You can’t yet be sure which Saturday this year you’ll be going to the polls, but you can guarantee the campaign behind it will be full of spin.
Hundreds and hundreds of journalists are employed by governments across Australia; their brief is to ensure the bosses’ policies are seen in the best possible light.
That means all sorts of underhand tricks are now part and parcel of the political process, and many politicians still don’t think voters are onto them.
To ensure you are, here’s a quick spin checklist you might want to use for the next poll. Feel free to add your own.
* The mea culpa: Perfected by Queensland’s Peter Beattie, the politician will take full responsibility for a bad decision, promise that “heads will roll” and that it will be fixed. They will then hope the issue disappears, and is not raised again.
* The diversionary tactic: Announce something to divert attention away from something less politically palatable. For example, a major new cigarette branding initiative could take attention off a delayed emissions trading scheme promise. Or a state government, reeling from a health crisis where nurses and doctors aren’t being paid, capitulate and announce a review of daylight saving, by Twitter. You’re likely to find examples like these every week, in all levels of government.
* It’s all in the language: Whether it’s the Working Family or WorkChoices, so much depends on the words chosen.
* The greed card: This is played when a politician tries to make us feel bad that we might not be carrying our share of the burden. Example: miners make too much money, they’re foreign, and you miss out.
* The missing transcript: Politicians often put a transcript of their interviews on the internet, or hand them out so that they can be re-quoted by other organisations. Unless of course the interview goes badly. Then sometimes, the transcript just seems to disappear.
* Pick your day syndrome: This is widely played by politicians from all parties – from Kevin Rudd focusing on media appearances more commonly at the end of the week (when polling companies are in the field) to the release of bad news (often on a Friday night) or good news on Sundays and public holidays when there is less competition to head the bulletin. The release of the Henry report is another example. Despite it not being market sensitive, it was cloaked in a secret Sunday lock-up – something the Government’s response certainly didn’t justify.
* It’s not personal, it’s just me: All politicians have their own little ways to help them sell their message, from the tie they pick to the magazine they choose to spill the beans. It goes further than that too. Former prime minister John Howard often breathed mid-sentence which made getting a question in difficult; Kevin Rudd often asks – and then answers – his own questions.
* Tell the partial truth This happens often. You ask a question and a specific answer is given, but not the whole answer. A recent Queensland example involves the death of a toddler after the flu vaccine. After dozens of cases of ill children in Western Australia, the Queensland Government denied there were any cases in Queensland. When it was caught out, a minister explained they were not officially told of the death, and it was too early to tell whether it was a result of the flu vaccine.
* Blame the public servant: This is an increasing spin mechanism, where a government will put up a public servant, rather than the minister, to answer questions. That means the bad press is directed at the public service, not the Government.
* The drip feed: You’ll hear part of what a health or police or education package will be today, more next week, and certainly more come election time. Why deliver the one big package which would show you the big picture, when there can be three bites of the cherry? A twist on this is the half report, where a minister will leak part of a document which shows a government in good light. A good journalist should always ask for the full report, because it’s likely the second half will have something damaging to the government.
* Saved by the review: Used by all parties, the “send it to a review” technique gets it out of the public debate. This means any issue that is too hard to deal with can be subject to a review or an inquiry, until it’s raised again, or at least until after the election.
* The picture opportunity: John Howard out walking. Tony Abbott in lycra. Your local politician on the front page of the paper, shirts rolled up, serving soup at a homeless kitchen. Often, it’s just staged, but it certainly can change how you perceive them.
* The human touch: A variation on the above, with the best example highlighted by former treasurer Peter Costello’s macarena dance on daytime TV. You’ll see a lot more of this in coming weeks, when politicians drag out whole families to colour their image.
* The social media blitz: Do you really think all politicians are doing their own twittering? Sure some are, but others have no idea who they’re following, as evidenced by revelations the Prime Minister is following a porn star.
* The phony sacking: No government wants to give an Opposition a ministerial notch on their belt, so the phony sacking allows responsibility to be removed from a minister, without them being removed. Remember Peter Garrett?
The list could go on, and perhaps you can list your own examples. If for no other reason, it will alert politicians that voters are now canny enough to see announcements through the spin of listening tours, reviews and promises – and make their judgment accordingly.