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  • The ties that bind: How negative campaigns eclipse community focus

The ties that bind: How negative campaigns eclipse community focus



Election campaigns can be defined by all sorts of things. Gaffes, negative ads, international incidents, public policy. It is trite but no less true to say that this federal election campaign has been much more about the first three rather than the last. The policy discussion has been edged into the election mix most seriously by various interest groups and by some of the macro party and independent candidates seeking election.

The focus placed on a number of these independents has been framed by policy questions, or policy differences, especially in the case of those independents running in traditionally Liberal seats. Whilst there are independent candidates running on local community issues, especially in rural and regional electorates, this shift to national policy-based independents is striking. Their presence raises the profile of national and international issues but elides the questions of community usually championed by independent candidates.

Presentations of community have been even more absent from the campaign headlines than those of public policy. The distinct focus of this new wave of independents, and the attention they are garnering, is a factor in this. So too is the global instability we are currently experiencing.

Moreover, the major parties have been more interested in negative commentary on their opponents than framing themselves by the communities they are part of. The allure of negative advertising overshadowing the way Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese have previously contextualised their biographies in community. Morrison the Cronulla Sharks fan, Albanese the South Sydney Rabbitohs fan.

To be a Sharks fan is to belong to a community, to be part of Cronulla and the broader Sutherland Shire community, known to locals simply as ‘the Shire’. This geography is important to Morrison’s identity. It even plays into his faith identification. Morrison has distanced himself from the problems of Hillsong leader and sometime friend and mentor, Brian Houston, by saying that for years he has worshipped at a local Pentecostal church, Shirelive, not at Hillsong.


'To understand how a government will interact and treat the space that ought to be open for community, for a vibrant small and medium entities of civil society in all their iterations in a continent-nation, seems imperative.'


Morrison has so determinedly identified with this community even though he was a rugby union, not league, follower until not too long ago. The community seems to reflect his political positions. Morrison’s is a community of higher levels of income but lower levels of tertiary qualification than the state and national averages. It is also a community with higher-than-average levels of religious identification.

Much as his community identity has helped him, creating an ‘average Australian’ persona, it has also hampered his capacity to appeal to those who are religiously sceptical, have or aspire to higher tertiary qualifications, or are on lower wages. The Cronulla community also carries the baggage of riots of 2005, and all the Sri Lankan curries in the world won’t convince some that the local member is tarred by those events.

Albanese is fond of saying that he grew up with three greats faiths: the Catholic Church, the Labor Party and the South Sydney Football Club. It was jarring to hear him pretend an ongoing allegiance to the first in the leaders’ debate, even as he has maintained his commitment to the second and third. Albanese’s association with the Rabbitohs is long standing and close, he was a Board member during the period that the club was relegated and then restored to the National Rugby league.

The Rabbitoh community’s working-class spirit fits with Albanese initial experience of community with his mum, growing up in public housing. It allows him to position himself as authentic in his commitment to policies that will support the working poor and those on welfare, even as he now owns three houses. His distance from the religion of his birth doesn’t hurt his standing with Labour’s other base, the upper-middle class tertiary educated.

His strong identification with the Labour Party, one of his great faiths, has opened Albanese to the claim that he is merely a political hack. Amid the Rudd-Gillard battles he famously described himself as wanting to “get back to fighting Tories”. The fact that he has been willing to risk the appearance of unwavering association suggests a genuine commitment to the political party as a community that can and has affected positive change.

The biographical details of both leaders, a basic positive frame in an election campaign, have faded in favour of negative attacks on the grounds of character. This is unfortunate for a range of obvious reasons, but not least of what is odious about this is that the leaders cease being situated in community. They are merely deficient individuals.

Their community edifices might be deceptive. That requires some probing and legitimate questioning. But in presenting their own community connections there is the possibility of considering how a future government might interact with any of our own communities. This interaction is the deeper basis for considering even the public policy prescriptions, let alone the personality politics, of an election campaign. How the State interacts with communities, with the small and medium size groups that form civil society is as, and probably more, important than how the State interacts with me as an individual.

