Mr Crosby is a former Australian Liberal Party strategist who helped Prime Minister John Howard win four successive federal elections.
A father of two in his late 40s, Mr Crosby is seen as a master of modern polling techniques.
He has won wide praise in Britain for his expertise, however there are no signs his influence will translate into votes.
Following is a full transcript of SBS World News’ interview with Mr Crosby.
Middleton: Lynton Crosby, you’re almost at the end of the British election campaign. Can you tell me what kind of campaign you think you’ve run here?
Crosby: I think the Conservative Party under Michael Howard has run a very professional campaign, very focused, well-integrated at both the national and local level and very much dealing with the issues that the average Briton is concerned about.
Middleton: What about the criticism that it’s been a negative campaign and quite divisive in some areas?
Crosby: It’s funny how your opponents always say that but I think Michael Howard has laid out a very clear plan for the future. I think most Britons today can clearly understand what he would do if he were elected, the priorities he would take to government: more police, school discipline, clean hospitals, controlled immigration, lower taxes. They’ve been things he’s been focusing on for months, really back towards the middle of last year. So he’s been very consistent.
Labour really in this campaign have… whilst they had a slogan about the future have essentially said, ‘Vote for us otherwise the Tories will get elected’, which really isn’t a positive message for the future. And I think Mr Blair has been captive to the actions of his past eight years, it’s made it very hard for him to throw forward and to tell people what he would do in the next five years because people feel that he’s let them down in the previous eight. So there’s been a problem for Labour in that respect.
Middleton: But I mean your take on immigration hasn’t been particularly a positive message, some people argue it’s been quite xenophobic and it’s designed to press the xenophobic buttons in the community. How do you respond to that criticism?
Crosby: Well it’s not my take. Michael Howard laid out in October last year his plans for controlled immigration. He’s built on that since. I think people need to look at it in a realistic way. There is a concern in this country, amongst many Britons that the system is out of control and anyone who’s worried about issues of access to public services, community relations all of those things, will be concerned, to ensure we have controlled and well run system. If the system breaks down, confidence fails and that’s the problem that’s occurred in this country.
Middleton: So what about the criticism that it’s effectively what people like to call “dog whistle” politics. That it’s designed to ignite some fear at some level in the community and not be heard by others?
Crosby: Well I think all of that, that a dog whistle chant and other things, a lot of that’s come from the Labor Party in Australia, I think who are still trying to get over the fact that they’ve been defeated by John Howard and the Liberals in Australia four times on the trot. And so by proxy they’re trying to involve themselves in this campaign.
But the reality is that Michael Howard has very effectively focused on the issues that mattered to British families, hard-working families who do the right thing and who want a government that focuses on what matters to them, rather than lets them down the way they feel that Mr Blair and his government have done.
Middleton: So you don’t accept at all that the argument that says that it’s dividing the community because it puts people of English heritage or British heritage against those who’ve come from other countries?
Crosby: That’s not true at all. If you look around the country you will find support for the sorts of arguments and the stand that Michael Howard has taken from across the community. Whatever their, their country of origin, whatever their background, there is strong support for a controlled immigration regime in this country and for a more effective management of asylum.
Many people in Australia would be surprised to learn for example that there are over a quarter of a million failed asylum seekers in this country that people don’t know where they are. They’ve fail to achieve asylum they’re supposed to have left the country but they’re just somewhere out there in the community. So people have a concern about the fact that the system doesn’t manage these things effectively. That’s the real challenge for government to get on top of this so that people can have confidence in the system that exists. It’s not about race, it’s very much about the right way to come to a country and the right management of the system.
Middleton: Sounds like a populist argument, an argument that ‘we test the wind, we think people will like this, so that’s the direction we’re going to go in’, rather than an argument that might be leading them in a different direction.
Crosby: No it’s not populist, I mean what is the obligation of a political party, of a politician, of a government? It’s to understand a community’s concern, respond to those concerns, provide leadership. Michael Howard has been prepared to talk about things that are sometimes difficult issues to confront, but being prepared to do so, because he believes genuinely in the need to confront the problems that face this country.
Whether it’s taxation, whether it’s the fact that more people die in this country, the fourth richest country in the world, from hospital-acquired infections because hospitals aren’t kept clean than die from road accidents, or whether it’s the challenge of dealing with an immigration system that has lost the community’s confidence.
If you want a real problem, if you want parties like the BNP to prosper, you have a system that’s not properly managed and run and in which people no longer have confidence that’s where you have problems.
