Category Archives: Books

“If the facts don’t fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off”

Galaxy Research and Essential Media Communications have thrown up some interesting qualitative results in the last few days in relation to perceptions of the ALP leadership change.

Before I get to that, I want to examine the AC Nielsen poll results from last month in relation to ALP voters responses on the question of preferred ALP leader.

AC Nielsen, preferred ALP leader, ALP voters 16th June: Julia Gillard 52%, Rudd 46%

Over the last three years, this sort of result was replicated month after month and many on the various social media platforms that discuss Australian politics used these sorts of results to suggest that Rudd wasn’t liked by ALP voters and it was all a Liberal Party/media conspiracy to destabilise Julia Gillard’s leadership.

On Sunday, Galaxy Research produced these results that suggest a very different narrative:

Q. “In your opinion did Labor make the right decision by rejecting Julia Gillard and endorsing Kevin Rudd?”

Total: Yes 57%, No 31%

ALP Voters: Yes 75%, No 17%,

Coalition Voters: Yes 50%, No 41%

Even more profound was Galaxy’s results for the actions of Bill Shorten who was one of the “faceless men” in the June 2010 leadership change:

Q, Do you think Bill Shorten did the right thing for the Labor Party by shifting support from Julia Gillard to Kevin Rudd?

Total: Yes 52%, No 30%

ALP Voters: Yes 75%, No 13%

Coalition Voters: Yes 40%, No 44%

Essential Media Communications from yesterday showed similar results however, they have breakdowns that show intensity of response. I find these results very interesting:

Q. Do you approve or disapprove of Kevin Rudd replacing Julia Gillard as leader of the Labor Party?

Total

Vote Labor

Vote Lib/Nat

Vote Greens

Total approve

55%

77%

40%

48%

Total disapprove

31%

13%

49%

37%

Strongly approve

24%

45%

12%

8%

Approve

31%

32%

28%

40%

Disapprove

15%

8%

22%

23%

Strongly disapprove

16%

5%

27%

14%

Don’t know

14%

10%

12%

16%

Of particular note is the strongly approved category in relation to ALP voters. If this leadership change was seen as a cynical manipulation of the political process, the intensities of response would not be so strong.

According to this Essential Media poll, 45% of ALP respondents strongly approved of last weeks events!

We aren’t talking about a mere passive approval of what happened which could easily fall off into neutrality and disapproval over the coming weeks and months. We’re talking about a very large group of ALP voters who are very satisfied with what happened. In order to change the perceptions of these voters, you’ve got to do A HELL OF A LOT of work as they’ve emotionally bought what has happened and are in strong approval of it.

It is also worth comparing the AC Nielsen polling above with the Galaxy Research and Essential Media polling from after the event because how people think they will respond to a potential event and how they will actually respond after that potential event has occurred are not mutually exclusive. Put simply: people are extremely poor judges of predicting how they will respond to potential and future events.

George Lakoff in his book “Don’t Think of an Elephant” has a great quote:

“To be accepted, the facts must fit people’s frames. If the facts don’t fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off”

If the Coalition attempt to try and play their game of “let’s all feel sorry for Julia because she was knifed by the faceless men and that evil Kevin Rudd” they will be paddling viciously upstream because first they have to deal with the fact that they will be contradicting the three year period they have spent deriding and destroying her leadership (to ordinary people, the events of last week were a consequence of this behaviour from the Coalition) and second they have to deal with the perception battle because people approved of what happened and in ALP voters case, a majority strongly approved of what happened (the emotional component).

The more they yell, shout and scream the sort of lines they have all parroted verbatim over the last three years, the more they will be building Kevin Rudd’s reputation, authority, credibility and approval from the community.

It’s not just the Liberal Party who have to deal with this uncomfortable reality. Author Kerry Anne-Walsh, whose book “The Stalking of Julia Gillard: How the media and Team Rudd contrived to bring down the Prime Minister” goes on sale today also will encounter this framing from people (that is of course if people actually bother to buy and read the book).

