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.

A salutary tale for the Australian Greens


There once was a political party that claimed it was not like the others.

The party was led by a wizened political warrior who spoke compellingly about the major parties being out of touch. His party advocated environmental protection, recognition for indigenous Australians, law reform for gays and equality for all Australians.

The party offered Australian voters a third force in politics and vowed to impose accountability upon the major parties.

Over time, the party grew in popularity and its candidates won enough votes to secure the balance of power in the Senate.

Do you know which party this story is about?

Well think again, because this party, the Australian Democrats, held or shared the balance of power with other minor parties or independents in the Australian Senate for nearly 25 years (1981 to 2004). At their peak, the Democrats also held the balance of power in the upper houses of several state parliaments: NSW from 1988 to 1991, SA from 1979 for the following two decades and WA for one term following the 1996 election.

Today they hold no seats – in any Australian parliament.

How did this happen? And more importantly – could it happen again?

This is the question that should be occupying the minds of the Australian Greens right now, as they prepare to take up the Senate balance of power on 1 July 2011.

There are both similarities and differences between the Democrats and the Greens. Both parties positioned themselves where there was a perceived absence of political representation. The Democrats were considered a centrist party, attracting the first preference votes of the disillusioned major-party faithful, who then returned to the fold with second preferences on a roughly 50-50 basis.

Despite campaigning on many of the same issues, the Greens have positioned themselves to the left of Labor, with around 80 percent of their second preferences heading back to the Labor Party.

Perhaps the most significant similarity between the two minor parties is the amount of voter goodwill and accompanying high expectation that each party generated.

It was the Democrats’ inability to fulfil this voter expectation that ultimately proved to be their undoing and this should be a salutary lesson for the Greens.

Many observers point to the Democrats’ decision in 1999 to support passage of the GST in the Senate as the beginning of the end. This is instructive in itself, for the Democrats took a pro-GST policy to the preceding election. Nevertheless, the decision was portrayed as a sell-out of Democrat principles, reinforced by a number of Democrat Senators crossing the floor to vote against the tax. This undoubtedly contributed to the leadership tensions and internecine manoeuvrings that wracked the Democrats from that time onwards, until they lost their last Senate positions in the 2007 Federal Election.

When the Greens attain the balance of power in July this year, they will discover, as did the Democrats, that it is 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.

This article first appeared at The King’s Tribune.

I am the greenhouse culprit! And so are you.

There’s a great video that does the rounds every now and then showing a young woman collecting signatures on a petition to ban a substance with an unfamiliar scientific name. When questioned by potential petitioners, she replies that the substance is “a chemical found in reservoirs and lakes”, that “pesticides, nuclear and styrofoam companies are using it”, that it “ends up in babies’ food” and that it “causes excess sweating and urination”.

The scenario is a set-up and the young woman is actually talking about water. She has no trouble getting signatures because she uses terms that have been proved by market research to provoke an emotional reaction in the listener. Such terms can generate feelings of powerlessness, anxiety and sometimes fear. These feelings motivate the listener to take defensive action, on this occasion by signing the petition.

The Greens leader, Bob Brown, tried to do the same thing earlier this week. He used a number of key words and phrases, honed by researchers in sympathetic think tanks such as the Climate Institute and the Australia Institute, to create the same sense of powerlessness about climate change, and hopefully to drive anxious Australians into the arms of Greens recruiters.

Brown talked about the coal industry’s “excess profits”, they were the “culprits” of natural disasters, the industry is “75% owned outside Australia”, and that the version of the mining tax agreed by Labor with the industry “would cost Australians $35 billion in foregone revenue.”

On this occasion, Brown misjudged the timing of his polemic. Australians were already feeling anxious and powerless in the face of natural forces and, when presented with Brown’s comments, were outraged by his attempt to exploit their vulnerability to score a cheap political point.

The additional irony is the factual inaccuracies in Brown’s ill-judged comments. Australia’s entire mining industry (coal and metals) directly generates 10% of Australia’s greenhouse gases. Our electricity, gas & water sectors account for 36.6%, agriculture 20.9%; manufacturing accounts for 12.6%; and services, construction & transport 10.5%.

Households generate 9.4%. But that isn’t the whole picture.

It has been estimated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics that
Australian households are responsible, either directly or indirectly through the consumption of goods and services that require energy to produce, for the generation of most of our energy-related greenhouse gas emissions (around 56%), mainly through household electricity use (about 17%) and motor vehicle use (about 12%).

That makes you and me the real greenhouse culprits.

So if Bob Brown was genuine about sharing the cost burden for greenhouse action, what would he be doing? He would be telling Australians that:

  • they should get rid of that second fridge or the freezer/bar fridge in the garage
  • each house should have only one small television and one computer
  • no electrical appliance should have a stand-by function and all would need to be switched on and off at the outlet
  • people who wish to use electricity at peak times should pay more for it
  • they should build smaller homes and increase the amount of people living in each house
  • petrol should be raised to $2 a litre and 6-8 cylinder cars should be banned from Australian roads
  • the use of aluminium and concrete in building and manufacturing should be banned due to the high amount of greenhouse gases generated during their production
  • Australia should stop growing food more food than it needs (currently Australia exports 60% of the food it grows).

But Brown will not advocate these actions because they will not win the Greens members or votes.

Abbott’s holiday is a political misjudgement

I read on Twitter that Julie Bishop has been visiting flood-affected areas in Queensland as the Acting Opposition Leader. It took me a moment to realise the implications of this – it means that Tony Abbott is BACK ON HOLIDAY, having visited Queensland in the first week of January.

Abbott’s decision to return from Christmas leave to visit Queensland was the right thing to do, even if he squandered any political capital he earned by callously drawing a link between the cost of rescue efforts and the NBN.