Middleton: You talked about some arguments coming from the Labor Party in Australia. How much have you borrowed campaign techniques and messages from Australian campaigns and transposed them here in Britain?
Crosby: It’s not a question of borrowing techniques. Obviously anyone takes the experiences of their own life and applies them when they’re working somewhere else. But in terms of the techniques and the approaches being used in this country, they’re no different to what you would find in campaigns virtually anywhere in the world.
It’s interesting there’s been a lot of focus on my involvement in this campaign but the Labour Party has had a number of Americans working for them over months and months and months, and a number of Australians have been working for the Labour Party too. And Fraser Kemp, who’s the deputy campaign manager for the Labour Party, has a photo of Paul Keating on his desk so we know where he gets his inspiration from.
Middleton: Do you think these are techniques and strategies though that are unfamiliar to British campaigning until now?
Crosby: No. I think a lot of people, particularly in the media if I could say, get excited about the techniques and strategies and all of that. British people just want, like all voters, just want one thing: they want a government that understands their concerns, that deals with those concerns and gives them confidence in the future. And I think wherever you go in the world when you’re seeking to represent people, your obligation is to understand them and to respond to their aspirations and hopes, and Michael Howard has sought to do that, and if you’re to be successful in politics, anywhere in the world, as a political party you’ve got to be able to do that.
Middleton: You’ve been portrayed as some kind of mysterious foreigner, ruthless, hard-headed, pushing-all-these-terrible-buttons. How do you respond to those criticisms?
Crosby: Well, you know, I am somewhat bemused by the interest that’s been focused upon me, I suppose partly because the fact that I am not from the UK. I’m from Australia – there is that interest, but in terms of what the plans that have been put out there at this election and in the lead up to the election, they’ve been very much Michael Howard’s.
He’s a strong, energetic, very effective, serious politician. He laid out in October last year, before I had come on board, the clear priorities he wanted to take to the British people, the five priorities that I mentioned before. More police, school discipline, controlled immigration, lower taxes, cleaner hospitals and also one other emphasis that he had, accountability.
There’s a sense… because there is this sense in this country that governments don’t seem to be accountable as they used to be and there’s been a lot of disillusionment with the way Mr Blair has changed some of the approaches to the institutions and conventions of government in this country. But that’s Michael Howard and the Conservative Party’s policy and approach. All I’ve sought to do is to assist them as someone that they’ve engaged to provide that assistance.
Middleton: This sounds like a man who’s now distancing himself from this campaign.
Crosby: Not at all, not at all.
Middleton: ‘Michael Howard did it. It’s his idea.’
Crosby: No, not at all. Not at all, not at all. There’s a difference between how you communicate the messages and how you approach the campaign in terms of what you physically do. But it’s always the case, whether it’s John Howard in Australia or Michael Howard in the United Kingdom, that it’s the political representatives, the elected representatives and their leader who determine policies. You know that’s the case, and my job has been to assist them in communicating the policies and approaches that they take to the British people.
And they’ve developed their policies and their beliefs from an engagement with the British people, to understand the concerns and priorities of the British people, and to respond to those. So there’s… no, don’t be under any illusion whatsoever, there’s no sense of distancing, it’s just stating the obvious fact. Elected representatives determine policy, that’s their job, that’s what they’re asked to do and our task, my task, has been to help them communicate those priorities to the British people.
Middleton: You mentioned John Howard. He’s come out in favour of Tony Blair. How do you feel about the bloke you got elected coming out against your opponent?
Crosby: I didn’t get John Howard elected. The Australian people elected him. And I was happy to play a part in helping the Liberal Party sell their story to the Australia n people.
But John Howard indicated that he has affinity with the conservative party, he hopes they’re back in government. Obviously because of some of the issues with which he’s had to deal as Prime Minister over the last few years he’s built a personal relationship with Tony Blair. That’s understandable.
Middleton: There’s a story in the paper suggesting that there’s been a big donation to the Conservative Party to cover your costs, the figure of 250,000 pounds has been mentioned. Michael Spencer says, ‘I think Lynton Crosby’s costing us a little more than that’. How much are you costing the Conservative Party?
Crosby: I’m costing the conservative party whatever I’m costing the conservative party.
Middleton: And in terms of the pressure of that though, they’ve made a big investment in you and your company and you’ve had to cop a little of flack over that, the suspicion about you being from Australia. What sort of pressure does that put you under on the eve of the poll? Are you concerned that anything less than a very, very significant paring back of Blair’s majority will look like failure for you?
