One of the paradoxes of the communications business is that when you are working within organisations everyone has an opinion on what the communication problems are, how they should be fixed and how if they are fixed all the other problems will go away. Yet when it comes to observing politics the blog has found people are far less certain – although politicians themselves do tend to blame communications rather than policy or anything else if they are travelling badly in the polls.
In recent months the blog seems to have been asked what’s gone wrong with the Abbott Government and why their communications are so bad far more times, and sooner, than the questions came up with previous governments. The honest answer to the questions is that the blog doesn’t really know for sure although there are some possible answers.
Part of the problem is that the government is acting as if it has a clear mandate (whatever that problematic term means) when the reality is that it won by default, albeit helped by some clever sloganeering and the massive propaganda efforts of the Murdoch media. Another part is that the centralised communication and strategy approach works well in opposition but not so well in government. The risk of being seen as divided is seen as needing to override the inevitable disagreements and discussion which make for good policies and tactics (and which most of us call democracy) but the media call ‘splits’. These discussions are also essential to the creation of a narrative of the sort Hawke and Howard have recently contrasted with reliance on slogans. Obviously the continuous campaigning approach adopted from US politics is another contributing factor. And having adopted so many Institute for Public Affairs’ policies can hardly have helped either.
But the key problem is probably one summed up by the UK Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney, at a conference when he said: “Capitalism loses its sense of moderation when the belief in the power of the market enters the realm of faith” and “Inclusive capitalism is fundamentally about delivering a basic social contract comprised of relative equality of outcomes.” (See The Economist 31/5/2104). The full speech can also be found at http://www.bankofengland.co.uk//publications/Pages/speeches/2014/731.aspx.
In many ways the Abbott Government is essentially a ‘faith-driven’ government which believes its own version of reality. This is reinforced by the evidence-free banalities of the business leaders it listens to, as illustrated by the Commission of Audit document. This ‘faith’ leads the Government to make statements which are demonstrably wrong. To a certain extent they have been able to get away with it because, if for instance they say the Moon is made of green cheese, some News commentator or shock jock will be found to endorse the view or monster anyone who dares point out the truth. But in government and in the wider community – informed by social media – this is no longer true.
Two examples epitomise that. First, Tony Abbott’s insistence in the face of all the evidence that carbon emission trading schemes around the world are being wound back and that there are none in the US. The case of California, which has a larger economy than Australia, and would be one of the top 10 world economies if it was an independent country, is the most obvious. The unfolding events in China also negate the assertion. Second, Christopher Pyne’s comments about de-regulating fees not being a problem because any university which puts up fees too much will lose students. That statement is empirically and theoretically wrong. The most recent evidence comes from the UK where de-regulation saw, with a few slight delays, all universities putting their fees up the maximum. In theoretical terms it assumes that in economics price competition is all that matters. If Pyne was right Maserati managers would be trembling in their Gucci loafers at Mazda prices. It is also a case of Pyne demonstrating the truth of Oscar Wilde’s statement about people knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. Both these cases are getting wide coverage on social media – often in a derisory tone.
Indeed, the government could be likened to the Bush government which was according to Karl Rove – always moving on to a new ‘reality’ while the reality-based community tried to catch up. The blog’s friend John Dyett (who lived in the US for many years before coming back to Australia to work in politics) points out though that the ‘number of tory lies and misinformation’ is so great that it is almost impossible to refute it all – giving some legs, if only temporary, to the Rove approach.
But the most important current political reality is that no government, and certainly no Prime Minister, has become so unpopular so fast. The Government is no doubt comfortable with the idea that things will improve, the public will accept the need for ‘toughness’ and that anyway when they offer big tax cuts just before the next election voters will grab for them. Voters didn’t like and didn’t trust Tony Abbott before the election but they disliked and distrusted Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd more. Now, after the election, they are having their initial feelings about Abbott re-inforced and whether that can be removed by more promises is moot.
But above all else there might be a very simple reason for their problems – perhaps they’re not very good!