It seems that at least one media outlet is interested in Newspoll results 2 years out from an election – the poor, largely unread Australian. It’s a curious organ of record, the Oz – there’s fine journalists working for them like Peter Lalor, Patricia Karvelas and Rick Morton and their sport section generally is good. Yet they also employ as their columnists a gaggle of former Liberal government staffers, muttering extremists and spear carriers for causes that either serve specific corporate interests (such as miners) or lost their relevance some time ago. The continuing anti – ABC and anti “Leftist” campaigning from Chris Kenny and Gerard Henderson’s strange gnomic utterances are the stuff of Twitter guffaws but hold little interest for punters in the community at large.
But there is another purpose of the Oz – to help ride the Abbott Government horse to the finish line of the next Federal election. The paper’s editorial team have seen it as their job to help boost the Abbott Government in an intellectual way, as opposed to the News Corp metropolitan dailies, which is to support the Government with colourful visuals and colourful language. Today, however, the Oz has shown in its editorial that it is more than capable of getting out the whip. And this is some whip.
The Abbott government is doomed without narrative
THE AUSTRALIAN NOVEMBER 22, 2014 12:00AM
THE past fortnight should have been a personal triumph for Tony Abbott and a high-water mark for his government. The Prime Minister hosted a terrific G20 event in Brisbane, with the world’s economic powerhouses committing to boost output growth by an extra 2.1 per cent over the next four years. This historic gathering brought to our shores the globe’s supreme economic and political players, some of whom came bearing gifts. The signing of a free-trade agreement with China on Monday was a watershed moment, for both nations. Amid all the glitz and clamour, one thing is clear: Australia is seen by the major powers as a country that counts. Yet, instead of using this fresh success to spruik a winning reform agenda, or to educate the public, Mr Abbott and Joe Hockey have skulked off the stage.
Doomed! And it apparently needs a narrative. Everything needs a narrative these days. Even if it’s filled with lies, half truths and spin I imagine. The Oz is trying to tell the story that Australia Matters because it hosted the G20 and has signed free trade agreements and is urging the Government to do the same. Maybe the Oz doesn’t understand that talk of trade isn’t all that exciting for a lot of people, until such time as they see tangible outcomes of such a deal.
Or maybe they need to realise that the Government has, for a long time now, have had a narrative, but have crafted the wrong narrative – that Labor and “The Left” ran down this country for too long and that Abbott is fixing it. It’s a negative, short term narrative that wears out quickly and isn’t compatible with the truth, that Australia has been a booming, successful economy for a long time now, no matter who is in Government. Thing is – it’s the same narrative that the Oz has run for the entirely of the Abbott Government, so it’s a touch hypocritical for them to say that the Government has been running without narrative.
Also inferred in this is that the Australian public is too stupid to understand the G20 without being “educated” by the Government. The job of informing people about events – not educate – is the media’s, usually. But when you have circulation numbers as low as the Oz, then they can’t get the opportunity to educate many. But it gives that education thing a go.
The nation has not witnessed such a prestigious cavalcade since the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum in Sydney in 2007. Its potent mix of star power, symbolism and relevance is political gold. Although foreign policy, with its attendant grandiosity and bewildering acronyms, is not a vote winner in the Australian context, the Abbott government is inexplicably missing a precious opportunity to shine. China’s President Xi Jinping, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and British Prime Minister David Cameron addressed parliament; they brought more than bonhomie. As well, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande made state visits after the G20 extravaganza.
“Not a vote winner in the Australian context”. That line pretty much negates the point attempting to be made by the rest of it. Politicians from overseas visiting us and holding koalas does not reflect the success or failure of a Government to deliver on policy and services. It’s tourists holding koalas and appearing in selfies. It reflects that Australia has stuff to sell and buy and that other nations are grateful for the resources we are able to sell. It’s a touch churlish to suggest that the Government has failed because it can’t make maximum political mileage from the post G20 glow. But then the Oz focuses on one aspect of the G20 that did get out into the community.
Plus, I never thought I’d see the phrase “precious moment to shine” in the Australian.
Barack Obama stayed long enough to insult his host on climate change — against the advice of US diplomats, as Greg Sheridan reports today — and to show off his unmatched oratorical flair; the “chosen one’s” strength, however, is a gateway to his signature weakness. Deeds rarely match the US President’s words. But there is a serious point to this mastery of imagery and gesture politics. No successful modern leader can be aloof from the requirements of communications and storytelling. It’s a simple lesson that Mr Abbott has failed to grasp: talking points and three-word slogans can never suffice. “Australia is open for business” does not constitute a narrative or provide inspiration. “Team Australia” has hokey appeal, but it, too, does not work as an explanation for complex national security issues.
