Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Problems with Team Tony

I hate, I really hate, the way Mr Abbott is forcing me into a hole, forcing me to judgements I don’t want to make.

I am not a natural Labor Party supporter. I have never voted Green in my life. I am not Liberal either. After all, I describe my traditional party affiliations as Country Party! While I am opposed to the nanny state, Senator David Leyonhjelm and the Liberal Democrats leave me cold. Clive Palmer does entertain, I actually agree with some of the things he says, but some of his comments are just way too over the top. I guess that I don’t quite fit in in conventional terms.

Looking at the content rather than the message packaging, I don’t always disagree with Mr Abbott. For example, Australians fighting on various sides in the Middle East is a problem. But then, it gets packaged as Team Australia along with a waving finger that says we will withdraw social security benefits if you are naughty. It also gets packaged with new security and surveillance legislation that leaves me suspicious.

Looking at the feeds and comment streams, we have two streams that sit apart and attract like minds into into a gurgling rush to where? In packaging his message in the way he did, Mr Abbott fed one stream when, in fact, he wanted to reach out more broadly. I have no reason to doubt the PM on this point.

It seems that Mr Abbott cannot help himself He cannot resist wrapping whatever issue he is dealing with in sound-bite rhetoric intended to play to the fears and concerns of part of the Australian community and/or to provide some apparent national interest wrapping. 

Like Mr Rudd, this Government is trying to do too much. Like Mr Rudd, they are constantly responding to immediate events. Like Mr Rudd, the administrative underpinnings that the Government depends upon to deliver are starting to fall apart. I have no specific inside information on this point. My judgement is based on anecdotal evidence combined with the growing pile of matters that need to be actioned. The Senate is not an argument here. The Government could still be progressing discussion on matters in advance of final Senate consideration.

Like the Gillard Government, the Government seems to have lost control of its own agenda. With Ms Gillard, I used to argue that she needed to find that quite place in the midst of turmoil, that point of stability, that would allow her to regroup and then work out. That meant ignoring the noise and chaos, the pressure to respond. She never did. Perhaps it was impossible. But now, the Abbott Government finds itself in the same position.

A simple test here. Put aside very specific budget related issues such as the dispute over the GP co-payment. Put aside the politics of it all. Now list all the inquiries and major initiatives that have been announced or foreshadowed. Can you? I can’t and I’m reasonably knowledgeable.

This brings me to my final point. In all this, what are the Government’s main priorities? Can you work this out? I can’t, for they seem to shift on a daily basis.


First, an apology for my delayed posting this week.

The comment thread on this post focused in particular on the communications issue. Winton wrote:

I am coming to the view that sound-bites are good. Every political point worth making should be capable of being condensed to a sound-bite, tweet, headline or slogan. And listeners able to decide instantly whether a sound-bite strikes the right note for them.

kvd quoted Tony Blair:

The way in which information is exchanged so quickly has forever changed the way in which people want to consume information.They demand that things be condensed into 20-second sound bites. With complex problems, this is exceedingly difficult, but to be an effective communicator and leader you need to be able to condense complex items down to the core and be able to do this quickly.” – Tony Blair, former UK Prime Minister.

I accept that good communicators, Winston Churchill is an example, have the capacity to simplify, They also, generally, have a very good command over language. This includes knowing just what you intend to achieve from your language.

In a comment on the budget, Australian Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson conceded that the budget sales job was “unfortunate”. It focused debate on fairness and equity, not the problems that the budget was meant to address.

The Government chose the ground on which to fight. In the lead up to the budget, its messages focused on three things:

  • We must fix Labor’s budget mess
  • Present levels of Government spending are unsustainable
  • We have to get noses out of the public trough. This was encapsulated in lifters and leaners. The phrase lifters and leaners may have been drawn originally from Mr Menzies, but its use in this case was set in a neo-liberal context that Mr Menzies would not, I think, have supported.

Note that these are three very different messages.

Dr Parkinson’s comments focused on the second point. The Government chose to focus on the first and the third. This affected both their conditioning language in advance of the budget and the choices they made in the budget.

