Monthly Archives: December 2012

How would things occur to me if I supported my political opponents?

This is a very interesting question because it forces you to think outside the box.

One of the reasons the federal Labor government of the 1980’s and 1990’s was so successful, besides their large list of major policy achievements, was due to their ability to hit various emotional trigger points of Coalition voters. There was an aspirational self belief, a sense of optimism and an ability to relate to people that went through everything Bob Hawke did as Prime Minister that many Liberal supporters found very attractive.

Many Liberals despised Paul Keating due to his polarising and abusive style, yet he intuitively understood the psychology of soft Liberal voters and was able to successfully appeal to it during the 1987 and 1993 election campaigns. Many Labor supporters worship Keating but never really look deeply into the incredible amount of nuance and subtlety of his thinking or study what made him a once in a generation political talent.

In the United States Ronald Reagan understood many aspects of Democratic supporters and spoke in language that targeted them directly. His economic policies were an anathema to many Democrats, yet he was still able to win elections with landslide majorities and was considered one of the most popular Presidents in the history of the United States.

Bill Clinton tried to communicate his understanding of Republican voters through policies he enacted during his time as President and these days whenever he makes public appearances or gives interviews, he’s constantly talking in terms of what unites Democrats and Republicans rather than what divides them. It’s a very popular message and probably one of the many reasons so many people want his wife Hillary Clinton to run for President in 2016.

Tony Abbott understands a certain segment of Labor’s base vote and throughout the last couple of years he’s attempted to talk to that segment at every opportunity. Many in the Labor Party and the Union movement haven’t had a clue how to deal with it because they’re stuck in a fixed mode of thinking about these voters.

I think the questions one has to ask to be persuasive are: “How would things occur to me if I supported my political opponents?”, “Where do we share common ground?” and “If I were my political opponent, what would I have to do to persuade me to vote for the other side?”

It’s important to have a position on issues, but in order to galvanise engagement, it’s also important to observe, listen and be open to what people who have a different view to you are saying. Even if those people are being antagonistic, provocative and offensive loud mouths.

The hierarchical double helix issue justification multiple vectored emotion cascading cognitive bias virus

Don’t let the title of this post fool you. This is a very easy concept to understand.

One of the reasons the Coalition, during this term of parliament, have managed to keep their primary vote above 44% and the Labor Party’s primary vote below 38% in the aggregate of opinion polls is because they’ve understood how to persuade the public to cast a negative judgement on a single policy issue and have that single negative judgement cascade like a virus through every other government policy issue.

Essential Media’s final poll for the year asked respondents what was the most significant political event of the year. The poll found 41% answering with the implementation of the carbon tax. This was followed by Kevin Rudd’s challenge at the start of the year for the ALP leadership at 14% and Don’t Know at 13%. These results are quite telling.

The Coalition have spent the last two years attempting to make every political event about the carbon tax. Your baby’s crying: blame the carbon tax. You have a dispute at work: blame the carbon tax. You’re caught in heavy traffic: blame the carbon tax. You get the idea.

There’s a very good reason they have done this: they understand that the more emotionally polarised the issue, the more likely people will view it as highly important and if they can get enough of the public to judge the issue in a negative way, the higher the chance of that single policy judgement affecting views on other policy issues even if they seem unrelated.

Consider health, education and industrial relations as political issues. These areas are usually considered to be the ALP’s strengths. I have not heard the Coalition’s shadow ministers for these portfolios define policies with any substance on these issues. Yet if you look at polling that asks which party respondents trust to handle issues, the only one of these three where the ALP are considered to be stronger than the Coalition is industrial relations.

I am sure there are other polls that ask this question which will show the ALP ahead on their strong issues such as health and education, but that’s not the point. The decline in trust for the ALP on these issues since the last election has been significant even though the ALP have more than likely either kept things stable or improved the situation in these policy areas.

The decline of trust towards the ALP on these policy issues is not because the relevant shadow ministers Christopher Pyne and Peter Dutton are policy geniuses who have redefined the issues of education and health as a newspaper like The Australian would probably conclude. It’s because the Coalition, by narrowly focusing on the carbon tax with a cult like fanatical zeal, have managed to paint all public judgements on the government’s performance on policy issues in a negative hue.

The ALP’s response to this has been to define Tony Abbott as a negative opposition leader who doesn’t have a bone for civil discourse or decent standards of behaviour in his body but it simply hasn’t worked and it most likely won’t work. Case and point: there have been around seven books written on this topic and Abbott himself has authoured three of them.

Since the introduction of the carbon tax, the response to the issue has gone from a negative reaction to a more neutral reaction even though this hasn’t changed the underlying support for the policy. This is understandable because the reality of the issue was never about the actual policy. It was about the multiple vectors of emotional reactions attached to it. These included “the lie”, the concept of the rural independents and the Greens controlling the government undemocratically, the idea that the tax was being imposed without community consultation leading to the feeling of communal disempowerment from a “bureaucratic” red tape imposing government combined with the perceived fragility of the parliament and massive amounts of global economic uncertainty.

These emotional vectors haven’t died, they have merely spread to other policy issues like a virus.

