Part 1 – What is a political narrative?
The recent media obsession with finding Kevin Rudd’s ‘narrative’ came to a head last month with Jack the Insider’s blog in The Australian In search of the Rudd narrative. It attracted 386 comments. But so far no conclusion has emerged. This followed Rudd’s Press Club address at which journalists, keenly anticipating the emergence of the Rudd narrative, came away disappointed as Rudd’s focus had been on another chapter of his ‘education revolution’. The term ‘narrative’ seems to be enjoying the contemporary spotlight because journalists have taking a liking to it. It’s become a political buzzword. Yet I have not seen one journalist explain what the term means. Its meaning is assumed to be self-evident.
A dictionary search gives the usual meaning that we all understand - a story or account of events, experiences, or the like; a literary work containing such a story. We know too that stage and television shows have a narrative. In medical circles the word is used to describe a patient’s life story and history of health and illness, and because of the narrative’s role in predicting future events, ‘narrative therapy’ has emerged as a type of psychotherapy.
But nowhere is ‘political narrative’ defined. Nor does Encyclopedia Britannica shed any light. Wikipedia casts ‘narrative’ as a record of past events; it derives from the Latin verb narrare, which means ‘to recount’, but goes on to say “…narrative is the general term for a story, long or short; of past, present, or future; factual or imagined; told for any purpose; and with or without much detail.” The political narrative that columnists talk about seems to about the future, an underlying theme that authenticates the direction in which a political party is intending to travel – a theme that is as much philosophical and ideological as it is practical. Or at least that’s what I’ve come to conclude. One can’t be sure because journalists never say. Which leads one to ask whether they really know what it means, or at least whether they all agree among themselves what it means. If they do, it would be good if they were to let us ordinary mortals into the secret.
A Google search unearthed some enlightening pieces. One by J. Patrick Coolican, a writer for the Las Vegas Sun in March this year in his article: The Perils of Political Narrative: One Reporter’s Story says: “…the Nevada Legislature would be a perfect laboratory for Irving Janis, the Yale psychologist who did extensive work on the psychological notion of ‘groupthink’. Legislators and lobbyists… talk only to one another, all day and then over cocktails and dinner at night. In this cloistered environment, cocktail chatter becomes conventional wisdom. … The vogue word in journalism for groupthink is ‘narrative’. A bunch of reporters and editors read one another's dispatches, talk at events and on planes, and come to a rough consensus about where things stand and what's important:… I came across the same kind of groupthink while covering the presidential race leading up to the Nevada caucus: Barack Obama is viable. Obama is a weak debater and not ‘tough enough’. He has committed ‘missteps’ on foreign policy. Latinos won't vote for a black man. Yes, they will. Jeremiah Wright has dealt the Obama campaign a game-changing crisis. Obama parried with the most significant speech on race since Martin Luther King Jr. Hillary Clinton isn't electable. Clinton is unflappable and unstoppable. Clinton isn't connecting with Iowa voters. Clinton is finished. Clinton found her voice. Clinton is unstoppable. Clinton is finished. Clinton may win it.”
Coolican concluded: “Here's the important question: How do we avoid false narratives and get at more salient and fundamental issues? Or more plainly: What should we political reporters be doing with our time? When is our supposed ‘analysis’ simply a rehashing of the campaign machinery's narrative? I'm pretty sure we do too much shorthand, guesswork ‘analysis’, which often amounts merely to repeating groupthink we've read or heard elsewhere. We ought to be analyzing what the candidates propose and whether they possess the skills and character traits to get it done. The rest should be left to voters. It's their groupthink that matters.”
Commenting on British politics, Liberator in David Boyle’s Politics and the Future in his piece: In search of a political narrative, in August 2005 says: “Nearly everybody you run across …agrees that the urgent requirement is for what they call a ‘narrative’. Exactly what this elusive beast is, and how you bag yourself one, is never explained. What the narrative ought to be, of course, still leads to some debate. But the fact that we need one seems to be undisputable.” Later in his piece he says: “But what is a narrative? Last time this came up at a party meeting, it was clear around the table that we all had rather different ideas. So, as my contribution to the debate I thought I would set out – generously, and in a purely unbiased way, of course – what it is, and what it isn’t.
“‘Narrative’ is a marketing buzzword, and it still has some leverage because it has only been doing the rounds for a few years. It is a response to people’s growing resistance to marketing of all kinds. They are exposed to subtle and clever messages almost all the time they breathe: they don’t trust slogans, they ignore advertisements – but they do listen to stories. That’s why ‘viral’ marketing, or blogs, or ‘authenticity’ are now the stuff of marketing debate – because there is something real at the heart of it, a person, a place, a tale to tell. But of course – and here’s the clever bit – the story might not be explicit. But if we can understand it from what we are told, then we trust it more as a result.