We can see this in the Commission of Audit. The Government chose the Commissioners and the terms of reference. They did so for their reasons. The resulting report presented by Tony Shepherd was a deeply flawed document. Leaving aside the ideological stances adopted, many of the detailed proposals were simply impractical because (among other things) they ignored systemic interactions and complexity. They could not be actioned.

Dr Parkinson worries that Australians will no longer accept short terms cost, that paralysis results. He misses a simple point. If you want to bring about change, you have to argue the case. You cannot do this by sound bites.

The question of the sustainability of Government spending begins with facts. It then goes to choices. This is where values and priorities come in. What do we mean by sustainability? What are the choices open to us? Are we prepared to accept higher levels of taxation? What are we prepared to cut and in what way?

It actually doesn’t matter whether people understand the detailed arguments. That’s not how people judge. Knowing that they cannot understand the detail, too busy to focus in a day to day sense, they form views over time based on what they perceive to be the quality and honesty of the arguments.

Slogans or sound bites don’t help here, although they may be important in determining winners at a point in the cycle. People form judgements over time. They do so based on accumulating evidence, including their own experiences with the effect of changes.

Looking back over Australia’s short history, I have a strong belief in the will and judgement of the people. Not their judgement at a point in time, there I may disagree strongly, but at the way in which excesses correct themselves as the failures and injustices become clear. Sometimes it takes a long time, but it happens.

It’s not as though people say that we were wrong, more that they find themselves asking how could we have thought that?  That’s silly or unfair. I guess that’s why I am philosophical on certain things, not all. I know that the wheel will turn.


One issue raised in the comment thread was the derivation of “lifters and leaners.” Neil Whitfield has a rather nice post, Poetastery and pollies, that traces the derivation back to American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox.


Anonymous said...

The funny thing is, on Sunday I was waiting for your 'monday forum' to make a comment that both the major parties lack a distinctive 'story teller' to get their message over consistently. I was going to note that, of the current crop, only Clive P seems to have the ability to make a memorable point in simple language.

And then Monday happened :)

I think the government has been fairly consistent on their pushing of border protection, and the budget - although I disagree with the severity of both agendas - but other areas like health and education, even NBN, seem to be approached on an ad hoc basis, as the wind blows.

So I can understand your dilemma Jim.


Anonymous said...

The GP co-pay is an example of a reasonable policy, but attached "in this budget crisis" to the creation of a medical research fund - something which at best will duplicate efforts elsewhere, while not actually addressing said "crisis". Then with the other hand they gouge into the CSIRO, which is probably the most respected scientific institution in Australia. Inconsistent policy.

And I know I've raised it before, but why doesn't the government flog off the HECS, HELP, whatever it is this week to the Future Fund? HECS has always only ever been shifting funds from one pocket to another, so why not get some near-term return for our "budget crisis"?

Anyway, at least Mr Abbott's PPL scheme seems to have been shelved for the moment.


Evan said...

I doubt you are the only one feeling like this Jim.

I think you might be being too fair though. It may that the budget showed very clearly the story they wanted to tell (the soundbite being 'Lifters and Leaners). It was just such an appalling story so out of sympathy with most Australian's desire for 'a fair go' that it was comprehensively trashed; so that now they are floundering:
trying distractions
trying to find other ways to sell it
saying that they are happy to make changes (so long as they don't change anything).

I think there are probably many people like you - naturally conservative, wanting to people to be treated with decency, valuing the fair go - who are feeling angry. Not just at some of the policy but how badly they have done the politics. These are often people who have been in politics all there lives and they seem to be doing dreadfully at the politics.

Jim Belshaw said...

Evan, the lifters and leaners soundbite is, I think, an example of what I'm talking about.

The Government had too many messages. Fix the Labor mess was one. Then in terms of the selection of cuts we have lifters and leaners. On top of this, they loaded too many things onto the budget, including long lead time cuts. So they effectively created multiple targets that could not be easily fitted into single messages. Worse, there were so many real policy issues involved each requiring scrutiny, they they themselves did not have time to properly focus.

