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Lunch with Mark Textor, strategist

Sydney Morning Herald

Saturday February 26, 2011

"IT'S no good going into a restaurant and ordering everything on the menu: it costs too much money and it's lazy," pronounces Mark Textor. That's just his first indictment of the contemporary Labor Party and its leaders, most notably Julia Gillard. They're politicians, he argues, trying to be all things to all people and ending up being nothing much at all.So I leave the ordering to Textor and we have three dishes, two entrees and a main. They're all his personal favourites and hardly weigh down the table. But I suspect that's not what lunch is about: the conversation, peppered again with personal favourites, is relentless.Not that it's it all for publication. Mark Textor might have spent his working life channelling public opinion but he's determinedly anxious to keep most of his own opinions - and the material facts of his own existence - meticulously private.Opinions flow from his tongue in torrents, aided and abetted by a pair of hands in constant movement. In one rhetorical flourish they reach out across the three-shot chicken, which had been reheated at the table with much fanfare only to sit untouched for 15 minutes in favour of more talking. Luckily, all flame had been extinguished by then.A man in a suit, with a face and a head that bulges and pulses as if struggling to contain the activity within, Textor says he hates doing media. Perhaps, with a full client list, it's not often he can spare the four hours from his day that he easily filled in our lunch. He did eat, so there must have been times when Textor wasn't talking; I just struggle to remember them.Of course, the irony is he is one of the most influential voices in Australian public life, influence won not by saying what he thinks but by telling people what he hears. John Howard's pollster - scorned as the dark master of push-polling and wedge politics by Labor types - is the suburban whisperer, a man able to conjure up what's in the hearts and minds or ordinary Australians.And, mostly, he does it by listening and, after listening to thousands and thousands of conversations over the past 25 years Textor sets great store by the "collective intelligence of the community".In the voice of public opinion some hear the disturbing sound of our most base prejudices. Textor hears sound commonsense. "Public opinion is just very good due diligence," he says. "You can never underestimate how discriminating and discerning people's views are. And you should never underestimate it."A current of nervous energy seems to pulse through Textor until he says something particularly provocative or startling and then it stops. Or has it? He fixes you with a pair of snake's eyes as if daring you to ignore the chance to challenge what he's just said."WikiLeaks is fantastic," he announces. And stops. And stares. Snake's eyes seem to ask: "Man or mouse?" So you venture, cautiously, that yes, it probably is pretty good in many respects but that you find it more than passing strange to be told so by someone who works, not just for the big end of town but perhaps its most at-risk rump, Big Tobacco.So you pipe up and the insistent movement returns. "I never comment on individual clients and I never said I worked for Big Tobacco," Textor states emphatically.But hang on, isn't it on your website? "Is it?" Textor looks genuinely perplexed and actually draws breath for a moment. (The Crosby Textor website boasts clients including chief executives and boards from Australian and multinational companies in "mining, fast-moving consumer goods, pharmaceutical, retail, financial services, banking ("Big Four"), tobacco, renewable energies, oil, gas and farming sectors.)And off he goes again.Isn't it, in fact, your clients who would have most to lose from WikiLeaks, I wonder. Textor rejects the idea out of hand, saying the harsh light of continuous public exposure - hard to see in the dark embrace of an underground restaurant - is continually shone on the sort of people he works for. Better still that everyone feels it."You have to ask yourself the question: why shouldn't everyone be held to account?" he asks.Doubtless there are times when governments, political parties and multinationals would prefer not to be held to account but the remark captures the essence of Textor's political philosophy. He strongly believes in a rough-house democracy full of passionate debate where people are prepared to argue their case and take the consequences.If that utopian landscape bears resemblance to elements of his Darwin childhood he wouldn't be the first to extrapolate a world view from his formative experiences. He is the son of a Northern Territory policeman who rose to be deputy commissioner. In fact it was young Mark who took the call from an Alice Springs patrolman in 1980 to tell his dad a woman named Lindy reckoned a dingo had stolen her baby. But that was a sidelight to the main event, growing up in what he calls a "truly integrated multicultural community". Beyond his Anglo-Australian household was a street and a high school full of Aborigines, Chinese, Timorese and Portuguese."It's not nirvana and it's not always nice but you're taught to cope with difference," he says.What else does he believe in? Well, among an edited sample of table discourse: the triumph of Asian food ("Europeans have perfected dessert; Asians have perfected food"); the political genius of Greg Combet ("I think he and Howard are incredibly close - from absolutely different perspectives"); the value of education ("There's no greater economic conservative investment than schooling - teachers should be some of the highest-paid professionals in Australia") and immigration ("What our society looks like in 20 years' time is a pregnant issue").His guiding principle is the observation of world-wide "tightening" which will demand significant political attention. "The thing to understand - in Sydney, Australia and the rest of the Western world - is that a 'tightening' is taking place, most particularly in the commuter belts on the fringes of our larger cities," he argues."Transport is more problematic, with trips to work taking longer; choice in shopping is being restricted and there is less financial choice as the impact of rising interest rates, tolls, food costs and utility payments bite into the quality and satisfaction with life. Those concerns, focused on key cost of living factors such as food and energy prices, are being heard in Baghdad, Madrid and Africa. "The flexibilities and freedoms that are supposed to be there, aren't. That produces frustration which bubbles over into a desire for governments to do something," he argues.Textor, now in partnership with Lynton Crosby, a former federal director of the Liberal Party, has parlayed years of political work for conservative parties in Australia and overseas into a lucrative corporate practice. It's basically doing the same job: running a campaign and winning, after listening to what people want - just like he did for the mining industry to help torpedo the super profits tax last year. But Textor, working feverishly to help install his friend Barry O'Farrell in government, can't help but lob bombs into the Labor camp. "The Labor brand is completely toxic. They've tried the same thing so many times - 'We're sorry, we'll do better' but there's very much a mood now that 'if you don't like the rot, get rid of the rotten'."Sussex Street hates Textor; he hates them. He reckons it's about seeing the world - most particularly the mums and dads of suburban Australia - in different ways. "The Sussex Street view is that people are ignorant and we'll exploit that," he explains."The cynical view is people are so silly they can be manipulated. My view is people will make the best decision they can and they will think as hard as they can about it. And the alternative view is a very poor view of our community."They are saying 'let's have a completely cynical and superficial conversation with the electorate'. But they've been found out. I think there's going to be a dramatic cost for that attitude and you see it in their brand health right across Australia."Life and times Born Darwin, 1966. Education: left the Northern Territory to study economics at theAustralian National University, graduating in 1986. Work Joined the Australian Bureau of Statistics in Canberra butwentback north as an economics adviser tothe chief ministerof the Northern Territory,Marshall Perron, before moving into opinion polling. Patrons Darwin lawyer Shane Stone, later to be Liberal Party federal president, lit his political flame.He laterworked with Ronald Reagan‚„s pollster Richard Wirthlin, preparing himfor his long andinfluential role supporting John Howard. PassionCycling; he rides a pedal-assisted electric bike to work and a pedal-powered boat on the harbour.

© 2011 Sydney Morning Herald

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