The language of politics is an art form which, if not quickly mastered, will consign a politician to obscurity if they’re lucky, and disrepute if they’re not.
This is most evident in the cases of Joe Hockey and Bill Shorten.
It turns out Hockey had a reasonable case to make yesterday when pointing out lower income households face a smaller cost increase because they buy less petrol than those with higher incomes. The Treasurer later produced numbers from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and his department to back this up.
But the language Hockey used to make the point was completely wrong. He unnecessarily raised the hackles of genuinely low income earners (and those who think they’re doing it tough) by suggesting poor people don’t drive cars as much as rich people do.
In doing so Hockey totally ignored the point that, like food and utility bills, fuel costs take a greater proportion of low income earners’ pay packets than those of high income earners.
This clumsy performance demonstrates the failure of Hockey – and just as importantly those who advise him – to grasp the basics of political messaging. Hockey is a bumbler who’s easily left flailing for an answer, at which time he usually resorts to throwaway lines that are sometimes amusing and at other times an inadvertent insult.
The Treasurer should never be left in that position. He should be pre-prepared with a water-tight response to every question imaginable about the contentious matters in the budget. And Hockey should be so well versed in each response that he could recite them in his sleep.
So instead of banging on about rich people paying more, and losing the majority of voters who really don’t give a fig about the comparative burden of those in the upper percentiles, Hockey could have said something like this:
We Australians love our cars. We need them to get around our sprawling cities and vast rural communities. And we’ve kept driving them even when the cost of petrol went past a dollar a litre years ago. This change asks motorists to pay just one cent a litre more this year, which is about 40 cents a week for the average household. Even if we don’t notice the increase as the price of petrol fluctuates each week, we will notice the new, improved and safer roads that will result from the extra $550 million raised each year.
Such a message recognises the necessity of private transport, doesn’t try to make people feel guilty for liking to drive their gas-guzzlers, and puts the increase in context. Most importantly, it makes taxpayers feel good for making a modest contribution towards solving a national problem, that is, the quality and safety of our roads. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that we like people who make us feel good about ourselves.
So if Hockey had been prepared with such a response it could have earned him a few brownie points and would likely have saved him from a day of scathingly bad press.
Regrettably for Australian voters, such ineptitude is not limited to the Coalition’s ranks. Much of Labor Leader Bill Shorten’s inability to connect with voters can also be attributed to his poor political language skills.
Unlike Hockey, Shorten at least learns his lines, and these can often be spied among the jumbled rhetoric and mangled logic the Leader of the Opposition is wont to deliver during interviews.
These include clumsy allusions to Tony Abbott such as having “made himself the patron saint of being the politician who would not break promises“, or “This guy has just won the Olympic gold medal of great big new taxes.”
Using the “more is better” approach, Shorten also resorts to kitchen-sink denunciations such as “The whole GP tax is a clunker, it’s rotten, it’s unfair, it’s a broken promise” while some of his other statements, such as this Yoda-ish example, simply make little sense at all:
But what we also believe is that Medicare, and attacking universal health care, free and affordable, is a line that we won’t let the Abbott Government cross.
If this isn’t enough to confuse and discourage voters, there are two other elements of Shorten’s political communication that are letting him – and Labor – down.
As much as we grew to hate the repetitious nature of then opposition leader Abbott’s “stop the boats” mantra, it was resoundingly effective with disengaged voters. Abbott stuck to a few key messages that explicitly conveyed positives about his alternative government while implying negatives about the Rudd and Gillard governments.
These messages connected with concerns that voters already held, and Abbott expertly repeated them until they became undisputed “truths”.
In contrast, Shorten is all over the shop, seemingly unable to find a slogan that works or be able to stick to one. That’s partly because the slogans appear to be crafted by a zealous marketing intern and not a battalion of astute political operators. (#DebtSentence is tendered as Exhibit No. 42).
But most of all, Shorten’s communications Achilles heel is the affected way in which he speaks. Not since Julia Gillard transformed into a Stepford prime minister during the 2010 federal election campaign (before deciding to reveal The Real JuliaTM), has the Australian voting public been subjected to such an annoying bedtime-story voice as the one Shorten uses in press conferences and media interviews.
No one likes to be treated patronisingly, least of all by a politician, yet this is the impression Shorten gives when he speaks to us in this insincere and dissembling way. It’s little wonder then that the Labor Leader is travelling so poorly in the opinion polls when the Coalition Government remains deeply unpopular.
Effective communication is not an optional extra when it comes to political success; it’s the key to establishing the trust and confidence needed to secure precious votes.
Whether its formulation and delivery takes on the repetitive staccato of a Pollock or the inspiring cadence of a Monet, a successful political message will always connect with the audience in a genuine and meaningful way.
And until Hockey and Shorten realise this, and rectify their communication issues, both men will fail to prosecute their respective political cases.