Jim Belshaw said...

kvd, I really wanted to start running the Raffles material Monday, so you had to wait!

Life's too short to do this properly, but it would be interesting to do a list of major initiatives that the Government has to debate and implement. I don't think that they have the resources to do it.

Evan said...

Yes Jim, I think 'lifters and leaners' is a good example of what you were talking about.

Winton Bates said...

I am coming to the view that sound-bites are good. Every political point worth making should be capable of being condensed to a sound-bite, tweet, headline or slogan. And listeners able to decide instantly whether a sound-bite strikes the right note for them.

"Team Australia" doesn't sound any better to me than "Australia Inc." Citizenship is not about being a member of a team or corporation. It is about adherence to some basic values.

Tony Abbott is sending the wrong message when he talks about "Team Australia".

Evan said...

I think you are right Winton if the sound bites are about intentions and values. Then backed by the details of how they will be implemented in the current situation.

Anonymous said...

“The way in which information is exchanged so quickly has forever changed the way in which people want to consume information. They demand that things be condensed into 20-second sound bites. With complex problems, this is exceedingly difficult, but to be an effective communicator and leader you need to be able to condense complex items down to the core and be able to do this quickly.” – Tony Blair, former UK Prime Minister.

See also Churchill, Reagan, Eisenhower.


Winton Bates said...

As well as Ella Wheeler Wilcox, and Ming.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi all. I find myself in profound disagreement with Winton, equally profound disagreement with Tony Blair.

A good politician does need to be able turn a phrase, to simplify. This becomes the tag to which other things are attached. The problem arises when the tag becomes the argument.

Consider War on Terror, Weapons of Mass Destruction, Stop the Boats etc. Below each of those tags rested a complex set of arguments; the tag concealed that.

Politicians are expert in semantics. Modern politics is all about the crafting of the tag and the use of words to persuade. The approach is exactly equivalent to that used in advertising. The purpose of the tag is not to give information to persuade.

There is nothing wrong with memorialisation or persuasion. However, compare the sound bite approach with Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. This is a short clear message whose power lies in the combination of shortness with brilliant words. I wonder how Winton would compress that for Twitter?

Jim Belshaw said...

Oh dear, kvd. I let my case rest!

Anonymous said...

Jim, I'm not sure I agree with your outright rejection of Winton's comment. And also, I think Winton was being deliberately provocative - and in that he succeeded.

In your response you mentioned "Stop The Boats" as an example, but it is also probably true that this simple phrase encapsulated (as Winton suggests) a whole policy debate stretching back to our White Australia policy, through Mr Howard's "we will decide..." to the endless debate over the ensuing years regarding the so-called "boat people". As such, I think it was fairly effective.

And again, you suggested Lincoln's Gettysburg address as an example of great oratory. I have read that many times, and did so again - but damned if I can remember other than the stirring opening and closing paragraphs; the 'midddle' is quite eye-glazing.

And it is both true, and tragic, that at his funeral, a speaker remarked that his words would be remembered long after the particulars of the battle of which he spoke were forgotten.

Just stray thoughts; no conclusion or lesson proffered.


Winton Bates said...

"A new birth of freedom"

Winton Bates said...

My comment might require some explanation. I just tweeted: "They did not die in vain. There was a new birth of freedom". I included a reference to the Gettysburg address.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi kvd and Winton.

kvd, I agree that the first and last sentences are best.

mmm, Winton. A worthy effort, but it doesn't quite cut the mustard!

Neil said...

Thanks Jim, but Ella Wheeler Wilcox was "the bard of Wisconsin". Not Australian, though popular here in her day.

Jim Belshaw said...

Whoops, Neil. In this case, I didn't click through to the link. I have corrected the post. My thanks.

Anonymous said...

Emily Hahn was also a Wisconsonite. Must be something about the cold climate, or the beer, cheese, or brats...

And I'll leave you to correct your correction; myself I prefer Merkin :)


Jim Belshaw said...

Oh dear, kvd. It just gets worse. Correction connected! So Emily was from Wisconsin. The water?