop, after the British election, was helping the National Party in New Zealand. National’s campaign manager Steven Joyce was asked about the rumour but assured the reporter that, although they were getting ‘some assistance’ from strategists associated with Australia’s John Howard, there were ‘no plans’ to bring Lynton Crosby to New Zealand.2
In July 2005, Don Brash was asked in a New Zealand Herald interview, ‘Is Lynton Crosby’s firm advising National?’ Brash was reported to have turned to Richard Long and asked, ‘What’s our answer to that one?’ Even if Brash had momentarily forgotten the name of their strategists, Long was well aware of them. But Brash turned back to the journalists and replied, ‘I know Lynton Crosby has not been working for us at all. I’ve never spoken to or met Lynton Crosby. To the best of my knowledge he is not involved…. I don’t know about his firm. That’s something you’d have to check out with Steven Joyce on.’3 Contrary to what he said, Brash had first met and been briefed by Lynton Crosby in Canberra a year before this interview, and would have been fully aware that Mark Textor and some of their staff were playing a major part in National’s election campaign. After reading Brash’s answers in the Herald interview, I sent the paper’s journalists a copy of National Party December 2004 board minutes that referred to work being done by the ‘Crosby/Textor Group’.4 This made it impossible completely to deny that the company was involved in the campaign. So the next time the question of Crosby/Textor involvement was raised by journalists, the National staff slightly changed their tune.
Richard Long emailed Brash, and others, to warn him that ‘Steven [Joyce] has just had an “aggressive” interview… about our use of Crosby Textor’. Long explained that Joyce said the company had done ‘some polling’ for National but that they did not formulate policy. ‘Steven was asked if you [Brash] had met Crosby,’ Long said. ‘Steven said he didn’t recall and they would need to ask you.’ Long advised Brash: ‘You’d better say, if caught, that you had met him in passing a few times when he was over here polling’. However, if he was not ‘caught’, Long advised that Brash try to avoid answering questions. ‘It would be better to answer anything we have to through a spokesman.’ 5
Joyce wrote back to Long, saying that ‘the questions around Don were how aware would he be [about] our involvement with Mark Textor (not Crosby this time). Had he met him?’ Joyce said he had replied that Brash ‘may have’ met him as ‘Textor is another of our suppliers’. Joyce explained to Long that he had fudged on the question of Brash’s knowledge because he did not know what Brash had already said publicly. ‘I said that you would have to ask Don,’ he said, ‘not remembering what Don had said previously.’
Joyce gave advice on how much Brash should be willing to say. He told Long he was ‘quite comfortable with Don remembering he had met [Textor] a few times’ and Brash saying he was aware Textor did ‘a bit of polling work for us’. But he said that when the reporter rang back asking about Crosby/Textor doing work beyond polling, he ‘got a bit short with her at that point and said that [he] felt the conversation was going around in circles and it was time to wrap it up’.6 Then, confirming that they all knew exactly what was going on, Long sent an email to Brash: ‘The inquiry was about Textor, not Crosby this time’.7
National had two reasons for wanting to play down or to avoid mentioning the involvement of the Crosby/Textor company in their campaign. The first and obvious reason was the strategists’ controversial reputation. But, equally important, Crosby/Textor was doing much more in the campaign than ‘just a bit of polling’. The company’s slogan is ‘Research, Strategies, Results’: research and strategy advice are two halves of the same role.
The company’s founders and partners, Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor, got to know each other when Crosby was the Australian Liberal Party’s federal campaign director and Textor its pollster. They worked together on successful Liberal campaigns in 1996, 1998, 2001 and 2004. Their company, formed in 2003, has an office in Melbourne headed by Textor, one in Sydney headed by Crosby, a research office north of Melbourne in Echuca and a Canberra office located a stone’s throw from the Australian Parliament House. The company’s chair is Robert Champion de Crespigny, previously owner of a mining company and currently a director of the same Centre for Independent Studies that is the meeting point for the radical right in New Zealand.8
The Crosby/Textor website states that the company offers ‘high-level strategic advice, based on opinion research, to clients who need to run campaigns targeted at various stakeholders such as customers, voters or politicians’.9 Their work has been summed up as ‘a clever synthesis of polling and pitching the message to suit the polling’;10 and identifying and focusing resources on the ‘most persuadable “swing” targets’.11 But there is more to it than that.
