This is the first of a series that will examine what the Rudd Government has done during its two and a half years in office. It will be argued that it has been a good government that has achieved much more that might be expected in a first term and has a host of ongoing initiatives in train or planned for a second term. It will counter the erroneous impression, perpetuated by the Opposition and much of the MSM, that it has been a ‘do-nothing’ government that has made a mess of everything it has touched. The facts simply do not match the anti-government rhetoric.
The series begins though by asking why a good government is now so down in the polls after a record-breaking run for the first two years. Many pundits are writing about what has happened to Kevin Rudd and his Government these past months during which the polls have descended from stratospheric heights of popularity to ordinary levels and below. Before a remedy for the Government’s electoral condition can be formulated, an accurate and comprehensive diagnosis is necessary.
Bernard Keane has written a thoughtful piece Crikey Essay: Why is Rudd failing that suggests a diagnosis. Like most diagnoses it is not simple. There are several elements.
Taking his ideas as a guide, here is my diagnostic formulation:
The Political Sword has repeatedly asserted that there has been and still is a concerted media onslaught on Rudd and his Government by many in the media, especially News Limited. There have been countless pieces on this blog site going back many months but News Limited’s undeclared war on the Rudd Government in March summarized the situation as we saw it.
This month Wake in fright and Their ABC amplified this view. In a piece on Crikey: How Rudd blew it: finding ways to upset everyone at the same time, Keane agrees: “There’s no doubt the tone of media coverage of the government has changed dramatically, and not in its favour, since the start of the year, with a determined air of get-square for the high-handedness with which Rudd’s office treated and manipulated the media for two years.
“There are also the permanent anti-Labor elements of the media. News Limited, primarily via The Australian, has been conducting a war on the government. Considerable resources have been deployed by that newspaper in an entirely confected campaign against the BER stimulus component, even after an ANAO report discredited the entire effort. News also employs several commentators whose entire job is to smear and attack Labor, unrestrained by any adherence to facts or reason, so that even when Labor adopts pro-business policies it is criticised. The Coalition faces no such permanent media opposition.
“While declining newspaper readerships and the dominance of free-to-air news bulletins mean News’ attacks are not directly harmful, they influence other media coverage. In particular, the ABC now frequently marches in lockstep, repeating its polling spin verbatim, deploying resources to follow up attacks and giving a regular platform to anti-Labor commentators.”
The pace and style of media reporting has changed dramatically, not suddenly, but it is very different from what it was in the earlier Howard years. It was John Howard who accelerated the process of using talkback radio and frequent TV appearances to promulgate his messages. He became expert at this and used favourites such as Alan Jones to reach a demographic that Howard identified as his ‘battlers’. That use, or manipulation, of the media has reached new heights since Kevin Rudd became PM. Just about every journalist has commented, usually adversely, on Rudd’s ‘obsession with the 24 hour media cycle’. While this may be so, the media itself has created a set of expectations of politicians that politicians seem to feel obliged to follow, at times slavishly.
While there are some occasions where in-depth exposition of policies and positions is possible such as on the 7.30 Report, Lateline and the Sunday morning TV political programmes, which inform a unique demographic of politically-oriented thinkers, they reach but a tiny fraction of the electorate. The busy homemaker, the tired-at-the-end-of-the day tradesman, a demographic with which all politicians need to connect, have neither the time or the inclination to sit through a long and complicated dissertation on political issues. Today’s commercial media demands short ‘bites’ of just a few seconds to convey politicians’ messages. This requires sophisticated communication techniques, which in my view the Government media advisors have not yet mastered.
In the same way as we all know that ‘No’ is easier to say louder than ‘Yes’, it is much easier to convey a negative message in a seven second sound-bite than a positive one. Tony Abbott’s favourite - ‘Great Big New Tax’ – which he applied to the ETS and now to the RSPT, is a classic example. As Bushfire Bill has pointed out, the years of hard work and planning that went into the creation of Rudd’s ETS were destroyed with four words ‘Great Big New Tax’. How can you counter that scare-laden negative with a similarly succinct positive – you can’t, not easily anyway.
So Kevin Rudd and his Government are hoisted, willingly or otherwise, by the media’s own petard of seven-second visuals and sound bites. Sadly for the Government, ministers do not universally cope well with this. Julia Gillard is the best. Lindsay Tanner, and more recently Wayne Swan have become adept at longer expositions, but Julia is well ahead on what the media like to label ‘cut through’. Tony Abbott does well in this regard, but has a head start because his messages are largely negative.
There are other demographics to which Rudd tries to connect – the Rove Live and Good News Week and Twitter and Facebook audiences. And of course that attracts criticism from some in the media which is miffed about being bypassed. Rudd has done this well, not that the media cares to acknowledge that.
