Me too, you too

Below the fold is a column of mine about ‘me tooism’. In short, not all bad, and something that could be usefully extended in various ways.

You Too

Just as Paul Keatings penchant for divisiveness and cultural warfare was a prelude to his successor John Howards brand of politics, so the template for Rudds me too election was Howards small target strategy in 1996.

Me too is a response to the (growing?) advantages of political incumbency and the rigorously enforced media values of infotainment though yesterdays campaign launch suggests we’ve already seen the high watermark of me too.

In an age where politicians messages only travel in sound bites and photo ops, every unscripted moment or departure from the conventional wisdom spells danger.

Dr Hewsons very reasonable (but complex) explanation of how his GST would affect the price of a birthday cake is a legendary cautionary tale of how not to campaign.

His error? Answering the question. And discussing policy . . . in detail.

Thats no way to handle the mother of all scare campaigns, where the media had long since abandoned interest in the policy detail, and were back to race-calling the election and telling us how disastrously off message John Hewson had been.

Governments can control the news with policy making (and leaking), agenda setting and information campaigns. And they can thrash out new policy over long periods of feedback between themselves and officials. By contrast under the Charter of Budget Honesty, Oppositions get one hours notice of officials first and final costings of their policies before theyre released.

Living in terror of the next wedge or scare campaign and the embarrassment deserved or not of official disagreement with Opposition costings, those words me too are a haven in a heartless world for an Opposition.

Still where me too is a dirty word in the media, robbing it of the oxygen of set piece battles to report, we might ask whether me-too thats bi-partisanship were talking about is all bad.

When it comes to constitutional change, history teaches that each major party has a veto. Theres now tacit understanding that its me too or a lost referendum.

And theres a class of policies which, though broadly agreed as worthy by informed policy makers, would also be electoral poison without bi-partisan agreement. For example, reducing concessions on taxing the family home, capital gains and negative gearing could fund large reductions in other taxes. And both State and Commonwealth Governments should replace the plethora of special deals given to senior citizens and others with greater assistance for those in genuine need.

Right now neither party can say much about these issues for fear of the inevitable scare campaign. Political leaders might cut through this Gordian knot by indicating that they support such measures but only if there was broader political support including from their opponents.

Could this happen soon? Probably not. Its simpler to stick to the pantomime morality in which words and deeds move in lock step.

Theres another kind of me tooism that requires no great courage for a politician to grasp only the imagination to see its advantages. Caution in the absence of stronger support can guard against hubris and so lead to a firmer and more long lasting grip on power.

After the debacle of Iraq, New British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is making a splash by reasserting the role of parliament over the executive, for instance in committing troops abroad. Had John Howard stayed truer to public sentiment regarding our participation in Iraq (not to mention workplace reform) he might look a little less worried today.

Its not too late, even in this campaign, for either side to get the ball rolling in making the transition from the negativity of me tooism to a more constructive you tooism. It could do a Gordon Brown and commit itself never to send Australian soldiers into direct combat overseas without bi-partisan support.

Meanwhile if the Government had thought harder about the dynamics of me too it might have pitched Mondays policy launch differently. If the election were a simple auction, the Governments near $10 billion of new spending provided a budget, a new benchmark of respectability, from which Labor could play me too and cherry pick.

As its turned out, it gave Rudd the opportunity to differentiate his offering more fully. Whose judgement is superior? Time will tell.

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16 years ago

Neat piece, Nicholas. If Rudd gets in, I think a fair deal of this shallowness will change. If you consider what Rudd wants to do with education, for instance – and I believe his intentions are more extensive than he’s given off btw – that requires a fairly in-depth explanation to the Australian people. It’s more than a case of announcing policy with a brief consumable soundgrab per Howard. He has to explain a vision here. That takes some doing, and isn’t achieved quickly.

That issue alone will cause a shift in media attitude, especially print, a welcome one I would have thought, which could flow throughout to fairly significant changes for the better.

Then again, I doubt we’ll find someone so utterly focussed, manic perhaps, as Howard in wanting to lock up the conversation on a daily, word by word basis. Anyone else would make a change for the better, by simple nature of different personality.

Being PM you obviously get the lion’s share of the national conversation. I think Rudd will take full advantage of that in a much more positive way than we’ve seen – and he doesn’t mind a chat either by the look of him, enjoying his own intelligence and ideas – with that vice-like grip and reduction being replaced with something more fluid.

16 years ago

The Coalition’s or more precisely Howard’s tactic with regard to the Opposition has been to attack them at every opportunity, to end every statement made in Parliament or to the media, with an addendum of how terrible things were under Labor. Bob Carr, conversely, barely gave his Opposition oxygen, hardly ever mentioned them, treating them as though they didn’t even exist. Both tactics are bullish and in the long run demoralising for an Opposition. In the former, such a tactic is eventually seen for what it is and regarded as nothing more than tedious because it is so obviously puerile.

The me-tooism–the anti-wedge, has shown Rudd up to be a far wilier politician than Howard, leaving Howard flabbergasted and with nowhere to go. It affirms for the electorate/economy/society/working families/populations, that we face agreed upon predicaments that can only be addressed in so many ways, all of which ultimately entail forms of increased support and funding. The difference lies only in the ways in which that money is distributed.

With a bit of luck the black/white, right/wrong, did/didn’t, Howardian schoolyard, bullyboy tactics have come to an end, and we can move into a more mature debate, where agreement, because of an extant rationality can be reached. A hung Parliament or one in which minor parties hold sway will make it a necessity.

I can’t see a Rudd Government blaming the Coalition at every turn for every inconvenience. That would look simply juvenile. Wouldn’t it?

derrida derider
derrida derider
16 years ago

Of course me-tooism often works (though the other strategy – “new vision”, “everything will change for the better” can too – that’s how Gough Whitlam got elected).

But while me-tooism can be smart politics it has the unfortunate side effect of constraining debate within very narrow bounds. If your policy position is not picked up by either government or opposition then it is really tough to get the arguments considered in the mainstream debate. As examples try arguing against superannuation, or against paternalism in welfare or indigenous policy, or in favour of more moves from direct to indirect taxation, or for less defence spending (or for much more defence spending for that matter).