Using the phrase “Insult the host” is essentially telling the POTUS that he has no right to tell anyone that their policy is out of step with world opinion and action. It shouldn’t matter what diplomats told Obama – it does matter that Obama believes that it is the responsibility for world leaders to tell the Abbott Government that their ideological – as opposed to evidence based – approach to climate change action is dangerous and reckless. The was also more than a good chance that Obama used his speech to address the climate change sceptics in his own Congress and Senate. Obama was showing political courage and honesty of the type that the Oz is advocating in this editorial, yet they criticise it because they share the extremist climate change denialism being shown by the Government. That the editorial also gives a backhander to Obama’s legacy as President is hardly a surprise in the light of the activities of the Oz’s cousins over there in Fox Newsland.
What is revealing, however, is the suggestion that the Three Word Slogan may be dead. That the slogans that worked for Abbott as an opposition leader aren’t that of a Government. 15 months in and they finally realise this. Of course things like “Team Australia” are ridiculous and provides nothing in terms of a positive future direction for Australia. It’s also debatable whether the phrase has any appeal – we don’t still live in the 50s as a nation, when such a phrase may have been successful. Then again, it’s not a phrase that one could imagine Bob Menzies using, probably because he would have thought of it as something from a group of yahoos and not an adult Government.
He would have a point there.
Back to the Oz, though and they get to their core concern.
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. Witness how the Coalition mishandled ABC funding cuts; Labor and its friends have defined it as a “broken promise”, rather than a fiscal imperative. The 24-hour news cycle is as much a trap as it is an opportunity. Mr Abbott’s approach to messaging is a shambles of conception, strategy and execution. This deficiency can no longer be masked or ignored.
The Oz are concerned about Abbott running a one term government and this is why they are applying the whip so vigorously with words like “shambles”. They are concerned that the agenda and the “24 hour news cycle” is undermining the Government – because they realise that even they can’t help the Government control that message. The most glaring absurdity in this paragraph is the one that attempts to recast the Abbott “no cuts to the ABC” broken promise as a “fiscal imperative”. This from a media outlet that continuously wrote about Gillard’s carbon tax “broken promise”. I don’t remember the Oz trying to spin that as an “environmental imperative”. It’s quite a thing to see the Oz and the Government trying to squirm out of the trap made for it by a hasty, pre election promise considering the mileage they both made from Gillard’s hasty phrase. But, talking of media management…
Too often the Abbott government maddeningly vacates the media space. Bill Shorten, broadcaster Alan Jones and populist stunt man Clive Palmer too often set the national agenda. As a former journalist, a fine writer and a cutthroat oppositionist, Mr Abbott should be aware of the power of words and images. Yet his linguistic prowess has been diminished. Other than in some formal set pieces, he has lost his authoritative voice. Of course, it is no use blaming ill-equipped, tyro advisers. The Prime Minister’s Office is too dominated by Peta Credlin, his chief of staff, including on media strategy.
There’s plenty of curious elements in this paragraph, not the least of which is the expression “maddeningly”. I can picture people at the Oz screaming with frustration at the way Their Man is not grasping the media spotlight. Bill Shorten too often sets the national agenda? To say that (which is woefully inaccurate, he’s not) is to conveniently forget Abbott’s success as opposition leader to get on camera to parrot his three word phrases. We know of the Oz’s obsession with loathing Palmer and his hokey, anti-politics schtick, but what is interesting is the criticism of Alan Jones. That wasn’t something we saw in previous campaigns to bring the Liberals back into power. Jones was a fellow traveller, a helper. Now, however, he isn’t being cast that way. That could be because Jones is, in what could be these fading days of his career, focusing on CSG mining – something the Oz has publicly supported for some time, whilst Jones is an active critic. It could also be because an old school reactionary like Jones is harder to harness to the cause, unlike self crafted new style reactionary banner holders like Andrew Bolt and Paul Murray.
Another interesting part of this paragraph is the criticism of Peta Credlin. She has been the subject a lot of words and a sustained personal attack from some Labor supporting megaphones who are often fond of attacks based on looks and gender. However, now it’s a criticism of her power coming from the Oz, looking for a scapegoat rather than focusing on Abbott’s deficiencies. The core contention of this paragraph, the loss of Abbott’s “authoritative voice” is a comment that shows a tone deaf understanding of Abbott and his political persona. He may have been able to craft ideas in things like Battlelines, but authoritative voice was never Abbott’s skill. It hasn’t “diminished”. He was the hectorer from the fence, the Yabba Gascoigne of Australian politics. The mistake was to keep him as the leader because he’s not capable of an authoritative voice. Across Australia right now, there’s any number of people who can now easily crack open an Abbott impersonation because he’s the easiest target since Bob Hawke and Joh Bjelke Petersen. Unlike Bob, however, it’s not done with the affection that accompanied such imitations. It’s more like the Joh impersonations, which underlined what a clueless buffoon is at the top. If you ever want to chill people, just dash off an Abbott laugh.