Since the carbon tax as a policy now generates a neutral reaction from voters, the next item on the list for the Coalition has been asylum seeker policy which again has never been about the actual policy, but the multiple vectors of emotional reaction attached to it. There’s the concept of Australia as an island that needs to protected from the “peaceful invasion” from “illegal” foreigners. There’s the concept of the Coalition’s version of the “Australian” social license being trespassed by people “not like us.” There’s the view that having caved to the Greens on one issue, the ALP are attempting to overcompensate by going further to the right (whether that’s really the case detail wise is considered irrelevant) than the Coalition on the issue and last but not least the philosophical wedge where the ALP claims to be humanitarian yet they allegedly allow people to die at sea on “leaky boats.”

If that issue becomes neutral, the focus will turn to the next issue up the hierarchy of concern which is probably the budget surplus promise and on it goes.

The more links the Coalition make between negative judgement and the ALP government, the worse things get because the issues begin to link up into a system and once a system is established it becomes extremely difficult to break the public’s justification of their views on issues without administering some sort of community exorcism.

I think the lesson from all of this is that issues do matter. Many view the solution to the public’s disengagement with civic issues as one of getting people interested in the political process. I think the real solution is for the participants in the political process to speak to issues rather than make everything about partisanship and personalities.

The response from many on the ALP “side” to that statement is to blame Tony Abbott for tearing down the standards of public debate. This ignores the fact that he has been speaking to issues in the community (yes, without substance, but he has definitely been speaking to issues) and it also reinforces the view that the political process is the problem which plays into the various frames the Coalition has established over this term of parliament which can be summed up using the words “this government has no respect for people’s democratic rights.” (note the use of the word rights. It’s a very progressive word that the Coalition have subtly used a lot during this term of parliament).

Building up positive emotional vectors in the community is a very difficult and complex thing to do, but in the end, it’s a reality of government in this day and age and it’s extremely rewarding if a government is able to successfully achieve it.

If the Coalition under Tony Abbott win the next federal election, the ALP will likely be able to take advantage of this concept as Tony Abbott has left the Coalition wide open to attack on multiple issues. It’s just a question of which issue the community gives the most weight to, galvanising community support and ramming it home.

Playing to Paul Kelly and “The New Australian Stress” is evil bunny stupid

In the summer issue of the The Monthly, BBC journalist Nick Bryant wrote a superb portrait (paywalled) of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Communications Director John McTernan.

There were a couple of major points in the piece that caught my attention and I think they explain a lot of the Labor Party’s problems right now:

  • He believes Tony Abbott is one of the greatest opposition leaders he’s ever seen
  • He believes Paul Kelly and Laurie Oakes are umpires in shaping the government’s “narrative”

I addressed issues regarding the Labor Party’s fixation with the opposition leader in a previous post. Missing from that post was the fact that the Labor Party seem to be making a conscious effort to use every campaign technique in the book to turn Tony Abbott into the evil bunny in this parody ad of Liberal Party fear campaigns that appeared online in 2007. It’s quite disturbing to watch.

Here’s a couple of examples of election campaign ads by the party in government using “evil bunny” tactics and the response ads from the opposition that show how easily they’re taken apart. The fact that I can find them and the responses to them on youtube should underline to you how one dimensional the tactic is:

2012 Queensland State Election, Campbell’s Web


2007 Federal Election, Trade Unions


With Abbott, the “throw the kitchen sink at him” tactics will look even weaker because his entire game plan is dependent on Labor making him the issue.

My view is the best way to attack Abbott has always been to split him from the Liberal Party on policy issues where they’re philosophically at odds (there’s an awful lot of them) while letting the proverbial Mad Monk run free but nuance, subtlety and guile aren’t words in the Labor Party’s vocabulary at the moment.

How Tony Abbott occurs to the Labor Party is one thing. It’s the second point which I find much more disturbing.

When I first took an interest in politics, it was around the time Paul Kelly’s book “The March of Patriots” was released. This was the big political book at the time and it got a lot of publicity. The theme of the book revolved around Paul Keating and John Howard being the last two “gladiators” of Australian politics and recounted the period from after Keating’s victory at the 1993 unwinnable election to John Howard’s defeat at 2007 election. It’s a pretty boring book but because Paul Kelly wrote it, it’s given high esteem due to his reputation.

If you read Paul Kelly’s columns in The Australian newspaper over a couple of months, his writing style becomes fairly predictable. You’ll constantly see phrases like “there are four underlying themes” or “in making this point, politician X has three saving graces” and so on. My personal favourite is the “falling domino” metaphor.

His columns, to borrow his phrasing, always seem to be based around one or a combination of seven underlying themes:

  1. Australian living standards are falling
  2. Productivity is declining due to the Fair Work Act
  3. Reform on Industrial Relations policy is urgently required
  4. Australian-US relations are vitally important to national security
  5. The world is on the verge of collapse
  6. The Catholic Church must be respected above all else
  7. Anything that contradicts the view of The Australian newspaper’s editorial position is wrong

You might even be lucky enough to catch him attempting to coin a term to describe this repetitive, paranoid and inconsistent message such as “The New Australian Stress” which usually is accompanied by some amateur hour reading of the latest Newspoll and “demographic analysis” by Bernard Salt.

