Once upon a time … Rudd needs a narrative

Let’s talk about narratives.

Back in February I lamented that the new Government had failed to offer the Keating-style narrative necessary to coherently package its economic agenda. Since then, young up-and-comers like Paul Kelly and now Paul Keating have made similar observations.

What’s so important about narratives? The news media crave them. They make sense of events and provide a framework for understanding. They guide what is emphasised and what is skipped. And they entertain. Most news stories — even sports stories  — are, in essence, minor variants on stories we’ve heard a thousand times over  — crime doesn’t pay, the recklessness of youth, the folly of single motherhood, bumbling bureaucrats, out-of-touch politicians and so on. Although, if you’re the Daily Telegraph website, most of your stories are about breasts and undies.

Narratives are also useful for media organisations with agendas. Narratives are necessarily shaped by the commercial interests of the media company concerned.

Political journalism is easier, because the range of possible stories is much smaller. Indeed, politics is usually reduced to personalities  — and in particular, who is rising and who is falling, who is undermining whom, who has stumbled. Last year’s election coverage, which emphasised the “Howard comeback” narrative — even when there wasn’t one  — and the relative “gaffe” score each day, was a nice encapsulation of this.

Paul Keating may complain about “little press secretaries” but he understood the media’s need for a narrative. He and Bob Hawke provided their own, of Labor’s reforming zeal, and it took hold and dominated political coverage in the 1980s. Necessarily it was personalised in the form of Keating himself, cast as the hero  — all stories need a hero  — of a bold new approach to government, battling internal and external enemies alike for the cause of reform. But for all Keating’s ego, and the fact that it fell apart along with the economy in the late 1980s, it elevated the national debate and political coverage, moving economics to centre stage where it has remained ever since.

Narratives are a more complex task today. We’re more media-savvy, and more economically literate. I have a sneaking suspicion one of the reasons higher interest rates have worked so quickly to slow the economy is because we’re all now trained in how to react to rate rises. There is also far more comment and analysis from a wider range of sources, so it’s not so easy to construct and influence narratives. In the 1980s, the press gallery was the principal medium between politicians and the electorate. Now non-gallery commentators, public intellectuals and bloggers play major roles in the debate.

If the Government doesn’t provide a narrative, the media will provide one or more for them  — ones shaped by the commercial imperatives of the media company concerned, and focussed on personalities. We’ve seen a number already, focussed on the Prime Minister  — Rudd the workaholic micro-manager, Rudd the ditherer, Rudd the Blairite spin-master. Some of these actually correspond with reality, but either way we’re not talking about substantive issues

Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan have a narrative. They’re addressing supply-side constraints in areas like skills and infrastructure. They’re reviewing the taxation and transfer systems. They want to use a market-based approach to addressing climate change. But they haven’t consistently and pithily explained it in a few memorable turns of phrase  — the sort that Keating can apparently produce in his sleep.

And they don’t have a hero. Wayne Swan is competent, but he’s not a compelling figure. This is very much the Rudd Government. The only figures to emerge from the shadow of the Prime Minister have been Julia Gillard and Penny Wong. That’s why the Government’s narrative hasn’t taken hold.

The Government’s commitment to proper policy development processes  — including consultation  — hasn’t helped. After a decade-plus of the Howard Government’s top-down decision-making, we’re not used to a Government that may actually be interested in developing good policy with input from anyone with a view. As a consequence, debates are kicked off without being shaped by the Government’s agenda. This week’s tax discussion paper is a good example. Wayne Swan was content to see the paper issued and let the debate proceed of its own accord. This is a very healthy thing. Yet it yielded stories in The Australian about “ticking time bombs” and “damp squibs.”

If you don’t provide a narrative, the media will do it for you.

