Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The art of being politically boring

Yesterday's post, The rise of issues based morality politics, I said in part:

I am not alone when I assert that the Australian system of Government has become less effective over recent years. Part of the reason for this lies in the rise of issues based politics combined with a see problem, fix problem mind set. We expect Government to fix things, but only those things that we consider to be in some way right.

In the withering glare of the twenty four hour media cycle with its insatiable thirst for new material and its love of issues based adversarial politics, the capacity of Government and its advisers to actually think shrinks. All Governments spend their time running around doing things and responding to things on a quick-quick basis within that space set by fluctuating public opinion as orchestrated by the advocates. The media watches the whole process waiting for the inevitable misstep.

In April, former Labor Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner published Sideshow, dumbing down democracy.

He argues there are two key rules now governing the practice of Australian politics - "look like you're doing something" and "don't offend anyone who matters".

"Australian politics is like a Hollywood blockbuster - all special effects and no plot," Mr Tanner said.

So I am expressing somewhat similar views to Mr Tanner. Like him, I was involved in policy setting if on the official side in the 1980s when it still did seem possible to debate policy as policy, when the content was more important than than the pretty wrapping, ideas more important than mechanical measures.

I concluded yesterday's post by suggesting that politicians didn't have to keep playing the same game, that to illustrate this my next post would be called simply the art of being boring.

I suppose that you could argue that being boring comes naturally to me. You only have to read some of my posts! But being boring as a political device?

I discovered the art of being boring by accident.

At the time I was in an official job that required me to deal with the press for the first time. I am not talking about the type of daily contact that you might see in a Minister's office, but every week or so. Contact also built up over time because journalists found me useful.

The issues that I was dealing with were not normally the headline issues such as tax, macroeconomics or industrial relations. Still, they were not insignificant since judgements about things such as industry assistance, about Government civil and defence procurement, about technology development, all have very direct impacts.

  Dealing with the media as an official can be difficult because of the rules that you have to follow. Here I am not talking just about the official rules, but also the principles involved and the interaction between those principles and the official rules.

Take, as an example, cabinet matters. Provision of information on cabinet discussions was a breach of the law. Once a decision was announced, then factual briefing was relatively easy. But how do you brief when a matter has yet to be announced or decided, when a no comment may actually be very revealing? Further, how do you brief when you actually need informed discussion as part of the process?

This is high risk territory. Make a mistake, and you embarrass Government, minister and department. Sometimes I really sweated to the point that I had difficulty in keeping my voice calm. I had to take calls knowing that I was on a tight rope.

I had the advantage that I knew the Minister's and Department's position, that on the matters in question my own area generally had clear longer term objectives. I also had the advantage that my role in talking to the press was known to the Minister, his office and the Department. I didn't report on every media contact, but I did brief. To a degree, I was protected from error.

As an aside, the type of role I played is no longer really possible in a world of centralisation and information control, but that's another story.

I was also protected by the journalists themselves. Of the fifty or so background briefings I gave during this period, my confidence was never betrayed. Not once. It was partly a matter that journalists knew that I was trying to be helpful within my limits, more a question of ethics.

Have things changed? Not as much as you might think. Journalists have a job to do. My more recent experience has been that if you recognise that, if both sides are aware of limits, if you are straight, then the same rules apply.

The class of journalist with an idea in mind who are trying to set the story up, those for whom you are just canon fodder, is not new and has to be dealt with in a different way. I am talking about journalists as a whole.

I may seem to have come a long way from the art of being boring, but there is a link.

By nature, I like to explain, to educate. By nature, I tend to give both sides, to try to outline issues. By nature, I want to be helpful. Here I discovered a fascinating thing.

Journalists work on deadlines. Journalists have to simplify. Journalists need a headline story. Journalists often do not have a lot of background knowledge. I actually killed a lot of stories including some that I wanted by simply over-providing information, by being fair. There no way that all this could be turned into a story without work that was not possible within deadline limits. I, and through me the story, had become just too boring!

Once I realised this, I used it to my advantage.

Now this gets me to my point.

Politicians simply do not have to play by current rules. Rather than playing to the immediate game, the need for instant media gratification and points scoring, it is open to them to be boring by providing information, by explaining, by setting out both sides to assist people to make their own decisions.

Just at present, we are in a world dominated by conflicting opinions in which there is little scope for debate on ideas or on evidence. People turn off.

Now people also turn off if you are boring. Don't I know it! But there is an interesting thing here. People may not listen at the time, but they do respect people who try to explain. They also respect people who respect their views.

New policy, real change, takes a long time. You have to be patient, boring if you like. You have to plug away. Further, you can't win on everything. If your score card is dominated by immediate perceptions of gains and losses, measured by opinion polls and degrees of positive coverage, then it doesn't matter a damn in the longer term beyond the damage that you do.

I am not being naive when I say things need to change. I am well aware of practical realities. All I am saying is that if the game is crap, either don't play or at least change the rules.    


Anonymous said...

Not boring Jim; absolutely sensible I think.

This is a very good post which I hope gets read by a polly or two. Sometimes it is necessary to restate the obvious - part of which is that we elect people to govern, not to take part in some sort of nightly reality show.

I'm just about to start that memoir you mentioned - encouraged as I was by the drubbing Mr Tanner took in some of the press. Made me think he might have got a few things right.


Jim Belshaw said...

I have yet to read Mr Tanner's book, KVD. Blush, given his topic. I was working from reports.

I think that you are dead right in terms of governing and the nightly reality show. Sometimes I enjoy the theatre of it all, but I am also conscious of the problems it creates.

Others are too. You can see this in the audience reaction on, say, Q&A when someone actually answers a question with information!

Anonymous said...

Well, if you've not read Tanner's book I will report back in a few days. I always had a bit of time for him because he seemed to be a fairly straight shooter, and lost nothing by his reticence in the final period of his parliamentary life - to me, anyway.

I remember a Nat called John Sharp who I had a lot of time for - and I dunno why I connect the two, but I do. Something about honour and consistency I expect.


Jim Belshaw said...

KVD, I look forward to your response on Tanner. Want to run it as a guest post? If you email me, we can do this.

Anonymous said...

Jim, I've never accepted such an undeserved honour in my life, and in fact thus far have managed to remain totally without honour.


Jim Belshaw said...

Time you did, KVD!