by SARRAH LE MARQUAND
Fraternising with the cricket team or eating a meat pie at the footy has long been considered perfectly acceptable conduct for a prime minister. But morning tea with a circle of women? Well, that’s just silly.
So went the indignant response when Julia Gillard hosted a gathering of the country’s most popular “mummy bloggers” at Kirribilli House a few months ago.
It was a dismissive sentiment later echoed when the PM treated caucus to a one-hour presentation designed to convince backbenchers to venture on to Facebook to woo this new generation of “soft” voters.
“I stopped listening as soon as the PowerPoint screen came down,” a senior Labor MP – one of several cynics in their leader’s midst – told The Daily Telegraph at the time.
But according to some of the more prominent women who attended Gillard’s morning tea in June, our federal parliamentarians underestimate this so-called soft demographic at their peril.
“Politicians need to wake up, stop rolling their eyes, and keep up with the sentiment and real issues affecting men and women in their electorates,” advises Eden Riley, whose blog Edenland attracts 90,000 hits a month and was named Sydney Writers Centre’s Best Blog for 2012. “Most Australians, not just women, are on Facebook. (It’s) a bit like the old days of door knocking.”
As someone who has witnessed the power of social media first hand after landing a publishing deal on the strength of her online musings, blogger and author Kerri Sackville agrees the PM is on to something.
“You put them (MPs) online and people can actually talk to them and they cease being generic policy makers and start being real people,” she says. “Someone who does it brilliantly is Kevin Rudd.”
As with all who were invited to the PM’s winter morning tea, Sackville is bursting with anecdotes of her host’s warmth and humility and recalls being charmed by the nation’s most powerful woman ducking into the kitchen to wash an empty tray before returning it to its owner.
“I think it was an incredibly smart move,” she says of the morning tea. “It served to humanise her to all of us. She can’t meet everybody but to meet key players who can then spread the word in our own way is very important.”
If the objective was to forge a connection with fellow women, then Chantelle Ellem, from popular blog Fat Mum Slim, believes it was a successful mission.
“It certainly opened the door for her to create relationships and get into the minds of mums in Australia,” she observes.
And it’s an approach that would appear to be paying off with this week’s Newspoll revealing Labor’s primary vote is back to its highest level in 18 months, while the Coalition’s crashed to its lowest since March of last year.
Perhaps even more promisingly for the PM, voter satisfaction towards her is on the climb, giving her a comfortable 14-point lead against Opposition Leader Tony Abbott in the preferred prime minister stakes.
It’s a result that comes in the wake of Abbott fending off allegations that he attempted to intimidate a female political rival by punching a wall back in his university days in 1977.
The incident has renewed speculation as to whether the father of three daughters has a problem with women.
It’s a perceived weakness his opponents have been eager to capitalise on, with Tanya Plibersek observing just last month: “I think he does find it very difficult that he’s dealing with two women in positions of authority.”
Abbott blames a Labor “dirt unit” for the claims suddenly surfacing into the public arena, but whether he’s right or not it appears to be working. The government is going after women and now women are coming home to Gillard.
Despite key players on both sides traditionally wary of openly acknowledging the gender politics at play – it remains unfashionable to recognise that the very existence of our first female prime minister is a significant milestone – ALP strategy appears to have shifted.
Aware of the power in exploiting a malaise on the part of female voters towards Abbott, Gillard has become increasingly proactive in her attempt to connect with women. Only a few weeks before playing morning tea hostess, she visited the office of high-profile blogger Mia Freedman’s website Mamamia to answer reader questions on childcare.
“It was a pinch-yourself moment because two years ago I was still sitting in my kitchen with my laptop and now the PM is arriving and shaking hands with my kids,” Freedman says. “It was really exciting because it showed loud and clear that the leader of our country understood they were a large and influential audience.”
Having launched the nation’s first dedicated blogger talent agency earlier this year, director of The Remarkables Group Lorraine Murphy believes blogging is a natural extension of neighbours talking over the fence – only with more advanced technology.
“We’re living in a more disconnected society than our parents and grandparents did so mothers often need to substitute that sense of community with their online friends. It would be wise for politicians to observe how mothers are communicating and build relationships with those who are holding those conversations,” Murphy says.
