Coalition eases us into tough love policies

I’m a tiny bit thrilled to be writing a weekly column for ABC’s The Drum.

Here’s the first: Coalition eases us into tough love policies.

Leadership is True North for our political compasses

What is this malaise that’s gripping Australian voters? According to the latest opinion poll we’re deeply unhappy with Julia Gillard (disapprove 50%, approve 37%) yet we still prefer her to Tony Abbott as Prime Minister (Gillard 42%, Abbott 33%). Even more confusingly, despite our concerns about Abbott, it seems we would elect a Coalition government tomorrow if given the chance.

What is it that makes us unable to embrace the combination of party and leader currently on offer? Perhaps it’s that we don’t carry the same tribal allegiance to political parties that our parents did. Today, many people have no such allegiance and therefore cast their vote on a case-by-case basis depending upon contemporary values and how they are to be realised through election commitments.

It’s for this reason that political leadership is often the vote clincher. An effective leader is the embodiment of the values that a voter holds most dear. Values such as honesty, integrity, compassion, altruism and the capacity to make hard decisions for the greater good – these are the values that modern Australians want to be exemplified by the people for whom they vote.

Is this a big ask? Yes indeed. And what are the implications when a politician does not meet the mark? Well, look no further than the mixed fortunes of Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and their respective parties for the answer.

Australian voters are all over the place when it comes to political support because they want leadership and simply can’t find it. Leadership is the True North that we all need for our political compasses.

In response to a recent poll, only 34% of voters agreed that federal Labor had a good team of leaders, while 40% made the same assessment of the Liberals. The Greens garnered even less support with only 29% considering them to have a good leadership team.

Perhaps even more damning was the percentage of voters who believed that a party would promise to do anything in order to win votes. An astonishing 72% believed this description applied to Labor, with 65% for the Liberals and 52% for the Greens.

Successful leaders embody the values that their supporters hold dear. To do that, they need to understand their followers. Considering that a majority of voters think the parties have poor leadership and would say anything to get a vote, it comes as no surprise that they’re also considered to be out of touch with ordinary people. Voters decry the three parties as similarly disconnected, with 61% saying that Labor is out of touch, 54% for the Liberals and 60% for the Greens.

These findings show that contemporary political leadership has been scrutinised by everyday Australians and has been found wanting.

In management theory there are many types of leadership. Some effective leaders work within their constituencies and empower others to be the source of motivation and direction. This type of leader seeks neither a profile nor recognition because that would detract from the group dynamic.

The more commonly known leadership type is that which inspires and achieves action by motivating constituents who admire and emulate the leader. This type of leader does not shy from stepping out in front, capturing the limelight and being placed on a pedestal.

If left unchecked, this follow-me leader will have to continually ramp up their followers’ expectations in order to maintain high levels of motivation. Leaders that encourage hero-worship like this inevitably create unrealistic expectations and are brought back to ground by their disillusioned fans.

Perhaps this is the problem right now in Australian politics. We’re not holding out for a hero (with apologies to Bonnie Tyler), we just want someone whose words and deeds are worth admiring and emulating. We don’t necessarily want a popular Prime Minister, just a strong leader who will do the right thing for the country and thereby for all of us.

For many years that politician was John Howard. While he was never a popular politician, Howard had the ability to secure the votes of people who didn’t like him or didn’t usually vote Liberal. These people didn’t necessarily agree with Howard but they responded to his leadership and trusted him to make the right decisions for the country. Admittedly Fraser also won elections while unpopular, but Howard did so after making some very unpopular decisions.

It’s a matter of record that Howard threw that trust away. He squandered the electoral asset that he’d carefully built over years in high office with acts of indulgence and hubris. People lost faith in Howard as they watched him put personal political philosophies ahead of the public interest. He stopped being the leader that people respected and so he lost their support.

Rudd relinquished his claim to strong leadership in a much shorter space of time, by failing to deliver on the expectations he created in the 2007 federal election. Rudd deftly positioned himself prior to that election as Howard-lite, framing himself as the “other” safe pair of hands, but with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. While Rudd did apologise to the Stolen Generation, he did not deliver on any other major promise. The Labor MPs and operatives who eventually deposed Rudd did so, among other reasons, because they knew voters had lost faith in him and were waiting to demonstrate this at the ballot box.

Gillard similarly built up and then shattered voters’ expectations. She became Prime Minister promising to resolve three issues: Australia’s response to climate change; the battle with the mining industry over the Resource Super Profit Tax; and a more humane approach to sea-borne asylum-seekers. Instead she announced a clumsy citizens’ assembly on climate change; capitulated on a promise not to introduce a carbon price; gave ground to the mining industry and replicated some of the most reviled elements of the Howard Government’s detention scheme.