How this plays out with the emotional dynamic over the coming weeks and months should be fascinating.

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Expert political judgement

Yesterday the Prime Minister decided to release the date of the election in order to provide certainty to the Australian community.

Whether this is a wise decision or not will be the topic of hot debate over the coming fortnight or so. I happen to think it wasn’t a wise political decision for many reasons which I have gone over at length in previous posts. That however is my opinion based upon what I intuitively know and we shall see how it plays out over the coming months.

What we will see a lot of this year are political predictions from the “experts.” The problem is most of them will simply be opinions. There will be no understanding of the nuance or what’s really happening. It will all be “She said, He said” or merely coverage of the surface fanfare and silliness that consumes a lot of political campaigning and reporting.

Philip Tetlock in his brilliant book “Expert Political Judgement” did a 20 year study of 284 experts such as journalists, government officials and university professors in the USA who made over 28,000 predictions and found that most were only slightly better than chance. Most basic computer algorithms by contrast managed to make far more accurate predictions than the so called experts.

Tetlock’s 20 year study also split the experts into two personality types which were based on an essay by Isaiah Berlin. The first type were labelled hedgehogs who jump to a one conclusion and stick to it regardless of the evidence. The second type were labelled foxes who tend to keep an open mind and have multiple methods that are incorporated into how they make predictions. The study showed the foxes made far more accurate predictions than the hedgehogs and it’s understandable when you watch recycled media coverage of various so called expert columnists who make their living structuring their opinions to suit a particular audience who craves psychological validation.

Reading the book makes one question the ability of the media to influence political events because most of it is simply talk which is ignored by those who count who have far better and more important things to do with their lives.

It’s worth keeping this in mind when you hear much of the loud noise that will crowd out what’s really going on in the national debate. If someone is using a computer algorithm to back up their opinion, they are far more likely to predict accurately into the future than someone who has a partisan opinion and sticks to it regardless of the data. Nate Silver and others like him proved this fact during the US election.

Judging by the reaction yesterday, I think everyone needs to take a deep breath and drink a glass of milk. Events will play out the way they’re meant to play out. All we can do is go on about our lives and watch what happens.

In over our heads – complex demands and another angle to the unhinging

Around the middle of last year, Possum Comitatus aka Scott Steel in The Kings Tribune revisited his post on “The Great Unhinging” by going into some of the things he’d picked up in qualitative and quantitative research and economic statistics which allowed him to predict how politics would be played during the current term of parliament.

The three threads underlying the unhinging which have been present in the Australian electorate since 2006 are:

1. A significant expectations gap between standards of living and consumption patterns a household expected to purchase and what their income actually provided for them to purchase in practice leading to feelings of resentment and entitlement in the community

2. A growing aversion to complexity

3. A sharp rise in perceived uncertainty

It’s a superb piece of writing. It’s one of three on Australian politics I recommend reading in order to get a bit of a grip on where things are at currently in the national conversation. The shoutiness might have died down a lot in relation to issues such as the carbon tax and the mining tax, but the actual dynamic is still firmly in place regardless of who’s in government, who’s in opposition, what’s in the media and so on.

What I want to do with this post is attempt to explain why that might be the case and make the unhinging a little more three-dimensional.

In previous posts, I’ve gone over a couple of models that show how moral worldviews develop, how they relate to values systems and how they’re communicated in the national conversation. In this post, I’m going to go a step or two deeper and focus on cognitive development at mostly a personal level and how it relates to the unhinging dynamic and Australian politics.

The most profound book I’ve ever read is “In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life” by Harvard developmental psychologist Robert Kegan which shows how the cognitive requirements and developmental stages/levels/orders of mind required for someone to function as a mature adult in the current age often exceed where most people are at developmentally. He shows how this occurs at and in adolescence, work, family, relationships, the education system, psychotherapy and many more areas of everyday life.