National formally approached Crosby/Textor to help with its election campaign in October 2004. Lynton Crosby had recently relocated to London for seven months to head the Conservative Party campaign so Mark Textor took on the National Party contract. Chapter 3 discussed the proliferation of expedient political advisers who often shift back and forth between political jobs and corporate public relations, using the same skills and contacts for both. Textor is an outstanding example of the type.
He describes himself as ‘Australia’s most successful pollster and campaign strategist’.12 He built his reputation working for the United States public relations and ‘strategic research’ company Wirthlin Group, whose founder, Richard Wirthlin, was a pollster and campaign adviser to Republican president Ronald Reagan. Wirthlin, for which Textor served as Australasian managing director, specialises in the same research-based strategy advice to political and corporate clients now used by Crosby/Textor.
Wirthlin has a long record of working for tobacco company Philip Morris and Mark Textor was a consultant for them in Australia. There is a glimpse of Textor’s work for Philip Morris in some of the internal tobacco company documents that the United States courts ordered to be released to the public following American anti-tobacco lawsuits in the 1990s. For instance, Textor conducted market research for Philip Morris and presented the results at its 1998 Corporate Affairs Conference at the Hyatt Regency Sanctuary Cove Hotel in Queensland.13 The Crosby/Textor website also lists British American Tobacco as one of Textor’s clients.
When Textor moved into politics, there were allegations in the Northern Territory and Canberra about his arranging push polling, in which a supposedly independent telephone poll interviewer asks questions containing damaging allegations about an opposition politician to turn voters off that candidate. Following a 1995 Canberra by-election there was court action against Textor and others for alleged push polling to discredit the Labour party candidate Sue Robinson. Australia’s Radio National obtained a tape of the polling questions used against Robinson. They included the following: ‘Would you be more or less likely to vote for Sue Robinson and the Labor Party if you knew she has publicly stated that she supports the right to abortion up to the ninth month of pregnancy?’ She had never said that. Textor subsequently made a written apology to Robinson and, together with the then director of the Liberal Party, paid her $80,000 in an out-of-court settlement.14 She lost the election.
A British newspaper profile of Textor described him as a ‘far more controversial figure’ than his partner Crosby. It called him an ‘unashamed promoter of wedge politics… credited with putting anti-Aboriginal sentiment into the mainstream of Northern Territory politics at a time when the former One Nation leader Pauline Hanson was still running a chip shop in southern Queensland’. In the 2001 elections, ‘it was Textor’s polling advice that crystallised Howard’s decision to run a xenophobic scare campaign based on fear of immigrants and terrorism’.15
As Australian journalist David Marr explained to Anthony Hubbard of the Sunday Star-Times in August 2005, Textor comes from Northern Australia where ‘race is not a fringe issue but a fundamental issue’. In a state where half the people are black, ‘every aspect of the politics of the Northern Territory is permeated by race. That’s the dark expertise of [Crosby/Textor].’16 Campaign manager Steven Joyce contracted Textor to work for National in late 2004.
Don Brash first met Mark Textor and Lynton Crosby on 17 June 2004 during a short trip to Australia. Brash visited them at their Canberra office at Engineering House, 11 National Circuit for a two-hour early evening meeting. Textor had written in advance to suggest that their discussion points, ‘after a get to know you chat’, should be:
1. ‘Mega’ social and political trends over the last 5–10 years in Australia, New Zealand and in the rest of the world
2. Comparative approaches to political strategy around the world (with our current clients in UK, USA, NZ and here)
3. What’s working / what’s not around the world (what’s ‘best practice’ in advertising and communications) – lessons from our campaigns
4. Various approaches to polling
5. Recent New Zealand Qualitative (focus group) polling and comparisons to Australia
6. New Zealand next steps – ‘locking in’ your lead.17
When Steven Joyce visited Australia to observe the Liberal Party election campaign in October that year he was briefed by Mark Textor on the campaign strategy. Joyce said in his report on the trip that Textor was ‘keen to help [National] on a commercial basis’.18 Textor and other Liberal advisers had advised Joyce to secure the campaign funding and sort out a ‘simple message for change’ and test it with focus groups. Soon after Textor was advising National on these things.
