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John Howard’s Formula For Winning Elections

John Howard has been elected Chairman of the International Democratic Union at its meeting in Washington DC. Delivering the keynote speech, Howard outlined his approach to winning elections, such as exploiting the diminishing ‘tribalisation’ of politics by reaching out to new constituencies.

HowardArguing that it was essential to establish ‘brand identification’, Howard stressed the importance of the role played by talkback radio – the ‘iron lung of Opposition’ – in allowing political leaders to promote their message to younger ‘aspirational’ voters who are less committed to traditional political parties than ever before. He said that these young voters were more conservative and more ‘material’ in their approach to life.

Whilst maintaining that economic management remained an important determinant of electoral behaviour, Howard argued that he had been assisted by an Opposition that failed to ‘define’ itself to the public. In a society with many competing media messages, Howard said it was vital to convey a ‘simple essence’ to the electorate.

He also stressed the importance of a good relationship between the parliamentary and organisational wings of political parties, arguing that “if there is any competition between the two of them, you are dead”.

Howard also talked of the importance of loyalty and unity within a political party, claiming that voters assessed the ‘totality’ of a party’s performance as much as assessing individuals. Obliquely referring to his defence since 1996 of a number of ministers accused of conflict of interest, travel rorts and ministerial maladministration, Howard said: “When your colleagues get into trouble, if you are the leader you have an obligation to stick up for them, not to shed them and abandon them. And I have certainly found over the years that that has sort of worked and worked effectively.”

The speech offers an intriguing insight into the Prime Minister’s approach to politics. His obvious passion for politics, coupled with his elevation to the chairmanship of the IDU, suggests little enthusiasm for an early departure from the political stage.

Transcript of John Howard’s Keynote Speech to the International Democratic Union luncheon at the Ronald Reagan Building, Washington DC. He was introduced by the former leader of Britain’s Conservative Party, William Hague.

William, thank you for that very generous introduction, and can I say how honoured I am to have been elected Chairman of this organisation and I will do my level best to bring the same sense of duty and application to that job as William has over past years.

I thought what I would try and do, recognising as one must that no two countries, no two parties even broadly on the same side of the divide, are similar, to share a few thoughts with you based on my own experience as Leader of the Liberal Party in a couple of broken periods in the Australian political scene.

Perhaps I should, I hope not sounding in any way like a university lecturer which I could never be or a school teacher, perhaps I should just explain very briefly the Australian political structure for those who may not understand it as well as others. Australia is a federation. Our Constitution is very rigid. It is a remarkable amalgam of British and American constitutional practice. Like the American Constitution, it gives particular powers to the central Government with the residue left to the States. We are of course entirely based on the British parliamentary system of responsible Government where power resides with a Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Australia is a quite conservative country when it comes to changes of Government. I regard that now as a wholly noble trait. There was a time of course when I wished the disposition was otherwise. We’ve had five changes of Government since World War II. We had a very long period of centre right Government between 1949 and 1972. And for 16 of that 23 years, one person was Prime Minister of Australia, Sir Robert Menzies, who was in fact the founder of the Liberal Party of Australia. I assume of course that you all understand that Liberal in Australia doesn’t mean what liberal means in North America. We govern in Coalition with a smaller centre right and conservative party, the National Party, whose members are drawn entirely from rural areas of Australia. Although I should remind you immediately that the Liberal Party actually holds more rural seats than does the National Party. But we have governed very closely in Coalition over that period of time.

We had a very long period of Labor Party Government between 1983 and 1996 when the Prime Ministers were successively Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. And it was in its early years politically a very successful combination. That is just a little bit of background to our country. We have, unlike just about every other country in the world, we have compulsory preferential voting which of course makes for very different outcomes. We have a House of Representatives and we have a Senate. The Senate like the American Senate is elected with an equal number from each State but the powers, the Constitutional powers of the Senate, are effectively co-extensive with those of the House of Representatives. And that was demonstrated fairly dramatically in 1975 when the Senate refused supply and it led to the dismissal of the then Prime Minister and the election of Malcolm Fraser as Liberal Prime Minister. Well that is just sort of a little bit of background for those who may not have been as familiar with the Australian political system.

