Lately, there has been a lot of discussion about ‘the end of the reform era’. Here and here and are just two examples of a trend of late. This isn’t a new debate, its been bubbling around for a few years now. For instance, Great Expectations, Triumph and Demise or Trivial Pursuit.
In its recent iteration, the very basic argument is that Australia has become ungovernable: the public doesn’t want to face the music and politicians are too timid to tell the truth.
But this doesn’t tell us very much about the underlying structural factors at play. What are the incentives and disincentives that politicians are responding to in the Australian political context (and globally)? And, following on from this, what are some of the consequences of these incentive structures.
In several posts of the coming weeks , I’ll explore some of these structural features and their consequences.
Let’s start with communication
We’ve all heard a lot about it. Namely that politicians aren’t doing ‘it’ right. But what are we actually talking about here?
Most often, this complaint seems to be about a lack of consistency in the reasons governments give for doing things. Alternatively, it can be a complaint about the way the government has gone about explaining something. That is, general agreement with the government’s course of action and the reasons given, but dissatisfaction with the timing or the strategy the government has undertaken to explain an idea.
Last year’s budget demonstrates both complaints well (and the following arguments can just as effectively be applied to the ALP during their last term in office).
For the first, consider the GP co-payment, which didn’t really seem to add up: Medicare is unsustainable, so we’ll introduce a price signal which will, or sometimes won’t, deter people from going to a doctor, but all the money will be spent on medical research not making Medicare sustainable. Puzzled faces all round.
For the second, consider the failure of the big picture narrative about the budget. People questioned why dramatic action was needed at all, why it was directed disproportionately at some groups and not others and it struggled to tell us what kind of Australia we would get beyond one that had a balanced budget (which is no bad thing).
But if you don’t believe me, Andrew Robb summed it up neatly:
Many people woke up on the Wednesday morning after the budget and found two very big packages [medicare co-payment and university de-regulation] looking to provide a solution to problems that they weren’t aware we had.
But this isn’t just a question of better ‘narratives’
There is also a deeper problem with the way people are communicating at the moment. Which appears to be a lack of agility in the messaging from the government, which struggles to adapt itself to explain the same idea in multiple ways until it can find a frequency people can relate to or understand.
This was strikingly on display at the Prime Minister’s Press Club address to kick off the political year, which was generally panned by the press defensive and a bit of a fizzer. Abbott was asked several questions in which he struggled to go beyond the headline talking points to develop an argument based on secondary reasoning. Lenore Taylor from The Guardian asked:
…Two sets of modelling found the impact of last year’s Budget fell disproportionately on poorer families even after the carbon tax abolition was taken into account. You’ve explained very clearly why you think that the budget deficit needs to tackled but voters do seem to think that last year’s Budget was unfair. How do you explain to them your belief, presumably your belief that it was fair and the choices that you made there, and why you didn’t take different choices that might have had a different impact on fairness?…
Abbott’s response seemed to circle around the same idea again and again, and struggled to get beyond it:
… Now, I am very concerned for fairness. I wouldn’t be in public life if I wasn’t very concerned for fairness but, Lenore, what’s fair about saddling our children and our grandchildren with debt and deficit as far as the eye can see? This is intergenerational theft. It’s intergenerational theft and I’ve spent plenty of time in recent weeks and months and years talking to older Australians and, you know, older Australians have a horror of handing to their kids debt, of saddling their kids with burdens that they had accumulated and that’s what we’re doing. This generation of Australians is blighting the lives of our children and grandchildren because we, under the former Labor government, lacked the intestinal fortitude to address these issues. We were self-indulgent as a nation because of the former Labor’s Government’s political weakness. That’s what happened, now it’s our mission, it’s the mission of this Government to address that. Now, if you don’t get it quite right the first time, you have another go and you get it as right as you can. But we absolutely owe it to the Australian people today and the Australian people of the future to tackle this issue. I think it was Edmund Bourke who talked about the social compact as being a kind of a trust between those who are dead, those who are living and those who are yet to be born. We will not break that trust.
Now, in general there is nothing wrong with this answer. It follows many of the standard techniques of public relations, in that the PM answers a difficult question on his own terms, says very little that will get him into serious trouble, and repeats his point so many times, you couldn’t miss it.
However, when we consider the context of this speech it is interesting. This speech at the time was billed to make or break his Prime Ministership. Many of the questions, including the one asked above, went to the heart of the critique of the government’s 2014-15 budget (fairness). The government didn’t even try to explain the philosophical reasons, let alone the harder evidence behind their decisions. They thought it would be enough to say that there was a budget emergency and to narrowly blame a much more complicated picture solely on Labor’s mismanagement. The budget has real structural problems and pretending the problem isn’t as difficult as it truly is, severely limits their capacity to act and be taken seriously when there are enough voices pointing out all the problems and contradictions.
Given that none of these problems had been put to bed at the time, and the government was struggling with its partial back-flips on the GP co-payment, Lenore Taylor’s question was entirely predictable. This speech was given almost nine months after the budget came down in May 2014. It is striking that the government has not been able to develop a more compelling argument to deal with this critique, than endlessly repeating the idea of inter-generational theft, without going into any tangible implications of what this will mean for our society. He could have used statistics, he could have used an example, an analogy, anything… Instead, it was just the talking point, said different ways, again and again.
It’s not as if Labor is any better at the whole explaining business, as the their last term in office aptly demonstrates. But, all this points to a lack of depth in some of the more difficult and subtle skills of persuasion.