Just hours into the campaign, the Queensland Government’s Strong Choices is being revealed as the shallow PR stunt it is. Public Relations lecturers across the country must be rubbing their hands together with glee; errors like this are such rich learning opportunities.
Strong Choices is a six million dollar campaign intended to fool Queensland voters into believing that they are being consulted about the next Queensland Budget. Underpinning that cynical, warm-and-fuzzy intent, the government hopes that voters will understand the tough choices involved in governing and view the LNP government more sympathetically in the lead up to next year’s state election. The inclusion of Asset Sales, while a valid solution, is also a deliberate attempt to soften voters’ attitudes to the same issue which brought down the Bligh government two years ago.
Strong Choices consists of an online survey, with feedback stations in two major Brisbane shopping centres, and a tour through Queensland to “listen to” locals. The premise is that voters will complete the survey or visit the feedback stations, and build their ideal budget, complete with tax increases, savings, and asset sales. The whole thing is backed up with an advertising campaign and social media presence, at a cost of about $6 million dollars.
Having said that, the website itself denies that it is a survey of any kind:
The People’s Budget is not a survey or a poll. Your responses here will be a fundamental part of an unprecedented consultation process that is already going on across Queensland. It will also include roundtable meetings with community leaders, open community forums and virtual town hall gatherings open to the public, hosted by the Treasurer, Tim Nicholls.
Make of that what you will.
Under the guise of ‘promoting economic literacy’ the online survey asks respondents to select from lists of tax increases, service cutbacks and asset sales to reach a level of debt reduction which has been predetermined by the government. Then, if you reach the approved level where you start to save on interest payments, you can select which areas you want to spend the savings on.
Side by side with the non-survey is a section called “Online Written Submission”, where respondents can write a few sentences about various potential tax increases, programme cuts and asset sales, rather than selecting a yes/no response. There is also a downloadable submission form with the same format as the online survey. All response methods are aligned with the same sub-headings and choices.
It sounds impressive, and as a piece of website design, it is. As a campaign, it’s Swiss Cheese.
Here’s where it fails.
Firstly, the name is a problem. Anything that ends with the word Choices just reminds people of WorkChoices, and that concept is still on the nose. Whoever would’ve thought that a government – any government in Australia – would have been stupid enough to mount a political campaign with a name that includes the word “choices”? It's code for "we don't care about you". With that stench of the Howard Government’s WorkChoices in 2007 still fresh, it was a courageous choice.
Then there’s the online survey itself - and I will call it a survey because that's what it is. The website worked for me, which is about all it has to recommend it. Survey respondents are encouraged to believe that the options listed within the survey are not necessarily under consideration by the government, but that's a tough sell in a hostile political environment. When commentators are talking daily about the federal Budget, it's unlikely that people will assume that the People's Budget - part of Strong Choices - is not even on the maybe pile until 2015.
Speaking of budgets, the Queensland Budget for 2014-2015 is due to be brought down on June 3. That’s less than two months from now. Major decisions about the Budget will be well and truly made by now. It’s unlikely that major changes will be made less than two months out, and virtually impossible to make changes between the end of the campaign on May 19, and the date on which the budget is due, just a couple of weeks later.
I challenged Queensland Treasurer Tim Nicholls about the timing issue via Twitter. He responded
“Choices will form part of a draft plan to be released with the Budget. They are not intended to feed into 2014-15 Budget.”
Okay, so Strong Choices is not about the 2014-15 Budget. All we'll get this year is a draft plan. I’ll accept that on face value, although I imagine a lot of people looking at the survey will assume that it is far more important than it really is. It also raises questions about the wording of a Facebook post to launch the campaign:
“Today, we are announcing the Strong Choices Campaign, an Australian first encouraging Queenslanders to participate in a People’s Budget. Between now and May 19th we will be travelling around our great State and talking about the debt issues we are facing, listening to your thoughts and opinions on the #StrongChoices we need to make to get our $80 billion dollar debt under control.”
The post doesn’t state that the results of the campaign will feed into this year’s budget, but the suggestion is there…and if it doesn’t feed into this year’s budget it must be for the next major event on the Queensland political calendar, and that’s the 2015 election. Is Strong Choices is poorly disguised research effort from the LNP?
We’re not supposed to notice that the list of preferences for taxes to increase, services to cut and assets to be sold is a list predetermined by the government, either. Other than a small comment box at the end of the online survey, there is no opportunity to make your own suggestions. That's true of all three formats. Facebook comments already indicate that many respondents are writing in their own budget cut: axe politicians’ pay rises.
And if you happen to be a number cruncher who disagrees with the government's calculation of how far to cut, Strong Choices doesn't give you any option at all.
There are reports on Facebook that there are some technical issues: some people have been unable to submit their surveys while others have been able to submit their responses more than once, skewing the results in the process. In the lexicon of campaign sins, releasing a 'buggy' campaign website is pretty close to the top.
Also from Facebook, there are reports that comments critical of the government which were posted on the Strong Choices Facebook page have been deleted. That should not be surprising when the same occurs on King Campbell’s official Facebook Page.
The absolute clanger of Strong Choices is the fact that in order to enact any of the recommendations which could’ve come out of this campaign, Campbell Newman and his band of merry LNP MPs will need to win the next state election…and it appears that Strong Choices is one of the tools they’re using to do that. Isn’t that what Excel would call a Circular Reference?
Congratulations to the LNP Spin Team for such a valiant effort. Few organisations manage to include quite so many misleading cues as this single mis-named effort. It’s just a damned shame that Queensland taxpayers are parting with six million dollars for a campaign that should be funded by the LNP, and which will produce results that are unreliable at best.
Next time I decide to do the Strong Choices survey, I must remember to include the Strong Choices Campaign as a way to cut costs.