The teal triumph

Camberwell junction, big billboard for Josh Frydenberg on second floor, 3 billboards for Monique Ryan on first floor

Last month’s election marked a seismic shift in Australian politics. The emergence of grassroots independents as a powerful force is likely to change the political landscape forever.

The unprecedented success of the raft of independents who almost seized the balance of power in the lower house offers significant insights for anyone interested in behaviour change, reputation building and targeting key audiences.

Importantly, they organised locally, empowering the community by enabling them to select candidates and policies. They built strong, grassroots campaign teams. One senior ALP organiser pointed out to Icon Reputation that the teal candidate in their marginal seat had 258 people on the ground outside polling booths on election day, while independent Helen Haines had 2,500 in Indi.

The loose coalition of ‘teal’ independents swept aside conservative rivals, including the former Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in Kooyong. The Liberals picked up on this groundswell too late in seats like Frydenberg’s, which conservative commentator Peta Credlin described as theirs “by right”.

In seats like Kooyong, the Liberals were inactive over December and January while the independents bombarded constituents with locally-focused social media campaigns, primarily through Facebook, to create strong name recognition for their candidates.

They focused on local issues and the overarching themes of women, climate and corruption. A new anti-corruption commission is now a certainty, with Labor support. This will have significant implications if it is granted the power to investigate the blatant rorting and pork-barrelling of the Morrison government.

All told, ads promoting independents on social media, YouTube, Google search or websites were seen more than 100 million times, according to Ed Coper, a director of Populares, the communications agency responsible for the digital advertising of major teal independent campaigns. The voters of Kooyong saw an online ad promoting candidate Monique Ryan an average of 251 times over the course of the campaign.

The teal independents shunned traditional and more expensive TV advertising. “Only digital advertising allows for a highly targeted and tailored campaign that seamlessly pairs the right message to the right audience, tracked in real time,” Coper said. “Our digital war room built an online message-testing system that would not consider the results until a message had been seen at least 5,000 times.”

This digital testing revealed that Scott Morrison was toxic in these seats, so the teals adopted the narrative of “vote [Sharma, Zimmerman, Falinski, Frydenberg, etc.], get Morrison”.

They rejected the traditional election advertising timeline, which concentrates advertising in the final weeks of a campaign. “In reality, opinions are formed over the long term, by osmosis,” said Coper.

“By reserving the advertising until the final weeks, campaigns missed what we call the persuasion window. Teal campaigns took full advantage of that window, which was the foundation of their success.

“We used a sophisticated system that defined and reached voters according to their values — as sourced from data normally only used for commercial applications — rather than the traditional demographics of age, sex or income.

“For an election won on values — climate action, the treatment of women and integrity — this proved key to unseating MPs who had fallen way out of step with their constituents. Corporate advertisers should pay heed: just as voters have recalibrated their value sets, so too have customers who are much more likely to look beyond the price tag to the social and environmental values a brand espouses.”

Scott Morrison’s old school, dog whistle politics — installing an anti-transgender candidate and claiming he would change post-election, with echoes of the ‘real Julia Gillard’ — fell flat and backfired in Liberal seats where constituents still hold traditional ‘small l’ Liberal values.

The results also exposed the impotence of aggressive anti-teal campaigns by News Limited publications, which abandoned any pretence of impartiality and carried headlines like “Teal Conceal”, suggesting the candidates were Labor stooges and portraying them as an “arrogant minority” who threatened Australia with a “radical reality”. The Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan even claimed the teal independents were “a direct threat to our national security”.

These attacks bolstered the teal campaigns, not just due to a clash of values, but also because of the strong local foundations of the independents. Portraying them as stooges and radicals was an affront to the grassroots army and contradicted their lived experience.

The teal ascendancy will make for a more interesting and hopefully more effective parliament, and could cause further shake-ups at the next federal election if the major parties don’t take heed.

Mark Forbes

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