Textor did not move to New Zealand as Crosby had to Britain. But for the ten months, between late November 2004 and the election in September 2005, Textor and his staff made about fifteen visits to New Zealand, as well as consulting by telephone and sending written reports. About half these trips were Crosby/Textor research staff visiting New Zealand to conduct focus groups and the other half were Textor visiting the National Party in his capacity as consultant on campaign strategy.
Most of Textor’s advice was given orally so there is no record of it. However National Party insiders say that early on he persuaded the National campaign strategy team that ‘securing the campaign funding’ meant raising enough money not just for one election campaign, but for two. His argument was that after a close election, in which the New Zealand First Party, Maori Party and Green Party might be part of a coalition, there was a good chance the government would collapse after a short time. Textor’s argument was that National would then be the only party with millions of dollars ready to fight a new campaign and therefore would be well set up to win.
Textor recommended to National that his company immediately do some ‘benchmark’ research into New Zealand public beliefs, against which all the subsequent research could be compared as the campaign progressed. One of his staff, Mark Domitrak, visited New Zealand and oversaw two focus groups in Auckland on 30 November 2004 and two in Hamilton on 1 December 2004. On 10 December, National received its first report from Crosby/Textor, based on the findings of this research.
The report, called a ‘Strategic Memorandum’, provides the first ever inside view into the techniques that have become standard practice in a series of Australian, British, American and New Zealand elections. You might imagine that focus groups are designed to find out what groups of people think and want. Sandy Burgham’s focus groups on women were like that, and might therefore assist policy formulation or the language used in campaign speeches, but the Crosby/Textor groups had a completely different purpose and revealed a deeper level of political manipulation.
Each Crosby/Textor research report makes this difference clear at the start: ‘it should be kept in mind’, says the first page, that this qualitative research is designed to ‘uncover ideas and persuasive creative leads…. It is not designed to quantitatively define the marketplace.’19 The intention is to ‘uncover’ perceptions and feelings of which the people concerned may not be consciously aware – or even just potential perceptions and feelings – and find ways to use these ‘persuasive creative leads’ to influence target groups of voters.
These techniques were more obvious in subsequent reports, but even this initial benchmark report identified some of these ‘leads’. It stated that ‘voters in Auckland and Hamilton believe that, overall, things in New Zealand are heading in the “right direction” ’. They were concerned that National would be ‘too harsh’ on social services, with ‘less money for health and education’, and that Brash was a bit ‘arrogant’, might not ‘think things through’ and that he was a ‘rich man leading a rich man’s party’. Interestingly, they found that ‘voters believe that tax cuts “miss the point” as they will only be a temporary solution’. Textor and Domitrak then reported on ideas that the focus group people had not raised but about which, ‘once prompted’, they had potentially been concerned. For instance, they were happy about the state of the economy but ‘once prompted’ were uncertain about whether Labour had a plan to keep the economy growing: ‘no forward plan for the economy is a concern for voters, once prompted’. ‘Herein… lies an opportunity to use the economy to demonstrate, in a practical way, what a lack of incentive in New Zealand means.’ Crosby/Textor took this ‘prompted’ concern and used it to justify National’s existing tax and welfare policies in the following proposed words: ‘In New Zealand, if we continue not to encourage people to work (through the welfare system) and if we don’t start rewarding people who work hard and earn some extra money (through the taxation system) our economy will stagnate and this means we will slip behind the rest of the world’.