The other assertion that journalists make is that Kevin Rudd has made enemies in the media by his refusal to kow-tow, by what seems to the media to be manipulation of it for his own purposes, and of course by advertising less than Howard. Used to calling the shots and making governments and institutions jump, the media is now in pay-back mode, and it is going at it hard.
In summary, the ever-demanding need to comply with the media cycle, or media manipulation as we have called it here, exercises a profound influence on Government and, depending on how it manages it, its electoral fortunes. The Government needs to remedy its shortcomings in this regard.
Much is made of ‘broken promises’ and some less-than-clear-thinking journalists link this to lying. So let’s first clear the air by defining these terms. A ‘promise’ is ‘an assurance given that one will do or not do something or will give or procure something’, or ‘a ground of expectation of future achievements or good results’. Notice the verb ‘will’. No ifs or buts, just ‘will’. To lie is ‘to speak falsely’, ‘to be deceptive’. The purpose of a lie is to deceive from the outset. ‘Promises’ are different from ‘intentions’, which are aims. When a politician expresses an intention to do or achieve something, it is just that, not a promise that come hell or high water, it will be done. Here is where politicians get into hot water. By giving the impression that they will or will not do something, an intention is interpreted as a promise, and if it is not achieved it becomes a broken promise. The intent to ‘stop the blame game’ in the health system has morphed into a ‘promise’, and if not achieved to the media’s or the Opposition’s satisfaction will become a ‘broken promise’. It is much more damaging to level accusations of broken promises at politicians than to simply say that they have not realized their intention of doing something. Accusations of ‘broken promises’ are potent weapons of attack.
So where does the blame lie? First, politicians have themselves to blame for creating the impression that certain things will be done, which stick in the public and the media’s mind as ‘promises’. If they were to qualify their intentions with caveats, such as ‘We will try to do this or that but realize there will be obstacles, people who will oppose, or adverse circumstances that will frustrate or perhaps defeat our efforts, but it is our intention to try our hardest’, they would be seen as vacillating, uncertain, and backing the horse both ways. The media would simply not let them get way with such a statement. So the politicians come out with what seem like promises and suffer the ‘broken promise’ barb if they don’t succeed.
Kevin Rudd has been perceived by the media and many in the electorate as ‘promising’ to do something about global warming and despite all he has done, by deferring further action until the Kyoto agreement expires at the end of 2012, is seen as breaking a solemn promise. Likewise, he gave the impression his Government would take a more humane approach to asylum seekers, which it has, but his deferral of processing of Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum applications has evoked another ‘broken promise’ accusation. Because the particular groups concerned with these two issues are passionate about them, the effect on polling has been profound. The Government has not managed the change of direction on these matters well. Its promotion of the policy adjustments have not been well articulated, and the voice of the media and opponents of these changes have been so dominant they have drowned out the voice of the Government.
In summary, media message management has been found wanting by allowing intentions to be morphed into promises, and changes of direction into broken promises.
As expressed in another piece on The Political Sword, The folly of putting a politician on a pedestal we, the ordinary people, have our own expectations of politicians: “A natural human trait is to seek to elevate some of our number to positions of authority and trust. We seek leaders who will guide us to the promised-land. So we place them on a pedestal and hope they will fulfil our dreams and their promise of vision, leadership, courage and strength. But unless they are mythical god-like creatures from a parallel universe, they can never live up to our dreams and their promises – life is too complicated, variables so numerous, fate so unpredictable, circumstances so changeable.”
It is so easy and so ego-building for a politician to raise expectations beyond what is reasonable, to encourage the electorate to believe that they are able to do more than they really can. Kevin Rudd and his Government have been accused of that by the media and there is some truth to it. They have not managed expectations as well as they might have.
Another way in which the Government managed expectations pre-election was in portraying Rudd as not a risk to sound economic management for which the Howard Government earned a reputation. Rudd was seen as ‘Howard-lite’. With his memorable phrase ‘this reckless spending must stop’ (now turned on Rudd by Abbott), Rudd gave the impression of one that would be careful with taxpayers’ money. That expectation stood Rudd in good stead, but when the GFC tsunami appeared on the horizon, although spending to keep the nation out of recession became necessary and in the event highly successful, the image of a fiscally cautious Government was assaulted by the Opposition who saw mileage in the ‘debt and deficit’ mantra. Again, the management of the impression that Government ministers were careful fiscal managers despite the actions they took to counter the GFC, has not been as well done as it might have been.
Kevin Rudd came to leadership without factional baggage. His bureaucratic background endowed him with a process-oriented approach to political issues rather than an ideological one born of factional allegiances. This is why we have seen the careful, cautious, enquiry-driven approach to policy formation, which inevitably takes time, and with it the ‘hitting the ground reviewing’ and ‘do nothing’ barbs. While the impatient might applaud ‘back-of-the-envelope’ planning such as we saw with Howard’s water plan, would not most prefer a thorough get-it-right-first-time approach? Rudd fostered an image of himself as a careful reformer, and the public has been ready to project that image upon him.
