12 June 2012

No message is the message

Every pinhead in PR/media who wants a veneer of gravitas and relevance is churning out articles about what a great communicator Abbott is: so punchy. Silly editors think mistakenly that they are doing their outlets and these people a favour by providing a platform for such drivel. Where this falls down is his success in conveying how the country would be different if he were Prime Minister.

Apparently, there'd be no mining tax*, and there might be a bit more money for people who take parental leave*. Most people don't pay the former or enjoy the latter. Most people do pay electricity bills, and Abbott has offered no reason to think that electricity prices would go down. He can parrot all that focus-group stuff about rising prices; he knows there's nothing he can do to actually reduce those prices, and to his credit he hasn't committed to any policy that would do so.

At this point committed Liberals rhapsodise about how successful he is at getting his message across, that the few policy positions he has are so well and widely known. People who are most keen on this tend to be people who have little understanding of political history. Most failed Opposition Leaders have one or two well-known positions:
  • From John Howard's first term as Opposition Leader in the 1980s, a male hand squeezing blood from a stone;
  • Kim Beazley's GST rollback; and who could forget
  • Mark Latham's slogan "ease the squeeze", catchy but so what?
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Tony Abbott is running on pretty much the same theme that Mark Latham did in 2004, with about the same degree of success. I'll leave it to you to work out who's the bigger boofhead, but emulating a proven failure is not conducive to "almost inevitable" electoral success on the part of "authentic" Abbott. Your guess is as good as mine about what we might expect from an Abbott government. This means the messaging has failed, not succeeded.

In the past two years of the Gillard government - yes, it has been that long - there is no example where the Opposition has forced a reassessment of and improvement to policy by its drawing attention to it. Abbott told Alan Jones that he was holding the government to account. Nobody would expect Jones to embarrass Abbott by asking him for an example of where he's actually improved the way taxpayers' money is spent - but nobody would expect any self-consciously "professional journalist" to do so either (and if any did, Abbott would avoid being interviewed by them). There is, in short, no reason why the country should look to Abbott as a better leader to Prime Minister Gillard, and nor will it do so.

Much is made of Abbott's Rhodes-scholar intellect, and his fans claim he's a tolerant person against all the evidence - but he is not a leader who can cope with "split advice", either.

Any other promises (actually, I'd include paid parental leave in this) is negated by the commitment to cut in service of a budget surplus. That confusion over priorities is a failure of communication. If there is no message to get across it is nebulous to talk about "getting your message across" or "dominating the media space" at a time when the space has largely been abandoned as a forum for public debate on real issues.

Let's conflate the issue of the carbon price, the Coalition's need to combat the historically high vote for the Greens, and the negotiations over the Murray-Darling basin into a single overarching narrative of "the environment". Let's look at the Coalition's message on "the environment", which is no better or worse than its narrative on "the economy" or "working families" or whatever.

If he's going to establish a clear position against the carbon tax, Abbott needs to do one of two things:
  • Declare the carbon-climate link is "absolute crap" and run on that basis, from a position of conviction and the kind of clear distinction from Labor that conservatives hanker for constantly. In fact, it is a symptom of weakness by the party's membership and the adroitness by which they can be manipulated by party officials that grassroots Liberals do not push for outright denialism as Coalition policy. It would succeed if a vote were held, but not such vote would be held; or
  • Acknowledge that the carbon-climate link is a problem to be managed, explain how he'd manage it better than the incumbents, stop letting Monckton and Reinhart define his message for him, and lift the debate.
What he's doing - or trying to do - is bits of both. There has never been an instance where a tax has been wholly rescinded, and there can be no confidence that Abbott will stand against accepted political wisdom about what is either right or feasible. His position is muddled.

 Any fool can get their picture taken in a picturesque place, but this does not equate to a demonstrable program rooted in a real commitment. People will forgive dropping this element of a promise or postponing that, but where there is no commitment the PR/media overestimate their own abilities by substituting it for fluff.

The whole idea of a policy that's more expensive than the government's (i.e. the Coalition's current policy) is stupid. Greg Hunt should realise that he will have more credibility if he resigns. He is working within the parameters set by his leader, and he should be bigger than that. He should have more faith in himself and his party's future than to be stuck advancing the absurd. Messaging professionals should recognise that either Hunt needs more scope to work with, or the selling of such a policy is best done by somebody other than Hunt.

