The Manipulators


Indigenous Australians, refugees, asylum seekers, Muslims, minority groups and racial issues have been at the forefront for much of John Howard’s political career, starting in his days as Opposition Leader when he was widely criticised for his anti-Asian statements.

In taking so many anti-minority positions, Howard’s insight has been to appreciate the potential of people’s fears and resentments.

In his long years in Opposition, Howard saw a range of special interest groups develop around Paul Keating. Howard could not relate to the ideals of the time; to multiculturalism, land rights, equal opportunity, and the Government’s role in promoting these in his terms ‘peripheral’ issues. He came to loathe what he saw as this new ‘politically correct’ orthodoxy and believed that the average Australian was just as angry about these issues as he was. Howard understood the underlying fears held by some Australians: fears of the ‘Blacks’ and the ‘Yellow Peril’, fears of being overrun by hordes from the north.

Howard was the first Prime Minister since the 1967 referendum who was willing to use race to differentiate himself from his opponents. How was he able to do this and not be branded a ‘racist?’

To answer this question, we need look at the record of one of his key election strategists, Mark Textor. Prior to commencing work with Howard in the 1996 election campaign, Textor had worked as a market researcher for the US Republicans and big business, such as the tobacco industry. He brought with him the wizardry that would enable Howard to reassure those with resentments and racial prejudices that their attitudes were okay, while avoiding the use of overtly racist language.

The ABC’s Background Briefing became interested in Textor and his methods in 1999, observing that he was doing something quite different from other pollsters, who would sample the entire population. Textor’s key tool was market research in marginal seats. While working as a market researcher for the Northern Territory Country Liberal Party (CLP), he opted to research only White swinging voters — those he described as ‘the undecided, uninformed, and indifferent’ so that the CLP could do whatever it took to win their vote.

Textor used his research tools to penetrate the thinking of ‘soft voters’ and map their underlying resentments. In the Northern Territory case, for instance, he identified dormant fears that the Government might institute one rule for Blacks and another for Whites.

This was useful (even though there was little basis to the fear) because his campaign could imply that Labor might introduce such laws if elected. The vast data Textor collected about the worries and resentments of people in marginal seats was then rolled into his campaign strategy.

One such strategy, imported directly from the United States, was push-polling — a telemarketing technique that uses telephone calls to canvass potential voters. It feeds them false and damaging ‘information’ about an opposing candidate under the pretence of taking a poll to see how this ‘information’ affects the voter’s choices. The intent is to ‘push’ the voter away from the candidate you are attacking and towards your candidate.

Background Briefing found that Textor was behind attempts to use push-polling in the 1994 Northern Territory election campaign. Typical questions asked in a so-called market research phone poll run to this pattern:

Would you change the way you vote if you knew that Mr xxx and his Party plan to close the seas to recreational fishing as part of Aboriginal land rights if they win on Saturday? Would you change the way you vote if you knew they plan to have two sets of laws: one for Aboriginals and one for non-Aboriginals?

Typically, hypotheticals used by push-pollsters are invented. After receiving a push-poll call, the targeted voter is much less likely to vote for a candidate they now believe intends to make extreme changes if elected or a candidate they now find personally offensive because of the innuendo in the polling message. Thousands of such calls can turn an election result.

Court  action was brought against Textor and the Liberals’ Andrew Robb for defamation in a 1995 push-polling campaign that targeted ACT Labor candidate, Sue Robinson. Their out-of-court settlement involved an apology and a large payment to her.

Textor and Robb then drew back from push-polling. But push-polling is just one of the prongs employed in a strategy known as wedge politics. Wedge politics seeks to highlight and intensify division within communities in order to help political Parties stay in power. It does this by building fears against the ‘other’ typically by attacking minorities.

The truly sinister nature of the programs run by Textor and his business partner Lynton Crosby becomes apparent from their exploits beyond our shores. In 2004, the two were advisors to the UK Conservative Party Leader Michael Howard. Commentators in the British press were onto their tactics early, noting that Crosby and Textor were advising (the other) Howard to use ‘immigration, asylum seekers, gypsies, law and order and abortion to exploit fear and prejudice to win the battle for votes’.

The campaign was based on billboard pictures of refugees and gypsies captioned: ‘Are you thinking what I am thinking?’ It’s hard to decide what is more vile: the sentiment or the cowardly refusal to own up to it.

Crosby and Textor went on from their UK exploits to work for the New Zealand National Party Leader, Don Brash, in the 2005 election. Despite being up against a popular and effective incumbent in Helen Clark, Brash very nearly won. In the process, though, his tactics caused revulsion even amongst his own campaign team, leading to a major leak of Party emails, which form the basis of New Zealand journalist Nicky Hager’s exposé, in his book The Hollow Men: A Study in the Politics of Deception.

But why do tactics that failed with Michael Howard and Don Brash work so well for John Howard? Is it because Australians are more vulnerable to such tactics? Or do Howard’s own predispositions fit him perfectly to the role of gentlemanly racist?

Hager’s conclusion is sobering:

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.

Whatever we think of the morality of the process, Textor, Crosby and Howard are masters of this demographic.

While Fraser, Hawke and Keating promoted multiculturalism, social cohesion and a ‘fair go for all,’ Textor has shown Howard how to create division and inflame the potential fears of the ‘undecided, uninformed, and indifferent’ without being branded a racist.

Howard refuses to censure the inflammatory comments of Pauline Hanson, Alan Jones and a whole gaggle of Murdoch noisemakers, cynically appealing to freedom of speech and the value of pluralism. Regarding Hanson’s racist comments he said: ‘In a country such as Australia people should be able to say that.’ Ten years later he was using the same tactic, this time about Alan Jones’s comments: ‘… but he is a person who articulates what a lot of people think.’

Whose interests is Howard serving here?

Howard’s idea of democracy is one where you do whatever you can to win an election, even if this involves attacking and making scapegoats out of the innocent. His appetite for power trumps every other consideration. Howard is playing a dirty game, and he should be called on it, every time, unequivocally.

Progressives recognise that democracy works best when people are fully informed and not subject to manipulation. When our democratic system is being so abused, we need voters to better understand how they are being manipulated and we need to consider whether we need new regulation to control such abuses.

This is an edited extract from Michael Clancy’s Howard’s Seduction of Australia: Where to now?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.