Please explain

I made a comment here a couple of days ago which I believe expresses the frustrations of many about the chronic failure of the Labor government, both under Rudd and Gillard,  to effectively prosecute the case for reform in just about every area:

The puzzle here, as in contemporary Australian politics more generally, lies in the evident inability of the federal Labor government to robustly and effectively defend and promote its own policies, and the equally evident unwillingness of the mainstream media to see its role as doing anything beyond “horse race” reportage.

Rudd was just an abysmal communicator as well as (apparently) a complete prick, but Julia Gillard clearly has the capacity to communicate effectively and engagingly.  Yet invariably both she and her Ministers choose not to do so.  It’s an observation Peter Lewis makes in an article at ABC Unleashed with specific reference to the Murray-Darling water debate, and that Niki Savva makes more generally in today’s Oz:

If politicians give journalists something interesting to report, and lead debates, then they will oblige by publishing it and broadcasting it. If politicians find new things to say about old issues, or say them in an interesting way, they will get run. As well as using the right tactics, they also need to muster the right arguments. They require a strategic approach, taking account of the pitfalls and dealing up front with them.

Politicians will not always like the way their remarks are reported. The reports could be negative, outrageously misinterpreted and downright unfair, but the Prime Minister, backed by her senior ministers, has to be out in the public arena leading and steering important debates.

Labor has largely allowed the public debate to go by default to the Opposition not only in the Murray-Darling water debate but on climate change, the current debate about the role of the independent Director of Military Prosecutions, and even the National Broadband Network,  just to pick a few current examples.

I can’t help wondering why?  Gillard is clearly no fool nor are her colleagues (well, some of them anyway), and there must be at least a few advisers with a bit of nouse.  So why are they continuing Rudd’s “strategy” of failing to engage pro-actively in substantive public debate until it’s too late and the well of public opinion has been irretrievably poisoned on a given issue? It’s a sincere question, and I’d really like some help from Troppo readers because I’m truly mystified and have been for quite some time.  Here are a few possibilities:

  1. There is some deeply cunning principle of spin-doctoring that dictates failing to defend one’s own policies and giving an ongoing free kick to your opponents.
  2. They really are trying to defend their policies, but they’re so bad at it that this is the best they can manage.
  3. They are so busy with actual policy implementation that they don’t have time to publicly defend and prosecute the policy agenda.
  4. They think it’s pointless to prosecute any particular policy agenda because they’re going to be forced to negotiate it with the Greens and Independents so that the final outcome may bear little resemblance to the initial policy proposal, so why bother risking antagonising potential losers when you can duck for cover, leave the public servants out front and refer the issue to a parliamentary committee?
  5. They think that the great unwashed in marginal seats are completely uninterested in substantive policy in any real sense, and why waste time on the self-appointed cognoscenti minority like political blog readers,  ABC viewers and broadsheet newspaper readers?
  6. The Parliamentary Labor Party is now so full of career politicians whose entire experience is in the union movement or as party apparatchiks that they have neither knowledge of nor interest in anything beyond their own immediate political survival.  They don’t in fact possess any substantive beliefs or policy aspirations at all, and therefore there is no issue worth defending unless opinion polls and focus groups suggest it’s worthwhile.  Policy is for “policy wonks”.

Please explain, as Pauline H once famously put it.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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hc
hc
11 years ago

I agree Ken. Look back on the discussion about climate change policy. The explanations given on this topic to the public by Labor politicians were abysmal. The best case for an ETS was provided by Malcolm Turnbull. No-one else tried to explain the idea of meeting emissions at minimum cost. No-one responded to the ‘big new tax’ scare campaign with an explanation that the tax was not designed to gain revenue. In fact the reform responses made it less revenue-neutral.

So too on the mining tax. The basic idea that the tax would cut into shareholder returns but would have, if anything, a positive effect on exploration because other stupid output-linked state taxes were abolished was not explained.

Both parties treat the Australian electorate as fools. And I do not believe that is accurate. The Labor Party does seem to be dominated by a small bunch of fools whose proximate objective is just to win votes. Trying to explain issues properly to the public would lead to better outcomes and more secure parliamentary seats.

Salvor Hardin
Salvor Hardin
11 years ago

There are two exceptions – Afghanistan and the Internet Filter – which the ALP seem welded to regardless of public opinion polls.

Alan
Alan
11 years ago

I suspect a combination of 5 and 6. I am also not as sure as you are about Gillard’s capacity. She ran a completely vacuous program in the election and seems unable to communicate in anything but slogans and clichés. She’s always had much more of a rep as a numbers operator than anything else, and it shows.

I just listened to her speech on Afghanistan, which could have been a defining moment for this government. The rhetoric was flat as a tack and the content was a cut-and-paste job that could have been delivered by anyone anywhere on the political spectrum.

conrad
conrad
11 years ago

Thank goodness they are now in partnership with the Greens. At least that will force them to deal with many issues that would have been swept under the carpet otherwise (already we have euthanasia, gay marriage, and Afghanistan).

steve from brisbane
11 years ago

I think that 4 has an element of truth in it – but still I feel it’s rather early in this new government to be complaining about Gillard’s performance given the unusual challenges she faces, isn’t it? And on the military prosecution issue – I don’t know that anyone really would have guessed that Abbott would speak in such an opportunistic way without regard to a politician’s usual sensible caution about getting into commenting on decisions to prosecute, so that one was a little difficult to head off at the pass.

JamesK
JamesK
11 years ago

There is just no spark no passion no creativity. Abbott and Joyce are the only 2 from the major parties who say anything that does not sound completely scripted and robotic. Outside of that it is a vacuum.

