Advertising is an essential part of any campaign; and in a campaign as vicious as the 2022 federal election — a poll where voters will decide between an ageing, scandal-ridden government and an opposition looking to avoid a repeat of the 2019 upset — Coalition MPs have decided to resort to underhanded branding tricks in an attempt to exhaust every opportunity to gain the upper hand.
Liberal and National party MPs are removing overt references to their party across a range of advertising mediums. Ultimately, out of eight LNP held electorates I visited, only three maintained any kind of clear party affiliation in their branding. Of these three, the only MP who prominently advertised his affiliation to the LNP is defecting in the upcoming election. The two others seemed to make their LNP logos as small as possible.
Branding may not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think of political tactics. But it is one of the key mediums that parties communicate with the public and is essential to any successful campaign. Think Gough Whitlam’s iconic orange-and-black “It’s Time”, “Kevin ‘07” or even Scott Morrison’s death tax scare campaign.
In order to get a message across — to associate a set of values, beliefs and aspirations to a political party — colours and symbols are key. Every party has a colour: Labor is red, the Liberal Party is blue, and the Greens are, well, green. And along with a colour, every party has a logo that is pretty much instantly recognisable. The iconography associated with a party is embedded within our psyche — I for one do not think I will ever be able to break the strong connection between the United Australia Party and that awful, unnecessarily lurid yellow.
So why have the Liberal-National Party started rebranding their electorate offices with new colours and without a logo?
This was a question I first asked on a road trip through Queensland in the sweaty heat of a tropical October 2021. Over the course of a month I journeyed through every one of Queensland’s large rural electorates, and a good deal of the seats closer to Brisbane. Almost every single electorate office that held a Member of Parliament, who was not retiring at this election, had deviated from party branding.
Following the 2019 election and outside Brisbane, Queensland is a big blue and green Liberal National Party map. Other than the loose-cannon Katter’s Australia Party in Kennedy, every rural electorate is controlled by the LNP.
Only one of these electorate offices had prominent LNP branding: George Christensen’s office in Mackay, in the seat of Dawson, had “LNP” plastered in comically massive letters on bright blue and yellow boards. George Christensen, however, infamous for his anti-vaccination stance and adventures in the Philippines that raised the attention of the AFP, is now defecting to One Nation. As such he is no longer contesting the election for the LNP.
Only two other electorates displayed any hint of an LNP logo: Michelle Landry, who sits in Capricornia, had a tiny “LNP” stamped on her Rockhampton office, barely noticeable. The one sign of advertising for Warren Entsch, in the far northern electorate of Leichhardt, was a single old billboard in Cairns that had been in the same position since at least my last journey north in April 2019. A tiny “LNP” was written in the bottom corner of this huge billboard.
No other electorate offices I visited had any mention of the Liberal or National Party whatsoever. Phillip Thompson’s office in Townsville, in the seat of Herbert, at least used the LNP colours. However, the Commonwealth of Australia coat of arms — an officially non-partisan symbol associated with the Australian government and sovereignty, was plastered large a total of four times across the office. Trevor Evans in the seat of Brisbane also employed LNP colours, at least in his bus-stop advertisements. However, these advertisements, nor his office, included the LNP logo. On top of that, Trevor Evans’ office in the inner-city suburb of Albion prominently featured the coat of arms on a slick chrome plaque featuring his name and no reference to the LNP whatsoever.
Ken O’Dowd in Flynn and Peter Dutton in Dickson had deviated significantly from the LNP colours: both electorate offices used a darker shade of blue. In Dutton’s case, the most prominent colour was white, followed by red — a huge change from the traditional LNP blue. Both electorate offices prominently displayed the coat of arms, a pattern across most of the electorates I visited. To be fair to Dutton, other advertising in his electorate prominently used the LNP colours – along with a large and fairly unflattering portrait of the MP. But his office looked more like that of a bureaucrat than a party-affiliated elected official.
David Littleproud’s office in Maranoa — one of the largest in Queensland — did prominently display National party colours. However, a logo was not visible, other than a large coat of arms positioned beside an immense photograph of his hot bod, complete with Akubra on head.
And this is not a phenomenon restricted to Queensland. Sharma, facing an independent candidate, Allegra Spender, who is surging in popularity, modified his advertising in what can be only described as an attempt to distance himself from the Liberal Party.
Sharma dispatched a campaign newsletter in a shade of teal suspiciously close to that associated with the glut of independents attempting to replace a Liberal Party that is increasingly on the nose for climate inaction and puritanical social conservatism in seats dominated by wealthy, “small-l” liberal types.
The move was ridiculed across social media and has reached the attention of political commentators. Former Independent Kerryn Phelps, for instance, who was replaced by Sharma in a Wentworth byelection, indicated that “you can understand why someone might not want to be too closely associated with this current Liberal Party that has blundered the bushfire response, floundered on the management of the COVID-19 pandemic, and failed the flood-affected communities in the immediate aftermath of widespread devastation.” Yet Sharma retains allegiance to that party in everything but branding: a party that has provided him with endorsement, financial support and an organised army of campaign volunteers.
Until the most recent set of polls (true as of 21 April), a variety of sources were indicating that Morrison had lagged behind Albanese as preferred PM, with the two-party preferred polls from a range of organisations showing a clear lead for the ALP. This change, possibly recently reversed by extensive press coverage of an Albanese “gaffe”, has been on the cards for a while. The repeated failures of Scott Morrison in particular, ranging from leaving the country during the 2019-20 bushfire season for a Hawaii holiday to a sluggish vaccine rollout, appear to have caught up with him; events like these are swinging more traditional Liberal voters towards independent candidates, like those in Wentworth and Warringah.
Regardless of the current situation, the fact that Scott Morrison himself has acquired a personality problem in the eyes of voters across the country has led to infighting in the Liberal Party and attempts by LNP MPs like NSW upper house MP Concetta Fierraventi-Wells, Federal MP Dave Sharma, backbencher Bridget Archer and even senator Eric Abetz to distance themselves from their leader. The scathing assault on Scott Morrison’s character, conducted by the traditionally conservative Fierravanti-Wells speaking to the NSW upper house, who claimed that “Morrison is not interested in rules-based order. It is his way or the highway. An autocrat, a bully who has no moral compass. […] Morrison is not fit to be Prime Minister” is just one example of the increasingly more common attempts of LNP MPs to put space between themselves and Scomo’s insipid smirk.
Other LNP MPs, notably Bridget Archer, representing Bass (in Tasmania), have been making overt references to the fact that an Australian election is not, in fact, a poll on the preferred Prime Minister, but an example of a Westminster system. By highlighting the fact that voters do not (technically) choose between Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese, MPs like Archer are more softly attempting to differentiate themselves from the party leadership.
So where does this leave us with advertising? Well, let me ask you this: if Liberal and National Party MPs are willing to publicly attack Scott Morrison, send nasty text messages in private, and softly nudge voters away from associating their local members with the party leadership, would they not be willing to modify their advertising so as to disassociate themselves from a party that has a severe leadership problem?