In this way they strategise the possibility of moving voters from, for instance, thinking that tax cuts ‘miss the point’ to the ‘prompted perception’ that tax cuts are necessary in response to uncertainty about the growth of the economy. The Crosby/Textor word for this is leveraging. The report summarises this and other findings: ‘a significant opportunity exists to leverage the (prompted) perception that New Zealand has lost its initiative and that under the Labour Government there is no incentive for New Zealanders to better themselves, be it through the welfare system, the taxation system or the education system’.20 Such perceptions may have little to do with how people feel and the leveraging messages may not even be true, but they may still provide ‘strategic opportunities’.
These words about getting the right incentives in tax, welfare and education policy were seen in numerous National Party messages during the election year, starting with the Orewa welfare speech. The campaign recommendations in the report included ‘consistent message and core values need to be repeated at every opportunity’. A second persuasive opportunity Crosby/Textor identified was to build the perception that such government initiatives as the civil union legislation, which obviously did not affect most people, were evidence that Labour was ‘distracted’ from more important issues.
As was predictable from strategists involved in the Australian and British elections, Crosby/Textor also pointed to immigration and security as useful issues for National. The increase of migrants in Auckland was ‘perceived’ to have put significant pressures on the infrastructure of the city, ‘evidenced through increased class sizes, lack of hospital beds and traffic congestion’. They found that the voters were ‘concerned that the current intake policy lets “just anyone” come in without regard for the skills and education they can bring. As a result Auckland voters believe that they are “paying” for these migrants as they go “straight to the welfare queues”.’21 Crosby/Textor recommended that National use the same policy as the Conservatives did in Britain: to say they would allow immigration only by ‘skilled migrants’.
Keenan picked up the immigration suggestion and wrote to his colleagues a few days after the Crosby/Textor report arrived. The ‘Textor focus group work shows that Immigration is a major hot-button issue – as Winston Peters knows all too well’. He continued: ‘We need to toughen up our line on that. If we don’t, we could find NZ First grabbing 5% of our support in the last month of the campaign. We are well placed to grab back NZ First’s elderly constituency; but we also need to do enough to not leave ourselves too exposed on immigration.’ He suggested that they ‘could work a tougher line on immigration’ into a future speech.22
Don Brash made just such a speech, timed six weeks before the election, that used the negative feelings that Textor had ‘uncovered’ on immigration in his focus groups. ‘There is resentment,’ Brash said, ‘that too many immigrants, and especially those who arrive as refugees, go straight onto a benefit, and live for years at the expense of the hard-working New Zealand taxpayer.’ Taking up the Textor suggestion, Brash announced that the ‘first’ plank of its immigration policy was that ‘National will focus priority on skilled migrants’.23
Brash declared: ‘Nor, frankly, do we want immigrants who come with no intention of becoming New Zealanders or adopting New Zealand values. We do not want those who insist on their right to spit in the street; or demand the right to practise female circumcision; or believe that New Zealand would be a better place if gays and adulterers were stoned.’24
New Zealand Herald writer Claire Harvey described the speech as ‘classic dogwhistling’. ‘Notice,’ she wrote, ‘he doesn’t actually say that these habits are Asian, African and Islamic – although that is what we hear at a subtler level.’ As she noted, ‘anyone who had visited Southeast Asian countries… has seen plenty of people spitting in public. But then so has anyone who’s ever watched a game of rugby in New Zealand.’25 Her article, titled ‘If you listen carefully you’ll hear the real message’, said, ‘Let’s have a look at the verbs. Who ever “insisted” on their right to spit in the street? Who is “demanding” the right to practise female circumcision? And shouldn’t proud New Zealanders be allowed to believe whatever they like?’26 Brash was playing the politics that Crosby/Textor have become famous for, presenting himself as reasonable and mainstream – the speech was called ‘A balanced middle way’ – while appealing to stereotypes and prejudice. When Textor highlighted concerns about immigration policies that let ‘just anyone’ into New Zealand, he was signalling the ‘opportunity’ of appealing to racist feelings.
