Where are the opinion leaders?


When I was advising the Labor Party in the 1980’s, opinion leaders were much sought after as the urgers of public policy development and mass electoral persuasion. They were not labelled pejoratively as elites back then and their views would trickle down and influence the ordinary voters.

The punters never liked privatisation, competition policy, economic restructuring, tariff reduction, deregulation, arts funding, university research grants “ but their gripes were overpowered by the ‘national good’ arguments of the experts.

The leader who really popularised the concept ‘barbecue stopper’ was that remarkable man, Paul Keating. Almost single handedly he persuaded ordinary Australians to debate the merits of deficits, the balance of payments and Australia’s place in the region in their work and leisure environments.

There was a short burst of One Nation resistance, but to all intents and purposes the agenda for change was set, reinforced and carried forward by the educated elites.

One of the biggest changes in Australian politics under John Howard is that the opinion leaders do not lead opinion anymore. The ‘Yes Minister’ means of killing policy was to label it ‘brave’; the modern Australian way is to label it with an ‘elitist’ tag. Progressives in the Liberal Party have retreated to such a subterranean level that any brief appearance is a curiosity. And the decline of the Left in the ALP is not unrelated to this trend.

Unhappily for some, far from reversing this trend, Mark Latham has embraced it with a passion.

Win or lose this election, the ALP is irrevocably on the path to aspirationalism and the values and priorities of the outer suburbs. Latham has a couple of big problems with the communication of his family/tax package but being attacked by ACOSS and other leftish groups is not one of them.

The ladder of opportunity does not lead to the residences of the leaders in business, government, the arts or academia. It goes straight to the McMansions in the outer suburbs.

There is no attempt here to be patronising about this trend. It is the current reality and very much in keeping with the values of Generation X and Y. All of ANOP’s recent research highlights the individualist, some would say selfish, outlook of the majority. There is a total preoccupation with self, family, local community and little interest in the bigger picture or the broader social agenda. There is a distinct lack of humanity or regard for others.

In 2004, the opinion leaders will be largely irrelevant to the election outcome. They don’t trust John Howard one bit on matters of integrity and basic honesty. The real gut wrenching issues for them are ‘Tampa’, ‘kids overboard’, and ‘why Australia is involved in Iraq’. They believe John Howard lied to the Australian people on matters of basic principle and this is deeply offensive to them.

This is the stuff of a leader’s fundamental credibility rating. Popularity is not too important but when a politician has lost credibility, it’s usually curtains. But John Howard is not finished in the general electorate because opinion leaders don’t lead opinion.

So much so that John Howard has had the audacity to proclaim ‘trust’ as the centrepiece of the campaign. For the record, the punters don’t believe him either on the ‘kids overboard’ or ‘why we are in Iraq’ – but it doesn’t matter much to them, because John Howard has managed partly to remove the integrity association of ‘trust’, leaving only policy performance connotations.

The opinion leaders cut no more ice with Latham than they do with Howard. The Labor leader has championed the hard working ordinary people of the outer suburbs, and he has loudly spurned those he calls the ‘insiders’ “ the out-of-touch inner-city and old money leafy suburban residents.

Even the nature of the marginal seats has changed. The seats that determined election outcomes for most of the second half of the twentieth century were those in the middle distance suburbs of the major capital cities. The archetypal marginal seat voter used to be called Mr and Mrs St George (Sydney middle distance southern region).

The voters determining this election live in the far outer suburbs (on this occasion largely in Melbourne and Brisbane) or in the provincial centres. Much of this is Latham territory but he is coming from behind in a security dominated environment. Labor is not favoured to win at the moment but Sunday’s debate showed Latham has a chance.

One wonders who opinion leaders would have wormed to success in the debate.

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