Monthly Archives: September 2013

Direction, Markers and Symbolism

Two weeks since the Coalition formed government under Tony Abbott’s leadership, it is very clear to me that they’re about to run rings around their political opponents (at least in the short term while the ALP remains leaderless). In this post I’ll attempt to go over how they’re going to do this.

People are very uncertain about the direction of their lives and the direction of the nation. What this means for the government is they need to provide firm and achievable markers for people in order to communicate what they’re doing in a way they can both digest and understand.

The previous government failed miserably in this respect. There was the marker of a budget surplus but it wasn’t achievable due to the volatility in the global economy which the Coalition exploited at every opportunity with great effect.

Some examples of markers the new government have established are very familiar: “stop the boats”, “end the waste”, “repay the deficit”, “abolish the carbon tax”, “abolish the mining tax”, “restore trust”, “cut red and green tape” etc.

In terms of the way policy and outcomes are viewed within the Canberra bureaucracy, this stuff is vague, overly simplistic, unspecific and potentially dangerous but to voters who have short attention spans due to the complexity and demands of their day to day lives, this is very clear and understandable because it’s emphasising actions and values rather than numbers and data which people generally find meaningless.

“You have uncertainty everywhere, we’re making things certain” is the Coalition’s message in a nutshell. Whether they can deliver what they promise remains to be seen.

The direction is in the overarching message, the markers are in the sub messages which relate to particular issues e.g the economy, climate change, asylum seekers, infrastructure and so on.

As someone who identifies with the progressive, moderate, socially democratic “side” of the political spectrum, I’m constantly frustrated when I see “my side” attacking the Coalition on things they’ve already inoculated themselves against.

Last week, Tony Abbott announced his cabinet of twenty which included only one woman in the group: Julie Bishop. The outrage was predictable as it plays into the “left’s” preexisting line that Tony Abbott’s a blue tie wearing misogynist etc. This attack has been used for the last three years with literally zero success but it keeps getting used regardless.

All this sort of attack does is reinforce the view that Abbott’s opponents are desperate, spiteful and insecure while positioning him as a centrist. What’s worse is there’s no actual issue being addressed. It’s just name calling for name callings sake. Abbott has made a successful political career as a parasite for this sort of combat since his days at university.

The far more powerful point that “if 95% of people at the top are male, it’s not a meritocratic system” and that this should be judged as a systemic failure of the Coalition’s ideology and values tends to get lost in this noise.

The dots aren’t being joined for people in a way they can understand and digest.

It’s the same thing with these sorts of T-Shirts.

Abbott hater t-shirt

People might not like Abbott, however the professional people advising him clearly understand this point and have adjusted accordingly. These sorts of attacks say more about the attackers and their political views than they say about Abbott.

What is most clear to me about the new government is priority will be placed on the way things are done over policy detail. The best example of this so far has been the decision by Scott Morrison to stop reporting the numbers of boats that arriving in Australian waters. There are two important points that need to be made in relation to this announcement:

1. The proxy issue of boats was never about the boats in and of themselves. It was about the symbolism of bombardment in people’s lives which hooked into issues like the economy, education, transport, infrastructure and so on. The symbolism of a boat arriving to the “right” was an amplifier of this bombardment. By not reporting the numbers of boats, the government is addressing what people want emotionally: stability. Whether this is a good or bad thing, again remains to be seen.

2.  The point many have raised i.e “imagine the outrage from Abbott if Labor did it” misses the key point that Abbott was in control of the outrage in opposition and this announcement was deliberate meaning the government is now in control of the outrage on the issue once again. Abbott successfully played with fire in opposition on multiple issues however in government this approach might come back to bite him.

It will be interesting to see how the new ALP leader (Anthony Albanese or Bill Shorten) responds to these markers and symbols. I think they’re both on the ball but we shall see.