The narrative of perfidy: and how it went missing

In politics you need a narrative about what you stand for, but you also need one – an ugly one – about the perfidy of your political opponents. As we can now see, the Coalition’s narrative of perfidy is in very good shape. In fact it’s over thirty years old. As it’s ad for the 2007 election “No offence Mr Howard” suggests, the Labor Party’s narrative is . . . well the best that might be said is that it’s pining for the fiords.

Narratives of perfidy are usually entrenched by an incoming government.

Whitlam’s narrative was that his opponents fancied themselves as “born to rule” an attitude that led them to any act, no matter how illegitimate to regain their inalienable right to power. The Fraser Government’s narrative of perfidy was the ALP’s economic and fiscal indiscipline, something that was true enough.

Hawke and Keating’s narrative – reinforced endlessly as question time was further and further reduced to political point scoring and humiliation of opponents – was how feckless and lacking in the courage of their own convictions the Libs had been. Where Whitlam’s caricature was a bitter one, Keating’s take on similar themes embraced the ‘Lucky Country’ critique of the mediocrity of Australia’s elites with high humour and mockery.

By the time the conservatives had finished, Australia was an ‘industrial graveyard’ as you’ll see if in the video above with PM PJK belting it out like one of his singing heroes Tom Jones.

Howard’s narrative was the old meme of economic indiscipline. It was much less justified than it was against Whitlam – indeed the Hawke/Keating Government’s economic achievements were much more impressive than Howard’s, but the Hawke/Keating Govt managed to be part of macroeconomic misjudgements that converted a record high surplus into a deficit, which had them leaving office with a gift to the conservatives which the Howard Government immediately dubbed Beazley’s black hole.

But around 2007 something strange happened.

It was portended by the Labor ad in which the protagonist had prefaced their announcement that they’d vote Labor with “No offence Mr Howard”. The narrative of perfidy – well it was no longer perfidy, but the anti-Howard narrative was – accurately enough – that he had squandered the dividends of the ALP’s reform and then the mining boom on giveaways rather than on reform or on nation building. Of course these lines were repeated by the Rudd Government once it got into office, but never hammed up in the way Howard and Costello hammed up the Beazley black hole.

No doubt some readers are saying ‘but there were no surprises, because of the Charter of Budget Honesty’. But that just means there were no fiscal surprises. The art of hamming it up which pretty much any of Rudd’s predecessors would have taken to like a duck to water is to take the first nasty development and then look at the audience in mock surprise and indignation. “We might have known this would happen, after how the previous government was behaving”. The pretext could be pretty much anything so long as the narrative can be given some reasonable (if tenuous) grounding in reality.

Shortly after the ALP took power, inflation was taking off and interest rates were going up – there’s your excuse right there. Just look to camera in high dudgeon and say that the Australian people have acted just in time, now all the chickens of the wasted years are coming home to roost and thank God the grown ups are running the country again ready with their plan to put the dividends of the boom to good use and start building that desperately needed infrastructure the absence of which is risking our livelihoods and high interest rates etc etc.

OK it wouldn’t have been particularly edifying, but it would have been at least as justified as the nonsense about the ALP’s fiscal laxity. Oh wait . . . that’s where we are now, and where the ALP will be for another decade if they lose this election, with that narrative of perfidy, that spending like a drunken sailor, and those bastions of good financial sense the Liberals, stepping in to yet again pay off the debt from Labor’s irresponsible binge – (this is the debt we got mainly from the global downturn the rest of which came from following Treasury’s advice.)

But the ALP Government had their chance, and they may have it yet. They’re grown ups and it’s a rough world, they have to look after themselves.

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13 years ago

Tangentially related to the concept of “narrative”:

The soldiers died on the eve of an election in which Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan has not been an issue because both major parties support the ADF’s commitment there.

How strange that both major parties took a whacking… almost like the voters decide for themselves what’s an issue and what’s not. Perhaps the major parties should spend a little less time trying to write the narrative and a little more time listening.

13 years ago

I’ve heard numerous accusations that Mr Rabbit and co (and Howard and co before him) were copying stupid US Republican bullshit that couldn’t possibly work here.

However, the case can be made that Labor copied a lot of the US Dem bullshit, e.g. promise change and not deliver in any significant way (carbon price, even Workchoices) and in particular the “look forward, not backward”, meme. The US Dems deliberately didn’t do anything about the egregious excesses of Bush, nor even mention them.

I think that’s the real source of the problem you’ve identified, Nick. Brainless cut-and-paste by both sides in Australia from the Yanks.

13 years ago

Good post. You can see what PK now thinks about Labor’s strategy of pretending Hawke and Keating never existed in this Lateline interview from 2007: A stark contrast with Labor’s spiel now.


[…] maybe one way of seeing the strange eclipse of the narratives of the perfidy of its opponents on the left of politics is that it’s ignoring this phenomenon. Maybe the left should be a little more […]