The “It’s Time” of 2012?

We keep reading claims that Tony Abbott is a low-grade politician who would be wiped off the face of Australian politics if the ALP could only get its act together. Since Abbott has already knocked off one of Australia’s most popular prime ministers and taken another to within an inch of election defeat, it seems more likely that he knows what he’s doing.

The latest evidence of Abbott’s cluefulness has come over the Christmas break. He has adopted a piece of communication that can take him a good way towards the next election:

“We can be better than this”

If the Coalition plays it right, this short and sharp line could be the “It’s Time” of 2012. It manages to go not just beyond criticism of the government but beyond conservative politics as well. It’s a line that can underpin his transition from “negativity” to producing the thing he is shortest on, which is actual policy. It can appeal to middle-of-the-road voters who glance at politics only from time to time. It’s a claim about the Coalition, but also about the nation. It’s ideal for the world of the three-second media grab, but can work in longer statements too. It’s personally ideal for Abbott, with his strong moral streak and his belief (not universal among modern conservatives) that government is a high calling. It can underpin everything he says.

And it has been particularly well-suited to the past week, when even the most uninterested voter will have noticed that the ALP seems to be having a rather messy domestic argument.

No doubt many people will accuse Abbott of hypocrisy, dark intent, attempting to take Australia back to a mythical 1950s White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant-picket-fence era, etc etc. That misses the point. “We can be better than this” is a terrific way to communicate your commitment. Labor could have used it equally well in 2007.

And it’s good for politics to have politicians arguing that politics and Australian democracy should have a high moral aspect. Just as one example, repeating that “we can be better than this” makes it hard to spend the rest of your time saying “turn back the boats”.

There’s surely a lesson here for the ALP, whose most memorable line from the past week is the Infrastructure and Transport Minister’s disclosure that his life’s calling is “fighting Tories”. I understand the temptation, and have enjoyed the activity myself from time to time. But as a message to a jaded public, it’s pure poison. Yet it was still being quoted with enthusiastic approval this morning by Senator Doug Cameron. Thousands of listeners no doubt wondered what has happened to aspirations to run the country well. (Others no doubt wondered what a “Tory” is: the term is far less common here than in the UK or Canada.)

The PM, like her predecessor, seems to understand that people want leaders with great public purpose. Hence the lines in her address yesterday:

“When [the public] look at politicians, actually the doubts that they have is that we are in it for a purpose. That we are in it with some courage to get behind a purpose that we believe is right … I intend to be a stronger and more forceful advocate of what we are doing and what we are achieving for the Australian people.”

Gillard’s address has much to recommend it. It also suffers from the problem which Peter Brent has neatly titled Too Much Meta: Gillard has been explaining that she plans to win back the public, instead of actually winning back the public.

With luck, though, the PM’s address is just the necessary prelude to the renewed focus on governing well which is now so vital to the ALP’s long-term success. Governing well is something Gillard is perfectly capable of doing. It also represents Labor’s best chance to win back the public.

Oppositions can talk about how good they will be. Governments get to show it, which creates a far deeper and more lasting impression.

About David Walker

David Walker runs publishing consultancy Shorewalker DMS (shorewalker.net) and is commissioning editor of Acuity magazine. David has previously edited the award-winning INTHEBLACK business magazine, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia, and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He has written professionally on economics, business and public policy since 1987 and spent three years in the Canberra Press Gallery for News Limited and The Age.
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8 Responses to The “It’s Time” of 2012?

  1. wilful says:

    So let me get this straight: Tony Abbott, via one recently focus-group tested slogan, can suddenly start demonstrating actual policies, costed and realistic, that would genuinely benefit the Australian populace? Something he completely and utterly failed to do in the 2010 election.

    Okaaay.

  2. David Walker says:

    wilful, I said that his slogan “can underpin his transition” to producing more actual policy. I make no comment on whether he actually will make such a transition, or on the merits of any new policies he produces.

    The post is about communication. My observation that Labor could have used the same line in 2007 was an attempt to underline this point.

    Moral of the story: on Troppo as in politics, making your point once or twice is not always enough.

  3. Patrick says:

    Indeed. Policy to one side anyone who thinks that any senior Labor person is a better communicator than Abbott needs to think hard about actual performance!

  4. derrida derider says:

    Oh, ’tis a great marketing line alright. Like others, though, I doubt it is evidence of anything other than that his spinmeisters are better than Gillard’s. While we’ve seen evidence that his policy people – if they even exist – aren’t.

  5. observa says:

    You don’t have to win them back if you buy enough of them as John Black in the Fin review points out-

    “In the medium term, the return of the Gillard/Wayne Swan leadership team means more of the same for the economy and the labour market, and the entrenchment of a culture of dependence in the Labor Party’s economic policies and the party’s associated political profile, instead of the economic growth and productivity reform model of the Hawke/Keating governments.

    In other words, Labor will keep raising taxes or withdrawing concessions for the top one-third of income earners and keep siphoning off revenue from the mining industry and resource states.

    This is so it can be given away to voters in the bottom two-thirds of the family income ranges, especially if they work in manufacturing or the public sector, including the heavily means-tested welfare arm of the health industry, an industry that has grown by 260,000 jobs in four years.

    Since the election of Rudd in November 2007, public administration, education, and health sector jobs have accounted for nearly six out of 10 of the 760,000 jobs created, instead of the longer-term two out of 10. This is why unemployment is not running at 7 per cent.

    Labor’s vote should appear relatively secure in Melbourne and Adelaide, where the party will keep building submarines that don’t work or cars they can’t sell, but the ALP vote should fade across Western Australia and resource dependent parts of Queensland, where the voters are paying for it.”

  6. observa says:

    Yeah we get the picture John?

  7. JB Cairns says:

    wow Observa,

    Taxes as a % of GDP are their lowest since 1978/79.

    Income taxes haven’t changed.
    We can’t get rid of middle class welfare can we?

    And the MRRT hasn’t even come into operation!

    This is a great example how some people are divorced from reality.

  8. Paul Montgomery says:

    There is nothing clever or insightful about “We can be better than this”. It is utterly generic, as evidenced by David saying that Labor could have used it. “It’s Time” was of the moment, it expressed something that the people felt. If you were trying to capture the zeitgeist in a phrase right now, it would be more like “Shut up and get on with it”. Or maybe “Giss another $900”.

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