THE BLOG

Authenticity in the Digital Age

02/03/2015 11:59 GMT | Updated 01/05/2015 10:59 BST

Voters across the UK are starting to assess the big issues and major personalities ahead of the dissolution of Parliament at the end of this month, and the general election on 7 May. While immigration, the future of the NHS and tax reform are getting traction, recent electoral events in Australia may also resonate and are certainly worthy of consideration.

After being all but wiped out in an election in 2012, holding just seven seats, the Australian Labor Party in the state of Queensland has secured a 14 per cent swing and surged back to government. All after one term.

After winning government in the national election of 2013 and being hailed as a conservative hero, Prime Minister Tony Abbott this month was forced to a spill motion by his own party and came within a whisker of losing his job. All within his first term.

The government of the state of Victoria lost office at the end of last year, after serving just one term. It was the first time that had happened in more than 60 years.

This is not an issue of political persuasion. Rather it's about electoral volatility, of altered voter behaviours and changed political realities. And if they're happening in Australia, there are likely to be lessons for the UK.

My sense is that voters are well and truly over the tightly controlled permanent campaigns of modern governments, where political advisors keep their masters on a tight leash of talking points, carefully constructed sound bites and sloganeering.

Polling and focus groups determine what can be discussed and in what way, and establishes the 'no go' areas of unpopular policy reform.

We have been watching these unelected advisors plying their trade for too long, and with a new-found power to see through the spin and manipulation, we're increasingly looking for authenticity in our elected leaders.

With all the sophistication of the suite of communication technologies at our fingertips, from mainstream to social media and the 24-hour news cycle, leaders and their actions must pass the 'pub test.' The adjudication of the patrons of the front bar is a significant indicator of authenticity which professional political advisors and their masters are reluctantly admitting.

Even Prime Minister Abbott when mopping up a recent "stuff up" - his words not mine - conceded he'd failed the pub test.

Common sense is at the heart of authenticity. Being who you are, trusting your judgement and backing your instinct translates to a real person who "speaks human" rather than in talking points designed to say precisely nothing and offend no one.

Yet, in our networked, interconnected and socialised digital age, how does authenticity shine through? The answer to that question may well determine who wins the general election.

The phenomena of instant gratification that so defines these times goes hand in hand with the rise of social media and political short-termism. It's true that engaging use of social media can help a politician in an election campaign with targeted messaging. It's also true that an ill-considered tweet can very quickly turn into a major issue, especially if it gets picked-up by the mainstream media.

A lack of authenticity is now subject to viral amplification. It can have profound consequences for a candidate or the longevity of a leader.

This history of social media, albeit a relatively young one, is littered with hashtag fails.

He may be the reigning king of traditional media in Australia and the UK, but Rupert Murdoch's first foray into the twittersphere was quickly deleted after his own wife tweeted in response to take it down. Murdoch's first brush with #fail? "Maybe Brits have too many holidays for a broke country." And his big lesson? That even if you delete a tweet, chances are somebody has already taken a screen grab of it.

Yet perhaps it's when a public figure goes off script that we get a glimpse of the real person. It might cause minders to pull their hair out with frustration but it might also be the genuine connection we're all looking for.

The electorate is volatile in Australia, and likely elsewhere too. We have seen the Prime Minister change four times over the past 2 years, and prior to that we'd had four Prime Ministers over thirty years. Enough said. There are clearly multiple forces influencing the increased volatility, some of it is self-inflicted where governments come to office believing they're popular when in fact they're elected because the other side was deeply unpopular, but a large part of the story is the absence of authenticity in leadership.

With the move to short-termism in society, the prevalence of no-confidence motions, spills and unstable one-term governments could become the new normal. The solution may well lie in our political leaders having the courage to show us who they really are and what they truly stand for.

Alex Malley is chief executive of CPA Australia