The thing that bothers me is not Paul Kelly. He’s simply a columnist writing for a substandard newspaper. What bothers me is there are people in the Prime Minister’s office who view columnists such as Paul Kelly as opinion influencers and shapers of the government’s narrative and storyline.

If you asked someone in the street who Paul Kelly was, the image of a reasonably popular musician would come to mind. Not some grumpy old guy who writes columns on federal politics for an ordinary newspaper. If you asked them questions relating to “The New Australian Stress” they’d probably think you’re a fruitcake and immediately disengage.

Whenever the government talks about education policy or health policy or the economy or anything else and they assume “The New Australian Stress” is what’s driving things in the community, they’re not connecting with the Australian people. All they’re doing is getting caught chasing their tail inside the cycleway of Canberra instead of proactively controlling the frame of the national conversation.

The end of Nick Bryant’s piece was what really hit it home for me:

“If she (Gillard) loses, as he has told journalists, his professional reputation will survive intact because her position is seen as irretrievable.”

It says a lot that the person who is in charge of communications for the Prime Minister is so self centered that he could care less whether his boss wins the next federal election. Combine that with him giving weight to inconsequential mouthpieces in the external environment such as Tony Abbott and Paul Kelly and it becomes obvious why the government has a problem communicating with normal people.

Embracing the community and building social capital

Community is one of those concepts government’s seem to be threatened by because it challenges the concept of representative democracy. Using Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter’s language, governments see the concept of a community as a new entrant, lowering the barriers to entry to the competitive market place known as the democratic contest of ideas. In simple language: communities are competition!

One of the scary and exciting things about social media is it’s ability to generate communities based upon niche or popular issues.

Member for Fraser, former ANU economics professor and potential future Prime Minister Andrew Leigh wrote a superb book titled Disconnected which talked about the vast amount of data that shows the long term decline in social capital in Australia as well as offering ten practical solutions to rebuild it. These included ideas like donating, volunteering, holding a street party, contacting two politicians and many more. It seems to me there’s a big opportunity here.

GetUp is the classic example of an Australian grass roots organisation that attempts to galvanise community engagement on progressive issues via the groundswell of social media tools. I think it’s an interesting model, but I think some of their main flaws revolve around their organisation being designed around the tools rather than an idea and they associate themselves too much with The Greens rather than political parties across the entire spectrum of representation.

That being said, I suspect many organisations that exist for a reason besides the use of social media tools to make a little bit of noise in the media are studying GetUp very closely and creating ways to emulate their model of galvinising participation around issues while taking it to the next level by figuring out ways of forming a community using some of the ideas among others in Andrew Leigh’s book (not to mention the thousands of other books written on the subject).

I suspect this trend will only amplify in Australia as social media becomes more and more popular and the public become more motivated by issues rather than political parties. The bigger and more polarising the issue, the more power to the organisation attempting to exploit the groundswell.

If the Government of the day has a different view to the community, they have two choices: they can fight the community or they can embrace the community. Fighting the community seems a futile exercise because the more the government fights, the more they increase the disconnect between themselves and the public which gives more power to the community.

The second choice logically would be to embrace the community by listening and coming to some sort of win/win solution. Of course this would require some good will, a constructive purpose and an end to the constant fight over petty issues. A challenge to go beyond one’s self interests and focus on the larger interests of the community.

People want to feel apart of something bigger than themselves but when they see fighting over trivial nonsense and total war becoming the new black instead of good will, harmony and community, the end result is mass disengagement.

The organisations that deal with the national conversation on a daily basis and understand how to embrace and build communities around big issues will be the big winners of the future.

The surplus promise: stewardship vs mandate and the need for emotional reassurance

On Thursday, Wayne Swan announced it would be unlikely the government would achieve a budget surplus for this financial year.

Political events will play out the way they play out.

In terms of how it looks, I think it’s important to differentiate between the issues of the promise and the issue of the way the economy has been managed.

I’ve previously mentioned framing in relation to the ALP’s relentless focus on Tony Abbott. In my view, the ALP have run two different frames in relation to the budget surplus. One frame has been proactive and the other has been highly reactive.

The first frame was used during the 2007 election campaign, where the ALP took ownership and framed the words “economic conservative” with associations of reassurance as well as reminding people of their dissatisfaction with John Howard and the Coalition government. The message to voters was “we know you want to vote John Howard out of office, but we also know that you have doubts about our ability to manage the economy. We just want to let you know, that it’s okay to vote for us. You can trust us on the economy.”

The second frame emerged during the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis in late 2008 and it went something like “the Coalition are going to nail us for claiming to be economic conservatives, when we are contradicting that message by stimulating the economy and running up deficits in order to protect the country from economic meltdown. When the next election comes, voters will measure our numbers against Howard and Costello’s numbers, so we need to get the budget back to surplus regardless of the cost in order to prove to people that we can manage the economy.”

The first frame won an election after eleven years in opposition. The second frame has been very disempowering to the ALP over the last four years and it’s allowed the Coalition to get away with lie after lie on the economy.

