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:
- Australian living standards are falling
- Productivity is declining due to the Fair Work Act
- Reform on Industrial Relations policy is urgently required
- Australian-US relations are vitally important to national security
- The world is on the verge of collapse
- The Catholic Church must be respected above all else
- 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.