But to continue with the spray…
To be sure, a hostile, distracted, Twitter-obsessed media is a hindrance; superior language, aimed directly at voters, could overcome this. That Mr Abbott charmed his international guests in private with his knowledge and steadfastness is no consolation. As various leaders admonished Russian President Vladimir Putin for his belligerence in the Ukraine and his indifference to the outrage over the MH17 slaughter, Mr Abbott seemed to have inspired their words. But as seasoned observers have noted, the Prime Minister shrinks in public, his natural exuberance is contained, his confidence hidden from view. Is this the man who destroyed Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard? Where is the intelligent Rhodes scholar who has an easy rapport with Australians in any setting?
It’s a well worn phrase, “Twitter obsessed” to explain why The Media Is To Blame for why Abbott isn’t popular. I wonder at this point if the editorial writer is familiar with the work of Sharri Markson, who uses Twitter in an interesting way, stirring up comment and responses. Or maybe the work of the journalists I mentioned in the introduction, who use Twitter in an informed, intelligent way. Maybe not. The Oz’s editorials are happy to cast Twitter in whatever way fits their attempt to appeal to baby boomer loathing of the younger generations (which other generation actually buys the Oz?)
The other part of this paragraph, suggesting that Abbott is “shrinking” in public is again to misunderstand his persona. Abbott never had an easy rapport with Australians – he was the leader of cranky people, people who believed that there was a Problem that needed to be Fixed. Now he’s PM, however, it turns out that there was no actual problem – the economy was fine the way it was. The problem, however, is now Abbott and his Government, which lurches from one calamity to another. Such calamities, however, seem to not be at fault in this editorial. It’s the Media. And Abbott. And so it continues…
This communications malady is endemic. The Coalition’s failing media strategy is damaging its electoral standing and making it difficult to bed down policy responses to problems it was elected to address. The economy is where this ineptitude is most marked; the selling of the Abbott government’s fiscal repair job has been a debacle. 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. This unmitigated disaster will retard our progress and ability to effect fiscal consolidation over the medium term.
The Oz has inadvertently made it clear what exactly is the problem with the May budget. It was all those things. That is the truth of it. However, that isn’t the point that is being made here, that it’s the media strategy that is to blame.
No, Oz. The budget was always a pile of straw. There’s no Rumplestiltskin around to spin it into gold.
In an act of immense self-harm, the Abbott government brought on the faux fairness debate over reform measures in the May budget via its ill-judged levy on top-bracket taxpayers. A false narrative developed that pitted tax rises on high-income earners against the loss of welfare benefits by others. Never mind that one group pays most of the nation’s tax or that governments have built an edifice of unsustainable handouts for all, fashioned out of temporary boom time revenues. Mr Hockey did not prepare the ground for what, truth be told, was a modest exercise in spending restraint. In opposition, the Coalition had over-egged the crisis alarmism. In truth, the debt overhang is a medium-term issue, yet one that every credible economist argues must be addressed if the nation is to successfully manage a future economic shock and not saddle future taxpayers with interest payments. The Coalition is now heading into its midyear economic and fiscal outlook statement with the huge challenge of not only bedding down its budget, but trying to close the fiscal gap amid tumbling revenue. Mr Abbott and Mr Hockey appear tongue-tied. They have no choice but to reboot their sales job.
We see here the way the Oz would like to spin the budget, “modest exercise” and “one group pay most of the nation’s tax”, repeating the bizarre contention that rich people pay the most tax and shouldn’t be sharing the burden of punitive fiscal requirements. The lack of self awareness in this paragraph is acute, as it demonstrates exactly why it’s difficult for any government to sell budgets where there’s cuts applied in the wrong areas. It depends on the agenda you wish to use as the defining note of your Government. Abbott is the wrecking ball of Labor’s legacy, not the leading force for neoliberal economic reform that is desired by likes of the editorial team at the Oz. But hey, that isn’t the problem. It’s the MEDIA. The sales job needs “rebooting”. The time for rebooting went some time ago. They need to replace the entire operating system.
Talking of operating systems, the editorial then went into comparing various Government operating systems, like comparing the Abbott OS with Paul 83, 86, 89 and 93, Howard 56 and iHawkie.
Mr Abbott is unable to capitalise on the past fortnight of global prestige and successful trade diplomacy. Readers can only imagine how Paul Keating would have conceptualised the Brisbane gathering and the economic might that accompanied it. The former prime minister would have been clever, shameless and over-the-top. He would never have succumbed to the low-rent fearmongering of radio barker Jones on the FTA or Chinese investment. Mr Keating would have had the wit to link the recent trade deals with China, Japan and South Korea — and the possibility of closer ties to emerging India — to a grand narrative about our future in the region, investment, rising living standards, jobs, aspiration and the need to keep opening our eyes, hearts and reform ambitions in the face of Asia’s economic transformation.