What this boils down to is the difference between how a government sees it’s relationship with the community. Is that relationship one where the government follows a mandate to the letter or one where the government owns the roles of protector, custodian and steward of the nation.

In this particular case, the ALP has taken the view that it’s mandate is to deliver budget surpluses because they think the public and the media’s measuring stick on economic management is the Howard government’s record on the economy regardless of global or domestic economic conditions when in reality people don’t really care that much about whether the budget is in surplus or not, all they want is to feel emotionally reassured.

The ALP don’t seem to view their role in government as being the ones who define the measuring stick!!! This has allowed the Coalition to frame the issue of economic management as “budget surpluses = emotional reassurance on the economy” when this is simply language, not reality.

John Howard’s lack of emotional resonance with the community was one of the major reasons he was voted out of office in 2007. It wasn’t Work Choices or the lack of infrastructure investment or cost of living pressures or rising interest rates alone, it was how the combination of those issues and more made people feel emotionally!

On the economy, all the electorate has ever wanted is “stewardship” but all the ALP has ever heard is “mandate.”

There have been many opportunities to lay the groundwork and establish political capital for responsible and pragmatic economic policy based on factual information as the measuring stick for superior economic management, but time and again the ALP have failed to see the forest from the trees and have ended up surrendering to the Coalition’s framing on economic issues and allowed them to get away with blatant lies on the state of the economy, the budget, interest rates, industrial relations and pretty much every subject related to economics in one way or another.

I’ve focused on what’s happened with the budget surplus promise because it’s been the issue of the week, but the misunderstanding between how government’s view their role in the community and what the community really needs and wants is a very common one that most governments of all political persuasions, at all levels fall prey to in some way or another.

One of John Maynard Keynes’s famous quotes is “When the facts change, I change my mind.” This quote comes from the 1940’s. In today’s world, the facts are changing daily and one of the consequences of the information age is the notion of a “mandate” has become outdated. Government’s and anyone involved in public life now have the dual responsibility of not just being adaptive in their internal processes but also adaptive in their ability to communicate so people don’t feel left behind and overwhelmed by complexity.

Liberal Party pollster Mark Textor in an opinion column in the Australian Financial Review last month wrote:

“The most successful leaders in the next few years will be those who slow the political and comment process down enough for voters to catch up. After all, the whole point about politics, commerce and leadership is for people to be participants, not passengers in a car stuck in the slow lane.”

Regardless of your opinion of Textor, there’s a lot of truth in that summary. It’s a pity so many either don’t understand this point or worse actively ignore it.

Don’t mess with Texas: Who am I and what do people like me do in this situation?

The Australian Labor Party and the Institute of Public Affairs (an Australian “libertarian” think tank that advocates for “free market policies”) have something in common: they both seem to believe in the concept of rational self interest …

Still with me? …


The ALP buy the concept when it applies to how people vote. The IPA buy the concept in relation to how the economy works best. I think both of these views are incomplete because there’s a far more powerful force at play called identity.

In previous posts I have briefly discussed values systems. They’re useful in certain contexts because they allow people to see where others are coming from and how to communicate so others will listen.

Identity is a much deeper concept because it deals with how people view themselves. In regards to politics, you rarely hear identity talked about because it’s more of a contextual issue for most people but in the end it is everything.

Chip and Dan Heath in their outstanding book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die give the example of how the Texas Department of Transportation in the 1980’s came up with an advertising campaign to reduce litter which had gotten out of control. They tried every type of advertising campaign technique in the book, from fear campaigns to campaigns that worked on reciprocity by saying “please don’t litter.” Nothing worked. After lots of soul-searching they eventually hired some professional researchers from outside of the state.

Using research on how Texans viewed themselves, they came up with the campaign “Don’t Mess With Texas.

This campaign proved to be so successful that research within a few months of the launch showed 73 percent of respondents remembered the campaign message and litter had declined by 29 percent across the state! They even had to abandon a one million dollar enforcement program (those Texans are a fiscally conservative bunch) to stop littering and the campaign still runs today, over 25 years or so later.

The reason it worked so well was not because it was gimmicky or cute. It worked because it was targeted directly at the identity of Texans and how they behave as a collective group.

There are many complex ways of confronting the subject of identity. I think the clearest way to summarise the subject is through two simple questions:

1. Who am I?

I think this question has completely stumped the Australian Labor Party since around 1996. The confusion stems from a reaction to Paul Keating’s “big picture” which promoted a very progressive worldview that included many things that were an anathema to the traditional blue-collar, unionised, ice coffee drinking, meat pie eating, wife beater wearing base such as the end of centralised wage fixing, reconciliation with Aboriginal people and openness to the Asian-Pacific region through a market economy.

After Keating lost the 1996 election, the so called “hard heads” decided to reconnect with the old fashioned Labor base voter by advocating for less of these progressive policies which in turn alienated many self actualised progressive voters who were attracted to Bob Hawke and Paul Keating’s progressive and pragmatic identity for the nation.

This question of Labor identity has continued to be a burden to the party ever since.

