Andrew Elder has written an excellent piece suggesting that the Liberal Party is engaged in trying to makeover Tony Abbott’s image into that of an Antipodean Ronald Reagan:
“The sunny optimism and pleasantness that Abbott showed in his 60 Minutes appearance reminded me of Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s demeanour made him more appealing than his policies of cutting social welfare and decreasing taxes for the wealthy might otherwise have seemed. And he diminished criticism by not letting it get to him.”
I reckon Andrew is probably right. A very difficult tactic to counter as Reagan’s opponents from Carter onwards discovered. “Don’t worry be happy” could be a theme song with an Australian accent for the “Tony One Three” campaign. The more Gillard and Swan attack with, you know, facts about the economy, the more Albanese boasts about 500 pieces of legislation, the more it reinforces their image as being negative tinkerers, while Tony just beams his way through. May, as Andrew suggests, use Reagan’s “there you go again” to deflect any of that troubling discussion about actual policies. Just vote for him, the message will be, and it will be morning in Australia and happy days will be here again. A vote for Gillard, the implicit message will go, is a vote for a misery guts who thinks Australia isn’t perfect, that things need fixing, that people should, in short, worry, be unhappy with their lot.
And yet, and yet… it’s a tactic that relies totally on the acquiescence of the media to succeed. Relies on them being taken in by the sunny smile and the inability to hear questions over the roar of the helicopter. Needs them to be also captivated by the idea that all will be well, don’t you worry about that.
Because it could so easily go the other way. The first to try something like this was Harold Macmillan with his “Never had it so good”. It worked, because many workers were better off, and the economy was going well, and Macmillan won a big victory in 1959. In retrospect though it is seen as an “out of touch with the workers” comment, and is often used to pour scorn on those who use the Reagan tactic.
Imagine, for a moment, that the present Australian government used the Macmillan phrase, or some equivalent. Tried to be sunny and optimistic about the future, didn’t bother people with policies, indicated by their demeanour and smiling expression that the good ship SS Australia was sailing along smoothly under the light touch of a Labor captain.
Before the PM had finished speaking the News Ltd presses would be running hot with Julia Gillard’s face photoshopped on to Macmillan’s body. The ABC reporters would be hot-footing it to western Sydney to find pensioners, old people, migrants, doing it tough, demanding to know how the PM could live on their pensions or unemployment benefits. “Rooted” of Rooty Hill would be writing letters to the Sydney Morning Herald suggesting that the PM was a silver tail from Kirribilli who wouldn’t know the price of Coles Brand bread. Battlers would be queuing up on Alan Jones radio to demand an election to throw this out-of-touch government on the scrap heap of history while Alan agreed that these people should be forced to live on he, Alan’s, wages for a week and see how they got on.
And the more Julia and Wayne tried to smile and be sunny through this onslaught, the more out of touch they would be portrayed as being. And Tony Abbott would appear on breakfast tv looking serious and demanding that the government be honest with people about how tough they were doing it, and promising to give everybody a million dollar note the day after he became PM. Suddenly misery would be good for electoral success.
And the Libs would win with a lay down misere against a government that thought it was holding all the aces.