We know that the Oz’s modus operandi is to be always critical of the policy settings of Labor Governments, and therefore delivers the backhander of “shameless and over the top” to Keating. But their policy does allow praise of media strategy of Keating and his use of wit and big picture thinking. (It also gives another smack to Jones, which indicates once and for all what is thought of Jones at Reactionary Central) What this suggestion does with such disingenuous style is ignore that Keating actually believed what he said and did build genuine connections with Asia – it wasn’t just a “narrative”, it was his reality.
The next paragraph continues the same theme of comparing Abbott to the past.
It is true that the conservative side of politics does not trumpet its successes in the manner of the Left. Certainly, Mr Abbott was right to recognise that the electorate had lost patience with the extravagant verbiage of the Rudd-Gillard era. But there is a sweet spot between overblown rhetoric and the dot-point banalities pumped out by the PMO and the Coalition’s advisers. John Howard proved that he not only had convictions and a framework for action, he also knew how to speak directly to voters; he used the tools and media outlets that suited his purpose. Mr Howard was not universally loved, but he built a solid relationship with the Australian people because he argued his case from first principles. His words and his political persona were one and the same; no one thought he was taking his cues from a focus group or party official. The same thing was true for Bob Hawke, another authentic voice in our politics who was able to speak past his enemies and directly to voters.
The first line of this is staggering in its mendacity. Not true at all that Conservatives don’t trumpet their successes like “The Left”. Abbott’s Government, with assistance from media outlets like the Daily Tele, have trumpeted their small successes with aggression and repetition. I can’t recall just how many times we have heard about the plans for Westconnex and Badgery’s Creek airport, for example. The point, however, is not that line, it’s that the Abbott dot point media strategy is at odds with what we saw during the Howard era. And they are spot on with this analysis. The message is flat, lacking in finesse and principles when compared to Howard and Hawke.
This point, however, is made presuming that there are principles and a framework for action at the heart of the Abbott Government. There hasn’t been a great amount of evidence, however, is that the Government have either. They seem to be borrowing half understood principles from the Howard era or from vested business interests and the framework for action is half baked as a result. Hence we saw the ABC cuts and then Christopher Pyne setting up a petition to save Adelaide from those cuts (though we now see Chris Kenny attempting to spin this as a “regionalising” of the ABC); we saw Pyne doing various double backflips on schools funding and so on. If the substance is missing, the message is a bit harder to make.
And then there’s the conclusion.
While Mr Abbott is just as intelligent as his predecessors, he is languishing and looks flaky. He lacks the appeal of “comfortable and relaxed” Mr Howard or the everyman charisma of “Hawkie”, whose narrative of consensus united the nation. The Prime Minister can prevail, but he needs to show courage and leadership. One suggestion for capitalising on the G20 goodwill comes from former treasurer Peter Costello. He argued that going for growth, in line with the Brisbane Action Plan, does not depend on Mr Obama, Mr Putin or faceless officials; it’s up to the leaders of countries, such as our own, to repair their budgets and deregulate industries. “A government serious about reform might use such statements to educate and persuade its own constituency,” Mr Costello argued. “But the business of economic reform is hard, specific and local.” Is Mr Abbott hard enough? Without a clear narrative, the task will be beyond him; his communications strategy is in disarray. The Coalition needs skilful media personnel and new roles for its best ministerial performers; it must communicate like a team that knows what it is doing. Short-term tactical wins may offer a mood hit in the executive wing, but they are not the key to sustained governing. Mr Abbott must regroup, trust himself and speak with purpose. Right now, his insipid default setting is losing the people.
This is where the whip is being applied at the end to get the Government home in time for 2016. He needs to grasp a “narrative”. Tell a “yarn”. It needs a cleanout of a bunch of scapegoats from the Prime Ministers’ Office and media spinners. Not a change in Abbott, his Government, their policy settings, their plan of action. Just in the way it delivers the message. It doesn’t allow the possibility that the horse may be dead or in the process of dying.
The interesting nature of this editorial is not held in the way the Oz does not understand the failures at the heart of the Abbott Government – we know that they would never admit to that. It is in the intent of the editorial, to direct the Government in terms of the way it employs people and delivers messages to the Australian people. It’s political interventionism on a forceful and aggressive scale. It further supports the contention of many that the Oz isn’t a viable newspaper, more a way for business interests to deliver its messages to Government and attempt to influence media cycles. This whipping of the horse is the clearest evidence yet.
It’s also an indication that Alan Jones is no longer a member of the Reactionary Cool Kids club.
*Thank Dr. Peter Phelps, the NSW Liberal MLC, for suggesting the horse whipping metaphor.