Julia Gillard attempted to answer the question of Labor identity at the ALP national conference in 2011 with the phrase “We are us” after listing some so called “Labor values.” All it did was to add to the confusion that clouds how Labor views itself and what defines a Labor voter.

Currently, the short term solution to the issue of Labor identity is to attempt to make Tony Abbott the issue. In my opinion, this simply makes things much worse and the hard question of what constitutes a Labor identity must be asked, right now!

The Coalition by contrast have defined themselves in modern times as anything that isn’t Labor unless Labor caves to their position on certain issues. The most obvious example of this being asylum seeker policy.

If you ask someone who identifies themselves as a Coalition voter where they stand on the market economy, at the present moment they’ll respond with something along the lines of “I’m pro free market” or “I support the budget being in surplus” but when you probe deeper into the issues, they actually prefer protectionist, big spending, big government economic policies. If they get confused by the question they’ll revert to something along the lines of “Labor is the party of dodgy unions.”

The reason this is the case is because they’ve defined what the Labor Party stands for to their voters and supporters and have forged an identity that’s based around the opposite of the Labor identity. Tony Abbott is the perfect mouthpiece for that message because he’s created an image that represents a lot of things the old fashioned Labor Party stood for with a relentless anti Labor twist.

2. What do people like me do in this situation?

The question of “Who am I?” addresses how people see themselves. Once we have answered that question, we tend to look around for people like “us” in order to know how someone like “us” behaves so we can relate to them.

Robert Cialdini in his brilliant book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuassion” calls this social proof. We want to feel a sense of validation about who we are from other people. If we vote for a certain political party, we want to feel included by other people who vote for the same political party.

We tend to buy certain products we don’t need in order to “keep up with the Joneses” or because someone similar to ourselves has a certain product. I remember when I was a little kid wanting an inflatable boat to take to the beach because I saw a classmate play around with a boat like that. I didn’t want it because I thought he was cool, I wanted it because he was like me: bookish, socially isolated, liked cricket and so on.

This tendency to follow people like us can be a big problem if the first question is not properly answered. This is why it is so important for the ALP to answer the question of identity before it starts dealing with winning the next election.

More importantly, if a nation doesn’t define it’s identity, it’s likely that disillusionment, fear and uncertainty will surface and dominate the contest of ideas due to the way people who identify themselves as Australians behave en masse. Australia hasn’t had a serious conversation about national identity for over a decade which might be part of the reason for the petty bickering you see from both sides of politics and the mass disengagement from the national debate by the public.

The concepts of values and identity are important drivers of national politics today and unfortunately a serious contest for the definition of national values and identity has been missing from the conversation in Canberra for far too long!

Journos are idiots – I’m outraged Journos aren’t covering “the big political cover-up involving our opponents”

The big political story of the moment revolves around the case against former Speaker Peter Slipper being thrown out of court and the possible conspiracy designed to bring down the federal government involving the staffer who took Slipper to court James Ashby, LNP candidate for the electorate of Fisher Mal Brough and journalist for The Daily Telegraph Steve Lewis who broke the story.

The political event is still in progress. That’s not what this post is about.

There is an attitude these days, mostly among progressives that journalists are for lack of a better word, idiots. This attitude includes an “us vs them” mindset which is quite hostile. It mainly comes from the view that journalists either have no backbone, buy the conservative line of argument, have commercial interests that are better served by conservative governments which leads to them writing columns and news pieces that are framed around conservative language which influences opinion polling, focus groups, “the narrative” and so on.

I’m not sure this mindset does progressives any good.

In the first post I wrote on this blog, I mentioned how little I paid attention to the media during the 2007 election campaign before I took an active interest in politics. I also wrote that the main reason I got addicted to media was because I thought it had some sort of exotic ability to persuade the public when in reality, it didn’t.

For a long time, I bought this line that journalists are idiots. It took me awhile to figure out they’re just normal people doing a job and they have the same flaws and the same inadequacies as everyone else.

Today Malcolm Farr from News Limited and Phil Coorey from the Australian Financial Review have published separate recounts of the same story involving Mal Brough losing his temper during a social cricket match between the politicians and the press gallery in 2001. They’ve clearly been waiting to release this story for years and now they’ve finally got their opportunity.

In short, journalism is a relationship game. There’s the mindset that you can slap journalists for not writing your sides press releases word for word and blaming them for the results of opinion polling and there’s the mindset that you can cut them some slack and recognise they’re in the same boat as everybody else and inspire them by showing how it’s worth their while (hint: many journalists dream of being like the two main characters in this movie).

I think it’s inconsistent for progressives to get angry at “the media preferring to cover the sideshow rather than policy issues” and then complain that this Ashby story isn’t being covered in the media when the interview is focused on the shadow minister’s policy portfolio. The anger usually stems from the perception Labor MP’s are not treated the same way. Leaving aside whether or not that’s the case, shouting in anger at what you want in my view would be the most reactive and least successful method of achieving some sort of balance.

