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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

brand Howard « Previous | |Next »
August 11, 2007

According to Dennis Shanahan in yesterday's column (thanks Nan), perception is everything. Putting aside for the moment what perceptions the title of the piece, "howard can't lose if he's seen as a winner", were meant to convey, Shanahan argues (via Textor) that "public perceptions and the polls feed off each other". It's an interesting idea that would probably sit nicely in a fashion theory framework, Finklestein's chic theory meets federal politics.

Is it too shallow to suggest that Howard is simply the political equivalent of long socks with sandals? After all, Keating's Zegna suits and antique French clocks are commonly thought to have worked against him, as is Beazley's weight, which is pretty shallow. By a lateral kind of extension, is it just unfashionable to be a Howard supporter?

Working on the assumption that the shallow end of politics and policy-free perceptions are significant, consider the relevance of being perceived as yesterday's man. What self-respecting fashion victim would be caught dead in last season? Or just as bad no matter the style, a passe label?

Shanahan also pointed out that "rattled was a term that recurred in the polling", which should come as no surprise given how often it's been used to describe Howard, his ministers and a few of his media supporters. Rattled has joined the ranks of several labels associated with the House of Howard, many of them quite catchy. Mean and tricky, clever and cunning, whistle and wedge, fear and smear.

It's not beyond possibility that the polls themselves are a signal to the trend conscious that Howard is just not the done thing anymore. Living in chronic fear is outdated. It's hard these days to move Whistle and Wedge even at a fire sale, but of course there's one at every social gathering - one of those tragics stuck in a time warp who can't tell hip hop from reggae, yet not sufficiently removed to be retro. It's cruel, but it's something Howard should understand well, given that built in redundancy is just one part of that glorious beast we call the free market.

| Posted by Lyn at 3:31 PM | | Comments (22)


I just rolled my eyes when I read this delusional fairy story yesterday.

On Saturday's I buy the AFR to read.It's all that I can manage on the weekend. One of my favourite columnists is Deidre Macken and I read her Relativities column assiduously.

Today she talks about brand Howard in terms of shopping for new toasters and links this consumer sentiment to politics. It's clever. She asks: should we replace the old kettle/toaster ---ie:

do we stick with the things that's worked for ages or do we buy a new improved version that comes with a few more bells and whistles. Howard's kitchen cabinet can't believe we're entertaining the idea of an equipment update. Howard works off the old presumption in politics that you don't get rid of something that's working. And the same used to be true of appliances. But that no longer holds true and, indeed, a cruel person would describe it as an old-fashioned idea.

She says that when voters take a consumer approach to political choices they'll do the same equation for leaders as they do for toasters.

She adds that it helps if the new one looks reliable as the old one but comes with a brushed steel decor. it helps if we're confident about making a change so we won't regret splurging on a new toaster if times turn tough. And the changeover costs should not be too high because we don't want to be stuck with a lemon/Latham.

I hadn't thought of Howard as a kitchen appliance Nan, but it's an interesting idea.

I like the Howard's kitchen cabinet bit. Wish I'd thought of it.

Yesterday we saw Howard in brown pants. So anything is possible from now.

Brown pants eh?

We're accustomed to the idea of a prime minister in tracky daks and that kind of fawny bone colour has been accepted casual wear for outback tours and such. Maybe brown is a sign of where he thinks he's headed?

Yes, towards the greenies

What, brown with a capital B?

Run Bob, run.

shit bob had a life...WOW what a life

In an earlier op-ed --The mirror image has a crackShanahan had written:

Now that economic management, which has been the Coalition’s electoral strongpoint, is “front and centre” for the election campaign, industrial relations and the issue of union domination of workplaces will also become front and centre.The Government has lost skin on this rate rise and Howard’s credibility is about as shot as a duck gets, but the fight is not over yet.

It's a big admission-Howard’s credibility is shot---from Shanahan. That Howard’s credibility is shot is a strong perception in the electorate along with his dishonesty.

That perceptions are everything in politics is a strongly held rule of thumb of the gut experience of politics.

