There are two certainties in the communications business: first, that whenever the subject of communication comes up in any organisation everyone in the room is an expert; second, that whenever anything starts to go wrong everyone says the organisation is not communicating well enough.
How this paradox comes to pass when everyone is an expert has always been a puzzle to me. Generally the answer to the puzzle is that the self-styled experts are not so expert or they are in denial about some more fundamental problem. But it isn’t any the less of a puzzle to me with the departure of Ted Baillieu as Victorian Premier, allegedly because of his failure to communicate the Government’s achievements and narrative.
On the odd occasion when I heard Baillieu speak, or read speeches he had made, I was impressed. At his first appearance as Premier at the Premiers’ Literary Awards (it was Ted by the way who had the decency and courtesy to shift the apostrophe to take into account the role of his predecessors in the prizes and the Premiers’ Reading Awards) he had to speak after the all singing and dancing MC, Casey Bennetto. Pausing at the dais for a moment he smiled and said: “I think after that I’ll make the announcements through interpretive dance.” The audience, few of whom would have been Liberal voters, loved it. Last year he gave a long and reflective speech to an infrastructure function about Victoria, its heritage and the context in which it should develop. Perceptive and passionate it might have been among the best speeches by a Victorian Premier for many years – at least up there with those written by Joel Deane and Michael Gurr for Labor Premiers. It was also a powerful narrative about what Baillieu believed in and what his government wanted to achieve although whether his colleagues agreed with it is another matter.
However, the problem for the Victorian Liberal Party was not communication – although the inept State Treasurer, Kim Wells, generally makes it seem so – it was rather a combination of inadequate preparation for government, broken promises, excessive National Party influence in the government, and widespread concern about cuts in services and the problems of the Victorian economy.
The Liberals didn’t really expect to win the last State election and just fell in, probably largely because at the last minute voters dissatisfied with the Labor Government thought voting for Ted was not a risk. Worse they had made a lot of promises including specific ones like making Victorian teachers the best paid in Australia and general ones like the insanity of promising to ‘fix’ the problems in Victoria. These are the sorts of promises you make when you don’t expect to win. As I mentioned to a Liberal advisor just before the election – promising to ‘fix’ things is a very dangerous thing for anyone, whether it be plumbers or Premiers.
After that Ted had Julia’s problem – the Murdoch press saw him as a dangerous person who didn’t necessarily agree with their world view and, in conjunction with Baillieu’s factional opponents, worked hard to bring him down.
So, no doubt, all the communication experts sat around the Cabinet table saying we need to communicate better and have a ‘narrative’. And, when their combined expertise in the area didn’t make it happen, then lo and behold the problem was communication and the Premier.