Does this mean it’s okay for The Australian and The Daily Telegraph to get away with clear bias and inaccurate reporting? In my view they’re going to be biased regardless of what happens and paying attention to them only gives them a form of power they don’t really have with the public. It would be preferable if they weren’t so biased but I can cite poll after poll that shows trust in the media and talking heads is extremely low and getting lower. Not to mention the fact that their business models are becoming antiquated due to the democratisation of information and The Long Tail.

If I ever read these papers (nowadays, rarely), I only read the headlines as the rest is like watching a soap opera: you can’t read them for a minute without laughing at their ridiculousness and self delusion.

If there is a conspiracy involving the LNP in relation to this case regarding James Ashby, it will come out sooner or later and there will be negative consequences for the guilty parties regardless of how long it takes, how it’s spun and the predictable obfuscation from The Australian and The Daily Telegraph. It’s going to take time to investigate what has happened and while questions are being asked and journalists are doing their jobs, it’s counterproductive to mouth off at them.

One book, one Quarterly Essay and an analysis by a number crunching marsupial sum up politics in 2012

There are three pieces of writing which I think summarise the Australian national conversation in 2012 far better than anything else that’s been said or written. As the title of this post suggests, one’s a book, one’s a Quarterly Essay and one’s an analysis by a number crunching marsupial.

1. The Australian Moment by George Megalogenis

This book recounts the big sociocultural, political and economic changes that occurred in Australia since the 1970’s and includes interviews with former Prime Ministers Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard and Kevin Rudd.

It’s useful to learn the history, but the reason I think this book has managed to partially sum up the politics of the current period is because Megalogenis asks two very important questions: “How did Australia get it right?” and “Are we in danger of becoming a great country?”

In my view, the Australian community seems to be asking the first question albeit without consciously thinking about it. The second question is more of a challenge to the psychology of our political leaders.

Given how well the Australian economy has performed compared to the rest of the world, are we prepared to take responsibility, get our psychological act together and lead? This question has yet to be answered and while it remains unanswered, we can expect more of the trivial pursuit that dominates the national debate today.

2. Great Expectations by Laura Tinge

The most talked about Quarterly Essay of the year has been David Marr’s mediocre profile on Tony Abbott. It’s a shame because Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay is so much better and far more relevant to the national conversation.

“Great Expectations,” previously titled “The Big Whinge” (which I think would have been a far better title), explains why the Australian political debate has gotten much more angry since the election of the hung parliament in 2010. The anger in Australia can be traced all the way back to the arrival of the first fleet and the notion of entitlement and the expectation of the government to protect the people has permeated through Australian society ever since.

This notion of entitlement was pretty much destroyed when the Hawke and Keating governments deregulated the economy and opened the nation up to competition and the rest of the world in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Since 2000 however, mostly due to the massive amounts of money flowing from the mining boom and favourable economic conditions, governments of both political persuasions have attempted to revive the notion of entitlement by attempting to make the public believe they can protect them from the open market when in reality they have control over very little.

The national conversation now needs to define realistic expectations of what the government can and cannot do however we’re not having that conversation because it would be extremely painful to both political parties even though it has to happen sooner or later.

Throughout the year, Tingle in her Friday column in the Financial Review (one of the only columns I read these days) has commented on how both the government and opposition are attempting to deal with this reality most notably by proposing aspirational policies (education reform based on the Gonski Review recommendations being the most notable) instead of the real deal.

The main point I took away from this essay was how focus groups are repeatedly finding that the public are always looking for the horizon when it comes to politics but we find again and again that when we reach some sort of end point, the horizon keeps moving further into the distance. This suggests that regardless of who wins the next federal election, the public is going to be looking for the government to take care of their problems and meet their expectations … and more likely than not, they’ll fail which will lead to more anger in the electorate … and on it goes.

3. The Great Unhinging Revisited by Possum Comitatus aka Scott Steel

In the aftermath of the 2010 election, economist, statistician and polling expert Possum Comitatus wrote a post on his blog titled “Let the Great Unhinging begin” which made the prediction that instead of embracing the “new paradigm” and a “kinder and gentler polity” which had been constantly talked about in the negotiations with the Independent MP’s who held the balance of power, the conservative parties would go ballistic and attempt to warp the national debate due to the perceived fragility of the hung parliament. This prediction turned out to be spot on.

Possum revisited The Great Unhinging for The Kings Tribune in the middle of the year by briefly detailing how he was able to predict it through economic statistics, qualitative information, focus groups and so on. He showed how an expectations gap between standards of living and household consumption patterns combined with an aversion to complexity, the need for simple explanations and a sharp rise in perceived uncertainty which emerged around 2006 created the conditions for the federal Opposition to go nuts at everything in the name of exploiting political advantage wherever possible.

The Unhinging has been the environment in which the national debate has been conducted since the last election. This piece also counters the popular and seductive notion that Tony Abbott and the media are the cause of the government’s problems by showing they are merely symptoms of the unhinged environment.

I think these three excellent pieces of writing on the question of Australian greatness, entitlement, expectations of government, anger and perceived uncertainty in the electorate sum up the state of politics in Australia over the long term better than anything else written at the present moment and I think they are must reads if you want to understand the dynamics of what’s happening as we head into an election year.