Morrison’s line, ‘I don’t hold a hose, mate’, and the public response to it, makes the point. Even if we emphasise that his point is literally obvious, still, it’s not much of a community response. Reactions to the immediate challenge of fires and floods, as well as the slower-burn issues of religious freedom and community-based aged and disability care, also suggest how deeply we are concerned by the way government interacts with, engages in our communities. This concern stems from the fact that we locate our individual identities in families and communities.

We are always contextualised by our immediate relationships. From our parents and immediate family to school communities, colleagues, fellow parishioners, members of the local footy club. We come to our relationship with government with an identity born of our community commitments, and their absence. To have a sense of the way leaders interact with community can be helpful. To understand how a government will interact and treat the space that ought to be open for community, for a vibrant small and medium entities of civil society in all their iterations in a continent-nation, seems imperative.




Julian Butler SJ is a Jesuit undertaking formation for Catholic priesthood. He previously practiced law, and also has degrees in commerce and philosophy. Julian is a contributor at Jesuit Communications, a chaplain at Xavier College, and a board member at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Chris Johnston illustration.

Topic tags: Julian Butler, Election, Community, AusPol, AusVotes2022



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Existing comments

I suppose the important question is: 'Who, really, is the man behind the mask?" If the polls are correct, the new man behind the PMs mask will soon be Anthony Albanese. We will find out the substance to him soon enough. Has he really got it to lead this nation in this time, as Ben Chifley and Robert Menzies had in theirs?

Edward Fido | 12 May 2022  

Thank you Julian for raising the issue of the current lack lustre campaigning of the major political parties during the coming 2022 federal elections.

It seems to me that both Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese are trying to say as little as possible so that they don’t provide an opportunity to be targeted by the other leader or the main stream media which is only too happy to promote the “gotcha moments” when candidates forget facts or get them wrong or concentrate on trivial issues that have little to do with the major policies that are facing us.

I know that I speak for many voters when I express frustration about the level of debate and community discussion about the issues that matter in the lead-up to an election. Personally, I am not very much interested in what sporting teams or churches that candidates belong to except to know how this affects the policies they stand for.

In 2019, Bill Shorten announced many ALP policies during his campaigning. In a country that prides itself in being a democracy, one would have thought that this was a good thing to state policies and give the public an opportunity to discuss and consider them. Instead, he was pilloried in the media and by many Australians.

The major issues for this election are action to deal with global warming and the pandemic, social justice for those on low incomes, aged care, support for those affected by floods and fires, quality health and education programs for the nation etc. Many of these issues are receiving scant mention

Other key issues that seem to be getting no coverage are where Australia stands on contributing to world peace, human rights, international cooperation to address global warming, natural disasters, humanitarian aid and Australia becoming an independent and non-aligned nation.

On the issue of climate change, I would want to ask the leaders of the major parties how can they support more coal mines, coal seam gas extraction (fracking) and the gas led recovery if they are serious about the issue.

These are the issues that responsible voters want to have a deep and meaningful discussion about.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 13 May 2022  

I think Julian is onto something important here although I'm not convinced that he has got the message through clearly enough.

In a very real sense, the major parties no longer have a strong community base. There was a time when local branch members met regularly to discuss party policy and politician's performance. Motions were debated, resolutions sent off to 'head office', When election time came round the campaign was discussed, plans laid, jobs allocated, and the campaign became 'owned' at a local level. Not so these days. Local input to policy is non-existent, local involvement in preselection is minimal and often ignored, campaign plans and funding are remotely determined, and when it comes to staffing polling booths, most parties are scratching to find enough locals to do the job.

Contrast this with the groundswell of local support that was behind the teal independents at this recent election. Supporters self-identified with their candidates, the candidates were there for their supporters.

If there are lessons for the major parties out of this election they are not only about what they have to offer but also about the way they go about involving local communities in formulating and then promoting their offerings. .

Ginger Meggs | 24 May 2022  

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