Tony Abbott’s high-stakes expectations game

After four years of watching the Rudd and Gillard governments do it so badly, it’s morbidly fascinating to see the Abbott Government play a particularly high-stakes expectations game with the Australian public.

While often portrayed in more simplistic terms, as promises kept or broken, the compact sealed between Australian voters and the government they have installed is more fundamentally about the expectations of what values and principles will be upheld. By confusing the two, political observers run the risk of misunderstanding which of the Abbott Government’s “broken promises” will be ignored or forgiven and which could be politically toxic.

Rudd learned that unfulfilled public expectations can bite badly when he squibbed on the self-proclaimed “great moral challenge of our generation“. By postponing any further efforts to establish an emissions trading scheme, Rudd effectively repudiated the need for urgent and effective climate action, which was one of the few principles he’d highlighted as distinguishing himself from John Howard in what was otherwise a me-too election campaign in 2007. The ease and speed with which Rudd discarded the commitment added the public’s concern to those already held by the business community and public service that there was a vast gap between the expectation created by Rudd (that he was a man of vision and action) with the perceived reality (that he was an obsessive micro-manager gridlocked by the unworkable need to make every government decision).

Julia Gillard also fell foul of an expectations shortfall. As deputy prime minister, she was a vibrant, articulate and engaging member of the Rudd government, as well as a beacon to the feminist movement. Yet this credibility was eroded by the apparently inexplicable knifing of PM Rudd; early bumbling on the mining tax, asylum seekers and people’s forum on climate action; an unnerving Stepford PM performance during the 2010 federal election campaign; and the need to go back on a clumsily worded carbon price commitment in return for securing minority government. While much was made of Gillard breaking her “carbon tax promise”, the real damage from this announcement was that it crystallised the public’s growing realisation that she was not the capable and honest politician they had expected.

As opposition leader, Tony Abbott ruthlessly exploited the public’s fractured expectations of Gillard. But in continually drawing a contrast between her government and his alternative, Abbott constructed a whole new expectations edifice for himself to uphold. However, he’s been much more strategic, creating expectations in broad brush strokes that give the Coalition Government a lot more room to move, including the occasional backdown on promises and commitments.

Hence Abbott’s constant referral to high level descriptors of his government when deflecting questions about backflips and reversals. They will “build a stronger economy”, “do what we said we will do”, and “be a no surprises, no excuses government”. Many sins can be dismissed or ignored under the cover of these generalities: for example, eliminating the debt ceiling can be framed as being in the interests of a stronger economy, and “re-profiling” of funding for the NDIS can be “doing what they said they would” but in a way that is “appropriately targeted and … sustainable“.

Even so, there are limits on the extent to which voters are prepared to have their expectations massaged by the Abbott Government. This was clearly demonstrated when Education Minister Christopher Pyne flouted the voter expectations of school equity under the Coalition’s version of Gonski that he and Abbott had deliberately encouraged during the election campaign. Despite protesting that they were keeping the commitments they had made but not necessarily those that people “thought they had made”, Abbott moved quickly to contain the disillusionment outbreak, forcing Pyne to perform a triple, double backflip with pike to placate the wailing hordes of teachers and parents.

When it comes to asylum seekers, we are yet to see which of the expectations created by Abbott and his Immigration Minister Scott Morrison will prevail. Considering that “we will stop the boats” was a core component of Abbott’s favourite election mantra, and that it’s shorthand for the broader principle of “protecting your jobs and your way of life”, it’s fair to say it will take priority over Abbott saying his government will be “transparent and open” and that “the last thing we want to do is to hide anything from the Australian people“.

As the billboard says, human rights abuse starts with secrecy, but in the case of boat-borne asylum seekers, many Australians seem prepared to accept being treated like mushrooms, lest they start to feel complicit in the atrocity.

It would be foolish however for the government to think this is a default position. As we saw during the Gonski shambles, voters won’t turn a blind eye to actions that “hurt” them or their nearest and dearest directly. If voters start to sense the government is being silent on a decision that affects them, particularly the hip pocket nerve, there will be electoral hell to pay.