“Let’s be clear what a narrative doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean, for example, a unique selling point – the marketing buzzword of the 1970s. A political party might be completely unique but still wholly unelectable. Many of them are, let’s face it…. The second thing a narrative is not is a slogan, the marketing buzzword of the 1920s. Politicians spend a great deal of time worrying about slogans, and usually compromise with three random words stitched together in no particular order. Actually people have long since become immune to slogans. They have no meaning for them anymore, carry no conviction.
“So, a narrative is not a slogan and not a unique selling point. It is – for a political party at least – an idea or set of linked ideas that lies behind what they say and believe. It provides an explanation for the policies they have, a way of remembering and believing them.
“Four other things about a narrative:
- It implies a story
- It frames the debate
- It implies a big idea, or a series of big ideas which it connects in a coherent way.
- It explains the big ideas
“If you have a narrative that explains the problem, a back story that articulates the basic crisis, then big ideas can slip into the debate and start uniting a constituency of interest round them. Narratives make them safe. They explain why the big ideas are important.”
Neil Stockley, a public affairs consultant living in London, commenting on the US presidential elections in his June 2008 piece: Yes you can have a political narrative, but no you can’t own it says: ” Most of the debate around ‘what is our narrative?’ still tends to gloss over one brutal truth: we don’t control our story. Nobody controls their story. One story can be drowned out by counter-stories, especially if the latter are simpler and more deeply rooted in the audience’s values or prejudices. Most importantly, it is the political audiences who decide their brand perception of any politician or party. Whether it’s Labour, the Tories or the Lib Dems, the voters decide how they perceive us. Their brand perception is set when they think we have(n’t) satisfied their wishes or needs. “Those perceptions are influenced by a number of factors, including media coverage. That’s what makes a new study of the US primary elections by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University especially interesting. For the third time, they are examining the “master narratives” about the candidates’ character: personality, history, leadership, and appeal. The master narratives are important. The notion that Al Gore tended to lie and exaggerate or that George Bush was a compassionate conservative proved to be powerful messages. They shaped how the press covered the 2000 race and possibly influenced the outcome.” The full article is well worth reading.
Coming back to the local scene, it is Nick Dyrenfurth, a political historian at Monash University in his article in The Weekend Australian of September 6-7 Telling it like we’d prefer it who gives as good an account of the concept of political narrative as I have read. He says: “The narrative is a political buzzword. In the past month, former Prime Minister Paul Keating and commentator Paul Kelly have each taken Kevin Rudd’s Government to task for its lack of ‘an overarching narrative’, a coherent story of its policy direction that explains its imperatives. During the 2007 election, John Howard was routinely accused of possessing no narrative or agenda for his government’s fifth term. The politically youthful Rudd by contrast, was machine-like in conveying his dual campaign narrative of working families under threat from rising costs of living and Work Choices and a more optimistic vision by which he came to symbolize the nation’s future.”
Further on he writes: “…Rudd could reprise his election-winning narrative of nation-building with a human face, the same story he has effectively been telling since his maiden speech to parliament in 1998: the ‘creation of a competitive economy while advancing the overriding imperative of a just society’.” Dyrenfurth goes on to say: “…Rudd Labor clearly has a plan and a potentially good narrative to tell about ensuring Australia’s long-term economic prosperity: improving productivity by addressing skills, education and infrastructure; targeting spending to lock in low-inflation growth; crafting a responsible climate change policy; fixing federal-state relations; and planning a whole-of-government approach to reforming taxation and transfer systems.”
Part 2 – The substance of a Rudd Government narrative
So, as most columnists have steered clear of explaining what ‘narrative’ means in contemporary Australian politics, or at least what they mean by it, perhaps we in the blogosphere should take a shot at it, individually and collectively, so we at least can decide what it means to us. So taking a cue from Dyrenfurth, this piece concludes with my idea of what the Rudd Government narrative might look like. Anyone who cares to listen will have heard Rudd spell out his Government’s intentions, plans, ambitions and vision (for this read ‘narrative’). What follows is derived not from detailed research, but purely from memory of what we’ve all heard from Rudd and his ministers time and again.
Some of the dot points that would characterize the Rudd Labor Government would be:
- Economic conservatism
- Fiscally responsible management that ensures large budget surpluses and reduced Government spending to reverse the inflationary trends evident through 2007 and the consequence, rising interest rates
- Long term planning and nation building to maintain Australia’s prosperity, competitiveness and growth via restoring infrastructure, skills training, and high speed broadband
- Supporting manufacturing while reducing protective tariffs; encouraging research and innovation; high employment
- Evidence-based approach to ideas/projects that involves reviews/assessments and expert advice
- An education revolution from pre-school through technical studies in high schools, TAFE and university
- Performance indicators to monitor teachers and student outcomes
- Reform: workplace reform; reform of Commonwealth-State relations to coordinate efforts in health, water, transport; a seamless economy that harmonizes regulation across States; and reform of the taxation system, reform of welfare support and the transfer system
- Tax relief and measures to assist in balancing the household budget and in supporting small business
- Social justice and a fair go for all, especially the socially disadvantaged
- Determination to ensure a sustainable environment
- Action on climate change that is effective yet not too burdensome on individuals, and small and large business
- Improvement of the lot of indigenous people and closing the life expectancy gap
- An improved health care system that meets community needs
- Action on water and the Murray Darling basin
- Using immigrant workers to cover labour shortages, and employing indigenous people gainfully
- Middle power international diplomacy; promotion of regional alliances; strengthening of defence capabilities
- Keeping election promises
If the above were to be included in a cohesive political narrative, it might read:
The Rudd Labor Government is dedicated to economic conservatism and fiscally responsible management that ensures large budget surpluses and lower Government spending to reverse the inflationary trends evident through 2007 and their consequence, rising interest rates. Already rates have begun to fall, but the road to recovery will be long.
