Turnbull bets his future on an ability to sell change

Turnbull bets his future on an ability to sell change

As a group, Australians are conservative and resistant to change. Major shifts in their everyday lives, such as the seemingly overnight decision to dump prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2010, can leave voters feeling bewildered and anxious. And as Rudd showed at the time, it doesn’t take much to convert such emotions into resentment and anger.

Former PM Tony Abbott made this inherent conservatism an advantage by playing up to the various manifestations of voter anxiety about our changing future. Now his successor Malcolm Turnbull plans to turn Abbott’s approach on its head, making change something that voters embrace rather than fear.

It is a risky, but not unsurprising, move for the entrepreneurial parliamentarian. And it will define Turnbull’s success or failure.

In trying to avoid the same fate as Rudd, Abbott relied heavily on voters’ conservatism to argue they were unlikely to throw out a first term federal government as long as there were no upheavals in the leadership. Abbott even applied the principle to his ministry, insisting on making only minimal adjustments to what was essentially a relic of the Howard era so that voters had a sense of continuity from those seemingly golden days.

In contrast, PM Turnbull has declared himself an unabashed fan of change, making much in recent statements of fresh starts and embracing the unknowables of the future. The new PM’s “21st century Government and ministry for the future”epitomises that mindset with a substantial injection of talented younger women and men. Only two of Howard’s Liberal Party cabinet ministers remain in Turnbull’s senior ministry – himself and Julie Bishop.

At least one commentator has already noted this is a new Government without having had to resort to an election – a perception that has undoubtedly been created by the Turnbull team to prepare the way for an overhaul of Abbott government policies.

Having “refreshed” the ministry, the PM is now pitching that policy change is a good thing. He attempted yesterday to head off any attempt by the media or Labor to characterise such moves as “a back down or a backflip or concession of some mistake”, stressing that agility is “vital for government success” and that it simply made sense to change policies if they were not effective or could be improved.

There is an attendant risk in creating such an expectation, particularly if the community becomes anxious about the magnitude and direction of change, whatever its merit.

Turnbull’s pitch to colleagues last week focused on economic leadership and the need for “advocacy, not slogans” (which is quite a good slogan in itself). So it’s not surprising the new PM has put one of the Government’s best salesmen, Scott Morrison, into the Treasury role. However, tax reform sits clearly at the centre of Turnbull’s economic repair agenda, evidenced by his promotion of the Assistant Treasurer role to Cabinet.

Noting that the role is “in effect the Minister for revenue and is responsible for the tax system which is at the very centre of our whole productivity agenda,” Turnbull stressed that Australia needs “a tax system that is fair, efficient and creates the right incentives so that we can get the gains in productivity we need”.

This is likely code for increasing or broadening the goods and services tax, among other reforms.

It’s tempting to draw a parallel between the ambitious, even “courageous”, tax reform agenda that former PM John Howard took to the federal election in 1998. It is Liberal folklore that Howard’s audacious move to replace 10 “inefficient” taxes with the GST helped turn around his Government’s flagging electoral fortunes. But in reality it is impossible to prove whether this is the case, or if the GST almost lost that election for Howard given Labor managed to secure the majority vote.

What we can be sure of, based on previous events, is that any Turnbull Government proposal to increase taxes will be ripe for a scare campaign. And it seems the Shorten-led Labor Opposition is just as willing as the Beazley-led one was in 1998 to play on voters’ anxiety about such a change.

The success or failure of the Turnbull experiment will therefore rest predominantly on his ability, and that of his ministry, to explain any proposed changes, why they are needed, and – perhaps most importantly given the 2014 federal budget – how they are fair.

Turnbull may be keen to capture voters’ imagination with his vision for an innovative, agile and changed Australia. But there is still something to be said for Howard’s vision, which was for a nation that was relaxed and comfortable. It was those laid-back voters who returned the wily PM to office, not once but three times in all.

Coalition needs a better budget, not better PR

It’s hard to know why some of the Abbott Government’s biggest and most vocal media supporters have chosen the past week to complain about its abysmal performance.

Other than the Government’s abysmal performance, of course.

Last week’s Newspoll shows Labor has a 10-point lead on the Coalition once notional preferences are distributed, and that any increased approval rating for the Government from the national security issue has been short-lived.

This deterioration confirms the trend highlighted by polling analyst Andrew Catsaras on yesterday’s Insiders program, in which the Abbott Government is consistently faring less well than it did at the federal election. This is in stark contrast to the first-year polling performance of the previous Howard and Rudd governments:

… for the first 15 months the Howard government averaged a vote of 55.5 per cent, 2 per cent higher than the election. The Rudd government averaged a vote of 57 per cent, over 4 per cent higher than the election. Whereas the Abbott Government has averaged a vote of 48.5 per cent, 5 per cent lower than the election.

Catsaras also emphasised that polls are reflective, not predictive, so it’s curious why members of the Government’s conservative media cheer squad have turned into nervous nellies two years out from the next federal election.

Yet rightwing shock jock (and staunch Coalition supporter) Alan Jones berated the PM last week for failing to meet the “pub test” on the free trade agreement with China. Conservative blogger (and arguably the nation’s biggest Coalition fan) Andrew Bolt followed swiftly with a 19-point deconstruction of the Government’s woes entitled “The Abbott Government must now change or die”. And then The Australian newspaper, which has unambiguously nailed its colours to the Coalition mast, joined the lament with an editorial insisting that “The Abbott Government is doomed without narrative”:

Limply, the Prime Minister is losing the battle to define core issues and to explain to voters what he is doing and why. At stake is his political credibility, no less. Mr Abbott risks becoming a “oncer” if he allows his opponents to constantly control the agenda.