The one environmental issue where the Coalition has a clear narrative is the campaign for commercial fisheries against a proposed network of marine reserves, which is more a pro-fishing than an anti-environmental policy necessarily, but still germane to the Coalition's whole "environment" narrative. The Coalition has a Shadow Minister for Fisheries; it's John Cobb, who holds a landlocked seat in NSW. Cobb failed as a shadow minister with the issue of New Zealand apples, and he was absent from the debate over live cattle exports to Indonesia. Whenever the Coalition talk about agriculture and food security, Barnaby Joyce or Bill Heffernan or even Andrew Robb talk over Cobb.

In any real analysis of politics Abbott should be asked why he hasn't replaced Cobb, and who it is that speaks for the Coalition on core national issues related to land, water and food.

The designated leader of the Coalition attack on the marine reserves proposal is Senator Ron Boswell, a backroom fixer with no grasp of environmental detail and scant respect for science or urban electorates. Boswell wins no votes for the Coalition on any issue anywhere south of Noosa. He appeared on television florid-faced, belligerent and arrogant, saying no and offering nothing, like the worst stereotypes of the Coalition. Making Boswell the Coalition's point-man on this issue was a tacit acceptance that they have given up on it, a momentum-killing tactic if ever there was one.

Joe Hockey admitted last week that he has no grounds to criticise the government other than wistfulness; he wishes Swan were scarier than he is and that he got the credit for Swan's work. The only way Hockey's comments make sense is if he's aditting that he's scared of Swan, underestimated by the Coalition as some latter-day Frank Crean. It was sloppy messaging to put Hockey in front of the media when he had nothing to tell them.

If Hockey repeats such poor performances and errors of judgment he'll be a latter-day Peter Shack: accepting that he has no alternative to offer and slipping into obscurity as a could-have-been. Hockey, like Hunt, should be bigger and smarter than Abbott and his handlers would allow. Hockey has to show that he's not a threat to Abbott; but if you make yourself too small a target you can't ramp it up when you need to, as Costello discovered.

Tony Abbott isn't unpopular because he is the bearer of bad tidings. Tony Abbott is unpopular because he has failed to convince people what he and the Coalition would do differently to Gillard. The only member of the Coalition who seems to believe that sound media depends on sound policy is Andrew Robb, and he's not a good advertisement for either. The idea that you can have a smart media strategy instead of sound policy is foundering now that people are looking to Abbott for post-Gillard leadership, and finding him wanting. There is a real question to be asked as to whether Abbott will be tapped on the shoulder, and whether he will give up if asked. He is a prophylactic on the prospects of a Coalition government.

Yet, the reality is that he is the last real prospect for a Howard Restoration: to give up on Abbott is to give up the long-standing Liberal fantasy that the Howard Government was as good as a government gets, that it lost because of trickery, and that the good economic times of 2003-07 can be restored simply by voting Coalition as soon as possible. That's why the Coalition stick by him and forgive him, they are hard-wired to compensate for and explain away his shortcomings because hey have been doing it for years.

Punting Abbott and taking a chance with someone else would mean rethinking the way the Coalition would govern this country, and even their conception of the country itself. It would mean squabbles over policy - squabbles that can currently be resolved within the party by simply turning the clock back to 2005, a time when all Liberals agree everything was just fine. It's easier for party powerbrokers to punt the leader than examine their own role in positioning the Coalition to govern a country that they don't really understand.

Abbott's pig-headedness means that he would not give up his position lightly, but he is not immovable in the way that Howard was because Abbott cannot command the factions as Howard did (even after being "leader" all this time). Next year he'll be 56 - what else would he do with his life, wear white-flannel trousers and walk along Queenscliff Beach? He's got no head for business or charity, and his kids are adults. If the Coalition were led by someone else Abbott might become a Cabinet Minister but he's been there and done that, and the next Liberal Prime Minister would not indulge him like Howard did. Yet, if Gillard continues her slow and steady ascendancy over him Abbott will become a national laughing stock, and he won't stick around for that. Those profile-writers who love boxing metaphors can talk about him diving in the eighth round.

Abbott is all tactics, no strategy, and the tactics are failing: the suspension of standing orders, a potent political weapon used to great effect by Curtin, Menzies and Whitlam, gives rise to sniggers under Abbott. The cudgel language that the government is "hopeless", "a disaster", etc., has lost its cut-through (when commentators applaud Abbott for a quality he no longer possesses, their own judgment is in doubt, which means a loss of revenue and ooh let's convene a talk on digimedia).

