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1 Focus Groups: Myth or Reality? Stephen Mills (UMR Research)

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1 1 Focus Groups: Myth or Reality? Stephen Mills (UMR Research)

2 2 The result is a debasement of politics to the point where our politicians seem to lack all conviction, save for their unshakable faith in the polls, in the necessity of manufacturing innocuous sound-bites for media appearances, and in the assumption that there is no reality that can’t be represented in survey data. Even compared with their predecessors of a decade ago (who, for instance, kept immigration high in times of economic boom, regardless of what the polls told them), contemporary Australian politicians are incapable of shaping a conversation about “what is to be done?” They seem to have given up on the main function of leadership and instead taken to mumbling all the platitudes their focus groups deem most innocuous. Bryan Cooke, Crikey 12/5/11

3 3 It is now all but universally agreed that the Australian Labor party is a near-ruin, ruled body and soul by factional bosses and opinion pollsters. Don Watson, The Monthly, August 2011

4 4 Focus groups be damned. They might be useful if you are designing a cereal packet. As a tool for charting the nation’s future they are a reckless abandonment of responsible political leadership. Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard sounded almost identical in the campaign because focus groups were telling them what to say. Unsurprisingly both leaders got the same message, regurgitating the same meaningless pap that the marketing soothsayers threw up from their bogan séances. Mike Carlton, Sydney Morning Herald 28/5/10

5 5 Charges against focus groups oDeath of leadership oIncreasing leadership churn oAdoption of populist policies oKilling off necessary reforms oPandering to prejudice oIncreasing cynicism oLowering the tone of politics oMindless repetition of slogans, catch phrases oDebasing role of parties

6 6 A modern morality tale oAddiction oDegradation oTimidity oLack of principle oCorruption oAbdication of leadership oImprisonment oPurity oHigh minded/Patriotic oCourage oPrinciple oSelflessness oLeadership oFreedom

7 7 Pollster, here’s a revolver and a bottle of vodka, you know the rest. Denis Glover, The Australian 12/10/10

8 8 But even worse … Focus groups nearly cost an election

9 9 The link [sic] why the [Labor] Government found itself in trouble was the dreaded focus group debacle. Rod Cameron, ABC Lateline 8/9/10 [Listening to focus groups on climate change]..destroyed the Rudd prime ministership and brought Labor to the threshold of destruction. Peter Hartcher, Sydney Morning Herald 2/10/10

10 10 Case for the defence oLightning rod for broader dissatisfaction with modern politics oOther factors (electoral systems, powerful sectional interests) much greater influence on nature political process oFocus groups only one part of political armoury oFocus groups no more than a neutral tool oAre used to bring voice of non-elites, disengaged into political decision-making (better than alternatives) oPowerful means of understanding voter understandings and perceptions and informing communications strategies oCost efficient testing of advertising oCriticism groups often proxy for factional conflict

11 11 Stress on democracy oInability to tackle big issues and stay in power (or keep leadership) oClimate change oIrrigation oTradeoffs delivery of infrastructure and services vs. income maintenance oTax reform oBaby boomer pension costs oRationing of health care oAccelerating media intensity oIncreasingly negative, vicious, hyperbolic tone oReality show expectations of politicians oIncreasing lack of trust in Government, politicians, other institutions

12 12 Responsibility of political technology oTaught politicians how to play the game of politics too well oReduced risks too much oPart of increasing cycle of cynicism oCan be used to destroy necessary initiatives oCan only get worse; technology arms race

13 13 The end. Thank-you.

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