The other thing worth noticing about the benchmark Crosby/Textor report, and all later ones, is what kind of person they were targeting. The research methodology specified that the people ‘stratified and recruited’ for the focus groups were all ‘politically non-affiliated voters’. This means they were not interested in talking to the majority of people who were pretty clear about which way they would vote. They were interested particularly in the undecided, uninformed and indifferent voters, the ones they called ‘soft’ voters. Significantly, they were not interested in studying the opinions or feelings of people on superannuation or state benefits. Although they wanted a representative mix of ‘blue and white collar households’ and men and women, the directions specifically ‘excluded people who derive the majority of their income from Government sources, eg Unemployment benefits, disability or… pensions’.27
In countries with first-past-the-post voting systems like the United States, Britain and Australia, this highly strategic campaigning involves focusing a large part of the campaign effort on relatively few soft voters in key marginal electorates. In New Zealand, with proportional representation, the targets must be broader. But the principle is the same. When National spoke of ‘hard-working New Zealanders’, the ‘special privileges’ going to Maori and the welfare free-loaders taking money that belonged to struggling taxpayers, these messages were aimed specifically at a relatively small percentage of the voting age population who were judged to be susceptible to this emotionally loaded rhetoric. Much of National’s election campaigning was interested only in that area of greatest potential gain, the soft voters.
Textor made his first trip to New Zealand for five days in December 2004, a week before Christmas. This was the first meeting where the big strategic campaign issues were discussed. At this meeting Steven Joyce and Textor discussed a list of ‘key messages’ National should use to attract soft voters away from other parties.28 These would become the foundations of National’s election campaigning.
Work had begun on the key messages after Joyce first met Textor in Australia in early October. Joyce came home with advice that National urgently needed to agree on its simple ‘story’. A first draft of six key messages was worked out at a campaign strategy meeting in mid-October 2004 and it was these ideas that were tried out on the focus groups at the end of November. A revised set of key messages was then written based on the Crosby/Textor report and it was these that Joyce and Textor discussed on 20 December in Wellington.
A lot of the words in this message plan (reprinted in full in the notes) come straight from the first Crosby/Textor report. It repeated the leveraging opportunities:
* While the economy is going well currently, it has nothing to do with the Labour Government. They have been lucky.
* Labour has been distracted by its social reform agenda, and is doing nothing to ensure a strong economy going forward.
* We have lost the New Zealand Values of Initiative and Rewards for working hard and ‘Getting Ahead’.
* There is no incentive for individuals to better themselves, be it through the tax system, the education system or the welfare system; and
* If we don’t put in place plans for a stronger economy now, we will suffer badly in the next economic downturn.29
Textor returned for more meetings with National on 23–24 February 2005. These included ‘Peter Keenan and Textor meeting with Leader [Don Brash] on styles of lines to use and language re framing/positioning’.30 This is another important part of the Crosby/Textor technique. Textor explained that by ‘framing’ he meant ‘setting a notion not about the issues people think about but giving them a WAY to think about the issues in question, that is giving them a model or a structure or equation’.31
According to Textor, framing was becoming critical in campaigns for several reasons. First and obviously, by framing the debate, the party could ‘ensure that [its] issues… naturally come to the fore and are automatically considered’. An example of framing for National was putting all discussion of welfare and tax cuts into the frame of ‘incentives’ and more generally defining the 2005 election as being about tax cuts. Second, he said, in a ‘scrappy’ election campaign framing gave ‘indifferent voters a guide or a roadmap on how to think about issues and think about them on your terms’. For instance, since Ruth Richardson’s reign as finance minister in the early 1990s, tax cuts had been associated in the public mind with cuts to social services. Framing tax cuts in terms of ‘incentives’ for ‘getting ahead’ could take people’s minds off social service cuts and replace these associations with a way of thinking about tax that was advantageous to National.
Third, framing could ‘take the form of an “opening statement” or big claim’; and making a ‘radical’ claim would allow National to ‘refocus the campaign back to your issues’. ‘Big’ or ‘radical’ claims were ideas like privileged Maori, criminals getting an easy ride from the legal system and ‘hard-working’ people being held back by welfare bludgers. Textor explained that a lot of the impact of such claims comes from being attacked for making them. ‘Hopefully your distractors will turbo-charge by drawing attention to the issues that you have raised, forgetting that they are in effect drawing attention to your issues and your areas of strength.’32
There was a second ‘wave’ of focus groups in early April 2005, which formed the basis for the second major Crosby/Textor report. All the techniques discussed so far were much more blatantly evident in this ‘Qualitative Track Wave II’ report, given to Brash on 8 May 2005. It focused intensely on the search for ‘persuasive creative leads’ to win over soft voters.