Amongst this litany of complaints, the common thread is that the Abbott Government’s problem is one of poor communication; that the Coalition’s less than sterling performance would be remedied with better media staff, a more strategic approach to communications, and a narrative.

These could help, but as former prime ministers Rudd and Gillard could attest, a slick media strategy or strong narrative are of no help to a flailing government if its political decisions are flawed and its policies untenable.

The Abbott Government is not lacking a narrative, as claimed by The Australian, but saddled with one that is not of its choosing. Having been presented with the Government’s weasel words and black-is-white recasting of commitments and lies, voters have taken a lead not from its rhetoric but the Coalition’s actions to identify its narrative.

In its own words, The Australian’s editorial best encapsulates that narrative:

Voters are left with the impression that Mr Hockey’s May budget was a litany of broken promises, designed to inflict severe pain on low-income workers and the poor, and that the deficit crisis was not as acute as the Coalition presented it.

Well, yes.

And there is next to nothing, in the Government’s words or deeds, to suggest that voters should think otherwise.

Voters did feel more receptive to the Prime Minister when he was fulfilling his “protector of the realm” role after the MH17 tragedy and in response to the heightened terrorist threat from Islamic State, but that perception took a hit at the G20 when Abbott ended up looking cowardly and weak through no-one’s efforts but his own.

This has increased the pressure on Treasurer Joe Hockey to successfully “sell” the budget and the Government’s broader economic reforms in order to protect its only remaining perceived strength – that of superior economic management. Hockey’s next best chance to retrieve this sales job is the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook report, which is due in December.

The Government could roll out a shiny new narrative at that time, which more successfully pitches the prosperous Australian future that will emerge as the result of everyone taking on their “fair share” of the burden created by the necessary economic reforms.

And Coalition MPs could refrain from foolishly drawing attention away from that message with political self-indulgences like cigars, Knights and Dames awards, whining about being unloved, or Gonski-type triple backflips.

But none of this will be enough.

As Abbott’s mentor, former PM Howard, made clear when he spoke at the National Press Club earlier this year, the community will only respond favourably to the type of change envisioned in the Coalition’s budget if it is satisfied the reforms are in the national interest and fundamentally fair.

And there’s the rub. The Abbott Government won’t be able to satisfy this fundamental requirement. The budget is neither in the national interest nor fair, and no compelling narrative or fine media strategy will be able to fix that.

Hockey, Shorten: tongue-tied and in trouble

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.

Not all spin doctors use their powers for evil

Being an effective communicator is a lot like having the Force – you can either use your power for good or evil. To illustrate, I’d suggest that JFK and Martin Luther King Jr used their power for good. I would place Anthony Robbins and the Shopping Television Network at the other end of the spectrum (yes, my definition of evil is non-Catholic to say the least).

Others would place the dreaded spin doctor (or public relations practitioner) in the same quadrant as the insistent voice telling you to call with your credit card details right now to get not one, but three pedi-eggs for the price of one.

I will state up front that I am a communications (ie. PR) professional, and have plied my trade for over 20 years. My training is in communications theory and practice, which is not the same thing as journalism. Yes, I learned how to write in a clear and (hopefully) compelling fashion. I also learned how people pay attention, listen and learn. I understand the relationship between people’s values, beliefs, attitudes and perceptions and how these ultimately shape behaviour.

This knowledge is stock in trade for communications professionals. We build strategies from these robust theories to help people and organisations effectively communicate with their audiences.

Much of this communication is done for good not evil. Sometimes the messages help people find or use something, or to be safe, or informed about their rights and entitlements. For example US authorities look at Australia’s seat-belt wearing rate with envy and attribute our success to a combination of regulation and effective communication.

These theories and strategies are changing over time to keep pace with the evolving nature of communications and how people interact with it.

However, journalistic distrust of the communications profession does not appear to have changed at all. I can remember in the 80s, when working as a novice media adviser in Canberra, I quickly learned not to tell journalists that my background was in PR. It was made crystal clear to me that PR flacks were considered to be much further down the credibility chain than media hacks.

Ironically, it seems that today the prevalence of former journalists in the role of media adviser and resulting obsession with the 24/7 news cycle has done more to put the spin doctor role into disrepute than any shonky PR type might have done.

I was reminded of this by a newspaper story today on government “spin doctors” that was retweeted by a couple of reputable journalists on Twitter. What struck me was the amount of unbridled spin in the article about spin.

The article authoritatively tells us that each state and territory, as well as the federal government, employs a minimum of several hundred people dedicated solely to generating the best possible angle on stories for public consumption, that taxpayers fund an army of at least 3000 media advisers employed to “spin” political lines and that public servants are hired to craft messages and keep the secrets for governments and their departments.

There are two spins clearly at work here. One is that governments are avoiding public scrutiny by being profligate in their employment of communications personnel. That is a fair point from a political and newsworthiness perspective. However the other implication is that any communications professional working in government is devoted to distortion or corruption of the message. This allegation is patently untrue and an insult to the hard-working communicators in the many government departments around the country.

I realise there is an uneasy relationship between the media and its news sources these days. There is incredible pressure on journalists to find unique and compelling stories to maintain sales and keep advertisers happy.

Being students of human behaviour, some communications professionals have used this to the advantage of their clients but perhaps at a cost to their own credibility.

I’m not suggesting that all communications professionals are angels. On the contrary, it can be very tempting to use the Force for less-than-good deeds.

All I ask is that next time the sobriquet “spin doctor” is flung at a communications professional, take a moment to check who it is that is really using their communications knowledge for nefarious means.

This post appeared on ABC’s The Drum – Unleashed.