On 19 June this year, everyone who had provided an email address to the Australian Labor Party received a message in their inbox from George Wright, the ALP’s National Secretary. “As we get closer to the election,” Wright wrote, “we’ll be sending more emails asking you to help spread the facts to the community. We want to make sure that we communicate with you on what you care about, not bombard you with emails on things you might not.”
Readers were then invited to click on a line of hyperlinked text which took them to an online survey erroneously titled Have Your Say, where they could answer a series of inane yes-or-no questions like “Do you think education should be one of Labor’s top priorities?” After completing the short survey and providing contact details, participants were rewarded with a “thank you” message. Thereafter, participants would receive periodic emails associated with those policy priorities they nominated during the survey.
This is the ALP marketing team’s attempt at running a narrowcast social media campaign. When I spoke to some of those people involved in the campaign’s development, they told me that it was inspired by, and would aspire to, Barack Obama’s social media campaign of 2007 and 2008 which saw him clinch the Democratic Party’s primaries against the odds. Like Obama, the ALP began asking for small donations in every email it sent to “supporters”. Like Obama, Labor emphasised “community organising”, a skill with which the Victorian branch, for instance, offered to equip volunteers through its “Winter Fellowship Program”.
The emails have two objectives. One is to raise donations. The other is to inspire Labor’s activist base to work toward its re-election. To win elections, political parties need small armies of passionate volunteers to help get the message out at the grassroots level. These passionate volunteers, or party activists, tend to be more hardline in their commitment to certain core values than the average voter. The Coalition has activists among small business owners, employer groups, farmers and miners who bitterly oppose the carbon and mining taxes and who would do almost anything to see them repealed. The Greens have activists among students and environmentalists who want social democratic reform and a more compassionate and humane public policy in asylum seeker policy.
But apart from that class of aspiring political professionals who chose Labor over its main rival so as to satisfy their conscience that their capitalism has a social democratic flavour, there are very few people who will be going out of their way to fight for the re-election of the government.
Why? In part, because Labor can no longer trade on hope, as it could in 2007 and as Obama could in 2008. It has been in office for six years and must trade on its record. The central question for the social media campaign was surely: why should supporters donate their money or their time? In Wright’s original 19 June email, it was to “keep Tony Abbott out of The Lodge”. In his followup email of 28 June, it was to “take the fight to Tony Abbott”. But why? Why should anybody prefer that Kevin Rudd continued to live there instead?
As part of the social media marketing campaign, Labor HQ employs a team of ambitious young men and women to help coordinate volunteers’ “grassroots” campaigning. Nicola is one of the Victorian coordinators. In an email dated 17 July, she invited supporters to become part of a “Neighbourhood Team” and in the process continue “an important Labor tradition of community activism”. Nicola wrote of “people from all walks of life who passionately display their Labor values in pubs, workplaces, sports clubs and at kitchen tables”. As to what these “Labor values” are, Nicola’s email provides no clue.
Another coordinator, Maureen, told readers on 18 July that “a lot is at stake in this election”. She wrote that “this weekend, dozens of Neighbourhood Teams are knocking on doors in communities across Victoria, and friends and neighbours are going to share with each other why it is important to be heard in this election”. But are they? Apart from denying the Liberal Party the advantages of occupying the ministerial wing of Parliament House, just what is it that’s at stake?
To attract additional volunteers, the coordinators have been telling their stories via email and social media. The striking thing about these stories is that they have very little to say about the Labor Party and why anybody should want its re-election. Elinor, for instance, wrote on 30 July that “Labor leads to a better life” In her email, she claimed that she was “only able to go to TAFE and then university because of Labor’s support for education”. She did not seek to support or substantiate this claim. And Elisa wrote on 1 August that after growing up in a “very poor community in Brazil” where “education was a luxury”, her life was transformed when she and her mother migrated to Australia. This is meant to demonstrate “just how life-changing Labor’s support for education can be”, but readers aren’t told how to make the link.
The emails from campaign HQ kept coming. “What we do between now and 7 Sept will determine whether Kevin Rudd forms government.” “Stopping Tony Abbott starts NOW.” “We can do this together … for our families, our schools, our jobs and our planet”. But why, why, why? The Liberals are also trading on “families”. Both parties are committed to the same meagre cuts in CO2 emissions (5 per cent by 2020). Upon returning to the prime ministership, Rudd sought advice from corporate CEOs on how to improve productivity, and announced a “new national competitiveness agenda” which can only result in the kind of workplace “flexibility” the ALP wants us to worry about if the Coalition wins.
On asylum seekers, both parties are in a race to see who can strip away human rights the fastest. And for most of its second term, the Labor Party wanted to return the federal budget to surplus just as quickly as its opponents. It’s no wonder that Labor’s campaign HQ wants to spruik the party’s education credentials, but even here, the much-vaunted Gonski review, with its necessary billions, hides substantial policy sameness between the major parties on contentious issues such as public funding of private schools, student testing, and performance pay for teachers.
In the end, Labor is forced to campaign on the idea that, whatever the state of things, Labor will always deliver a better social safety net (through more equal access to healthcare, education and other social security) than the Coalition. This historic brand is really all that it has left to differentiate itself. Its big problem is that it has traded away most of that historic brand in its desire to compete with the Liberals as another free-market party.
So, why would a social democrat give up her time – or money – to help Labor win the 2013 election? Campaign HQ knows that her fear of Tony Abbott is probably the one remaining factor that will motivate her. So writes Darren in an insipid HQ email dated 24 August: “Kevin Rudd and Labor will build the future; while Tony Abbott wants to cut it down.”
No wonder half the voting public is approaching 7 September with equal parts trepidation and denial. If not for the major parties’ decision to collude over preferences, the Greens would be licking their social democratic lips.
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