Julia Gillard will lead Labor to victory at the next Federal election. The government has a message and she is starting to give her voice to it. People are wary, holding off for some consistency that will lead to a bigger picture, a picture in which their own role becomes clearer. Messaging professionals who turn away from Labor's recently poor record and who admire Abbott's "cut through" are themselves missing the point, and failing in their own role as communicators.

* This is crap. Abbott hasn't thought this through, he couldn't get it past a hostile Senate, and there would have to be about four elections over the next six years in order to get all the ducks in a row for Abbott, as outlined here - during which time voters would have to maintain both a burning hatred for Labor and absolute forgiveness to the Coalition for breaking any promises. Good luck with that.


  1. "Julia Gillard will lead Labor to victory at the next Federal election."

    I think you may be the first person to be brave enough to actually say this. I agree, but I have not yet been optimistic or brave enough to say so.

    On the subject of Cecil Rhodes and his legacy: last year I wrote a Rhodes Scholarship reference for my de facto goddaughter the aerospace engineer. And it was only then, as I worked through the criteria, that I realised that for this particular glittering prize, group-joining, sociability and rugger-bugger cred are far more important in this respect than any form of intellectual gift. And when you think about the history of South Africa ... Well, you know.

    1. I was at Oxford in the 1980s, as an native undergrad,and there was a whole genre of Rhodes Scholars jokes.

      Most of them seemed to be selected for political connections back home rather than intellectual prowess.

    2. Lachlan Ridge13/6/12 1:47 pm

      You're right - a Rhodes Scholoarship is more about being the life of the party than anything to do with what is north of the shoulders - one of the great examples of style of substance in Western history. Old Cecil simply built what would be known today as 'a great networking opprortunity' to develop the right sort of chap for public life.

      As far as Gillard being re-elected I've been peddling this since the Ruddstoration fiasco of 2011 on numerous fora, and I have noticed the reaction from those still professionally involved in politics swing from disbelief to a patronising indulgence to, more recently, a resigned admission that it is the most probable of outcomes if the government runs its course and Abbott remains leader of Her Majesty's Loyal. Not only have I being proffering this free advice to all comers, I've also put the money I made off the bookmakers in the NSW State Election onto this very outcome at a very handsome price.

      The main reasons are twofold: First, when I was a young lowly minion working at what was then Telecom and living on the Central Coast I got to meet a few of these 'players' - involved in those days in university student politics and currently in running the country (or wishing they were) - and it was the O'Conner/Gillard plus Shorten deal to roll Albo that defined then, and now, the who knows what to do to get shit done outfit (and also explains Albo's loyalty to Rudd beyond the Federal ALP Left backing every losing leadership contender since Hayden). The second big reason was best summed up by a mate who was formerly a senior official with the ALP: "They've tried everything else so they are having a crack at evidenced based policy as a way of appealing to the electorate".

      The genesis for this notion came from re-reading Paul Kelly's (the political gnome, not the singer or the footballer) The Dismissal. The parallels are astonishing and as the good Mr Elder has pointed out previously (in what I believe to be the political quote of the year) "Abbott is not Fraser in sluggos but Snedden with a rosary". Furthermore, as lovely as Quentin Bryce's hats are I don't see her determining Ms Gillard's comission.

      It's also worth adding that the unskilled yellow shirted world I moved to after quitting political journalism doesn't like Gillard, but they are resigned to the carbon tax rather thsn being violently apposed to it. It is not the talking point in pubs and lunchrooms that I remember the GST being. Barring war or a complete collapse of the Eurozone Gillard is a moral to win in 2013 as people pick up the pencil and vote for the mortgage and more of the same as they did for Howard for a decade.

      It is worth noting that the 2013 election will be the first where - with fourty percent of Australians now on Facebook - social media will have more impact than the mainstream media.

    3. Well, Kerryn, knock me down with a feather!

      Good luck to your de facto goddaughter, but - with the greatest respect to her (and you) - why she should want entry into that particular boyzone club is one that maybe is worth questioning.

    4. Just reading the criteria for Rhodes Scholarship applications it became very obvious that if your application was supported by those with the right connections you would be welcomed into the club.

      Abbott had the perfect background to thrive in the shallow end of of this swimming pool or nepotism and cronyism.