William was kind enough to tell you that we have had three electoral victories in a row. There is no particular magic formula to that. Like all political successes, it has many fathers. But there are some lessons that I would like to share with you. Tip O’Neill famously said that all politics was local and that is right. And that is still very much the case. Could I add also, perhaps not as famously, but I think it is very relevant to all of us… it has certainly been very relevant to the Liberal Party in Australia, is that as well as all politics being local, all politics now is less tribal than it used to be. And that I think has been the most significant change that I have witnessed in the 29 years that I have been a Member of Parliament in Australia.

When I first joined the Liberal Party in the late 1950s and was active in campaigns in the early 60s, I used to think the Australian electorate divided on a sort of 40, 40, 20 basis – 40% always voted Labor, 40% always voted Liberal and we had 20% that would move around in the middle. I now have the sense that we divide on a sort of 30, 30, 40 basis. That the number of committed people on both sides of politics now is less. I think that is due to the intensely aspirational character of Australian society. Class has never meant a lot in Australia. It means even less now than it would have in the 1950s and the 1960s.

One of the ingredients of any political party’s success of course is to engage in the process of base broadening. You start with a core constituency and you build on it. And you don’t accept that any constituency is unreachable. We certainly didn’t, particularly in the last election campaign. I think the last election campaign we probably eroded in many respects in some parts of Australia more of the traditional blue collar vote that went to the Labor Party historically than we had in 1996.

Clearly economic competence and the strength of a nation’s economy is an enormous weapon in the hands of an incumbent Government. Australia has experienced over the last few years economic growth averaging about four plus percent. We were able through a combination of a very flexible exchange rate and the cumulative impact of other economic reforms, we have been able to avoid the effects of the Asian economic downturn in 1997. And that was one of the very strong assets that we had.

On the other side of the coin, we faced an Opposition that I think made a mistake that I hope… I didn’t mind them making the mistake, but I hope you here who are Oppositions don’t make that mistake, and that is to imagine that you don’t have any need to define what you stand for while you are in Opposition. There used to be an adage in Australian politics, there still is but I think it is less relevant now than it used to be and I guess it is still the case in other countries, and that is that Oppositions don’t win elections, Governments lose them. Now I think there is still a lot of truth in that because if you have been in power for a long time and you lose credibility and the economy goes bad on you and you have a few internal tensions, and those three things all seem to come together and one feeds on the other or the one causes the other, then inevitably you are likely if you have got a half-decent Opposition to be voted out.

But I think it is precisely because politics now is less tribal that people are looking for a sharper definition of what the alternative Government stands for. When I was a young activist in politics, I used to meet people who would say I think the Liberal Party is doing an atrocious job, but I could never vote Labor because my father would turn in his grave if I voted Labor. I don’t hear that very much any more. People are far more willing, particularly the young, to move around. Far more willing. I think that is a phenomenon that probably affects all countries. The under 25s are in many respects in Australia more conservative than people in the age bracket of 30 to 45 or 30 to 50. They are not joiners. Young people don’t join organisations as much now as they used to. I think that is a phenomenon that is probably common in all of our experiences. They have more options and you have to find different ways of communicating with them and different ways of reaching them. They are very aspirational. They are very material. But they are not indifferent to the value system of the nation. I think it is a mistake to assume that young people are just interested in material comforts. I think they are interested in any sense of direction that a political party or a political leader can give them.

Now I would modestly encourage all of you who are in Opposition not to make the error of assuming that you just have to wait until the Government implodes. Apart from anything else, it might not. And you might face many more long years in Opposition.

The Australian experience with the media is instructive. Like all democratic nations I guess, Australia is no different in the sense that there is a greater preponderance of people in the media of a… how should I put it mildly and gently and diplomatically… of a gentle centre left disposition. Talk back radio is tremendously important in Australia. Enormously important. It has played a greater role in shaping and determining the outcome of elections over the last few years than perhaps has been the case with other sections of the media. I was having a discussion with Ian Duncan Smith earlier and I said to him that radio in Australia I found to be the iron lung of Opposition. We would always get a run. There is so much of it. And you couldn’t devour enough of it. And whether that is the same in all of your countries, you individually will know.