Like the December 2004 benchmark report, the report began by assessing how the target voters were currently feeling. There was ‘an overall belief that things in New Zealand are “generally” heading in the right direction, due predominantly to perceptions about the “strength of the economy” ’. It said that ‘an emerging trend in this wave of research is the sense that New Zealand is heading in the right direction because of a perception that more money is being spent on “social” issues, such as health and education’. And, where there were issues of concern, the voters were ‘not holding Helen Clark or her Ministers accountable for the perceived problems they believe exist, nor do they necessarily believe that the Government is responsible’.33
Textor and Domitrak then moved on to ‘strategic opportunities’. Some ‘emerging trends were identified in this wave of qualitative research which, if leveraged effectively, can provide the National Party with real opportunities in the lead up to the next general election.’ There was a strategic opportunity in ‘an underlying sense that things in New Zealand “COULD” be heading in the wrong direction due in part to mounting financial pressures on families and a concern that “PERHAPS” not enough attention is being paid to “hard working” New Zealanders’. They said that ‘these sentiments are reinforced by an underlying perception that those in the “middle” who “work hard” are being overlooked, at best, and, at worst, their concerns are being ignored’.
A look at the confidential focus group ‘moderators guide’ – the list of questions to be asked in the focus groups – shows how ‘underlying’ sentiments like these are found. For instance, after open-ended questions about the Labour Party and its leader Helen Clark, the moderator asked, ‘What could the [Labour Party] be doing better at the moment – that is in what ways do you think the New Zealand Labour Party is performing poorly at the moment, even if it is begrudging blame or discredit?’ The questions then moved on to Clark: ‘regardless of your overall view of Helen Clark, what would you acknowledge are her weaknesses at the moment, even if they are slight or begrudging weaknesses?’34 The idea, of course, was that even slight and ‘begrudging’ feelings, that only came to mind ‘once probed’, could potentially be sown and cultivated more widely.
It was the same with questions about Labour’s Working for Families social support package. The moderator asked, regardless of their overall view of the policy, ‘what is not so good about this package – that is in what ways is it not beneficial to you personally?’ This was followed by: ‘What does it say to you about Helen Clark and the Labour Party?’35 And so on.
The findings gave Textor and Domitrak what they had been looking for. They found that the people saw Helen Clark as ‘articulate’, ‘aware of what is happening’, ‘a thinker’, ‘experienced’ and ‘strong’. ‘However,’ they wrote, ‘an emerging trend was identified that “PERHAPS” Helen Clark was too busy with “other people” to worry about “working families”.’ This included trying to cater to beneficiaries and ‘focussing too much on minority issues’. Once again they emphasised that in order for these ‘hesitations or concerns’ to be effective, ‘the National Party must leverage them’.
Back in the ‘strategic opportunities’ section of the report, the findings from this questioning were put to work. ‘One of the new learnings from this wave of qualitative research is an emerging perception that Helen Clark is too busy with “minorities” and “other people” to worry about the concerns and the pressures on “working families”.’ But they did not pretend these were strong feelings. ‘It must be stressed that this sentiment is embryonic and must be consistently demonstrated and leveraged if it is to be effective.’ In fact, what they were talking about was potential more than actual feeling: ‘These perceptions will not exist and mature on their own’.36
Textor and Domitrak put it to National that the way to build these perceptions was ‘to continually demonstrate, in ways that are practical and have meaning to ordinary families, how Helen Clark and the Labour Party are focused on the “noisy” minorities at the expense of hard working New Zealanders and what the consequences of this are on those in the middle (in terms of higher taxes and no real incentives)’. This advice would subsequently be seen in numerous speeches, public statements and campaign messages during the election campaign.
