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.

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