But I think having said all of those things and having described this process of the detribalisation of politics which has had a profound effect on the way the Liberal Party has campaigned and the way we have projected ourselves. And it is also true to say that some of the more ageless messages of political campaigning are still relevant. You do need to convey a simple essence to the electorate of what you believe in and what you stand for. And precisely because we live in a society where there are so many competing communications messages, it is very important. You only almost have an instant on any given issue to get a message across. And with a busy community, it is extremely difficult for you to establish a brand identification if you don’t convey very simple and very direct messages.

So dragging all of that together, I don’t pretend to have any blinding insights that probaby from the experience of all of you would not be available. I have been fortunate. I have had a great party organisation. It is a very ‘in the beltway’ observation to make but I’ll make it to a gathering like this because you understand it very well. You have to have a very close relationship between the Parliamentary section of your party, to use the language of the Westminster system, and the party organisation. If there is any competition between the two of them, you are dead. If they work closely together and the one recognises the role of the other and they reinforce each other in a respectful fashion, then your prospects of victory are very good.

Party discipline and party unity is always important. I think it goes without saying that if you run an ill disciplined show in Government or Opposition, you lose the respect of the public. If you run a disciplined show and you have complete cohesion and complete party unity and you have reciprocal loyalty… leaders are entitled to receive loyalty, but leaders owe the people they lead reciprocal loyalty as well. When your colleagues get into trouble, if you are the leader you have an obligation to stick up for them, not to shed them and abandon them. And I have certainly found over the years that that has sort of worked and worked effectively. Because in the end the public does make a judgement on the totality. They may say, well in the case of Australia, the Liberal Party is John Howard. But they don’t… they say that, but they also look at the total performance. And if you look as though you are a purposeful team, then I think the prospects of victory are much stronger.

Just two final observations. There is no doubt that the tide around the world at the present time is moving in the direction of centre right parties. You can’t fail but be struck by what has occurred in Europe, what has occurred in other parts of the world. It is not uniform. It is not inevitable. It can be reversed. I think people are seeking some of the assurance and some of the sense of purpose and commitment. But also they recognise that the sort of values that our parties stand for, particuarly in terms of individual liberty and economic confidence and economic performance, that they are the things that have delivered outcomes.

I think if you look back over the last 30 years and you bear in mind that the two people who I regard as the towering figures of world conservatism over that period, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan… I think those two people although they are now long removed from the political scene in their respective countries, I think the imprint they put on the politics of the world and the imprint they put on the way in which centre right political parties conduct themselves has been enduring. Margaret Thatcher of course transformed her own country and led I think an intellectual, brought an intellectual rigour to conservatism around the world that has had a lasting impact. And of course Ronald Reagan achieved the remarkable authority of bringing to an end the hegemony of the Soviet Union in eastern Europe and in a way represented the final triumph of freedom over collectivism and command economies and dictatorships.

I think the legacy of those two people has been quite remarkable and I think it is a legacy that a gathering like this should remember. It is certainly a legacy that has instructed me in my understanding of what my own Party stands for.

And can I finally say that I am as William said a loyalist to my own Party, the Liberal Party of Australia. I owe it what I have achieved. It has been very kind to me. I think political leaders should always remember what they owe to their parties as well as always asking their parties to remember what they have given to them. We are teams. You can’t win an election on your own. And anybody who imagines they are such a genius that they can win an election on their own is deluding themselves. But the best Prime Ministers I have seen are those that have worked effectively with their colleagues. And I think that is true also of Opposition Leaders.

And the very last thing I would say is this. That Opposition is awful. Absolutely awful. I had 13 years of it and I am never going back to it. I promised myself that. It is the hardest job in politics in a democratic system. Being Prime Minister carries more responsibilities. But in straight political terms, being an Opposition Leader is the hardest task of all. And I feel for those who are in Opposition. I encourage you to change your state. I offer you any advice that you may think you can take, but as I say there is no particular magic to it. Circumstances differ from one country to another.

But it is an extraordinary opportunity, can I say finally, to be with you. I thank you very much for the honour you have paid to me. But it is an honour paid to my country. And it is also an honour paid to the Liberal Party of Australia, which I have been very proud to lead.

Thank you.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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