However, the Opposition Leader’s decision to resume his holiday is an affront to the thousands of Australians who are struggling with the grief, loss and fear caused by the floods.

The political clumsiness of this decision is what strikes me the most. I understand the tactical reasoning for sending Bishop to Queensland. Clearly some politico saw the need to provide a conservative female counterweight to Labor’s Bligh and Gillard, both of whom have earned considerable kudos for the way they have conducted themselves during the crisis.

However, Bishop should have done so as the Deputy Liberal Leader and therefore not drawn attention to the fact that Abbott had resumed his Christmas leave.

Ideally, Abbott should have cut short his holiday altogether, even if it was considered politically prudent for him to keep a low profile.

People expect their leaders to show exemplary behaviour during times of high stress or crisis. They look to their leaders for affirmation of noble human qualities such as empathy, compassion and consolation. Most importantly, people seek reassurance from their leaders that they will not be abandoned or neglected during times of need.

While these expectations are by no means small, they can and should be met by our political leaders. While the benefits of not meeting them are variable, the cost of not doing so can be political suicide. This is the risk that Tony Abbott has brought on himself. I hope he enjoys the rest of his holiday.

Post script: Tony Abbott returned from holidays to visit Brisbane the morning after this post was written. The Opposition Leader conducted a number of electronic media interviews focussing on the adverse impact flood recovery costs would have on the Federal Budget returning to surplus. Here is an example:

The best possible [national disaster] fund is a strong Federal Government surplus. If you’ve got a strong surplus you’ve got the money available to deploy to meet any emergency and without being too political, one of the reasons why we have always urged a strong surplus and been deeply sceptical about some of this Government’s big spending programmes is because you never know when you are going to have a disaster like this that you need to cope with and there will be literally billions of dollars needed by all levels of government but especially the Federal Government in order to respond appropriately.

Tony Abbott interview with Karl Stefanovic, 13 Jan 2011 (Liberal.org.au)

And a fine complementary piece on leadership by Grog.

Gerry Harvey: How did it all go so wrong?

How did it all go so wrong? Perhaps that’s what Gerry Harvey is thinking right now. And so he should. In the space of a day, the canny retailer has succeeded in turning his own reputation from a positive to a negative.

Earlier this week Harvey was the home-grown success story, the eccentric billionaire with a canny ability to predict and tap into the psyche of everyday Australians.

Today he is the public face of a badly crafted campaign to force and shame Australians into curbing their online shopping behaviour. Harvey is now perceived as an arrogant capitalist, interested only in lining his own pockets with the limited cash earned by hard-working Australians.

How did it all go so wrong? To an interested observer it is quite clear. The campaign by the Australian retail industry is flawed no matter which way you look at it.

Politically, there are no votes in it. It pays to remember that it took three politicians to attempt bringing in a GST (Keating, Hewson, Howard) before it was successfully introduced by Howard in 1998. Even then it was a high-risk strategy and it would take a brave politician to extend the GST’s scope even now.

At a policy level, the imposition of GST on online purchases increases rather than lightens the regulatory load, with no discernable public benefit delivered as a result. No modern government would interfere in a market by increasing regulation without being able to point to a considerable public benefit.

From a behavioural perspective it would take more than a 10% tax to dissuade online shoppers, particularly when the price differential is often more than that and online shoppers still don’t have to contend with carparks, checkout queues or limited choices on the shelves.

And perhaps most importantly, the campaign is flawed from a communications perspective. Its key messages have no resonance with the people whose behaviour it is trying to influence, namely the politicians and the shoppers.

It appears the retailers’ campaign was neither strategically planned nor deployed.

No organisation should try to influence or change public policy without covering all these bases. The retailers should have been armed with market research and economic modeling to demonstrate that their case was legitimate and that it could deliver both political and public benefits as well as the behavioural change they sought.

They should have engaged on this issue at the departmental level first, with complementary briefings provided to MPs, key ministerial advisers and relevant journalists. This “pincer movement” strategy has the best chance of securing the attention of decision makers and creating the necessary momentum to get a favourable policy decision.

If these avenues have been tried and failed, it may have then been appropriate to take out ads in the newspapers.

But there is an old saying in the world of lobbying and advocacy: if you have to run to the media, then you are admitting that your other lobbying strategies have failed.

Going to the media is the final resort, a very public last-gasp attempt to shanghai a minister into a favourable decision. More often than not, this tactic will fail too because it is seen by both politicians and public servants as unnecessarily aggressive, overtly disruptive and ultimately self-centred. None of these perceptions serve well when one is trying to influence government.

And finally, perhaps the greatest weakness in the retailers’ campaign is its demonstrated misunderstanding of shopper motivations and behaviour.

Instead of spending mega-dollars on newspaper ads, the retailers should have taken steps to understand why customers shop online and how they might be enticed back.

The GST campaign suggests they have not done this even this basis homework, because it is clear that people shop online for more reasons than price alone.

2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 6,100 times in 2010. That’s about 15 full 747s.

 

In 2010, there were 25 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 12 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 10mb. That’s about a picture per month.

The busiest day of the year was October 31st with 567 views. The most popular post that day was Autism badly served by “Communication Shutdown”.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were twitter.com, abc.net.au, facebook.com, andrewelder.blogspot.com, and thepoliticalsword.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for drag0nista, tweet like tony burke, communication shutdown twitter, istock, and alessi products.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Autism badly served by “Communication Shutdown” October 2010
11 comments

2

About May 2010
1 comment

3

New media prejudice based on fear of the unknown October 2010
7 comments

4

Don’t mistake the organ-grinder for the lion-tamer: the media and the 2010 federal election August 2010
10 comments and 1 Like on WordPress.com,

5

New ABC social media role an empty gesture December 2010
7 comments