Have we got a deal for you!

Deeju Sivadasan Saraswathy

American culture, food and movies might have influenced the lives of every Australian, but when it comes to political campaigns, we say a big “No”.

The extravagant, celebrity-packed election campaigning in the United States had glamor that caught the attention of the world. But such a style would not yield results in Australia, according to three noted political strategists from Australia and the United States.

Barack Obama’s chief digital strategist Joe Raspars, Neil Lawrence, the creator of former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s Kevin 07 advertising campaign and former prime minister John Howard’s chief of staff, Grahame Morris, came together to explain the strategies behind successful political advertising in a Sydney Writers’ Festival panel discussion.

With federal elections around the corner, Crafting the Message, which was facilitated by ABC anchor Leigh Sales, attracted an audience of more than 200 to Sydney’s Town Hall.

The basic techniques of our campaigns are not in a sophisticated form,” said Neil.

One major thing is raising money. It is about $US1 billion that was raised in [the Obama] campaign. Here in Australia we have public funding; 80 per cent of the money for all the parties comes from public funding. Of the other 20 per cent, 18 per cent comes from large organisations – unions and businesses. So individual donations are almost irrelevant in Australian politics,” he said, adding that the manner in which people were enrolled and persuaded to vote by the Obama campaigners was not needed in Australia.

Grahame said campaigns in Australia were not on the same scale as the US campaign: “People say, in the US the Republicans or the Democrats got a lot of money after talking to people. Well, fine. But when people are giving you money they are already committed. No uncommitted person gives somebody money to spend on an ad. In Australia we are looking for uncommitted people who do not care about politics.”

Grahame Morris; picture by Barton Deakin

Grahame Morris; picture by Barton Deakin


Joe, the mastermind behind Barack Obama’s successful campaigns in the 2008 and 2012 elections, explained that accepting donations was not simply raising money.

For us, to go to a market place or Massachusetts Institute and talk to voters has the value of interaction. With somebody talking to them, well prepared, to [learn] what party their husband, son or neighbour [supports]. That was actually the fundamental aim of our fundraising campaign,” he said.

Joe Rospars

Joe Rospars


The strategists felt that the very successful American idea of celebrity endorsement did not work here.

When celebrities tell Australians what they should think, simply it don’t work,” said Grahame. “We are different. The best difference between Australia and the US is that we are irreverent. When the US president comes for a press conference the media stand up. In Australia journalists merely take their shoes off the table.”

He said the only time celebrity endorsement worked in Australia was in the 1972 Labor campaign It’s Time. “The use of celebrities in a campaign, I think, is the last refuge of the campaigners run out of other ways. In general, I think they are not working.”

Joe said much of the electoral work was done by volunteers who collected enormous amount of voter data, which was classified and prepared into specialised advertisement materials for each group.

The three political strategists agreed on another point: that irrespective of geographical boundaries, election campaigns were distinct from other campaigns and product advertisements. The strategies and methods of each leader’s political campaign varied according to their opponents. For example, said Grahame: “Tony Abbott’s campaign against Julia Gillard may not be suitable against Kevin Rudd.”