It’s hard to think of an action the current PM has taken that any Australian would be inspired to emulate: her 50% disapproval rate is confirmation of that.

And finally, there is Tony Abbott. Despite Julia Gillard having shattered their high hopes, only 33% of voters prefer Abbott to her. Abbott is not a viable alternative to Gillard because, despite his machismo, he’s just not seen as a leader. Abbott displays none of the humanity and common decency that distinguished both Howard and Rudd during their time as Opposition Leader. He does not attempt to enable others as leaders, nor does he attempt to inspire: his demeanour is menacing and his rhetoric is consistently negative. No wonder his disapproval rating is 48%.

So here we are, disillusioned, disoriented and perhaps even disenfranchised by the lack of political leadership in Australia.

Ironically, politicians are disillusioned with voters too. Sadly, they seem unable to identify the cause of our malaise. It’s simple, we need a leader – someone with integrity and courage, with humanity and compassion, who knows us and will do the right things by the country.

Perhaps it’s too late for Gillard and Abbott, or perhaps they can look within and find the leader that they need to be and that we need them to be. Without such a leader we will all struggle on, as if without a compass, through the Australian political wilderness.

This piece originally appeared at The King’s Tribune

Mirror, mirror on the wall: what do flood speeches say about us all?

Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott have said much about the floods in the past week. Both were pilloried and praised for their words, depending upon the critics’ points of view.

Gillard has variously been described as patronising, prime ministerial, prudent, or ruthless and a risk-taker. Abbott has been even more polarising, having earlier inflamed some observers (including me) with pointed questions about the budget surplus while the flood waters continued to surge and our screens were still filled with graphic signs of death and destruction.

But putting aside the perceived callousness, less than empathetic delivery or poor political wisdom of the leaders’ utterances this past week, there is an important element of their communications that has been overlooked.

We’ve been so busy judging the qualities of Gillard and Abbott that we haven’t noticed that both leaders told us a lot about ourselves when they delivered their keynote speeches. Their words held a mirror to the Australian community and reflected our current state of mind through the phrases, illustrations and analogies that they used.

I say this because no important political speech is drafted these days without the inclusion of market-researched elements to maximise the speaker’s chances of making a positive connection with their audiences. For Gillard and Abbott, these target audiences are concerned party members, disaffected supporters and those who have no firm party allegiances.

By using language or imagery similar to that used by these audiences, or which recognises their feelings or concerns, each leader can not only catch that audience’s attention, but also be seen by them as genuine, well-intentioned and persuasive.

That’s why so much money and effort is put into finding out what key voting groups think, and then reflecting these views back in high profile political speeches.

In accordance with the political calendar, both leaders would have been planning to make scene-setting speeches in late January in an attempt to take the upper hand before parliament resumes in the second week of February.

Consequently, both Gillard’s speech this week to the National Press Club and Tony Abbott’s to the Young Liberals would have been considered important speeches by their respective party machines, and work on them would have been underway for some time.

Gillard’s speech, out of sheer necessity, focused solely on her fiscally responsible approach to funding the flood recovery effort. Nevertheless, it contained key words and phrases that were designed to make a positive and assuring connection with anxious and disaffected Labor voters as well as those who have strayed to the Greens.

Abbott’s speech was modeled more on the headland speeches given by John Howard as Opposition Leader in the lead up to the 1996 election. While Abbott took every opportunity to cast Gillard and her government in a bad light, he also spelled out the principles that would guide his alternative government. Both sets of messages were crafted with words that would resonate with resurgent Liberal voters.

So what picture do we have of the Australian people based on these two speeches?

Firstly, both speeches confirm that we’re not sure whether Gillard is up to the job. She may well be the preferred PM in all the published polls, but the speeches show that both parties are detecting voter concerns about Gillard in their private research.

In Abbott’s speech you can see this doubt being reinforced in key phrases: “another Gillard decision that calls her judgment into serious question”, “only a prime minister who’s out of her depth would seek to exploit people’s generosity”, “a prime minister who’s unconvincing when responding to a natural disaster is unlikely to solve the much more politically and administratively complex problems that she had previously set herself to fix”, and the “Prime Minister [is] promoting lazy policy under the cover of sympathy for flood victims.”

However, Gillard’s speech is more telling on this point. She speaks in the first person, using “I” nearly 50 times to describe what she has done or what she will do. This is a clear attempt by the speech drafters to show that Gillard is in charge, in control and is making the hard decisions. This rhetorical tactic certainly seemed to convince at least one important observer, with Federal Press Gallery doyen Laurie Oakes tweeting and later writing that it was Gillard’s “most prime ministerial performance so far”.