Bernard Keane has another interpretation of Rudd’s pre-election image building, namely that “... Rudd captured a national mood for change. In this interpretation, Rudd was anything but Howard-lite — he was more a pre-Obama change agent who answered a growing mood for a swing back to the Left amongst Australians, particularly young people. That Rudd was a personally conservative, centrist technocrat with no real labour movement roots was carefully glossed over.”
That interpretation rings true. Keane puts it this way: “Essentially, conservative voters wanted Rudd to be similar to his predecessor but without the manifest problems that Howard accumulated – his age, most particularly, and his cynicism, manifested both in his increasingly transparent attempts to buy elections, and his casuistry. More progressive voters wanted Rudd to substantially abandon key elements of the Howard approach on climate change, indigenous affairs and asylum seekers.” Because the expectation that many people projected on Rudd was that he was a change-agent, when the changes Rudd was able to accomplish fell short in their eyes, they were disappointed and even disillusioned. Keane also feels that Rudd has not yet crafted “...his own political persona, offering his own story to Australians rather than relying on them to see what they wanted to.”
Managing those expectations, aligning them with the stark reality of politics, and creating a compelling Rudd-image, a Rudd persona, have not been done well enough.
A failing that many in the media have levelled at Rudd particularly, is in communicating ideas, policies and actions to the public. It is a demanding task to condense into a few short meaningful sentences the complexities of such policy issues as the ETS, the RSPT, the Henry Tax Review, or for that matter the Health Reforms. The task is made so much harder by a media that insists on short grabs that fit into the perceived short attention span of its audiences. Solving this problem is at the same time essential but difficult.
Rudd seems to have been persuaded by his advisers that he must repeat phrases such as ‘working families’, ‘in the national interest’ and ‘decisive action’ endlessly, and to be sure that is not inappropriate advice in as far as some of those targeted with these phrases will not hear them unless repeated often. But the rest yearn for a lucid explanation of policies and plans that describe the Government’s intentions and the logical reasons behind them.
This is a good Government that has made great progress in its first term and has much in the pipeline for its second term, but it has not communicated its successes as well as it could have. It must do this, by any means, even if substantial money needs to be spent hitting the papers and airwaves with a barrage of positive messages.
In my opinion the Government needs a specialist media unit staffed with experienced communicators to craft messages for the public on its successes, its policies and its plans that will strike a respondent chord among those who really want to know what is going on and why. The messages then need to be rehearsed by the PM and relevant ministers to the point of being word perfect and promulgated by every available means - print, online, radio, TV, and social networks. The message must be consistent, but variation in its presentation would be necessary to avoid mindless repetition and boredom.
In summary, inadequate communication is a fault that is impeding the Government’s ability to ‘cut through’ with its essential messages.
Standing firm on sacred principles
Kevin Rudd is perceived by some, and much of the media, as unwilling to stand by his sacred principles. Of course they have created an impression of what is sacred as much as has Rudd, and they don’t always correspond. One thing the public dislike is not standing by one’s principles. Moreover, whether one is standing by principles is a value judgement made by the public, aided and abetted by the media, and may be incorrect.
For example, Rudd seems to me to be as committed as he ever was to the need for an ETS, but frustrated by an obstructive opposition and an uncooperative international community, and unconvinced that a DD will resolve the impasse, has deferred action rather than die in a ditch pushing an agenda that has no hope of success. Yet the media, particularly Paul Kelly who long ago declared that the ETS would define Rudd’s prime ministership, condemned him in strident terms.
Nonetheless it is essential that Rudd carefully define the matters of high principle on which he will not be moved, and stick to his guns. The RSPT is a contemporary issue many hope Rudd will stand by ‘in the national interest’ so we can all share equitably in the sale of our resources rather than being bullied by the big miners, urged on by an opportunistic Opposition.
In summary, we yearn for sacred principles to be protected and fought for tooth and nail by our leaders. And if circumstance make that impossible we need to know why this is so in clear, unambiguous terms.
The comprehensive diagnosis
The Rudd Government is currently confronted by a complex set of problems:
Management of expectations
'Promises’, sometimes construed as being broken
Communication of policies, plans, actions and achievements
Defining the principles on which it will stand firm.
These problems are postulated to collectively be the cause of the Government’s and Kevin Rudd’s polling slump. Individuals will give more emphasis to some than others, but all are significant.
They are all reversible. The Rudd Government is a good Government that deserves a second term. Apart from shielding the nation from the ravages of the GFC that have afflicted other nations, it is a reforming Government that is carefully planning to make good the deficiencies it inherited – an unfair IR system, a run-down education system, skill shortages, infrastructure bottlenecks and an ailing health care system.
This is just one person’s opinion.
What do you think?