Political Professionals: As Good as the Masters They Serve

by seangljacobs

Stephen Mills, The Professionals: Strategy, Money and the Rise of the Political Campaigner in Australia, Black Inc, Collingwood, 2014

Sean Jacobs, Menzies House, 30 August 2014

In any arena a mix between competition and technology is likely to result in growth. The demand for political professionals in Australia has been amplified by an obvious contest between the two major parties, while technology has helped in researching voter preferences, promoting political messaging and easing campaign coordination to service the political professional’s ultimate goal – electoral success.

A clear distinction between a professional and amateur is of course pay. But the type of service is key. In 1915 Archibald Stewart became Labor’s first federal secretary and, despite receiving a payment of ‘fifteen guineas’, his role contrasted sharply with today’s paid political professional.

Stewart, according to Mills, ‘literally provided secretarial services to the executive, handling correspondence and minutes, organising transport and logistics for executive meetings… and banking the meagre annual fees paid by the states to sustain the modest national operations.’ A modern political operator – cleverly interpreting data and coordinating messaging – was little use at a time when politics was an amateur sport ruled overwhelmingly by ‘recalcitrant states.’

The need for political professionals in Australia didn’t take off until after World War Two and, even then, only accelerated in the late 1960s and 70s. Labor’s Ben Chifley, after losing the 1949 federal election, complained that his team had not only been outspent but ‘suffered a terrific barrage over the radio and through the press for twelve months.’ Driving the offensive was Donald Cleland – the Liberal Pary’s first federal director – whose military background served as ‘the prototype Australian election campaign professional.’

Future Labor counter attacks not only required additional resources and wider publicity but a greater degree of ‘head office’ direction. ‘The left hand never knew what the right hand was doing,’ one Labor official observed of the post-war years. ‘Western Australia could say one thing and New South Wales the other. There was no coordination.’

In the following decades economic growth and the ascendance of television demanded that federal-state party divisions be managed to present a cohesive picture. ‘By the late 1960s,’ writes Mills, ‘the long cycle of post-war economic prosperity had ameliorated social conditions; nineteenth-century patterns of social and industrial organisation that had shaped party loyalties were eroding.’

Labor adapted swiftly to the changing political terrain. In 1968 Labor’s Mick Young, in helping to re-elect South Australian Premier Don Dunstan, broke new ground by replicating the techniques of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. This, Mills writes, was ‘the first time US-style advertising had been seen in an Australian campaign.’

A few years later Gough Whitlam’s ‘It’s Time’ slogan opened up new campaigning frontiers and, for the first time in Australian history, parties campaigned on a national scale. ‘It’s Time,’ in the words of Phillip Lynch, was ‘the brightest and most bouncing baby ever to be conceived and brought forth within the marriage of advertising and politics.’

But the successes of political professionals also expose their limitations. Whitlam – despite the clever and innovative political campaigning – proved disastrous when in office. The modern incarnation of ‘It’s Time’ – Kevin 07 – trod similar patterns of decline once the campaign gloss had worn off.

Campaigning is of course different to governing. ‘A campaign is not a time for much original thought,’ notes former Liberal federal director Andrew Robb. ‘It is a time for tactical manoeuvring and carrying out plans and procedures developed in an earlier, more normal climate.’

Ultimately, however, political professionals are only as good as the parties and the candidates they serve. Mills alludes to this when referring to the advantage of ‘campaign discipline’ that thrives on not only skilled candidates but cohesive parties. As Australian elections have consistently shown – ballot boxes inevitably punish poor governance and bad policy decisions that grow from undisciplined parties and individuals.

Is one party a clear front runner in the modern game of professional politics? According to Mills the international demand for the services of Linton Crosby and Mark Textor ‘confirms the supremacy of the Liberal Party’s campaign professionalism.’ But as his book demonstrates the pendulum has always swayed between the major parties – a dynamic that will only increase as competition and technology are at play.

The book can be purchased here.

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