The second thing we learn about ourselves from the speeches is that we want our government to put the national interest first, and if that means making hard decisions, that’s fine, as long as the strong economy (read, our quality of life) is protected.

The title of Gillard’s speech reflects these sentiments: “I see what needs to be done and I will do it.”

In sketching out what needs to be done to pay for the immense restoration bill, Gillard preaches economic prudence and reflects the growing conservatism with which households are now managing their money.

With our growing economy and rising national income, we can pay for rebuilding now. And if we can, we should. We should not leave the task of finding the money until future years. My experience in Government since 2007 tells me that while we must plan to sustain growth we must never take future growth for granted, so we should not put off to tomorrow what we are able to do today. 
Solely borrowing to rebuild Queensland is a soft option I am not prepared to consider.

Abbott reflects the same community sentiment, but from another direction, attempting to use it to cast more doubt on Gillard’s judgment and prudence:

The problem is not the government’s spending on flood relief which is urgent and unavoidable. The problem is the government’s unwillingness to take spending restraint seriously coupled with its instinctive resort to a new tax to meet new challenges.

He reinforces this by repeating the well-crafted, and now familiar, refrain:

There’s a world of difference between a levy to fund unavoidable extra spending when there’s no fat in the budget and the Gillard government’s latest raid on people’s wallets. There’s about $2 billion uncommitted in various funds such as the Building Australia Fund, about a half billion dollars that the government is committed to budgeting for the National Broadband Network (plus tens of billions in government guaranteed borrowing), at least a billion dollars left in the Building the Education Revolution and about a billion dollars to buy back water which is no longer in short supply. As the Prime Minister conceded at the National Press Club, there is certainly further spending that could have been reduced or deferred for flood reconstruction without the need for a new tax.

The battle between the leaders for the high ground on fiscal prudence seems to be well underway.

There are several other interesting reflections of community views in the two speeches. For example, Gillard’s carefully chosen words on the availability of jobs for unemployed Australians as well as skilled migrants flags a tension within this issue that usually only lurks beneath public discourse.

Equally, the dichotomous reference by both leaders to a carbon price (either as the only effective mechanism to reduce greenhouse gases, or simply another price hike) suggests that the community is not yet settled on this issue.

The carbon price question dovetails neatly with that of the flood levy. While it would be easy to conclude that Australians are willing to pay a little more through their weekly tax to fund the flood effort, both leaders’ speeches suggest the matter is not that clearcut and that such widespread willingness is a chimera.

While Gillard emphasised at the NPC that the levy would impose only a $1-5 weekly increase on the majority of income earners, complaints must have been anticipated because she also stressed the need for all Australians to share the load in the name of fiscal responsibility.

Interestingly, a contemporaneous poll of readers at the ABC online forum The Drum, while not statistically rigorous, has consistently shown only 53% of respondents are willing to pay the levy.

According to poll, another 34% of readers are concerned the money will be wasted and 9% are upset because they have already donated money to the flood restoration effort. It is a combination of these two concerns that the Liberals decided to press home in Abbott’s Young Liberals speech.

This was always our money, not the government’s. It was supposed to be used wisely, not squandered. The Prime Minister is pitching it as a “mateship” tax even though mateship is about helping people, not taxing them. Mates choose to help; they’re not coerced. Mateship comes from people, not from government. It’s not the money so much as the principle. People resent being ordered to pay what they’d gladly give of their own volition especially by a government so reckless with taxpayers’ money.

It is yet to be seen which levy message has more resonance with the Australian community.

And so we have a snapshot of what the major parties believe important groups of voters are thinking as their elected representatives embark on the new parliamentary year.

In giving us this glimpse, they have unveiled the key political battlefields for 2011: fitness for office, protecting the national interest with fiscal prudence, and the preparedness of Australians to pay more for the collective good. It will be another fascinating political year.

This post also appeared at The Drum – Unleashed.

Tastings from the 2010 political buffet

At the end of this week, just before the official start of summer, the Australian Parliament will rise, politicians will head home to their electorates and voters will focus on how many meats to serve on Christmas Day or the quickest route to the beach. For many, the summer break is for relaxation; yet for others it evokes reflection about the year just passed. Given the political year we’ve just had, the reflective folk will have much food for thought.

From my perspective, the two leadership challenges, two state elections and the federal poll have challenged conventional wisdom and rewritten election playbooks, but also confirmed some political trusims. I don’t pretend to be a psephologist or political pundit, but I’m hopelessly attracted to the world of politics. I can’t help but look for patterns and cause-effect relationships and wonder how these might alter the path of political endeavour in the future.