People Justify Their Identity, What They Value and Their Emotional Judgements Rationally

There are a lot of smart policy people who understand and are able debate issues at a high level of sophistication. They have spent years getting an education in fields like economics, science, law, education, health, foreign policy, international relations and many other areas of expertise in order to create a career and a difference.

I have a confession to make: I am not one of these people.

Sure, I can get the gist of a policy debate, I can read a graph filled with statistical information, I can differentiate the ideas behind certain policies and I can even use software like SPSS for certain purposes (provided you give me a couple of hours) but for the most part if you asked me to tell you the timeline for the National Broadband Network rollout or exact numbers and details from the last budget or details of a policy like the Murray Darling Basin plan, I will struggle very badly.

What I do know a thing or two about is marketing.

One of the situations that always gets under my skin is when I see intelligent, educated people getting upset when their field gets misrepresented for political purposes. Usually there’s an accompanying rant directed at the uneducated and the unskilled.

My Dad is a recently retired Teacher. When the education reforms of the current government began to be implemented such as NAPLAN testing and the MySchool website, he was furious at the way Teachers were being misrepresented in the interests of political gain. Whenever I brought up the fact that Labor government’s always look after education, he’d get very angry and tell me I had no idea what I was talking about. He’d constantly tell me the story of how he asked a very basic question on the government’s education policy to the local federal Labor MP when she visited the school he taught at and she had no idea how to respond. I have been lead to believe this isn’t an isolated incident and many Teachers feel the exact same way.

There is a live debate in the economics community (as far as I know) in regards to raising the GST and reforming the tax system in order to make it more sustainable and fix revenue problems likely to appear in future budgets. Yet economists constantly rage at the political system and political leaders for not having the courage to take on the task without considering or taking into account the obstacles and electoral dangers for the politicians.

The Mining Tax is another example. Ken Henry, a brilliant man, designed an excellent policy to make sure Australia got advantage out of the mining boom but underestimated the political environment which gutted a lot of the impact of the policy and he’s left in a state of despondency, questioning whether the big reforms he’s spent his life pursuing in order to make a positive difference are still possible in this day and age.

Scientists, who for the most part don’t subscribe to ideological positions, are now beginning to see their fields misrepresented and their reputations twisted into mouthpieces for the so called intelligent left.

In federal politics, you’ll see many on the Labor side complain that the Coalition doesn’t have any policies or participate in any civil debate (I addressed what they do after getting that point off their chest in a previous post). It’s one of those inconsistencies that emotionally triggers many progressives. Labor advocating for rational policies while the Coalition playing with the politics of smear and apparently getting away with it.

Kim Beazley Senior summed it up perfectly when he said “The public expect the others (The Coalition) to not be up to much. They expect us (Labor) to be better …”

“We have better numbers and statistics than the Howard government on the economy, yet we don’t get rewarded electorally for them while the Coalition get away with no policies and telling lies on taxes and interest rates! It’s not fair! … Bloody Press Gallery who report events as they see them and don’t copy and paste our press releases!!!”

Interest rates and the issue of the budget surplus are classic examples of many so called political experts not getting it. There’s a common view that low interest rates and a budget in surplus will equate to a positive political outcome for the current federal government when in fact both are exacerbating uncertainty and insecurity in the public. Ipsos Mackay director and social researcher Rebecca Huntley sums it up perfectly in this article in BRW magazine.

It’s very easy to get upset by all of this if you’re one of these smart, educated people.

The fact is most people don’t make judgements rationally. They justify their identity, what they value and their emotional judgements through an internally rational process.

This is the reason it’s important to learn about subjects like marketing, psychology and persuasion. So people like Ken Henry or David Gonski or anyone else who comes up with what are considered to be sensible and rational policy proposals are able to cut through the political noise and get their policies implemented for the benefit of the public. These subjects are far more complex than most people are aware of and what looks simple has a lot going on beneath the surface.

I understand what many of these people who understand policy are going through when they see their fields getting misrepresented in the political process. i get very frustrated when I see people making superficial comments about what good marketing, public relations, advertising is without having a clue of what’s really going on. It’s just the way these things go!

“But people should accept what I say because I’m right! Here’s a list of facts that back me up!” It doesn’t matter how right you are if you can’t persuade people and they don’t listen to you at an emotional level.

It’s possible to get good things done. But when people’s attitudes towards the way normal people behave are ones of disdain and ridicule it shuts off people’s ability to listen and they feel there’s no choice but to go with what’s easy.

Roles of a Leader: Storyteller, Comforter, Protector, Comedian, Friend

In the age of transparency, one of the major secrets to success is having no secrets.

This is especially true in politics and extremely rare in Australia.

Ronald Reagan was one of the most popular and electorally successful Presidents in the history of the United States. Regardless of how the public viewed his policies and positions on issues they mostly saw him as a charismatic, transparent leader who put the interests of the Presidency and the nation over himself. The legendary pollster to Reagan, Dick Wirthlin concludes his brilliant book “The Greatest Communicator” by briefly outlining what made Reagan so popular with the American public. He became multiple roles that everyone resonated with on one level or another.