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4 Responses

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  1. What is that narrative whispering in our hearts …..ecological sustainability in the 21C. The antidote to defeatist irresponsible denialist Rapture of organised religion. The joy of subtle endlessly complex nature and our place in that balance. The challenge of the century. A force greater than nuclear power if slower acting (we hope). That’s why the LIb Lab’s have frozen out the greens/Greens for a good 15 years now only to be beaten around the ankles, badly bruised too, every few years. The Narrative is coming and they know it too but it’s just not theirs. They can’t stop it. It gathers momentum as theirs (any work is good work, any money is good money) loses puff - a plasma tv in every home - for God sake they aim so low, they project such small ambitions for their society and world. It’s real turtle and hare stuff and the hare is looking like the drop out in the energiser advert. Acting big going nowhere. We shall see … the long run.

    by Tom McLoughlin on Aug 8, 2008 at 4:52 pm

  2. Patricia, the Howard government’s narrative was to endeavour to be a hero to the “Little Aussie Battler”. As Bernard says it always stressed it’s economic wizardry, which was bul*shit, but large segments of the voters bought this line. Then it became sickening anti-terrorist aka Xenophobia, and ‘Your Government Will Take Care of You, and Screw Your Enemies, sort of deal.

    I am speaking as the proverbial ‘dyed-in-the-wool labour voter. A voter however, who is determined not to let the Rudd government ‘pull the wool over my eyes’. To begin with the Rudd government claimed it’s narrative to be ‘the environment’, and by voting Labour YOU, the voter will be assured that WE the government will reverse the Howard Government’s sickening lack of interest in the environment. 10 months later the hapless voter has had to watch Peter Garrett, who entered parliament with the desire to do something positive for the environment, who, once in government, reneged on every dream he purported to hold dear. And Penny Wong, who was virtually sold to the electorate as being a ‘thinker’ who cared for the environment; who went on to show that being ‘gay’ and being a woman was no impediment to being yet another bureaucratic Canberra pen-pusher.
    Finally we beheld Ms Wong’s writing off of the Murray Darling catastrophe as being inevitable, and there was nothing the government could do about it. That’s two clunkers who have helped to destroy the Rudd government’s narrative. Now comes the biggest clunker of all. Kevin Rudd, the bible waving little bureaucrat from Australia’s deep north, the State of Queensland. The voters, desperately searching for ‘a hero’ to deliver them from the endemic corruption and shonky mindedness of John Howard and his merry band of gut-garbagers turned to Kevin Rudd to deliver us from evil. What did we get in our desperation? A superficial and extreme QLD ordinariness of a man. Whose ability to see filth in photographs of prepubescent girls is breath-taking. A man who solemnly believes the orgasmic ravenings, trundled out by the media, that the Beijing Olympics are more important than the death of the Murray Darling River.

    The only hero in my understanding of the word, is Wayne Swan. But the narrative has gone with the Murray-Darling.

    by Venise Alstergren on Aug 9, 2008 at 6:54 pm

  3. If the media is left to its own devices, Patricia, it will develop a narrative at once counter-productive to good policy and hostile to the government. Governments have to offer narratives or significantly influence them - that was my point. Because I didn’t have 1600 words, I skipped the bit about how the Howard Government narrative was briefly about economic reform but eventually became about national security and xenophobia, and highly successful it was too.

    by Bernard Keane on Aug 9, 2008 at 4:25 pm

  4. So what are you trying to say here, Bernard? What’s your story, your narrative? If you’re suggesting that Rudd doesn’t spin a good yarn you’re probably right. He can’t win, can he? Another complaint from the both opposition and much much of the media is that he’s all spin and no substance. So are these much criticised committees of enquiry and their subsequent reports produced by reportedly overworked bureaucrats evidence of spin or simply the groundwork required by a new government with a reformist agenda after a decade of reform inertia by the Coalition? What was John Howard’s “narrative” about children overboard, the wheat export scandal and weapons of mass destruction to name but a few of the stories swallowed whole by much of the media and for too long the electorate. If all you can write about is Rudd’s lack of narrative about all the constructive things he and his government have done or are taking measured steps to introduce then you should find another job. You’re the reporter. You write the story.
    Let Rudd and his ministers get on with their job of running the government: establishing enquiries, reviewing reports before executing new policy and producing appropriate green and white papers for public debate before introducing new legislation. That’s government. Narrative is the job of journalists.

    by Patricia Weston on Aug 8, 2008 at 5:05 pm

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