Modern politics’ golden rule? Ignore media commentators and focus on your key messages
By Tim Montgomerie in Australia
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A lot has been written about Lynton Crosby’s influence on Britain’s Tory leader. Not so much about Mark Textor – Crosby’s business partner – and the pollster who has just helped Tony Abbott become Australia’s new prime minister. I emphasise "helped" because most backroom credit for Abbott's win should go to federal campaign director, Brian Loughnane (something Mr Textor has himself acknowledged) but that isn't so relevant to British politics - Brian is not advising the Tories.
“Tex”, as he is known, lives by modern politics’ golden rule: ignore media commentators and stick to your plan. “There are,” Textor has written, “almost no former journalists who have been successful campaign managers. This is because they are tactically focused on Monday morning's headlines and not the long-term strategy required to get a consistent and, critically, a salient message to the public.” The “media monster”, he has said, has “acute ADD” (Attention Deficit Disorder).
Textor does not hide his low view of the chattering punditry. Via his entertaining and irreverent Twitter account (he recently described Tony Blair as a “wanker”) he regularly slams the “political nobodies, has beens and innumerate journos” who make up political discussion channels. Unlike the polling operation that David Cameron used before the last election he is always ready look beyond a few simple headline numbers. Some polls found that Australian voters preferred Kevin Rudd to be prime minister, than Tony Abbott. In one of his regularly revealing articles for Australia’s business press Textor warned against such superficial readings. Voters, he said, don’t notice the stable and united team that Tony Abbott has built and don’t credit him for it. He believes that the commentariat worry too much about a politician’s charisma and not enough about their management skills. That’s dangerous in an age when voters put a premium on competence.
In many respects Abbott’s victory is Textor’s victory. Abbott’s constant repetition of a few key messages – Scrap the carbon tax; Stop the boats carrying illegal immigrants; and Build more roads – sent political journalists to sleep but they were killer messages identified by Textor’s opinion polling. Local journalists refer to him as the “suburban whisperer” – the man who reminds politicians of what real Australia thinks.
Textor, like Lynton Crosby, is sometimes painted as a hardline right-winger but he’s always data-driven. While he helped crafted Abbott’s sceptical position on climate change he has also encouraged a focus on the preservation and quality of local parks and waterways. He has written movingly and repeatedly about the welfare of aboriginal communities.
Working with Textor can be hard work. An extraordinary self-publicist according to his detractors he likes to be noticed and he likes talking. One Sydney journalist who met him for lunch noted that “he did eat, so there must have been times when Textor wasn't talking; I just struggle to remember them.”
And when he talks he talks plainly and he encourages politicians to do the same. One of the explanations he gave for the failure of Julia Gillard’s campaign to paint Tony Abbott as a “misogynist” was that the strategy was “weak simply because one has to Google it to remind oneself of what it’s supposed to mean.”
Mr Textor has advised politicians throughout the world but won his reputation for his advice to John Howard. It was said that the smallest distance in Australia was between Howard and Textor but that relationship soured when Textor’s polling was leaked in the run up to the Liberal Party’s defeat in 2007. The polling suggested that Howard should step down. While it was probably the right advice it wasn’t wanted, it was ignored and wasn't quickly forgiven by its target.
Alongside Lynton Crosby, Textor will be helping Cameron to shape the next Tory election campaign. If he has his way we can all expect to become a bit bored as messages are endlessly repeated. We can expect more streetwise language from Cameron. And my fellow pundits should brace themselves for a few disrespecting Tweets.