The report concluded that ‘If the National Party is to be successful in leveraging such sentiments, and building on these embryonic perceptions, part of this process will involve linking Helen Clark and the Labour Party to concerns that people have with important issues’. They recommended that the best issues for leveraging these feelings were, first, immigration, followed by the treaty and then health, education, taxation and defence. ‘At present,’ they wrote, ‘this sentiment does not exist’, which was why the National Party must encourage the community to hold Helen Clark or her ministers accountable for the ‘perceived problems the [public] believe exist’.37
The Crosby/Textor technique was to take these non-existent sentiments and use them as the basis for campaign messages that, once repeated often enough, could arouse those sentiments in the target soft voters. So in National’s ‘First ten things we will do’ election brochure, Brash said, ‘National is very focused on tackling the issues of mainstream New Zealanders that have been ignored and neglected by Labour for so long’. Likewise the brochure emphasised that National would provide the ‘right incentives’ for people to stay in New Zealand, work hard and get ahead.38 These two ideas – the mainstream ignored and getting incentives right – had come, respectively, directly from the second and first Textor reports.
Ideas like Helen Clark being ‘too busy’ or ‘distracted’ for ordinary people were ‘framing’ the discussion – setting the agenda and giving the indifferent voters a structure in which to evaluate the election contenders. National could then ‘bridge’ from those manufactured ideas back to its core issues by claiming that Labour was not tackling issues like tax cuts that mattered to mainstream voters because it was too busy with minorities. After a while it all starts to sound like truth and a reality check is needed to appreciate what is really going on.
The defining character of these techniques is that they attempt to get voters to act in ways that might not be in accord with their interests or even beliefs. The aim is not good policy, or leadership that unifies a country; the objective is manipulating enough voters, at the right time, so that their clients can achieve power.
These techniques show little respect for the citizens concerned. The research sets out to unearth ‘prompted perceptions’, ‘embryonic perceptions’ and even just ‘hesitations’ that can be turned into ways to influence them. The aim is not to understand what these people might believe in and hope for. It is purely and openly about manipulation.
In keeping with this approach, the report also reminded National to bring commercial interests into the election campaigning by encouraging business lobbies to make public statements that reinforced the campaign messages. For instance, the campaign recommendation section of the report said they should ‘encourage third parties (business groups) to publicly state their concerns for jobs and investment in New Zealand if the taxation issues are not addressed’.39
And so it went on. After that there were focus group sessions each month up until July 2005, then two sets of focus groups in August and in September as the election approached. All the focus groups were held in the North Island, mostly in Auckland and Wellington but also in New Plymouth and Hamilton. During the last two weeks of campaigning Textor was in Wellington twice, being briefed in detail by staff on the progress and problems of the campaign and giving last-minute advice about staying on message and deflecting crises as the election day approached.
After the second Crosby/Textor research report, the strategy for the election messages was mostly set. Textor then shifted his emphasis to imposing ‘message discipline’, ensuring that the agreed messages were heard clearly and repeatedly by the target voters, with as little distraction as possible. Keenan reminded Brash of Textor’s directions about how to achieve this. ‘If you recall the session with Textor,’ he wrote, ‘he suggested you should have an A6 card in your pocket at all times (as did Howard) with your core message printed on it – and that you have it memorised.’ The idea was ‘to use it as a reminder to “keep repeating it endlessly”’.40 Crosby and Textor had given the same advice to Australian Liberal leader John Howard, and, presumably, to Michael Howard in Britain. After a while the endless repetition of simple, emotionally loaded slogans by a politician can have a faintly sinister, brain-washing quality, but it drills some simple ideas into the heads of soft voters. And, at least to an extent, it seems to work.