With that caveat, I offer up for your degustation these observations from the political buffet of 2010.

Appetiser: Australian voters want their politicians to be genuine

At times during the federal election, it was hard to distinguish a 7.30 Report interview from the latest instalment of Kath and Kim, such was the broadness of Aussie accent on display. Both Gillard and Abbott went to great lengths to prove they were genuine and in touch with real Australians – particularly compared to their predecessors, the densely verbose Rudd and the tree-hugging patrician Turnbull.

However, Gillard’s authenticity was somewhat inconsistent during the early days of the campaign. At one point she morphed into a Stepford Prime Minister, nodding sagely to the cameras while using the calming tones of a pre-school teacher. This persona grated on voters’ sensibilities and she was quickly cast off in favour of the New! Real! Authentic! Julia. While undoubtedly relieved, voters were nevertheless left to wonder about the previous incarnations of Ms Gillard and their authenticity.

Tony Abbott’s misstep was equally unsettling, telling Kerry O’Brien that he couldn’t necessarily be held to account for words spoken in the heat of the moment, but that his written word was trustworthy. While operatives tried to spin this blunder as candour, it undoubtedly left a crack in Abbott’s everyman persona.

While there were many factors that contributed to the federal election outcome, I believe the genuineness of the party leaders was one of them. Faced with two relatively unknown politicians, both of whose authenticity was in question, many voters chose neither. The perception that neither Gillard nor Abbott was genuine contributed to the shift of votes to the Greens.

Gillard and Abbott are now on probation – the media and voters are alert for any more cracks in their authenticity. So too will the country independents be scrutinised to see if they are as genuine as they currently seem.

Entrée: Unfulfilled expectations will come back to bite you

Kevin Rudd’s downfall was that he didn’t deliver on the expectations he created in the 2007 federal election. As I wrote back in June, Rudd deftly positioned himself prior to that election as Howard-lite, framing himself as the “other” safe pair of hands, but with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. While Rudd did apologise to the Stolen Generation he did not deliver on any other major promise. The Labor MPs and operatives who eventually deposed Rudd did so because they knew voters were waiting to take out their anger on him, just as they had done to Keating in 1996.

PM Gillard almost paid the ultimate price by making the same mistake soon after she replaced Rudd. Gillard became Prime Minister promising to resolve three issues: Australia’s response to climate change; the battle with the mining industry over the Resource Super Profit Tax; and a more humane approach to sea-borne illegal immigrants. Instead she announced a clumsy citizens’ assembly on climate change; gave ground to the mining industry and replicated some of the most reviled elements of the Howard Government’s detention scheme. Voters would have been forgiven for wondering why the PM who couldn’t fulfil commitments was brutally torn down for another with the same failings.

Gillard was damaged by that early mismanagement of expectations. It will be interesting to see whether the Labor Government, the Greens and the independents are wary of creating (or maintaining) expectations in 2011 that cannot be met.

Main: Re-enfranchised rural Australians are watching carefully

Rural Australians are a canny bunch: they may have grown up in the arms of the Country or National parties, but they are open to any other party or individual who can protect their chosen way of life. This is clear from the diminishing number of National Party members in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Both the ALP and Liberals have developed “country” arms of their parties to capitalise on this opportunity.

Country independents are not new to our parliament. Up until now, most have languished on the cross-benches because their votes were not important. Now with deciding votes in the lower House, the current country independents are being watched very carefully by rural Australia. No doubt, National MPs are closely watching them too. Rogue WA National, Tony Crook, managed to do what the rest of his fraternity could only dream of by swiftly dissociating from the Nationals soon after the election and putting his vote up for auction.

If the independents and Crook can materially improve the lot of rural Australians with their pivotal votes, then National MPs could be faced with the unenviable choice at the next federal election of either becoming an independent themselves or being beaten by one.

Dessert: The Greens run the risk of dis-enfranchising their constituency

More than a decade ago the Australian Democrats held the balance of power in the Senate, just as the Greens will do on 1 July next year as a result of this year’s election. In order to extract certain concessions from the Howard Government, the Democrats agreed in 1999 to support the GST legislation in Senate. This decision was portrayed as a sell-out of Democrat principles. It undoubtedly contributed to the leadership tensions and internecine manoeuvrings that wracked the Democrats from that time on, until they lost their last Senate positions in the 2007 federal election.