I love your idea of fashion and politics. Joanne Finklestein's Chic Theory article in The Australian Humanities Review is much richer than say the Australian Democrats are out of political fashion and the Greens are in. She says:

Fashion is an underestimated social force. It functions effectively not only as an economic colossus but also to engineer social practices...Goods interpellate us, addressing the notional Marlboro Man, loyal coke drinker, Nike devotee, and dedicated Donna Karan fan. Without the fashion label or brand product, there seem to be few pathways through the crowded field of commodities, but with the label, fashion functions as a how-to-guide to a rich, material life. The brand invests the everyday practices of the contemporary fashion lover with the specificities of taste, social location, and subjectivity. Fashion, in this way, appears to resolve the performative problem of living amongst strangers by providing the precise gestures, roles and scripts which Erving Goffman argued we needed in order to go on each day.This capacity of fashion to provide a performance script for the transactions of the everyday also draws upon a physiognomic history of interpreting the body surface.

Note the way that Julie Gillard has been remodelled to look more cosmopolitan and stylish. She no longer looks a Leftie lawyer type. Classy corporate is the look.

Joanne Finklestein's Chic Theory is an interesting article. It says a lot about the self-conscious working class fashion of the union leader heavies---eg., Dean Mighell. His dress says that he is one of Labor’s most loyal sons a Labor boy, a Footscray boy, a unionist.

The section of the article bit linking fashion and modernity is very interesting. Finklestein says that by emphasising the seductiveness of the new and deriding the past, fashion becomes synonymous with the modern. She then quotes Douglas Kellner:

... fashion is a constituent feature of modernity, interpreted as an era of history marked by perpetual innovation, by the destruction of the old and the creation of the new. Fashion itself is predicated on producing ever new tastes, artifacts, and practices. Fashion perpetuates a restless, modern personality, always seeking what is new and admired, while avoiding what is old and passé. Fashion and modernity go hand in hand to produce modern personalities.

As you point out that nexus works against Howard, and as Nan points out, it works in favour of Gillard.

Julie Bishop understands the politics, fashion, modernity nexus very well.

What does the postmodern, fashion and politics look like?Brendan Nelson?


Like Colin, I suspect a lot of people read Shanahan for the eye-roll effect, but the par you quote there is a good example of what I think is a total misunderstanding of what's going on in the coalition camp.

He figures that economic management and IR play well for Howard, but we've just had one rate rise, there's already talk about another, the US problems look set to make things even worse economically and Workchoices has to be among the coalition's worst vulnerable spots.

Shanahan's incoherence seems like an amplification of everything the coalition touches. Shanahan is one of a dwindling set of political journalists that are still hanging in there. Even the Bolta has jumped ship.


It's a great piece isn't it? The social force of the label applies to a lot of things. On the surface we're all walking narratives, but it's a bit harder to apply to values and beliefs that we don't wear. Some can be worn, like religion, gender, some ethnicities, but how do you narrate your party political preference to a stranger in the street? Apart from a Kevin07 t-shirt, but where I live that would be taking your life into your hands.

I've got something in mind about the Rudd Labor makeover and I hope you don't mind if I borrow your observation about Gillard's new look. I'd honestly forgotten all about it.


Yes, built-in redundancy are strong elements of modernity and fashion. In fact they're almost synonymous. The destruction of the old is part and parcel of creating the new. The new is dependent on the old in that is has to distinguish itself as NOT something as much as it needs to BE something else. It turns the familiar into an other at the same time as it creates itself.

If Julie Bishop does understand it, she'd also be aware that she's wearing the wrong label. Must be simply ghastly for her.

Postmodern, fashion, politics, so far so good. Brendan Nelson? What?

If you go for the postmodernism/schizophrenia model maybe. I'll try to track down the article for you, which I think was another Monthly article, on Nelson. It's apparently difficult holding a conversation with him because he can't stay on topic long enough to finish a sentence. Keeps going off on tangents, can't sit still.

If you go for the postmodernity/pastiche model I think you could accommodate the entire Rudd campaign. Howard's strategy is to swallow the swinging middle ground whole. Rudd's has been an assemblage of unique parts from left, right, centre and undecided. He's the Vivienne Westwood of Australian politics.

