FEDERAL ELECTION: Someone to believe in

Bill Shorten.jpg

“It doesn’t matter who gets in. It’s all a bunch of bulls**t.*

Large scale disillusionment with mainstream political parties and politicians – a trend across Western democracies – is a major issue playing out in this Federal election campaign. When ABC Radio spoke with voters in Australia’s most marginal electorate, Capricornia, in Central Queensland this week, one explanation for this disillusionment emerged: people just don’t believe in mainstream politicians anymore.

I don’t think either side of politics is going to help us. They’re just as bad as each other to be honest,” said Ken, a mine worker and Labor voter.

Attitudes like this represent a major concern for the major parties (and it might be argued, democracy itself). Queensland has the highest number of marginal electorates in the nation. Of the 21 seats the LNP holds in Queensland, more than a third are held by margins of 4 per cent or less.

So where will these disillusioned voters go? Well, according to them, they are looking towards politicians they find more believable.

I believe in Clive Palmer. He tells the truth,” said one voter, who also liked Pauline Hanson, because “she tells the truth”.

Consistent opinion polling shows that neither of the two men aspiring to become Prime Minister on 18 May are popular with the electorate. But exactly how this will play out on election day remains to be seen.

It is likely that the preference flows of minor parties – like One Nation and the United Australia Party – will be instrumental in determining which major party secures a number of seats. However, there is also an important wider story at play here, one that will continue to resonate beyond the current election. The vox pops from Capricornia are emblematic of a national mood: Australians want something more from their current leaders.

Do we believe in our leaders?

Our parent communications agency, opr, recently released the results of an extensive study into what Australians want from their leaders. The ‘Believability Index’ uncovered six key dimensions Australians look for in their leaders – Relevance, Integrity, Commitment, Shared Values, Affinity and Follow Through – and ranked aspiring political candidates and business leaders in an index on each of these.

The top four scoring political party candidates were all women: New Zealand PM, Jacinda Ardern; senior members of the Australian Labor Party, Penny Wong (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) and Deputy Labor Leader, Tanya Plibersek; as well as retired Liberal MP, Julie Bishop.

Notably, the PM and Opposition Leader came in at eighth and ninth respectively, with both men polling behind controversial One Nation leader, Pauline Hanson. According to the report, Hanson succeeds because she is perceived as "standing for something bigger" and is committed to her values. “This can be possibly attributed to the consistency of her anti-immigration platform and rhetoric.”

We strongly believe Australians want leaders they can really believe in and can get behind. Voters don’t perceive our political leaders to be believable and are instead looking to other examples emerging from places like New Zealand and outside politics to find new benchmarks.

The message is clear for politicians. When it comes to capturing the hearts and minds of the voters they serve, it’s no longer enough to just focus on trust – that’s merely a starting point and a rational place to play. More important is the ability of leaders to transcend the rational and build an emotional connection – that will make them not just trusted or believed, but believed in.

#MyMum: a moment to believe in?

For all the policies that parties release during an election, often the defining moment of a campaign can be a personal one we don’t expect. The moment the voters get to see the man/woman behind the politician.

Bill Shorten may have had just that moment after his performance this week on the ABC’s Q&A program and his passionate response to the Daily Telegraph’s subsequent attack on the story he told about his mother.

What motivates me, if you really want to know who Bill Shorten is, I can't make it right for my mum, but I can make it right for everyone else.”

It was out of character for Shorten – someone often perceived as remote and wooden – as he spoke on Q&A at length about his mum, her life and his belief in achieving equal opportunity. It was passionate. It was genuine. It was authentic.

And so too was Shorten’s press conference days later where he responded to the Daily Telegraph’s “Mother of Invention” front page story. The image of an adult, tearfully speaking about their pride in the life of their deceased mother, hit a chord with many Australians. Quickly #MyMum was trending on Twitter with stories of people’s mothers and their difficult lives, sacrifice, and thwarted ambition. Many spoke of their approval of seeing a leader being ‘real’.

While the aim may have been to tear the Opposition Leader down and lean on voters’ concerns about whether they can trust Shorten, instead it may have done the opposite. As Annabel Crabb commented: “It has created a gigantic free-media platform for the Opposition Leader being entirely genuine.”

For the Opposition Leader, who has been plagued by consistently low preferred PM ratings and dogged throughout the campaign by the question of ‘why are you so unpopular?’ – this week may well be pivotal. Combine that with a swag of policy announcements already made, Labor is now well set for the final week of the campaign.

*Mick. Mine worker, Bowen Basin, Queensland, ABC Radio 7/5/19.

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Bridget Jung