It’s an extremely dry book that uses a level of complex language and contextual framing that would leave most people scratching their head in a state of extreme confusion, but it’s extremely rewarding when you begin to understand what his ideas mean and how they relate to the world in which we live.

Before I go any further, I’ll show a summary of Robert Kegan’s model of adult development which he outlined in his first book “The Evolving Self” as it provides context for the rest of the post. At each order of mind there is both a subjective structure and an objective structure. The subjective structure is what you as an individual concretely identify with and the objective structure is what you see as something that is not you or is third person or is simply outside of your subjective identity/experience. In short: we are subject, we have object.

OoC

What I love about the picture above is how it gives a visual representation that shows the complexity of the meaning structure and the apertures/windows/filters these orders of mind use in order to function. In other words, it shows the complexity of the order of mind and how it subjectively sees the world.

Einstein’s famous quote “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them” takes on an entirely new meaning when you’re able to comprehend a developmental model such as the one above.

When you’re at the third order of mind, you don’t just see the world through your relationships, you subjectively “are” your relationships. Your whole way of operating in the world is based on what you identify with. You can’t see beyond it. If you’re at the third order and I show you the model above, you’ll use third order language and the way you subjectively interpret it will be through the cognitive apparatus and mental hardware of the third order of mind.

To get to the fourth order of mind requires a developmental process that takes a whole range of components such as experience, education, contemplation, reflexive reflection and a mode of thinking that simply can’t be achieved overnight or over a week long seminar. This process of adult development occurs over a lifetime.

On top of all of that, when an order of mind becomes an object to you, you don’t lose it, it’s merely incorporated into the next order of mind. In other words, the more cognitively developed you become, the more complex the apparatus your using to subjectively interpret the world around you. The bad news is the more you develop, the more things can go wrong because you’re incorporating the previous orders of mind into the order of mind you’re currently at and all the pathologies that come with it.

You don’t solve the problems you’re currently experiencing, you simply develop new and more complex problems to solve which develops your order of mind.

I could go on for a very long time on this topic, but I’ll land the plane and attempt to tie it back to the unhinging dynamic.

As the complexity in society increases, the cognitive demands and extrinsic intrusion on people’s everyday lives also increases. In other words, the job you used to do is getting more complicated and demanding every day. In order to maintain a decent standard of living, you have to be constantly increasing and upgrading your level of ability, professionalism as well as your network and sources of information. The relationships you’re in, be they family, romantic or friendship, have more demands placed on them than ever before. What you’re required to know in order to remain current is increasing at an exponential rate.

What I think is happening is the cognitive demands and extrinsic intrusions on the public to operate in a society like Australia have risen, yet the most of the public’s cognitive apparatus and mental hardware remain at an order of mind that is insufficient to deal with the demands of modern life.

This has major implications for politics.

For a start a big issue like dangerous climate change only becomes an issue when you become more aware of the complexity of what is happening in the world. For example, if you’re at the second order of mind, the issue simply doesn’t appear on your radar because you’re subjectively identifying with your needs, impulses and desires. Another big issue that Kegan covers extensively is education. The demands of the workforce on a student coming out of high school often exceed the mental apparatus they’ve developed through the process, content and context of what they’ve been taught. This is a major problem and one the current government is attempting to solve.

If you’re at the third order of consciousness (most of society is at this stage), there is so much demand on your time that it’s pretty much impossible to understand major issues in depth.

Most of the demands society places on people in this day and age are at the fourth order of mind. In other words society demands self authorship and autonomy. So if you’re at the third order, there’s a tendency to feel like things are going too fast, the level of demand is too great and if pathology occurs, you might simply shut down and regress.