I read Shanahan for the insights as well as the Liberal Party bias. He has insider insights. Thus reality can be 'x' whilst perceptions can be 'y'--it's the 'y' that counts for the pollies. The 'y' signifies the media headlines. The media headlines are reality for them.

Shanahan understands this. The pollies operate with a mirror reflection theory of language. I'm not sure that Shanahan would be aware of this sort of stuff.

re your commentPostmodern, fashion, politics, so far so good. Brendan Nelson? What? Nelson is totally made over for what role he is in at any moment.

Remember he was a man who rode a motor bike, wore earings and was a member of the Labor Party. His website is totally made over each time he changes portfolio.

Gary has a point. Shanahan is right in his reading of the polls. They are shifting if you look at them on a long term perspective. Michelle Grattin in The Age says:

Labor leads the Coalition 55-45 on a two-party-preferred basis, but its vote has fallen from a 58-42 lead in July. Its primary vote has also dropped 3 percentage points to 46, its lowest level since February. The Coalition's primary vote, by contrast, has risen 2 percentage points to 41, its highest level since September last year.

She says that despite these falls in both its primary and two-party-preferred vote, Labor retains a commanding lead and would win in a landslide if the weekend poll results were repeated in the federal election later this year.

Shanahan does work in terms of the signs of a turnaround in the polls before the campaign proper begins. It's the trajectory that is the key not the actual figures according to the pundits.

Grattan says:

The Nielsen poll shows much variation between states. Labor leads on a two-party basis 62-38 per cent in South Australia, 57-43 per cent in Queensland, 56-44 per cent in NSW, and 51-49 per cent in Victoria. In Western Australia Labor trails 44-56 per cent. The WA finding is in contrast to a Westpoll last week showing support surging for Labor.

Brand Howard is still recognizable in the electorate, even if its shell life is fading. So we will have a strong advertising campaign to lift its market share.

Hugh MacKay has an interesting take on Brand Howard in the election in the Sydney Morning Herald.

He works with the classical ship of state metaphor


I didn't know that about Nelson. I admit to being fixated with the embodied symbolism of various leaders, so other political players tend to interest me to the extent that they contribute to that in some way. The Nelson leg of the Howard table doesn't strike me as being an essential prop, though I'm happy to be corrected on that.


This is one of the aspects of this election that I find really interesting. I suspect that the euphoria and despair in some sections of left and right will be tempered as the election gets closer. For some people now toying with the idea of Rudd he's bound to turn out to be like a miniskirt - some won't even get to the changeroom before they realise he's just not going to suit them. Others will take him home but never get up the nerve to wear him in public. If you get my drift.

I'm trying to understand the relationship between the polls and perceptions of what's going on, which is how the fashion theory thing came about. It's true that trends are more important than individual polls and always have been, but this election we've got the added elements of the blogosphere's contribution and betting odds.

It may just be as simple as it's been in the past, but maybe not. Weird isn't it, when uncertainty is the only real certainty?

Thanks for the Mackay link Gary. I always enjoy reading The Hugh.

It's pantsuits don't suit women, Lyn.
Mini skirts suit all women. Particularly short ones.


OK, unfortunate analogy.

"Mini skirts suit all women. Particularly short ones."

It took me a while to come up with a suitably smarty-pants response to that, but how's this:

I disagree. Mini skirts can make short women look even shorter. And they don't do the proportions of tall women many favours either. It's all in the eye of the beholder of course and you're perfectly entitled to prefer mini skirts on short women, or short women generally if it makes you happy. Shorter women seem to have better posture than tall ones, which definitely has an impact on how clothes sit on the body, so your observation could be equally true for anything from the crinoline to flannalette shirts.

Paul, What about women trapped inside the body of a short man? Do they look good in mini skirts?

Yes, I tried to correct the post as I was sending it because I knew some of you would inevitably confuse "woman" for "skirt" ( which is a mistake a man would not usually make ).
On other subjects, thanks to Gary for including Kellner quote.