  • He became a storyteller
Politics now is largely about crafting entertaining, inspirational and understandable stories. Communicating in the language of processes becomes boring and predictable as that’s the way most people live their lives. They want and need an escape!

Without a consistent and connected story communicated in a way a 7 year old can understand, the public can’t find any direction to show them where the nation’s heading and all the trivial noise rises to the surface in the national debate. I’ve written about some of these themes in a previous post as they applied to the AWU non issue that became an issue.
  • He became a comforter

People’s lives are difficult these days. As Homer Simpson discovered when he ran to become Sanitation Commissioner of Springfield, we all secretly ask the question “can’t someone else do it?”

John Howard understood this role better than most when he responded to a series of questions about his vision for Australia on a Four Corners profile in 1995 by saying he wanted Australians to feel “comfortable and relaxed.” Many progressives get spooked by being a comforter to the public because they feel the role of government is to get things done. I think the key is balance and repetitive reassurance.

Big public policy changes are possible provided they’re done in an open, honest and transparent way. The government needs to take the public into it’s confidence in order for this to happen. Paul Keating’s warning that Australia was on the verge of becoming a “Banana Republic” in the mid 1980’s is another example of someone taking on the role of comforter (albeit in a very indirect way). It was aimed at the psychology of the public. It was a very nasty message and one many advisers would have advised against making but it resonated because there was a strong amount of honesty and transparency in it.

Had Keating said nothing it would have looked like the government weren’t in control of events, didn’t trust the public and the strains and hardship experienced during the deregulation and privatisation of the economy during that time would have been far worse than they were electorally for the Labor government.

  • He became a protector
We all have the right to feel safe. This slogan is used as early as Kindergarten and it permeates throughout life. Ronald Reagan became the protector of what the United States public valued from both the threats of communism and nuclear war.

When you look at the asylum seeker issue in Australia, the conservatives have framed it using language such as “peaceful invasion.” This sets up the narrative that Australia is an island of western values in a foreign part of the world (Asia) and in order to protect our identity, the boats (those who are not apart of the Australian community) must be stopped. Whenever the ALP have accepted this framing of the issue they’ve given authority to the idea the conservatives are the true protectors of the Australian identity, reciprocation and social licence aka the fair go.

Bob Katter, regardless of your opinion of his views, is another classic Australian example of someone who understands what it means to take on the role of the protector. He has attacked the National Party for caving into the Liberal Party on free trade and made himself the protector of the agricultural and farming sectors of the economy. He’s even incorporated large elements of the old Labor Party into his story including the founding of the party, the story of Red Ted Theodore and the founding of the Amalgamated Workers Association which later became the Australian Workers Union (a union of which he’s a member).

I spoke to someone recently who I saw reading Katter’s book “An Incredible Race of People” and I asked him what he drew him to Katter. His answer was “Labor Values.” I understood exactly where he was coming from. The electorate of Kennedy is his for as long as he wants it.
  •  He became a comedian
Humour is healthy. Everybody loves humour and a bit of wit and it’s a core requirement of any public figure. It doesn’t matter if it’s corny, all that matters is whether it’s relatable and it is consistent with the spirit of the occasion. Most public figures seem to understand the role of comedian on one level or another but I think the one politician who doesn’t get it in Australia is Tony Abbott. Whenever anyone tells a joke at his expense he’s always serious.

The best example of Abbott’s lack of humour was when Julia Gillard and he were at a Red Cross function and the Prime Minister introduced them both by saying “I’m red, he’s always cross.” Everyone in the audience regardless of their political persuasion laughed except for him and the cameras caught it all. This lack of light hearted self deprecation and his inability to get into the spirit of the occasion says all the wrong things and it’s one of many factors that contribute to the Australian public’s spectacular disapproval of Abbott as a leader.
  •  He became a friend
Wirthlin at the beginning of his book tells a story of a young boy who saved his brother after his family’s trailer burned down who Ronald Reagan talked to on the phone so he could congratulate him on his courage and heroism. At the end of the conversation the boy expressed his regret that he didn’t have his tape recorder on so he could record his conversation with the President. Reagan responded by saying “Well son, turn it on and let’s talk some more”

There’s little doubt the young boy would have remembered that conversation with Reagan for the rest of his life.

Many leaders would see the boy as an irritant who was preventing important work from getting done. Ronald Reagan saw the boy as the most important part of his work because he understood the role of friend.

This sort of personalisation and ability to relate to people is badly missing from politics today. Relatability is a quality that can’t be rushed, it must be developed over time. You can’t come up with it from focus group responses of opinion polling.

Regardless of what your opinion was of Ronald Reagan’s policies, his ability to emotionally connect with the US public and his electoral record is unprecedented. The joke often told at Republican Presidential candidates expense is they aren’t Ronald Reagan: the biggest weakness of every Republican Presidential candidate since 1989.

In summary, the roles of storyteller, comforter, protector, comedian and friend when combined create an emotionally magnetic feeling which can only be experienced in a positive way. I’ve focused on politics and political leaders in this post but these roles are transferable to any field where leadership is required and I think they are important in order to establish the groundwork for getting things done in today’s complex, emotionally starved, simplicity seeking world.

“Let’s talk some more”