August 30, 2004 | Graham

“Trust” – a pivot word to pull “truth” into line.

While political leaders construct their messages in terms of policies and ideals, elections are most often won at the emotional level. So, despite all the rhetoric yesterday from both sides about security, health, education and interest rates, the pitches were actually to the electorate’s gut-level – you just needed to decode the language.
Labor will run a very nasty campaign based on the accusation that John Howard is the most dishonest leader the country has ever had. It won’t be primarily run by the leader but through direct mail, talk-back radio, and, increasingly, the Internet. It will focus on the word “truth”.
The Liberals will run a very nasty campaign based on vilification of Latham and memories of Keating. It will be run by the leader using earned media, as well as through direct mail and talk-back radio, but not so much the ’net. The Liberal campaign will focus on the word “trust”.
In the battle between “truth” and “trust”, I think that “trust” has the upper hand. This is not a prediction that John Howard will win – there are other forces that might tip him out of office.
The media and many of the elite have been obsessed by the belief that John Howard lies and that this is an important political fact. So we have phenomena like Margo Kingston’s book Not Happy John, and the movement of the same name, fronted by John Valder. We also have and other websites running variations on it, including the Labor Party’s “27 lies” section of their own website.
But the nub of the complaint isn’t that John Howard lies, it is that many of these people are shut out from the levers of power by Howard’s government. Natasha Cica, the editor of new eJournal, New Matilda, another manifestation of the phenomenon, expresses the feeling when she says “If you don’t like what’s happened to our nation and its sense of decency and possibility under Howard’s watch…”
For those who never had access, or aren’t shut out, the accusation doesn’t pass the dinner party test. At least it didn’t at mine last Saturday. “Well, they all lie, don’t they?” summed up the responses to my ad hoc qualitative research. So the charge of “dishonesty” is really dog-whistling to the left.
It has to be covert rather than overt because Labor can’t win on left-wing votes, it needs centre votes, and if it tells the left what it wants to hear in plain words, it will lose the centre. Yet, just as Howard needed one Nation voters to be enthusiastic for him in 2001, Labor needs its left enthusiastic for them. “Howard lies” is a rallying cry for a sort of reverse Hansonism. In 1996 it was average Australians lying in wait with their baseball bats to give Keating a whack. This election, the group lying in wait for Howard is the elites.
By using the word “trust” the Liberals are also in a sense dog-whistling. What they are essentially saying is that while they may have “lied” about children over-board and some other issues, they have kept faith with the Australians who voted for them to change the way the country was run, especially with the Hansonites.
They are answering the charge of dishonesty by pointing out that there are worse things than dishonesty. It allows them to answer the charge of untruthfulness by in a sense “moving on”. They are using a word with the same language roots as “truth” but a slightly different context and better leverage.
“Truth” focusses on words, while “trust” on actions. For the government this election will be a compare and contrast between what Labor says – about itself and Howard – and what Labor does. Latham will be portrayed as all fancy talk and incompetent action. “Trust” is the word that pivots the debate around to concentrate on performance rather than promise.
Labor puts itself in a weak position by relying on “truth”. Not only does it lay itself open to charges of hypocrisy (as does any politician who charges their opponent with lying), but by concentrating on what Howard says, it cuts itself out of the language that discusses performance and consequence.
“Trust” also comes with a hint of threat. Someone I must rely on lying to me does not prima facie present a threat as long as in the end I can rely on them to do the right thing by me. The Liberal Campaign will be a “don’t risk it” campaign. By stressing truthfulness Labor doesn’t help its cause. Electors may well say “What if Howard lies, at least he gets the right results. Why should I risk it with this other crowd who are obsessed with a 3 year old event like Children overboard?”
Labor’s “don’t risk it” strategy is a little more attenuated. In our focus group research in 2001 we found that voters liked what Labor promised, but, partly because of concerns about their patchy performance on refugees and boat people, didn’t trust them to deliver. Part of Labor’s strategy must be a hope that they can work this in reverse – that if they convince voters that Howard lies, then it will colour their perception of his ability to deliver on his promises.
The problem with that strategy is that Howard has, as far as most voters are concerned, delivered most of what he promised. The fact that the elites feel marginalised, confirms that.
Perhaps what Labor is hoping for is such a cacophony in the press over whether Howard is, or is not, honest that his message cannot get out. This may work.
We will be doing our focus group research again during this election campaign, and I’ll be interested to see whether it confirms my “dinner party” research. At this stage my gut says that if Howard loses it will probably be because people have become bored with him and feel safe enough in a relatively benign economic climate to change leaders. If this is the case a too strident Opposition campaign may actually work against Labor’s chances. They might be better to say “Well, we appreciate that John Howard has done the job that he was elected to do, but times are better now, and we can afford to take some risks.”

Posted by Graham at 12:45 pm | Comments (5) |
Filed under: Australian Politics


  1. Politicians vs Frat-Boys

    Liars, Hypocrites and Bastards “I think Senator Kerry should be proud of his record… No, I don’t think he lied.” [Mr. Bush] ” “Time:Do you think these swift-boat ads are unfair to John Kerry? Mrs. Bush:Do I think they’re unfair?…

    Comment by Pearls Before Swine — August 30, 2004 @ 4:46 pm

  2. Would I be right in saying that the global economic situation has been relatively better under Howard than under Keating (not making excuses for his efforts though) and so comparing Labor of old with Labor of new is not a very good argument for the Government to make?
    I think latham needs to adopt a grand policy package, like a ‘ladder of opportunity’ policy package that would become a symbol for Labor’s election campaigne, this could allow him to keep using rhetoric with a slow policy release to give the voters an alternative to Howards’ trust in economics, defence and foreign affairs pitch.
    Your thoughts?

    Comment by matt byrne — August 30, 2004 @ 7:04 pm

  3. You’re completely right about interest rates Matt, and I’m not sure exactly what you are advocating in your second par, so I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you there.
    But it probably doesn’t matter that much what international interest rates were like. I’m about to do a blog piece on interest rates, so maybe we could discuss the issue on the bottom of that.

    Comment by Graham Young — August 31, 2004 @ 6:00 am

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    Comment by Troppo Armadillo — August 31, 2004 @ 12:52 pm

  5. Jiggling the disconnect

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    Comment by The Road to Surfdom — September 2, 2004 @ 3:02 am

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