Pro business politics needs to get with the data program

Pro business politics needs to get with the data program

Australian Financial Review 5 December 2017 

In the past year, my career has taken me from the leadership of a major industry body to a think tank and to the role of acting federal director of the Liberal Party.

In each case, I have been staggered by the volume of money, superior tactics and ultimately greater impact of aligned interests standing against business and liberalism in support of the political left.

In this series for The Australian Financial Review, I explore the corporate campaign model which is used by a group of close fellow travellers: unions, GetUp, environmentalists and industry super.

It is an explanation of the financial, tactical, data and "on the ground" advantage enjoyed by the modern left at a time where every debate on the role of government, taxation, regulation and even free trade is contested.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk gets to feed meerkats during a visit to Australia Zoo on the Sunshine Coast. Reaching different vote groups with the right content at the right time is crucial. Fairfax Media

Unless the political right and business can counter and ultimately get ahead in the financial, technological and tactical campaign race, too many wrong decisions will be made, red and green-tinged governments will be elected and all Australians will be poorer.

Queensland's election result again demonstrated that data is king of campaigns. Getting it and using it is crucial to campaigning, be it for business and political parties. It helps guide organisations to use social media to target their voters, customers or people that they want to hear their messages.

It is used very effectively by the left of politics – such as anti-business groups such as Getup and environmentalists – that ran a coordinated campaign in support of Queensland Labor. They have a prescription for national decline: more tax, less development, more regulation and more big union power.

Corporate Australia's reputation problems won't go away unless it too can directly communicate with its consumers on matters of tax, regulation and development.

Opposition Leader Tim Nicholls speaks to the media during a press conference. Th right of politics needs to step beyond traditional TV campaigning to use data to present itself in new and engaging ways. Bradley Kanaris

The first two articles in this series explained how money is amassed by anti-business groups and invested in data and technology for campaigning purposes.

Any organisation wanting to have an impact should ask three questions:

  1. Who do we need to influence?
  2. What are their interests, issues and concerns?
  3. What is the best platform to directly engage with people?

Getting the data

Protesters including Greenpeace and Getup supporters, as well as those who had backed Labor, wave cut outs representing bleached coral, while a protester dressed as Pixar character Nemo "died". Amy Remeikis

Businesses, and at the very least industries looking to win a public argument or get something done, should be able to answer each question with data sources.

This is the formula used by unions, Getup, environmental groups and others which stand against enterprise and development.

Many political parties have also invested in the systems which unpack myriad data points. They're using systems such as i360, Cambridge Analytica and others.

The fact is it isn't all that hard to get good answers to each question and execute an effective campaign. Compared to television advertising or full-page newspaper adverts20 years ago, the cost of cutting through can be cheap.

To show how easy it is, i360 highlights how Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio created a highly successful data-driven campaign for re-election to the United States Senate when he had just 139 days between announcement and election.

Campaign managers want access to algorithms which deliver highly reliable voter/customer predictability into a campaign. Data scientists have created algorithms which draw upon myriad data points which actually predict what people are likely to think about issues as they arise.

Fattening the pig

It's similar to time travel into the future: only the DeLorean from Back to the Future isn't required. All you need is money to purchase access to an algorithm or a data scientist's services.

A famous political maxim on the Liberal side is John Carrick's belief that "you can't fatten the pig on market day". It means your campaign planning takes years, not weeks.

While there is much in Carrick's statement that retains its contemporary relevance, political and business leaders must remember that Emmanuel Macron simultaneously created and fattened his pig in under two years.

The University of Pennsylvania's Richard Robert wrote of Macron's campaign:

"[Macron's party was] created less than two years ago by a young political entrepreneur with a small, efficient team, it was able to take over and even to take down large, well-established organisations, the Republicans and the Socialist Party, the very duopoly actually that had alternately held the presidency since the foundation of the Fifth Republic in 1958. The duopoly hardly realised it was being seriously challenged before it was already too late. This unexpected disruption was certainly the result of a deep understanding of digital tools."

The change demonstrated by Macron's campaign makes it worth conducting a fitness assessment of the two major local opposing interests.

To avoid confusing business policy communication with political partisanship, it should be clear that it is not the role of third-party groups to barrack for political parties.

However, it is their role to strongly back policies they support by using all available communication methods. At different times, that will mean supporting particular political party policies.

The fitness assessment

In the red corner we have the anti-business cabal of unions, Getup and co.