When the Greens attain the balance of power in July next year, they will discover as did the Democrats that it’s much more difficult to be a political or policy purist when your vote actually counts. Negotiations will inevitably lead to concessions, sometimes on the part of the Government but also of the Greens. The Greens will need to manage member expectations better than the Democrats did to avoid the pitfalls that decision-making can bring.

Cheese: The current model for election reporting is broken

Much has already been said and written about this final point. Political parties have so tightly orchestrated the involvement of mainstream media in election campaigns that the resulting coverage is so contrived that it’s meaningless. Senior journalists rarely travel with the Leaders’ teams any more, preferring to observe and opine from the comfort of their office. Journalists who do travel with the Leaders are told little, shepherded from venue to venue, and given little time to absorb policy announcements before being given access to the Leader who merely parrots the line of the day.

The current model is broken and probably cannot be repaired. I look forward instead to mainstream media outlets refusing to put anyone at all on campaign buses next election, the parties having to instead produce campaign footage for placement on YouTube, Leaders choosing to hold numerous town hall meetings around the country instead of pic-facs, and MP and candidates dealing directly with their constituents through Twitter, Facebook and Skype.

Now that will be an election to reflect upon!

Conned or captured? Voter sentiment and Rudd’s demise

A confidence trick or confidence game (also known as a bunko, con, flim flam, gaffle, grift, hustle, scam, scheme, swindle or bamboozle) is an attempt to defraud a person or group by gaining their confidence. The victim is known as the mark, the trickster is called a confidence man, con man, confidence trickster, or con artist, and any accomplices are known as shills. Confidence men or women exploit human characteristics such as greed and dishonesty, and have victimized individuals from all walks of life.

http://www.Wikipedia.com

It seems that many people are stunned by the swiftness with which Kevin Rudd was despatched. Events over the past couple of days have diverted us from being stunned by the speed with which the Australian public turned on the Prime Minister.

I believe the Australian community became deeply angry at Rudd because they finally realised they were the victims of a confidence trick.

It’s interesting how we all love a Hollywood con artist but not the real thing. We delight in watching tv shows and movies that depict an unsuspecting but usually deserving schmuck being skilfully taken for a ride. Our anticipation ratchets with every deceptive twist and turn until we give a satisfied chuckle as the realisation dawns on the “mark” that their perception of reality is far from the ugly truth.

We’re entertained by the glamorous con even though we know that grifters who operate in the real world target the gullible, the weak and the unprotected. When faced with stories of real exploitation, we take the side of righteousness, nod in agreement when the ghouls of the foot-in-door media expose the conmen and cheer when they are entrapped or hunted down.

I believe it’s this righteous undercurrent in Australian voter sentiment that led to the dramatic drop in Kevin Rudd’s popularity, as measured by both public and private opinion polls. Voters felt angry and wanted retribution because they felt like a mark struck with the growing realisation they were the subject of a long con.

Rudd deftly positioned himself prior to the 2007 election as Howard-lite. The significance of this strategy cannot be downplayed. Howard did not retain government for nearly 12 years because of his popularity. His electoral appeal was, ironically, grounded in trust. Whether voters liked him or not, whether they supported his policies or not, they trusted him to make the right decisions for the country. And Howard did not betray this trust until he let the power of Senate majority go to his head and he self-indulged his philosophical yearning for IR reform.

Rudd studiously capitalised on Howard’s strengths as well as his weaknesses. He framed himself as the “other” safe pair of hands, but with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices.

Tragically for Rudd, and surprisingly for an experienced diplomat, he made the grave mistake of exaggerating the difference that Australia’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol would materially make to global climate change. He should have known full well that ratification meant putting a price on carbon, that this could lead to painful structural change in the Australian economy, and that China and India would not countenance climate action until they had brought their people out of poverty.

Rudd could never deliver on climate change but he promised the Australian people that he could and would. This is only the most prominent of several examples. Like any confidence man, Rudd convincingly promised things that would realise voters’ dreams and others that would allay their fears. The fact that voters eventually saw the small man behind the curtain will always overshadow the fact that he actually did deliver on some of those promises.

By playing a confidence game with the Australian people, instead of being honest with them, Rudd squandered their trust, optimism and (somewhat begrudging) respect.

Perhaps this anger would not have been so intense if the electorate had felt they had been provided with a credible alternative at whose feet they could throw their protest vote. However, voter antipathy for Abbott shows they felt both conned and captured by Rudd’s sleight of hand.

Clearly the ALP apparatchiks who took action this week saw the truth of the matter. They saw the growing number of voters, once vividly depicted by Premier Wayne Goss during Keating’s reign, waiting on their verandas with baseball bats to deal with the Prime Minister who had let them down. So they took their bats to him first.

This post also appeared at The Notion Factory.

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