Like many of her peers, Riley resents the patronising overtones in being dubbed a mummy blogger – a mantle increasingly slapped upon anyone who happens to be female and owns a computer.
“You cannot blanket an entire demographic of women under the term mummy blogger – it’s just wrong, and quite offensive,” she says. “That label is so soft in terms of who I am it is ridiculous and funny. I’m a 40-year-old woman who writes about drug addiction, cancer, suicide, step-mothering, and marriage issues on the internet. Real issues.”
It’s a description also rejected by Freedman, who points out Mamamia has grown into a diverse enterprise with a large stable of contributors opining on everything from the carbon tax to quinoa.
As to the often condescending coverage of Gillard’s overtures towards female voters, Freedman is amused such a powerful demographic should be so easily dismissed.
“I’ve always found it hilarious that so many marketers refer to women as a niche audience. How is 51 per cent of the population niche? Women are responsible for 85 per cent of the purchasing decisions in any household. And they’re highly influential in another 10 per cent on top of that. This isn’t just washing powder and breakfast cereal but banking, cars, holidays and investments.”
Staring down critics within her own party regarding the merits of wooing the electorate via carefully targeted online avenues, Gillard recently brushed shoulders with the country’s top social media names aged under 30 at a lunch in Sydney organised by Tom Waterhouse.
“To give up two hours of her time when there’s huge issues going on around the world, well I know everyone was very appreciative. No matter what your views are politically it’s an honour to be able to talk to your leader,” says Waterhouse.
And while the event was aimed at celebrating the nation’s top “Twitterati”, Waterhouse is equally sympathetic to Gillard’s attempt to mobilise her party room to harness the largely untapped power of Facebook.
“It’s not the be all and end all, but it is another way to communicate,” he says. “From a prime minister’s point of view I can see why she wants to push it – even if you decide it’s not for you that’s got be a far better solution than not trying it at all.”
Not so convinced is demographer Bernard Salt, who questions the wisdom of courting those who wield influence within the relatively new landscape that is social media.
“Julia Gillard is a product and she’s a product that is being marketed to a specific segment in order to broaden her appeal,” he says.
“The Coalition will be doing exactly the same with Tony Abbott but what it’s showing is that there are gaps in Julia Gillard’s appeal that they are now looking to plug.
“The real talent is in being able to identify the segment and then match that up with an appropriate response. Now does having a morning tea with mummy bloggers really fill the gap, that’s the question? Does an event with Tom Waterhouse really sell the prime minister into that segment?
“The whole thing hangs on how much power and authority and leverage does the blogger set have. The social media enthusiasts will argue that it’s incredibly powerful but I’m not sold on it myself. I’m not convinced that people form their political opinion by blogs that they read. It comes down to the influence and impact that a blog can actually have on an action and I think that is yet to be really tested.”
While he remains doubtful of the capacity of bloggers to shift public opinion and alter voting patterns, Salt argues that the traditional, mainstream media retains the power to do just that.
“It’s not a popular view – the popular, trendy Gen Y view of the world is that there’s old media and there’s new media,” says Salt, who believes newspapers and television current affairs programs enjoy a credibility that still eludes bloggers.
“It’s not some person out in the ‘burbs who’s writing anything because they’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. So to me there is a value issue that the social media enthusiasts don’t really appreciate.”
Although Salt concedes there have been instances where a complaint aired on social media has gone viral and prompted action from a company or organisation, he’s dubious a communications revolution is afoot.
“The problem is it’s unproven. It’s hard to argue against it because there are examples where social media has had a big impact, positive and negative. But what is the ratio between effort expended and the outcome that flows from that?
“And my argument is that maybe one in a million tweets, maybe one in a million blogs, actually does have an impact.
“But there’s a lot of low-grade overburden that has to be laboriously ploughed through in order to get to those gems that do work and do change opinion.”
This article was originally published in The Daily Telegraph and has been republished with permission.
Sarrah Le Marquand is an Associate Editor and columnist at The Daily Telegraph. Visit her blog here.
Do you think politicians should be more willing to engage with social media and online media? What are the political issues that determine how you vote in federal elections?