Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

The Early Use of Radio for Political Communication in Australia and Canada: John Henry Austral, Mr Sage and the Man from Mars

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

The Early Use of Radio for Political Communication in Australia and Canada: John Henry Austral, Mr Sage and the Man from Mars

Article excerpt

The comparative study of electioneering is an emerging field. One of its driving concerns has been to chart the "Americanisation" or convergence of campaigning methods employed in very different settings. Sometimes the assumption is made that this convergence began with the recognition -- first in the USA -- that winning elections demands the skilful use of television. A comparison of the early use of radio in election campaigns in Australia and Canada demonstrates that the "Americanisation" of campaigning pre-dates the advent of television. There are clearly gaps in what is known about the early use of the wireless for political broadcasting Australia. However in 1923-24 E.R. Voigt visited the US and, on his return, urged the NSW Trades Hall to establish 2KY for propaganda purposes. In the 1930s the NSW Labor leader Jack Lang was quick to adopt the "fire-side chat" formula devised for Franklin Roosevelt. In the 1940s RG. Menzies, the founder of the Liberal Party, also came to see radio as a powerful weapon after observing its political use in `USA. Not surprisingly the 1949 Liberal campaign which returned Menzies to power made extensive use of radio. If is often remembered for its "John Henry Austral" radio ads which are claimed as a breakthrough, but which appear to imitate earlier US and Canadian election campaigns -- notably the Canadian Tories "Mr Sage" broadcasts of 1935.

The comparative study of electioneering is an emerging field in the study of political communication.(1) One of its driving concerns has been to chart the increasing similarity of electioneering methods used in diverse political settings. Despite "great differences in the political cultures, histories, and institutions of countries", comparative research points to the recent and increasing use of common electioneering practices such as the employment of media professionals, reliance on political advertising and the carefully calculated use of television.(2) This convergence of electioneering practice has been dubbed the "Americanisation" of campaigning and is invariably seen as a relatively recent trend.(3) Americanisation essentially refers to the use of commercial marketing methods to "sell" candidates -- a process most pronounced in the USA where a "corps of campaign consultants, pollsters and media advisers"(4) have turned campaigning into an industry. It also refers to ways in which television has transformed politics -- again a phenomenon most pronounced in US elections and imitated in countries such as Australia.

Campaign practices may well be "changing rapidly in many democracies" and as a result converging (as Mancini and Swanson insist).(5) But in fact there is little new in the application of commercial marketing methods to "sell" politicians to voters -- nor in the imitation of electioneering methods proven successful elsewhere. Both trends clearly predate the emergence of television, a point often overlooked in accounts of the Americanisation of electioneering which emphasise "video politics" and the central importance of television. This paper examines the early use of radio (or the wireless) in election campaigns in Canada and Australia to demonstrate that the borrowing of campaign methods from the world of commerce and from election campaigns successfully fought elsewhere has a considerable history. Looking at the early use of radio provides a valuable historical perspective. As Mickelson has argued with the USA in mind, if electioneering has been transformed by television in particular, and by other communication technologies as well, then this is best seen from an historical vantage point.(6) Of course, Canada and Australia have similar parliamentary and federal systems of government and are well-suited to comparative analysis.(7) But more than this, there are some curious parallels in the early political use to which radio was put in Canada and Australia and, in Australia's 1942 Broadcasting Act, even a direct debt to earlier Canadian legislation circumscribing the use of radio for electioneering purposes. …

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