Long term planning is necessary for nation building, economic prosperity, competitiveness and growth.
The Rudd Government is committed to an evidence-based approach to planning that relies on reviews of the available information, tapping into the know-how of experts, and community consultation. Thoughtful preparation is the first step towards worthy outcomes. The Rudd Government will not be rushed when so much is at stake – getting it right from the outset is the object.
Education is central to the Rudd Government’s program. Building the best education system in the world is the object. The education revolution begins at preschool, and extends through school, where performance indicators will be used to monitor teachers and student outcomes, and determine where financial support is needed. Access to a computer for every school child and fast broadband will assist learning. Technical education will be added at the high school level and additional scholarships and research opportunities at TAFE and university.
The Government is determined to restore depreciated infrastructure via the Building Australia Fund, to reinforce skills training to increase workforce participation, and to install high speed broadband to augment learning, training and business activity.
The Government is unwavering in its support for manufacturing in this country while steadily reducing protective tariffs. Its object is high employment.
The Rudd Government is a reforming Government. Workplace reform was one of its earliest actions; this is ongoing at a pace that allows for steady adjustment to the new order. Reform of Commonwealth-State relations to coordinate efforts in health, water management, transport; and a seamless economy that harmonizes regulation across States, are among the most important reforms in train. Comprehensive tax reform will be based on the Henry review and will include reform of welfare support, particularly for pensioners, carers, and those on fixed incomes, who are the ones suffering most in today’s economic climate.
The Government is committed to a universal health care system that provides care where and to whom it is needed at a price the individual and the community can afford. A new level of coordination across the Commonwealth and the States will ensure this occurs.
In pursuit of social justice and a fair go for all, especially the socially disadvantaged, the Government supports tax relief and measures to assist in balancing the household budget and supporting small business. We believe that a socially responsible Government looks after those who need support, and assists those who are seeking work to achieve gainful employment.
The Rudd Government is committed to a sustainable environment and to this end ratified the Kyoto protocol as its first act. It accepts the reality of climate change and mankind’s contribution to it, and is determined to contribute meaningfully to carbon emissions control via a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. This is being developed following the Garnaut Report and the Green Paper with wide consultation with business and the community, and Treasury modeling. There will be a cost. But the burden will be reduced by compensation so that households and businesses will not be unfairly affected. Innovative research towards renewable energy will be strongly supported.
Water reform is a key aim and in particular restoring the Murray-Darling system to a healthy state. The water agreement with the States, the Murray Darling Commission and the water buy-back scheme will ensure that despite the worst drought in living memory this vital waterway will be restored as fast as is feasible.
The Government is determined to improve the lot of indigenous people. The ‘Apology’ was just the beginning of a concerted push towards better health, closing the 17 year life-expectancy gap, and improving living conditions, education, housing and employment. Assisting indigenous people achieve the standard of living of other Australians is a core aim.
To overcome chronic labour shortages in the agricultural sector the Government is introducing an immigrant worker scheme, which will have the added effect of aiding Pacific Island nations. Indigenous people will also be gainfully employed. Immigration will continue to be a major policy thrust.
Australia has an important role to play in middle power diplomacy. It will promote regional alliances and play its role in international affairs. In line with regional and global requirements, it will extend its defence capabilities, particularly its maritime strength.
Finally, the Rudd Government is determined to keep its election promises, so that the Australian people can rely on the sincerity and strength of purpose of this Government. Our commitment is to good government for all the people, sound decision making and an ambitious program of enrichment of Australian society and its economic strength and cohesion, while caring for those who need the support of this our compassionate nation.
So there it is. Although the words scarcely lend themselves to soaring oratory, they do have the potential to catch attention and engender assent. There’s nothing there that we haven’t heard before. It’s just an aggregation of announcements that have been made by the Rudd Government since its election.
Is this the narrative columnists are so eagerly seeking, or something like it? Maybe we’ve all heard the narrative over and again without realizing it. But maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree; if so, please put me right. Please add your comments. Is it what you would expect of the Rudd narrative? Is it too long? Has something important been left out? Has the exercise been worth the effort?
Ad astra can be contacted at:ad dots astra5 IatI bigpond dots com