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.

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.

Whether you like it or not – looks DO matter in politics

I have to confess I noticed the PM’s earlobes long before it was cool to do so, back in the days when she was a mere Deputy PM. Once or twice I mentioned them to non-politicos who responded with quizzical stares, but I soon discovered they had been a long-time topic of conversation amongst Labor staffers.

Before you accuse me of trivialising politics by focusing on a person’s appearance, let me let you in on a little secret – whether you like it or not, looks DO matter in politics.

It’s a real shame that Niki Savva stooped so low in her recent article about Ms Gillard’s appearance because the substance of her comments had merit. Politicians ARE measured by their looks, and not just female MPs as decried by Annabel Crabb.

Recent research by the University College London and Princeton University has found that voters make judgments about politicians’ competence based on their facial appearance, with facial maturity and physical attractiveness being the two main criteria used to make these competence judgments. The researchers found that appearance is most likely to influence less knowledgeable voters who watch a lot of television. This research built on earlier work that found voters rely heavily on appearances when choosing which candidate to elect.

Perhaps the most striking example of the weight given to politicians’ appearance was the perceived outcome of the first debate between Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy during the 1960 US Presidential election. The 70 million television viewers believed the tanned, relaxed Kennedy had beaten the pale, stubbled Nixon, in contrast to the radio listeners who thought the opposite. Nixon’s appearance directly affected public perceptions of his competence.

Moving forward to more recent US elections, opponents of 2004 Democrat presidential candidate, John Kerry, were accused of planting a story that Kerry used Botox to smooth his Lincoln-like brow. While no direct link was drawn between this cosmetic practice and Kerry’s competence, the subtle inference was nonetheless encouraged. The same tactic was employed against Queensland Premier Anna Bligh in 2008, which she quickly defused by admitting to the practice and then moving on.

And so, in politics, do clothes maketh the man?

Yes they do, even as far back as 1892 when the UK’s first Labour MP, Keir Hardie, took up his seat in Parliament wearing a tweed cap and a working man’s suit. His failure to wear a top hat prompted the magazine Vanity Fair to declare: “His headgear has endangered the foundations of parliamentary propriety, and provided innumerable paragraphs for the papers.”

We may move more quickly to judge female MPs, but this may be because their hair and clothes present such an array of style, colour and shape.

One writer mused that:

It is precisely because our interior selves are essentially inscrutable (most of us can’t unscramble the psychological coding of our spouses much less the machinations and motivations of public figures) that we depend so much on surface clues. The whole superficial shebang — from hairstyles (who can forget Hillary’s little-girl headband?) to accessories (remember the fuss about Cherie Blair’s pricey Tanner Krolle handbag?) — provides us with the contextual tools to read the Other, the person who is not us, be it the stranger across the room or the stranger angling for political office.

And so we are superficial by nature – judging books by their covers – and this is exploited by others. Political spin and campaigning techniques encourage us to accept a politician’s appearance as a measure of their competence.

A prime example is our twice-removed former PM. Despite Howard’s eyebrow trimming, teeth capping and spectacle refurbishment, and even the final banishment of the comb-over, we still remember him as Little Johnny. While Howard is in fact as tall as the average man he always looked short next to the towering Fraser. The diminutive term may have first been struck to match his appearance, but was later used to suggest smallness of spirit. It was the reinforcing visual image that made it stick.

Numerous other subtle but similar connections have been made between the appearance of politicians and their competence. Would Beazley or Hockey have been more successful if they had been slim and less disheveled? Would Tony Abbott have won more female votes this year if he had not paraded around in his sluggoes and licked his lips during interviews? Does Bob Katter seem even madder because of his hat? Yes. Probably.

Pollsters of any political persuasion will tell you I speak the truth. They know better than anyone how a punter’s vote can be won or lost based on the appearance of the candidate. War stories abound with focus group quotes including “I won’t vote for him, I don’t like his eyes” or “she’s a smart girl but she just needs a good blow-wave”.

So remember next time a politician is ridiculed for their hair or their personal style. Yes, it is superficial, but there is a deeper intent at play. Don’t be distracted or attracted by this sleight of hand – appearance does not equal competence, but it is up to common punters like you and me to prove it.

This post was also published at The Notion Factory.

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!

Nielsen poll – wakeup call for protest voters, not Gillard

This morning Australian voters woke to read that the tide has turned on Prime Minister Gillard, with the Herald/Nielsen poll showing the Coalition now leading on a two-party-preferred basis.

The commentariat are saying that the bell is tolling for Gillard. This interpretation may sell papers, but it is wrong. We are still three whole weeks out from polling day. Previous contemporary elections have shown that around 5-10% voters do not firmly make up their minds until the last week. 2-3% do not decide until THE DAY. This percentage is still enough to decide the election.

Today’s poll shows nothing more than an expression of protest by those voters not happy with this week’s ALP campaign. It costs voters nothing to shift their “vote” around during the weeks of the campaign. What they tell pollsters they will do, and how they actually DO vote are two different things.

A more interesting result from the poll is that 69% expect Labor will win the election, while only 21% believe the coalition will. Another is that 21% of voters have not yet firmly made up their minds.

This reflects the wormers’ views after Sunday night’s Leaders’ Debate – when asked to finally choose between Gillard and Abbott, the vast majority chose the PM.

Today’s poll is nothing more than a wakeup call for protest voters. Expect Labor to press the point – do voters unhappy with Julia Gillard REALLY want Tony Abbott to be their next Prime Minister?

If votes swing back, then the superficial protest will be confirmed. If the trend remains, then we can start to toll the bell for Julia.

Julia’s tenet – no government has ever fallen to a bored citizenry

Zombies vote often, vote late

John Howard was pilloried during his time as Prime Minister for saying he wanted the Australian people to be relaxed and comfortable. It was, said the commentariat, evidence of Howard’s singular lack of vision, particularly when compared to his predecessor the vaudevillian Paul Keating.

No doubt Howard saw himself more in the mold of political warhorse than political visionary. He knew that an electorate generally satisfied with its lot would unlikely countenance the risk of changing its government.

It appears that Julia Gillard is deploying a version of Howard’s strategy, which is to keep the electorate bored, somnolent and disengaged. In the same way that Howard felt secure with a comfortable electorate, Gillard is depending on the tenet that no government has ever fallen to a bored citizenry.

Consider the limited number of times that federal governments have been thrown out in recent decades. Fraser, Keating and Howard all incited considerable wrath within the community before they were ousted at the ballot box.

The Prime Minister’s strategy is observable in her public demeanour and utterances. While some have likened her new cadence to PM Thatcher, it strikes others as more a cross between our current Queen Betty and a pre-school teacher; soothing but protective, reassuring but authoritative. At times during the Leaders’ debate I recalled late-night horror movies where people were hypnotised through their crystal sets and wondered if this time it was for real.

It may well be that this strategy will pay dividends for the PM, but I suspect it will backfire because Tony Abbott is also trying to bore the electorate. Clearly he is not doing it for the same reason as Gillard. Abbott is using the small target strategy that worked so well for Rudd and Howard when they were both opposition leaders. It is the “I am a safe pair of hands and I don’t have the other lot’s nasty policies” strategy. Abbott too is trying to be reassuring but authoritative, so as not to alarm the electorate into reverting to the incumbent government.

So how will this play out on polling day? Taxi drivers all over Australia will tell you that their fares think this is the most boring election in memory. Will voters shuffle to their polling station like zombies or somnambulists and vote for the status quo because it is the path of least resistance?

Or will they rebel, mutter a pox on both houses, and vote green or not at all?