Crosby: I hope for the British people that they have a conservative government on Friday. But whatever the outcome, all you can do when you’re working, when you do anything in life is give it your best shot. That’s what I’ve done and I’ll accept whatever the result is.
Middleton: What is a successful result for you?
Crosby: Well I don’t think you can put numbers on it or outcomes. Obviously, it would be great to see a Conservative government in charge of Britain. It would be good for Britain and it would be good for the British people. But all I’ve sought to do is do the best, give the best advice I can.
And I and my company and Mark Textor… have to be satisfied that we’ve given our best effort and we feel we have, and we’ll wait and see the people’s judgment.
Middleton: Some of the polls have you in the 20s today though. That’s not very encouraging though is it?
Crosby: Well there’s lots of polls, they come and go. There’s only one poll that ultimately does the true measure and that’s going to be on Thursday, fifth of May and whatever that determines, we’ll accept.
Middleton: Have there been mistakes made you think, I mean for example Michael Howard’s use of the word ‘liar’ against Tony Blair? Back in Australia that kind of thing is water off a duck’s back in the cut and thrust of politics, but it seems more unusual here. Was that a mistake?
Crosby: Well it wasn’t the first time that word’s been used. It’s not the first time someone’s been accused of [being] a liar in the UK. In fact, I understand but I haven’t seen that Labour made that charge against John Major, 1997, in a party political broadcast. I haven’t seen it myself but that’s what someone told me. Look, I think people can get excited and hung up on particular words but the reality is that Tony Blair has fundamentally lost the trust of the British people and that has been a significant problem for him because people have no confidence that what he says is what he’ll actually do, or what he really means.
Middleton: Well, what about this idea of trust that featured in the Australian election campaign? Prime Minister John Howard used that very effectively in terms of trust as credibility and reliability. Here it seems to be, being turned on Tony Blair in terms of trust, in a dishonest sense. Is that a concept that’s being borrowed from the Australian election campaign?
Crosby: No I think people try to read too much into things sometimes. There’s no borrowing of anything really. The fact is that when he became Prime Minister, Tony Blair said that he had no plans to increase taxes. He increased them 66 times. He said to people that his priorities would be education, education, education. And yet there’s a massive problem with discipline in schools today. Truancy is very high and there’s a number of other education problems identified. And he said there was 48 hours I think it was, or 24 hours, to save the NHS, and now more people die from hospital-acquired infections than die from road accidents in this country. So there’s a whole series of situations where Mr Blair promised one thing and delivered something else. And that has undermined people’s confidence and trust in what he says.
Middleton: Do you think people have confidence and trust in Michael Howard though?
Crosby: I do, I think people see Michael Howard as a strong and straight person. He calls it the way he sees it. He’s prepared to speak out on issues that he feels are important to people and the British community believe are important, yet sometimes people try to shy away from. So I think they see in him someone who will call it the way it is, who will be straight and true, who’ll look them in the eye and tell them, you know, tell them the way he sees it. And I think that is at the foundation of trust. If you’ve got someone who’s prepared to do that even in the face of criticism, even in the face of accusations of all sorts, then that’s a good quality for a leader to have.
Middleton: I’ll come back to him though, just finishing off. What we talked about Australian and Britain and the use of similar techniques, what are the differences between campaigning in Australia and campaigning here? There are obvious differences; voting is not compulsory here, there are caps on spending in elections, there is no television advertising… what has been different for you running a campaign here?
Crosby: Oh well there’s always, there’s sort of elements of the mechanics that will be different because as you describe there is a different system. Because you have voluntary voting, then one of your challenges is to motivate people to get out and vote, you don’t just have to persuade people to your way of thinking, or to support you, but you actually have to get those who do support you out to vote. And that means at this stage of a campaign, in the last few days of a campaign, you’ll always be pushing people to turn out, encouraging people to turn out, stimulating their turn out. So that’s a difference. But in many ways, people are people, so a lot of it, you know, things don’t change much.
Middleton: What are your plans after the election? How long will you stay in Britain for the wash up, whatever the result?
Crosby: Well I’ll have a few days rest and holiday and then head on back towards Australia, get back to work in Australia.
Middleton: And what do you think the results going to be?
Crosby: Well I’m hopeful for the British people that there’s a conservative government on Friday. I think that it’s still all to play for. There’s a high degree of undecided votes and I think it will be a strong result for the Conservatives.
Middleton: But you’re not predicting a victory.
Crosby: I don’t ever predict outcomes. I hope the British people get a Conservative government. I’m confident that the party can win. But in 48 hours we’ll all know.
Middleton: Thanks very much.