Friday, February 25, 2011

A Cult of Personality

The question of the importance of the leader is always an interesting one. In some elections, it seems that all any one cares about is who the leader is and what he or she is like.

Barack Obama was a perfect example. People were sick of George W Bush, true - but much of Obama's victory was a result of the vision he offered, and the person that he appeared to be.

This is a phenomenon that, for better or worse, doesn't show itself as much in Australia. Of course the leader is important, and of course a bad leader will sink faster than you can say "a conga line of suck-holes" - but by and large the leader's effectiveness is really only a product of his or her ability to enunciate a message, or his or her ability to connect with the public.

This may be a product of our voting system, or perhaps the amount of power with which we invest the executive. Either way, it's important.

Some time ago, NSW Labor abandoned any pretence of trying to win or retain votes based upon the Labor brand. Since Keneally's ascension, it has been all about "Brand Keneally". We've even had stories about Labor candidates actively removing any reference to Labor from the campaign posters.

One of the important questions of this campaign was always going to be how well this worked. Much of the answer would always be dictated by Keneally's performance, and yesterday she showed that she certainly wasn't going to die wondering.

The Channel 10 televised debate was inexplicably scheduled for 12 noon, so I expect that about 16 people watched it. Of course what this means is that most people will rely upon news outlets to tell them who "won" the debate, which for reasons that have always puzzled me seems to be what sways voters the most.

Many commentators noted that Keneally performed far more like an opposition leader, and O'Farrell more like a incumbent. She attacked and probed, whilst he seemed to spend much of the debate trying to keep his head above water. She seemed energetic and likeable, quick on her feet and confident. O'Farrell seemed under attack - his only response to much of what Keneally said was to say that Labor cannot be trusted, which surely is practically beyond question and therefore hardly worth mentioning.

Having said that, the incredibly unscientific SMH Online Poll suggested that O'Farrell won the debate, although this may reflect more of the reader's preconceptions and predetermined voting intentions than being a fair assessment of the debate.

The SMH also surveyed the 75 audience members: 25 Labor voters, 25 Coalition voters and 25 undecideds. How any editor could put the results of such a survey on the front page is beyond me, especially with the headline "Voters like Keneally but dump on Labor". (

That's without even talking about how non-random a sample of 75 people who at a few days notice could attend a debate held at 12 noon on a weekday would be. Even more so, and ignoring for a minute the inherent problems, the "survey" result was 26 labor, 21 Liberal, 15 Undecided, 9 Green, and 0 National. For reasons passing understanding, the story was that Keneally had only swayed one voter, rather than the fact that O'Farrell had shed 4 or that the Greens appear to have picked up 9 of the 25 undecideds without even being a part of the debate. If you're going to write a story using a pointless survey, surely you owe it to your readers least draw the right conclusion from it?

The actually interesting part (as opposed to pointless surveys), was this. One of the audience members said that Keneally was "a better debater, and seemed more sure of herself," whilst another said "O'Farrell was visibly rattled at times." (SMH online)

Reading those remarks as they were reported yesterday reminded me of one category of people who would be switching to Labor to build on their awful poll number at the start of the campaign (as I wrote would inevitably happen here:

Some people would decide they liked Keneally better, and that will be all it takes for them to switch to Labor. It's fair enough to question why people would switch based on something as superficial as whether you like their tone, but for better or worse it's what people do.

I think this all vindicates the Labor policy of Brand Keneally. It may be that Labor (correctly) judged that Keneally would play better on TV and would be generally liked by the voters - this would explain why Labor (contrary to the generally accepted approach by incumbent governments) agreed to more debates than you can shake a stick at. They may be banking on Keneally winning people over.

Of course there is practically no chance that this will swing the balance close enough to even make the contest interesting - but if O'Farrell wants a win big enough to all but guarantee 8 years then he will need to make sure people start seeing a side of him that they like.

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