Understanding Scoresgate


The debate about ‘Scoresgate’ in the Australian media has been disappointing, to say the least. One would hope that Kerry O’Brien was just a little bit embarrassed to find himself concocting 50 ways to ask Kevin Rudd if he’d seen any lap dancers on his now notorious night out in New York.

Of more significance might be the largely unanswered (because largely left unasked) questions about why Rudd was so eager to please a prominent News Limited honcho in the first place. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the employees of the same corporation Col Allan works for aren’t going to pose such a question, but unless I’m missing something, no one else has put it to Rudd either.

Equally important to question are some of the lazy assumptions made about the effects of the strip club revelations on Australian politics. Chief among these is the claim that Australians, unlike Americans, pay no attention to personal political muckraking. That’s wrong, on at least two counts.

It’s interesting to see something I was pointing out back in April now picked up by ‘political insiders‘ like Barrie Cassidy. Antony Green was there before them, but I’m surprised this hasn’t been part of the repertoire of mainstream media political analysis for a long time. I guess it conflicts with their preferred narratives.

Green wrote on Poll Bludger last week:

I am strongly of the view that the current margins in many seats are inflated. All the 2001 marginals swung heavily against Labor in 2004. Was the 2004 swing on those seats the sign of a re-alignment, or just a reaction to the 2004 campaign? If it was just a reaction based on Latham and interest rates, then there are a lot more seats in play then just the current 16 most marginal everyone keeps looking at.

The Government must know it too. Otherwise, there’d be no point in the Queensland front in The War on the States as the seats the Coalition holds within a range of 5 per cent (what you’d normally consider marginal) are in Brisbane, and not affected by local council boundary changes. Nor would there be much mileage in using the same tactics of smear and innuendo used against Mark Latham on Rudd.

There was good reason for believing Latham to be a risky choice for the top job. Doubts about his lack of experience were exacerbated by rumour mongering and the trashing of the usual reporting conventions about what’s public and what’s private not just the stories of the mythical bucks night video but also the ‘revelations’ about his first marriage and the insinuation that he was a perpetrator of domestic violence. We could add to that the implication that his pancreatitis must have been caused by heavy drinking.

His boofy persona, aggression and the famous Howard handshake all reinforced that smear, but up until now the usual suspects have seemed frustrated that Rudd wasn’t able to be painted after this fashion.

What all this suggests is that there must be a belief that this sort of attempt to create perceptions about his private behaviour will frighten the same suburban voters including a lot of women who turned away from Latham. The Coalition’s aspiration, then, is to re-create the Latham effect.

Karl Rove may have left the White House, but his campaigning techniques live on. And Mark Textor and Lynton Crosby are close observers of what works for Republicans. Aside from the ‘swiftboating‘ elements of Scoresgate, there’s another classic Rove double play at work here.

Labor might have been barking up the wrong tree when blame for the story was sheeted home to Downer’s office (though that’s not to say that he may not have been involved). What’s very important to note is that from John Howard down, Ministers discovered a hitherto unarticulated passion for countering the sexualisation of women only days before Glenn Milne broke the Rudd story.

It’s a classic Rove play. You establish your own candidate in positive territory on an issue just before someone else hits your opponent with a negative smear related to the same issue.

It beggars belief that Howard’s conversion to the sort of perspective usually rubbished by cultural warriors as a feminist preserve directly before Rudd was embroiled in questions about his attitude towards women is mere coincidence.

Analysis of the political impact of Scoresgate has concentrated on its effects on Christian voters, but this is to miss two points. The first is that the smear is really designed to undermine Rudd’s standing amongst the same female voters who have many problems with the Government but demonstrated they could be detached from Latham by pushing similar buttons.

The second is that the Crosby/Textor playbook involves a relentless attack by proxy which reinforces more positive messages articulated by the Government. Forget the ‘avoid the wedge’ strategy Labor is using. When was the last time Labor had positive coverage for a policy announcement? The Liberals appear to have broken Rudd’s hold on the media cycle and the constant destabilisation of Labor has an effect which reinforces itself over time.

The ultimate goal is to raise doubts wherever they can be raised. It doesn’t matter if those doubts relate to ‘character’ or policy it’s just important that the voters who pay little attention to politics don’t hear any positive messages from the Opposition and find themselves wondering ‘what if there’s something in all this?’ or ‘what if the unions really do send us back to the economic dark ages?’

Labor’s small target strategy plays into the Government’s hands by throwing the focus back onto Rudd and perceptions that there might be a hidden agenda as yet unrevealed.

Labor don’t want the Government to steal their policies, and are saving their fire for the election campaign. But Howard is probably right that you ‘can’t fatten a pig on market day.’ Vicious attacks on Labor announcements during the campaign coordinated among a range of interest groups will leave very little time for a response, reinforcing the ‘devil you know’ choice.

Paul Keating may yet be proved right that Rudd will miss the opportunity to win through taking the advice of overly cautious, focus group obsessed strategists.

And the ‘Australians aren’t Americans’ argument? The counter to this is, of course, the fact that Clinton’s personal popularity survived the Lewinsky affair. But, on the other hand, the Democrats lost an ‘unloseable election’ in 2000.

The Coalition spent the first half of the year flailing around looking for a strategy to tear Rudd down. The leaking of the Crosby/Textor research may have actually been a signal that they’ve found one. Howard roams around the nation spruiking ‘aspirational nationalism’ and shovelling buckets of gold at marginal voters while fighting The War on the States. But, in the background, the relentless drip of negative attacks erodes Labor’s vote.

That’s the plan, anyway, and Scoresgate should be placed firmly within this frame.

It may not work, of course. But at the moment the two most likely election outcomes are a very narrow Government win, or a substantial Labor win. The former is starting to look more likely.

People should stop waiting for a rabbit to be pulled out of Howard’s hat. There won’t be any Tampa. But there will be the sort of concerted and vicious negative attack that the Republicans in the US have refined to an art form. Anyone waiting for Howard and the Libs to roll over and concede defeat is dreaming.

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