A classic example of the demanded level complexity exceeding the capacity of a structure on a larger scale is in Europe right now. Europe has a very sophisticated democratic and political structure in the form of the European Union but the demands it has placed on their economic and sociocultural structures have simply been too great and it’s turned into a major mess. A lot of this is simply an attempt to solve world centric problems at an ethnocentric level of development. It’s very easy to understand why that doesn’t work when you understand that these problems are on different levels and scales of complexity let alone the order of thinking of the leaders who are attempting to solve these kinds of issues.

In Australia, when you hear political leaders on all sides try to empathise with people by showing that they understand how normal people live and the pressures placed on them everyday, all it does is to make people feel like objects. A subjective, interpersonal relationship is one where you actually live in someone’s order of mind and relate to them. For example, when you see The Greens involving themselves in stunts to show they could live on the unemployment benefit for a week, all it does is to make people at that order of mind feel as if there’s no way out.

The demands on political leadership have increased as the order of complexity in society has increased as well. For example, a political leader these days pretty much has to be all things to all people because the level of expectations have increased so dramatically. People at the third order of mind want to feel protected and comforted by their political leaders. Whenever something goes wrong, the judgement is immediate because the level of uncertainty surrounding one’s identity and psychological insecurity is so ridiculously high due to this dynamic.

Going back to the three main points that exemplify the unhinging dynamic: the high expectations gap in relation to our standard of living and what we can afford, our aversion to complexity and the rise in our perceived uncertainty in my view seem to be coming from the complex demands and extrinsic intrusions of society on people to become adaptive and interdependent authors of their own lives (Order 4) rather than getting subjectively absorbed in interpersonal relationships (Order 3) and their needs, wants and desires (Order 2). On top of that, the order of world problems in this day and age far exceeds our mental capacity to comprehend them which leads to people shutting down from what’s happening and refocusing on what they can control in order to maintain some sort of stable structure.

The reason Paul Keating wanted Australia to become a republic was because he understood what an order of mind and an individuals psychological makeup meant to people on an emotional level. The Republic was not simply proposed in order to culturally and economically integrate Australia into the Asian Pacific region by itself. It was to get the country to psychologically grow up and deal with the complex challenges of this age. It’s a great shame that political leaders on both sides have walked away from it. My view is the maturity of public debate will only return when important, big picture, national issues like this are put back on the table.

We live in a complex world. It might be comforting to imagine that everything could be returned to a time when things were simpler and easier but that tends to be a nostalgic perception of the past rather than the way things really were.

It’s not easy to deal with complexity, but in the end, it’s necessary in order to operate as a mature person in this society. Politicians who understand how to make that clear in a way that inspires people, slows down the time dynamic and make sure no one is left behind as well as getting the country to qualitatively transform psychologically and emotionally will be the politician’s who succeed in the future.

“We have met the enemy and he is us” – Pogo

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.

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.

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”

Don’t think of Tony Abbott

In 2005 after George W. Bush won his second term as US President, cognitive scientist George Lakoff published a manual for progressives to win back the national debate titled “Don’t Think of an Elephant.

The premise of the book is the US Democrats had a view of how the mind works that was from the “rational enlightenment” period of history which assumes people vote for the political party that puts forward the policies that best represent their interests through a rational decision making process.

The problem however is that this type of thinking misreads how most people actually make decisions and by having a deeper understanding of concepts like values, identity and narrative framing, the Republicans had managed to seize control of the US national debate while leaving the Democrats with a feeling of powerlessness.

By thinking and speaking of a metaphorical elephant (the Republican Party’s logo) progressives were invoking and empowering the elephant rather than winning elections.

I see the same thing happening in Australia on the progressive side of politics.

Tony Abbott’s only tactic from opposition is to make the government and the ALP the issue for the voting public. That is the only weapon he has in his arsenal and he has used it with devastating effect.

The reason he has been able to get away with this one dimensional tactic however is not because he is some sort of political genius (he’s merely a puppet for someone like Mark Textor), it’s because the ALP are trying to make Tony Abbott the issue!