This post originally appeared at ABC’s The Drum.

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2013 in politics: the power of three

Considered the holiest of numbers by Christians and Wiccans alike, the number three has eerily presided over our past political year. From people to politics and policies, the rule of three was ubiquitous.

The most obvious triumvirate was Gillard, Rudd and Abbott, three prime ministers in one year, which is not as uncommon as one might think. In fact, this was the fifth time that we have had three PMs within one calendar year: the others were in 1904, 1939, 1941 and 1945.

Not only did the nation have three leaders in quick succession, so did the Labor Party. Kevin Rudd’s dark revenge fantasy played out to its inevitable end, with Rudd finally stalking Julia Gillard to ground and Bill Shorten arising from the bloody remnants of the party to bring Labor’s tally to three party leaders in four months. The worst the Liberals could do was three in eight months when the party shifted from Hewson to Downer and then Howard, the then-touted ‘Lazarus with a triple bypass’, in the 1990s.

But even before we were graced with our third PM for the year, Australians were well-familiar with the rule of three in political communication. Not a day had passed without us being bombarded with the Coalition’s three word slogans, vowing on the attainment of government to stop the boats, axe the tax and eliminate the debt. Apparently the necessary caveat – but only if the Senate will let us – couldn’t be condensed into three words and had to be ditched as a non-core slogan.

Rudd’s quest to be a thrice-anointed PM – after his elections by the Australian people in 2007 and the Labor caucus in 2013 – was thwarted. For yes, the man’s ego was so immense that he thought he might actually win. But he was prevented from doing so by three not insignificant matters: voter concerns about Labor’s unity, competency, and adherence to core Labor values such as equality and social justice.

The dominant factor was competency, though, and in electing the Abbott Government, voters quite justifiably assumed they were getting the grown-up government they were promised.

In the gloomy days that followed the not-as-much-of-a-landslide-as-expected, Labor dusted itself off and for the first time in history had not one but three leaders simultaneously. While the two contenders for election to the Labor leadership, Albanese and Shorten, traversed the country doing and saying leadership things, acting Labor leader Chris Bowen was doing and saying leadership things too. Labor members loved the new-fangled ‘democracy’ imposed on the party by Rudd (to prevent any further coups like the one he’d just pulled on Gillard), while the rest of Australia’s political classes looked on in bemusement.

And then finally, over 60 days since being elected and after early stumbles on women in Cabinet and the wedding-rorts saga, the members of the Abbott Government placed their shiny arses on the green leather benches and showed us they could do chaotic and incompetent just as well as the previous mob.

Since then the carbon tax has not been scrapped, the boats haven’t stopped, deficits have become an acceptable necessity and debt is no longer a dirty word. Public service cuts may or may not continue because they may or may not have already been counted. It’s become acceptable to say sorry to pretty much every nation in the region unless it’s one that Australia has been caught spying on. And a broken promise is not broken even if there’s physical evidence that you made it and that you broke it.

Even amongst the detritus of this incompetence, the power of three continues to rule. Australian businesses have faced the challenge of keeping up with three climate action policies (Gillard’s carbon price, Rudd’s ETS and Abbott’s Direct Action). The combined wrath of the nation’s teachers and education ministers brought about an extraordinary triple-backflip from Pyne on Gonski. And those who don’t have the cojones to take responsibility for unpopular decisions establish a Commission of Audit, Productivity Inquiry or Royal Commission to take the flak for them.

Meantime, the indignities wrought on asylum seekers defied even the rule of three and became almost too horrifyingly numerous to count.

Kevin Rudd may have entertained the fantasy that he could win the 2013 election by sheer force of will and popularity. Tony Abbott would have never suffered from such a delusion. He knows full well his success was more dependent on voters being sick of the other side than them preferring him and his policies.

In the end it came down to perceptions of competency – Labor was seen (whether fairly or not) as chaotic and ineffectual while the Coalition was seen as holding the promise of a dependable and competent government.