Gillard can be devastating when she lets go, but all too often she switches into zombie mode and just regurgitates dreadful clichés.

I was confident that Labor would wake from its slumber post the election; the feeble efforts so far are very disheartening.

Can we toss it all in now and just make Windsor PM?

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
11 years ago

yep – a complete mystery. I liken it to Keating actually. It’s not that Keating was a bad communicator, he was a very forceful communicator. The parallel is that there are some Leaders who are just not up to it. Billy Snedden comes to mind from a long long time ago, but Andrew Peacock wasn’t quite up to it, Brendan Nelson wasn’t up to it. Rudd was up to it but had sufficiently serious character flaws which mean that he was non-viable.

Keating was a fabulous political talent who couldn’t exercise the discipline most of us learn in primary school which is to edit one’s personality, to show people what will win their respect, like or whatever you’re after. Keating could easily have done that, and he could have held office for as long as he wished through the boom that he handed to John Howard.

Gillard is also a fabulous political talent. But like most mere mortals, she’s not 360 degree talent. As it’s been put so well here, she seems to just go into zombie mode and that’s the end of her. As it turned out, Keating was much better as a second stringer. With Gillard it’s turning out the same. None of this is necessary as anyone tuning into Q&A during the election would know. She is as smart as they come, charming, and basically a humble person (which is like an oasis in a desert – I think we’re reaching back to John Gorton for an ‘umble PM).

She needs to do a bit of outsourcing of some basic policy strategy – grab hold of someone who’s got some smarts (Hawkie had Garnaut) and a few political hard heads who are not wholly cynical – (Maybe someone like Richard Farmer?) and then concentrate on trying to enjoy herself and put herself over as she did on Q&A.

Her slow sinking is a sad and amazing thing to behold. But she’s only got so long. Once she’s seen as another Gordon Brown she’s basically done for.

thewetmale
11 years ago

I think Bernard Keane’s been making a good case by highlighting when Labor concede the framing of a debate to the coalition. E.g. the framing of the water buy-backs and CPRS as being about finding the middle ground between the environment and the economy rather than both being necessary reforms to save us from greater costs in the long term. You can take that back, as Keane and Grogs Gamut, have done, to late 2008 and 2009 when Rudd & Co couldn’t bring themselves to say that a deficit was a possibility, and in the case of the 2009 budget, so obviously refused to give a grab of a senior politician saying the “deficit is 57 Billion dollars” for days on end.

If you had to put that down to any one point, i’d put it under number two and add that it’s spawn of Howard and his legacy. You can probably add to that the legacy of recent Australian governments generally getting long stints at the crease. Easily the scariest option is number 6. While i’d easily believe there are *some* like that in parliament, it’d be a very sad day if that’s all the Labor party stood for.

Alan
Alan
11 years ago

Apart from the absence of any serious policy, some small things also worry me.

The cabinet list was a mess, no minister of education, no minister of indigenous health, Rudd listed as third minister in seniority and then bumped down to seventh. Usually the secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet gets a look and irons out any problems. That does not seem to have happened after the election. If Gillard is not consulting her public servants on issues that basic there could be a repeat of the Rudd mess with the prime minister’s staff trying to do everything.

There’s also a faintly weird habit of pirating phrases. Before the election we had ‘Yes, we can’ morphed into ‘Yes, we will’. Today we had the speech on Afghanistan ending with ‘We will remember them’. We must hope that Gillard never announces we will fight refugees on the beaches, we will fight them in the streets, we will never surrender.

The Beverage Curve
The Beverage Curve
11 years ago

This Government takes too much advice from political operatives.

The strangest thing is those very political operatives almost lost them the election.

Mumble put his hand on why and how they operate some time ago.

This is why thwy have not changed and still act like they are in Opposition.

Dave
Dave
11 years ago

A combination of (1), (2) and (5). They don’t believe that they can promote their policy on its merits and don’t believe that they need to.

Both sides of politics seem to have concluded that swinging voters are policy illiterate. They might be right. All that focus group research must have told them something.

D W Griffiths
D W Griffiths
11 years ago

Here’s an alternative 7, based on a fair bit of exposure to the government. Labor under Rudd adopted a communications strategy based on two types of messages. One was the broad theme – for instance, “fast broadband is the future, and we’re for it”. The other was the ruthlessly-enforced one-message-per-day rule. They also crafted their message for two main audiences – the classic Labor soft left voter (the apology) and the Daily Telegraph reader (GroceryWatch).

The whole show was controlled from the desk of Lachie Harris, Rudd’s media chief.

This all worked well in Opposition and in the early days of government. It worked so well that the entire government was structured around it. But it became progressively more difficult to manage as the government settled in. You needed to convince other audiences.

Particularly you needed to convince the policy elite in the media, academia, business and elsewhere. It’s a group which for all its weaknesses is pretty good at figuring out whether a government has good arguments.

Rudd Labor never had a strategy for this group. It rarely crafted messages for them. There was almost never a message-of-the-day for them. Lachie Harris had no time to review and approve the whole set of more complex messages that would have been needed to run this strategy, and no inclination to let individual offices run their own race. Harris – and Rudd, who approved this whole pattern – wanted to keep control of everything. Indeed, if you’re control freaks who are dismissive of outside ideas, this is the style of management which will attract you. (It appalled better people, such as the intelligent and decent former ACTU staffer, George Wright.)

This style of management is a choice, but it’s also a habit that the whole government got into on day one. It’s a hard habit to break, even if Labour’s key people realise it needs to be broken. And it’s not yet clear whether they do.