The “hard heads” in the ALP see polling and listen to focus groups that make it clear he is one of the most unpopular opposition leaders in Australian political history and in an attempt to exploit these facts they rationally conclude they can win back support and frame him as out of touch with “Middle Australia.”

The problem is this thinking plays right into Abbott’s hands and he knows it. This is why Abbott deliberately goes out of his way to emotionally bait the ALP on areas where he is inconsistent.

A classic example of this in action is when he makes comments about the dysfunction of unions and associates himself with people from the union movement ALP supporters see as dodgy (like Kathy Jackson from the Health Services Union) while avoiding questions on industrial relations reform. Whenever the ALP say “if Tony Abbott becomes Prime Minister, he’ll bring back WorkChoices” in response to this sort of thing, it comes off as the ALP are the party defending the dodgy dysfunctional unions and Abbott is the one with all of the authority.

The same is true on climate change. The Coalition’s Direct Action policy is clearly a political device to frame the national debate on their terms rather than anything serious to address the issue. So whenever Wayne Swan or anyone else from the ALP call Abbott a “climate change denier” all Abbott does is say “I have a policy to address climate change and it isn’t a great big tax” and he gets away with it because he’s in control of the frame.

The fact that people have had a neutral reaction to the carbon tax since it has come into operation and it hasn’t been the economy destroying tsunami Abbott said it would be is irrelevant. It’s all about who is framing the context of the national debate. The ALP’s frame is “Abbott was wrong” and the Coalition’s frame is “This is a high taxing dysfunctional government that is a disgrace to the nation.”

The ALP have no positive story about tackling dangerous climate change or transitioning the economy to deal with the future to counter any of this because the focus is all on Abbott’s inconsistent fear campaign.

Don’t feel Abbott’s fear campaign!

The beginning of this ABC Insiders interview of the Primer Minister from the 1st of July 2012 says it all. The very first words out of the Prime Minister’s mouth in response to a question are “Tony Abbott” which frames everything said in the interview after that around Abbott’s authority, not Gillard’s authority. In effect by going after Abbott, it validated his fear campaign even though his fear campaign is, to use his words “absolute crap!”

One of the best examples I can find that shows the ALP falling into the Coalition’s framing is in relation to getting the budget back to surplus. The ALP’s position from the very beginning should have been one of reassuring people that the ALP are good economic managers by defining what Australians value in their economy (as opposed to Labor Values which I’ve covered in another post). Instead the framing has been “we need to prove to the electorate we’re better economic managers than John Howard and Peter Costello” which plays into all of Tony Abbott’s themes in regards to restoring the “golden era” (cough, cough, wink, wink) of the Howard government.

Interest rates. They’re lower now than they were at any time under the Howard government yet when Wayne Swan mentions this fact and how it should be reducing “cost of living pressures” all it triggers in people’s minds is that warm, relaxed and comfortable, emotional feeling from all that great big juicy cash Howard threw at them between 2001 and 2007 like a drunken sailor. People could care less about the historical political pissing contest.

The threat of high interest rates is more powerful than the feeling of having interest rates low while in government but no one ever associates fear and high interest rates with the Coalition’s ability to manage the economy for some reason.

Asylum Seeker Policy: the mere mention of it triggers pretty much all of the Coalition’s frames. Specifically their subtler frames that speak to the “social license” and their definition of reciprocity.

Don’t think of John Howard! … (Oh wait, you just did!)

For a very long time I was emotionally triggered by Tony Abbott’s inconsistencies until I realised one day that they don’t matter in regards to how public opinion is influenced. Then I had the even deeper realisation that being triggered by Abbott’s inconsistencies is what has contributed to the Coalition being able to frame the national debate on their terms.

And the hilarious thing is once I realised all this and began to focus on where I stand on issues instead of defining myself as a critique of Tony Abbott’s positions on issues, I began to find him boring instead of provocative and I feel a lot better for it.

Getting emotionally triggered in a negative way by a mouthpiece is ultimately self defeating.