21 December 2012

Autopsy before onslaught

It’s been a draining and disappointing year in politics. I attended the last Politics in the Pub session, with Richard Denniss, and it was not happy or optimistic but at least it was realistic. Political observers and operators can be like this. There’s openness and truth telling in these groups, at least in private, that you don’t get in spin-managed public statements. I find it intellectually satisfying although often disheartening. This was somewhat disheartening, but at least a commitment to politics remains.

Richard started by defending politics, which may surprise some, and identifying our problem as an absence of competent politics. Competent politics is required for good policy and public support. With bad politics, the public is just interested enough to tune in and be disappointed. Richard discussed this in the context of several broken policies. Form 2007 to now, how did we come from endorsement for action on climate change, by the public and both sides of politics, to rising denialism, a loss of support for action, a limited pricing scheme and point scoring on the issue. The message here is do it quickly, make it good enough then improve it, don’t waste time finding the perfect fix. There are less salubrious messages, too, like manage and use groups to your advantage, even divide and conquer. The mining tax was another example. It was initially well supported by the public and other businesses which would benefit from reduced corporate tax. The Government argued business needs certainty but then changed everything, so undermining its certainty message. And it collapsed under a (relatively cheap) marketing campaign, so showing one path to influencing government decisions. Think pokies. Another example was Rudd at the 2007 election and thereafter. He claimed to be more economically conservative than Howard, so Labor then couldn’t claim success from the classic Keynesian policies that were a world-breaking success with the GFC. He sees this as a bureaucratic approach to government, measuring success by legislation passed, rather than by influencing and convincing the public on big issues. Richard turned to Howard and his daily runs and cricket-tragic image and the subliminal message that politics is boring and trust your reps, but who radically moved Australia towards his image under the guise of conservative wariness of change. This is the point of delegated authority of Parliament. Rudd’s hyperactive spin just lined up work (we’ll revolutionise health; we just need to agree with state ministers first). And interestingly, Gillard is still busily legislating to implement Rudd’s agenda, scoring herself with legislation passed while politics burns and the public turns away. Why did the government seem reluctant for the Royal Commission on Child Abuse, and why are there so few subsequent announcements? It had 95% support but Labor seemed dragged to it and is squandering ownership. The message is that the main players (on both sides) are smart and sincere people, but they are just not good at their jobs. He didn’t question the political roles: governments have the advantage of setting the agenda; oppositions have the role of attacking government and promising the world. But both sides are just talking to our worst nature, playing the people and losing the issues. He likened the battle to two retired boxers: back in the ring, an ugly battle with lots of blood and no winner.

There were some questions. One on the sham that is the word “sustainable” as in sustainable growth. It pleases both sides of the argument but is uncertain so doesn’t support good policy. He discussed the responsibility and self-interest of the media as businesses. They used to take a balanced role as umpire to so as not to offend any groups and to maintain big readership. The new approach is to appeal to, so speak to and for, smaller groups in order to sell niche markets to advertisers. He noted that online news has shown unpalatable truths, that sex and trivia get the hits, so the job of pollies is to make people interested in things they might not otherwise follow. Also that we can’t always blame the media, given there are about 10 PR persons for every journo in Parliament House. He argued to be strategic in picking fights with the example that only 950 people work in forestry in Tassie, but highlighting the argument makes the group look more significant. In discussing small parties, he interested me by arguing that MPs, not party members, should choose their leaders because they are not bosses but leaders, so must be respected by their fellows. Not surprisingly, he commented on that dastardly phrase, “working families”, as cheap politics that creates “us and them” groupings and plays to dog whistles while sounding more positive than obvious old-school attack lines like “dole bludger”. So “working families” may be more polite but it’s pernicious. Talk about proving a point. Another proof appeared just the day after this event when Treasurer Swan discarded his promised surplus. I remember the good PR advice to never promise more than you can deliver. Delivering more than you promise is always well received, but delivering less isn’t, and the result is on show.

The event finished with end of year cheer: informed and opinionated political chatter and some goodies and beers. It was a pleasant respite before what we all expect will be an unedifying election year. Richard Dennis spoke at the Australia Institute’s Politics in the Pub end of year roundup session.

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