Not long after Tony Abbott became prime minister, he learned it was impossible to manage an issue that’s captured the media’s attention if you’ve essentially vacated the field.
Abbott’s “courageous” attempt to slow the media cycle failed under the onslaught of media attention when the first “wedding gate” saga erupted just weeks after his Government’s election.
In response, Abbott adopted a new media strategy that was as frenetic as his predecessor Kevin Rudd’s, obsessed with winning the news cycle using an endless rotation of hi-vis vests and flag-infested podiums.
Now our latest PM has flagged yet another approach to communicating with the Australian community.
Malcolm Turnbull has promised advocacy instead of slogans (though Treasurer Scott Morrison may not yet have received that message), to listen and be open to new ideas, and to treat voters as adults by having a national conversation about the need for reform and what those changes will entail.
And as we saw over the past weekend, the new Turnbull way also includes a different response to tragic events that may involve home-grown extremism.
The Government had already flagged late last week that it intended to move away from the divisive language used by Abbott, which reportedly had led to Muslim groups feeling marginalised and distrustful of government. The PM put this into practice on the weekend, following the police shooting of a young gunman who had killed a police employee.
Noting that the “Australian Muslim community will be especially appalled and shocked by this,” Turnbull stressed, “We must not vilify or blame the entire Muslim community with the actions of what is, in truth, a very, very small percentage of violent extremist individuals.”
According to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, the PM also extended this conciliatory approach to a phone hook-up held with Muslim community leaders to discuss taking a “holistic approach” to combating violent extremism.
Turnbull’s overhaul of the Government’s communication strategy isn’t limited to setting a new tone and pumping out fresh messages. It also involves dissuading the media from behaving in what the former PM called a “febrile” manner.
In an attempt to inoculate his government from headlines such as “back-flip” and “back-down” when the inevitable changes are made to Abbott-era policies, Turnbull has attempted early to depict such changes as the hallmark of an agile government and that it would be “rubbish” to label them as an admission of error.
He has also tried to minimise gazumps and gotchas by refusing to play the media’s favourite game, which is to force politicians to rule things in or out, thereby leaving them exposed to broken promises at a later date.
Turnbull’s “new” approach actually hearkens to an older era, when politicians’ engagement with the media was more open and less about risk minimisation. That’s not to necessarily say there was a time when politicians were more honest with the media. But in this era of slick sound bites and focus-group tested slogans, it’s fair to say there’s never been a time when pollies have been less open with the truth.
This raises an interesting challenge for Turnbull and his Government. It may well be commendable to want to make Australia’s discussion of politics more adult, but will traditional and new media willingly go along with the change?
Both entities have established business models that, at least since the fall of Rudd, depend on pack-driven outrage, usually based on a broken commitment, an indulgence, or an imbalance in social equity. Backflips, broken promises and rorts sell more papers and generate more clicks than words of conciliation, acts of cooperation, or productive policy development.
“Man bites dog” will always beat “man pats dog” in the traditional news stakes, and increasingly drama-driven social media only serves to amplify the sensationalism.
Australians on social media may claim to want traditional media outlets to provide in-depth policy analysis instead of focusing on personalities and political machinations, but many seem to prefer politics to be conducted and reported as a gladiatorial sport than the respectful and democratic contest of ideas that PM Turnbull appears to aspire to.
Social media-driven sensationalism is now more important than substance when it comes to attracting eyes to screens. This is clear from the decision made by the establishment current affairs program Q&A to cast an individual such as Zaky Mallah in its line-up of questioners.
Our new PM may hanker for the days of gentlemanly banter across the despatch boxes at Question Time, or considered discourse in the Press Gallery afterwards, but sensationalism will remain the mainstay of tabloids and social media.
And while politically engaged social media participants in Australian are admittedly a small cohort, they nevertheless are a vocal and potentially influential subset of voters with the potential to shape politics – or at least how the traditional media perceives political events, given the media now monitors and plunders Twitter for news.
It is certainly commendable that Turnbull is encouraging us to revert to a kinder, gentler way of debating politics, but he may also need to find a way to feed voters’ appetite for tabloid-confected conflict and drama.
As Tony Abbott learned before him, Turnbull cannot afford to leave one part of the media untended. If he vacates the field, the PM’s opponents will swiftly and gladly fill the void.