  2. The knives are slowly being unsheathed in the Coalition for our man Abbott.
    Julie Bishop has had enough, it seems to me. She's the one to watch, I reckon.
    In the last couple of days she has been the only one prepared to put herself out there for a long form interview, albeit with a superficial take on the situation in Syria, but full marks for at least trying to articulate a Coalition view. Also it appears she may have arranged for her preferred saviour, Christian Porter, to mount a White horse from the West and ride into town to relieve the Coalition of their misery, aka Tony Abbott. I mean I don't know how many times I read today that the Christian philanderer has LOTO written all over him. Now, where would the press get that idea from?
    Big question then is, will Judy Moylan fall on her sword for Christian? Will Peta let Julie call the shots?
    Yes, it's so much more fun to watch the Coalition shenanigans while the government just gets on with running the country effectively.

    1. I agree that Bishop is more likely than a return to Turnbull or a chance on the now diminished Hockey, but disagree that Porter is about anything other than petulance. Moylan has had enough and Porter can see his chance to mix it on a bigger stage than merely being Premier. Porter will, for all his shortcomings, show up Hockey, Dutton, Hunt et al.

  3. Where does he go from here. Could not care less, as long as it is far away.

    What Abbott has achieved for the Liberals is very little. All he has done, is stop the party from moving on from Howard.

    Even if Howard was as good, as some believe, those days have gone.

    1. I know that, you know that, but the rest of the Liberal Party aren't there - with the exception of the Vics, who are going backwards on their home turf.

  4. AH Peter Shack, a great Liberal hope from the West ... I wonder what he is doing today. And today we have another great Liberal hope from the west, with State treasurer and attorney general Christian Porter giving up his cabinet posts to chase pre-selection for Judi Moylan's seat of Pearce. Porter didn't say it so few words but he reckons he can change the world ... good luck son when the NSW libs get hold of you

  5. I'll be interested to see if the media arbitrarily picks a certain moment ala the Latham handshake to turn on Abbott's ever increasing aggression/exagerration/misinformation/desperation.

    When will the penny drop that a campaign of pure negation doesn't really offer anything for anybody.

    1. This is something I too have been wondering about lately. In fact it may have already happened when Tony and Chrissie made their infamous run for the exits to avoid the tainted vote? Time will tell, I guess

  6. Lamenting that "Gillard won't lie down and die," and that mad rush for the doors of parliament (29-30 May 2012).

  7. Another great analysis Andrew. Abbott is like a dingo sniffing the wind.He targets his commentary to the audience du jour but he is never questioned by the pundits of the press gallery.They are like sheep to the slaughter and none are brave enough to question the outrageous lies and misinformation being spouted on a daily basis for fear that he will not endow them with his largesse when he is PM. A more cowardly bunch it would be hard to find.

    I do hope you are correct in your analysis because this country can ill-afford the abbott as PM experiment.

  8. Relevant to your post taken from the ABC news site.
    Abbott on discussing the PM's ideas on the Company tax rate.
    ...Opposition leader Tony Abbott has dismissed the forum.

    "This is a Prime Minister looking for a photo opportunity as she flounders," he said. ....

    He alleges the media was excluded from key sessions to avoid critical questioning.....

    The hypocrisy in accusing the PM of looking for a photo opportunity and floundering (not to mention being afraid of the media) is amusing in a way I don't think he intended.

  9. Can Porter do a Newman and lead the Opposition from outside the Parliament?

    1. Not a chance. There is no way he would survive the sudden step-up from his cosseted position in Western Australia.

  10. Could you clarify what you are referring to in last par - do you mean abolishing mining tax and parental leave legislation?

  11. Tony Abbott is tolerated because he is "The Noise", that places the facile Media Machine spotlight on the opposition....he is tolerated because behind him there is nothing but the sound of a lonely cricket!

  12. I'll put it as succinctly as possible: Abbott is a moron.

  13. It seems that the Media will do anything to pull Tony Abbott down .Yet I feel that he will make a great Prime Minister , he is more in tune with the General public than any politician that sits in Parliament today .

    It's about time the Media stops the rot and rubbish of pulling him down . There are many people who want him as Prime Minister of this Country and see him as a man for the people and this country and that's how it should be !

    1. The media doesn't have enough pull to pull anyone down. What they need to do is report what did and didn't happen. Interesting that you - and many journalists - think that Abbott should be the only politician to be taken on face value.