So, as the remainder of 2013 is measured in long summer evenings and the ruling triumvirate is the beach-barbie-cricket, Prime Minister Abbott would do well to ponder one last three word slogan. Without delivering “a competent government” in 2014, Abbott’s own days may well be numbered.

This post first appeared at ABC’s The Drum.

#Knittinggate and Staying On Message

This post is in part a response to Ed Butler’s thoughtful piece on #knittinggate over at AusVotes 2013, and in part a more coherent (I hope) explanation of my rant today on Twitter about That Photo. It also echoes a comment I left on Amy Gray’s related (and incidentally fabulous) post over on Guardian Australia’s CIF page.

When I said I’d be wandering the streets of Canberra today, wild-eyed and muttering “knitting!” it isn’t because I think it’s bad that the PM knits, or that it shouldn’t be highlighted in a feature article by Women’s Weekly. I don’t subscribe to the Murdochian view that feminists don’t knit: yarn-bombers around the world have certainly proven that.

I simply despair at the photo as a communications strategist, that is, someone who knows that a good or poor communications strategy can make or break the launch of a new car, the release of a new assistance program, the recall of a faulty product, or the re-election of a government.

The problem with the photo is that it doesn’t convey the messages that will motivate voters to change their vote to Labor. And let’s face it, that’s what the WW article is all about – giving the PM an opportunity to speak “directly” to WW readers about why her government should be re-elected and why they should reconsider voting for whichever other party or person they’re currently telling pollsters they’ll vote for.

I know we’re sick of hearing about this government’s “lack of narrative” and poor communication, but these are important in helping the community know what the government is doing / has done for them as individuals and the nation more broadly.

I’m not denying or underplaying the impact of the government’s policy problems. But its communications failures have undeniably compounded voter confusion, disappointment, and disquiet about the competency of the Gillard Government.

Julia Gillard is fighting a battle to the death with Tony Abbott: there can be only one Prime Minister after the election. With less than a hundred days to go til polling day, it’s far too late to be trying to win the popularity vote with warm fuzzy photos. The WW interview should have focussed on the things that Australian voters want to know / be re-assured about: that the PM is strong, competent and working hard on behalf of all Australians. The PM should have (and may well have) emphasised that in the interview, but all of the photos should have emphasised that too.

One of the golden rules of campaigning, and communications more generally, is to stay on message. The definitive example comes from Bill Clinton’s 1992 election campaign, where “the economy, stupid” was famously emblazoned on posters throughout their campaign war-room. While some recall this case study as demonstrating the primacy of economic matters in the minds of voters, the purpose of the slogan actually was to remind everyone working on the campaign to Stay On Message.

Most of us who follow politics closely hate it when politicians Stay On Message. It means we hear the same thing at the morning doorstops, during the breakfast and mid morning chat shows, during Question Time and the following Matter of Public Importance, during the afternoon chat shows, on the tv and radio news, in the post news current affairs programs, and then again on the late news. Not to mention online or in the print media the next day.

But people who don’t follow politics closely (read: most people) will most likely only glance at a paper or the online news during the day, and devote only a portion of their limited attention to the news or a current affairs program after work. They’ll be exposed to that message only once, if at all. So the opportunities to get a message out to the voters must not be squandered. They must always be on message, even when it is a fluffy human interest story for the Women’s Weekly.

We might not like it, but that is how a successful campaign must be run in order to cut through all the other communication detritus in voters’ everyday lives.

Every successful communications strategist knows this.

There is nothing wrong with the PM knitting; whether it be for foreign strangers on the other side of the world, an anonymous philanthropist, or even a friend or relative. Knitting is a far more normal hobby than collecting french clocks or green and gold tracksuits.

But the PM’s communications advisers have made a(nother) blunder by allowing this knitting photo to be taken.

By allowing the PM to be photographed like a modern day Madame Defarge they have been complicit in providing a distraction from, and muddying, her message completely.

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