In the past week or so it is difficult not to think of the Abbott government as some sort of mash up of the BBC TV series A Very Peculiar Practice, Tacitus and a case study of how the Grunig’s theory of asymmetric and symmetric communications works.
A Very Peculiar Practice was based on the student health centre at a British redbrick university where a writer in residence keeps trying to develop ideas for a Swiftian farce about the university only to discover the university had just done the thing he had been thinking of writing about. Tacitus, of course, deals with the life and times of Sejanus and Tiberius. And the Grunigs drew a distinction between symmetric communications which encouraged dialogue and asymmetric communications which were one way and which discouraged conversation and engagement. Essentially the Grunigs’ theory differentiates between just talking at people and talking with them.
Liberal Governments have always been keen on the asymmetric communications – hence the latest burst of TV and radio advertising telling people about why the government’s plans to de-regulate university fees are a good thing. Ad campaigns are in the DNA of Liberal governments in trouble. When they fail to convince people through discussion and debate they resort to spending taxpayers’ money on hammering them with superficial advertising messages. This is not to say Labor is not guilty of the same from time to time but they have tended to mix TV campaigns with other community engagement programs.
What is interesting about the latest TV campaign though is how soon in the government’s life cycle that it’s arrived. Just as no other government has been so unpopular in such short a time so no other government has had to resort to mass advertising campaigns quite so soon. What’s perhaps worse is that much of the money might be wasted. Indeed it is an indication of either the government’s general haplessness, or their ineptitude, that they have launched a major mass media TV campaign at the very time when the target audiences are least likely to notice it. What is certainly worse is that they haven’t grasped that they are on the nose because people don’t think they are listening and are angry about unfair policies. An advertising campaign might just make them angrier. Given that it was also organised at short notice it will also be interesting to see who tendered for the job, how the tender was organised and who won it.
As for the BBC black comedy – well that speaks for itself. When the blog posted earlier about evidence based policies, predictions and the belief that the Abbott government problems were about communication rather than more fundamental things the blog’s mind was thinking vaguely about the shape of a follow-up piece speculating on when the government would resort to a mass TV campaign on something or other, or a host of things, on which it was in trouble and failing to convince.
Finally – Tacitus and his history of Tiberius and Sejanus. With Barry Jones retired from Parliament there are probably few MPs left who have either read Tacitus or could quote him spontaneously in a parliamentary debate. Dick Hamer was the last Victorian politician to interject in Parliament in Latin and a search of Federal Hansard for the last such interjection there is probably not worth the time. Nevertheless, at a rough guess three Federal MPs who would have at least read some Tacitus might be the Greens’ Scott Ludlam, Malcolm Turnbull and Labor’s Andrew Leigh. The blog would be delighted to hear of more. There are probably more Libs (and even the odd Nat) who have but it might be as career-threatening to admit it publicly in the current political context as it was to live in the period 20 to 30 CE.
Whitlam memorably described Billy McMahon as Tiberius with a telephone which contained a coded imputation which was a bit unworthy of Gough but was still very funny. But the real contemporary resonance of Tacitus, Tiberius and Sejanus is the time honoured one of the relationship between the ruler and the favourite and its aptness as a prism to examine the current Abbott-Credlin partnership.
Cabinet Ministers and backbenchers are busily briefing against each other and, in between that, complaining about the power Ms Credlin exerts and her influence over the PM and the rest of the parliamentary party. However, what we are seeing in Canberra is not unique in history and how it may pan out has many precedents beyond those of Tacitus, Tiberius and Sejanus. The World of the Favourite edited by J.H. Elliott and L.W.B. Brockless looks at a series of European case studies in the 16th and 17th centuries ranging over the Count-Duke Olivares in Spain; Essex, Leicester and Raleigh in Elizabethan England; and everyone from Richelieu to Fouquet in France. Some relationships ended badly for the favourite, some ended badly for both the ruler and the favourite and a few (eg Charles I) ended very badly for the ruler. Marlowe and Ben Johnson wrote plays about it in their day and Peter Capaldi, as well as playing Richelieu in the recent BBC Three Musketeers, was also the central figure in latter day versions of it all – The Thick of It and the spin off film about the Iraq war.
When the British MP, Sir John Eliot, made a famous speech in the House of Commons comparing the Duke of Buckingham (Charles I’s favourite) with Sejanus Charles I replied in outrage that: “Implicitly, he must intend me for Tiberius.” Significantly both of them went – one by the dagger and one by the axe. But it was the favourite first and the ruler second. In contrast, what are the odds in current day Australia of the favourite getting the axe first and the ruler the dagger before the next election?