Peter Keenan followed Textor’s suggestion and prepared two A6-sized cards for Brash. The ‘short version is designed for the max 11 second TV “grab”’, the long version ‘for about a 20 second statement in an interview situation (TV or radio)’. The objective ‘is to have a crisp line that people will start to recognise – repetition is good!’ ‘I think Textor’s point is to help make these statements as crisp as possible. You should rehearse the key message points so that you can deliver them assertively, and with punch (on stage with some assertive hand movement).’41
Another aspect of message discipline pushed by Textor was the concept of ‘bridging’ – using any issue that arises, all media questions and every other opportunity to bring the subject back to the key messages on the A6 card. Peter Keenan reported that he and Brash ‘had a terrific session with Textor’ on the subject of bridging during Textor’s February 2005 visit. 42
When new issues arose, the National Party strategy team would seek Textor’s advice on the best messages to maintain message discipline and ‘bridge back’ to the agreed lines. One such occasion was in June 2005 when the government announced that New Zealand’s Kyoto climate change commitments were going to be much more costly than previously estimated. Steven Joyce wrote to Long, Keenan and McCully saying he had just been speaking with ‘Tex’ in order ‘to tidy up vote message’.
Joyce ‘told him of the Kyoto scandal (Kyoto-gate anyone?) and his view was that it is an unbelievably good story for us’. Textor thought it would be easy to bridge from that to various of their key election messages. Joyce said Textor ‘encouraged us to be all over it as it had all the ingredients of what we have been saying about Labour’. By then, three months before the election, the key messages were that Labour were ‘profligate wasters of taxpayers money, wrapped up in trendy issues that cost the money of mainstream kiwis’. Joyce passed on some ‘suggested wording’ from Textor for how to handle the issue.
They ‘framed’ and ‘bridged back’ the Kyoto issue as follows. First, it was ‘typical of Labour – they like the nice trendy issue but they don’t look properly at the serious numbers beneath the surface that affect mainstream New Zealanders who end up paying the bill’. Next, it was ‘Labour and Cullen… overspending and wasting money so you can’t have a tax cut’ – ‘an insult to the hardworking middle New Zealanders who pay the taxes in the first place’.43
In other words, the Kyoto issue was being framed as just another of Labour’s trendy ‘distractions’ off the important issue of tax cuts. Talking about efforts to deal with climate change in this way is, at the very least, distasteful, but according to this strategy anything and everything is an opportunity to repeat the key messages. Economy going well? Tax cuts to share benefits with hardworking New Zealanders. Economy going badly? Tax cuts to give right incentives for economic growth. People struggling on low wages? Tax cuts to put extra dollars in their pockets. Climate change? This is how Joyce and Textor related the Kyoto news to tax cuts:
Q. Your tax cuts now don’t look affordable Dr Brash?
A. If anything they are more important. In the last few weeks Labour has been revealed as scandalous wasters of taxpayers money. We will eliminate their waste and mismanagement in short order; and provide tax relief to mainstream New Zealanders. This government has OD’d on a wall of money, they are spending and making commitments like drunken sailors without seeking any accountability, and they show complete disregard for the people that work hard to pay them that money. That must stop.44
The Crosby/Textor-style campaign tactics may be manipulative but, as John Howard’s four wins in Australia demonstrate, they can work, by producing a short-term reaction from the so-called soft voters that can swing elections. So, does this mean that we must accept this type of political manipulation as an inevitable part of politics? The answer is no. The first response should be publicity and criticism. If enough people recognise and understand the tactics, naming them for what they are, they can be counter-productive and backfire. No one likes being obviously manipulated. Second, people within parties can insist on higher standards and take a longer term view. As former National leader Jim Bolger said in 1990 about using racism to win votes, ‘Playing the race card may help us win – then come Monday how do we run the country?’45
But most importantly, a party like National can become government without deception and manipulation: it can sort out its philosophical foundations and present a set of policies that both the politicians and the public can believe in. Changing the policies makes it possible to change the tactics.
The question no one seems to ask is ‘why?’: why is a major political party basing its ‘story’ and election campaign on rather empty and incoherent policies like ‘stopping’ political correctness and ‘putting an end’ to Maori special privileges? Is that really what they believe is important? And why, apart from election bribes and policies wanted by commercial special interests, is there so little serious policy addressing the big problems of our times? Next we look at the philosophical hole in which the party has found itself and some of the reasons why it got there.
Tags: The Hollow Men