The blue corner has the business collective, represented by individual businesses and industry bodies.

1. Who do we need to influence?

First, it is highly likely that both sides will have at least basic polling information on the popularity of policy concepts.

Polling is more accessible than it was a decade ago – more organisations provide tracking services and it can even be done by internally using simple software.

For the purposes of this example, point one is a draw: everyone should be able to find the impressionable or moveable voter/consumers in the community.

2. What are their interests, issues and concerns?

There is currently a mismatch: the red corner reaps the benefit of their sustained investment into data and technology to complete their picture of the marketplace gained in point one.

The aggregation of data is supported by algorithms which allow unions, for instance, to tell thousands of swinging voters that the government is "giving away" money to "big corporations" through business tax cuts, for instance.

But this is also where we find that third parties have used the Holy Grail of baseline data: the electoral roll.

It is legal for political parties to access the roll. Third-party activists are not permitted access but it seems likely a number of related third parties have access to the electoral roll as a result of the close formal, financial and cultural links between unions and the Labor Party.

Earlier in the year, for example, former state secretary of NSW Labor Jamie Clements was convicted for accessing the electoral roll for personal purposes.

And then we saw the spectacle of Construction Forestry Manufacturing and Energy Union's Victorian boss John Setka state he knew who was and who wasn't on the electoral roll in a threatening rant about Australian Building & Construction Commission inspectors in Melbourne in June.

On the business side, the timidity towards both the media and politicians – as well as the fact that they are busy trying to generate returns for shareholders – mean the electoral roll is not a term that passes the lips of people in corporate life. In almost a decade working in accountancy and financial services, I've never heard the words "electoral roll".

The cultural difference between business and unions couldn't be more pronounced. One side has officials who have spent their whole professional lives campaigning and dealing with electoral roll matters whereas the other is accustomed to business-to-business transactions.

Business is never going to enjoy access to the electoral roll, so has to work harder to understand the community.

3. What is the best platform to directly engage with people?

There are two elements to this question: where to go and who is talking.

The best platform is, unsurprisingly, the platform used by people to regularly access news and information.

With seven in 10 Australians using Facebook on a daily basis, social media is now king.

However, there are a wide range of social media and traditional advertising channels that can be used to target messages directly to receptive or swinging voters.

A World Economic Forum study found 64 per cent of us search online for news more than once a day.

The "who" element takes us to the credibility of the messenger. Unions have spurned soft, cuddly consumer-facing offspring like Getup and industry super funds.

So far, business is sticking with the business-as-usual approach which hands the unions a massive campaign advantage. Unions own more brands than, say, Westpac to choose from when an issue arises.

Royal commission: banks will need to do more than just submit

In the long run, a communications agenda will only be successful if punters can see that a particular industry is valuable to them, their community and/or the country at large. It's a classic case of an alignment of interests and it is fair enough.

In July, Bankers Association CEO Anna Bligh said she fretted about the industry's reputation:

"[Banks] need to be doing everything that they can to improve their trust with the community and to be communicating that with the community."

Banks provide a great example of an industry which seems to have lost capital within the community. The strong support for a royal commission in the community is evidence of lost trust which has been chipped away by poor behaviour but also amplified by social media. The royal commission will not improve the standing of banks in the community – they will have to do much more than write submissions to Hayne.

The most recent industry reputational turnaround playbook was written by the miners.

In the mid-1990s mining's reputation was in the toilet when BHP's Ok Tedi mine had ruined the lives of 50,000 people living in Papua New Guinea's Western Province.

Fast forward to 2010 and the Rudd government's super profit tax was deeply unpopular because the industry was able to convince people that the majority of Australians felt damaging mining would weaken both Australia and Australians.

The rehabilitation of mining's reputation occurred because the community's perception was that the interests of workers, the businesses and the country were all aligned. Damaging mining would damage your jobs, your super, and the taxes Canberra gathered to pay for your hospitals. The result: the tax was deeply unpopular and scuttled.

Every industry must think about its reputation this way. It may force some tough decisions but it will be worth it in the long run.

To complement reputation repair, the birth of new entities to argue a small government agenda would be useful. But business shouldn't hold its collective breath. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me they were about to set up the right-wing Getup, I'd be a millionaire.

Andrew Bragg is former acting federal director of the Liberal Party. Views expressed here are his own. Twitter @ajamesbragg

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