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Feb 22, 2013

Does the Labor narrative narrative stand up?

We all complain Labor lacks a narrative. But what if positive narratives are now impossible to effectively communicate? Look overseas and it may well be the case.

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It’s funny, but no one in Labor is laughing: the very week the Gillard government produces its most coherent economic and political statement of the entire time Labor has been in office, it gets accused yet again of lacking a “narrative”. Waleed Aly, joining Fairfax’s new “all leadership speculation, all the time” format, says governments “thrive on narrative” and Labor ain’t got one.

Ah, the irony — Labor’s actual narrative can’t be heard over the clamour of leadership speculation and insistence it hasn’t got a narrative.

This is only the most recent of almost countless articles about Labor’s lack of an overarching narrative — many of which, I readily confess, I’ve authored myself. It’s taken as an article of faith that governments need a central story around which to structure their communication with voters and to guide their governing priorities. Labor’s peristent problem, we’ve all maintained, has been it lacks such a theme and that that is reflective of its lack of core values.

Well perhaps it’s time to reassess how much we rely on the “narrative” narrative.

You see, this government isn’t the only one about which, it’s lamented, there’s no narrative. The Obama presidency has been dogged by complaints he lacked a narrative, or (premature, as it turned out) declarations that he’d finally found one. One Washington Post writer in 2010 was already toting up the number of times Obama’s loss or lack of narrative had featured in mainstream commentary. In the lead-up to the 2012 election, there were complaints Obama had lost his “narrative mojo” or allowed Republicans to impose their own narrative. A re-elected Obama had finally found “a strong narrative arc”, another writer opined in December. His State of the Union address was seen as an attempt to replace an “austerity narrative” with a more progressive economic narrative.

David Cameron hasn’t fared any better. The Tories lack a clear message because Cameron doesn’t have one, the New Statesman’s political editor complained earlier this week. Cameron lacks a convincing narrative, a Guardian commentator noted at the end of last year. And it’s not just the Left in the UK. “There is no leadership and no narrative. Kids are running Downing Street,” an unnamed Tory MP was quoted as saying a fortnight ago. Cameron had allowed Labour’s Ed Miliband to create a narrative of government incompetence, a senior Telegraph commentator explained in October.

Sound familiar?

Still, Gordon Brown had the same problem. There was no distinctive Labour narrative, the Independent’s Peter Hain lamented in 2009. Or if it existed it was confusing, a Spectator columnist suggested. Brown allowed Cameron to paint him as incompetent, too.

So what’s going on — do we have an entire generation of Anglophone politicians who have entirely lost the capacity to communicate narratives effectively, who can only stand idly by while their opponents portray them as incompetent? It seems unlikely — does anyone seriously suggest Barack Obama is a poor communicator? Or is our concept of a “narrative” now flawed? Before we read the next article on Labor’s failure of narrative, think about these points:

  • A constantly reinforced government message requires rigorous top-down control of ministers and MPs that the media complains about. Remember the media’s incessant complaints about the Rudd office’s control of messaging? The media says it prizes authenticity and politicians who resist spin in preference for talking about things realistically. But you don’t convey a consistent message by offering nuance, detail and “calling it as you see it”.
  • Narratives are made, not born. The Hawke government didn’t come to office in March 1983 with an economic reform agenda; it was compelled to embrace one by economic circumstances and the wretched budget situation John Howard bequeathed it. And the agenda changed over time as economic circumstances changed. Governments have to operate in the real world, and the real world throws up problems to be dealt with. Labor has had to govern with a global financial crisis, a European depression, a mining boom and a bulletproof currency, and has maintained economic growth, low inflation and low unemployment, despite the apparent lack of a narrative. During the GFC the “narrative” was about protecting jobs. The strong Australian dollar has now prompted Labor to put together a coherent economic policy based around jobs, productivity and innovation, within a strongly fiscally constrained environment. It is actually a narrative. It isn’t the sort of narrative that gets the media excited, but it’s the one we need.
  • It’s easier to communicate a negative narrative than a positive one. Just ask Gordon Brown while David Cameron was painting him as incompetent, or David Cameron as Ed Miliband paints him as incompetent. Negative narratives are simple; positive narratives are complex and nuanced. It’s easier for oppositions to communicate narratives than governments, because governments have to govern in the real world, with all its imperfections, while oppositions govern purely in rhetoric, where things are always easier and everything runs smoothly.
  • It’s easy to communicate us-and-them narratives — whether it’s the Right targeting asylum seekers and Muslims or the Left targeting foreign workers. Inclusive narratives that seek to unite rather than divide are harder to sell because they’re more complex.
  • Leaders with a long history in public life find it easier to communicate with voters because voters instinctively know what they stand for; politicians who are relatively recent arrivals have no values recognition to draw on in the electorate. No one ever asked what John Howard’s “narrative” was, even as he shifted from a neo-liberal economic hardliner to a tax-and-spend big-government advocate of centralisation.
  • And, maybe most of all, in a fragmented media, and with people able to select their own media or select none at all, communicating to the whole electorate is becoming increasingly difficult. It’s no longer the 1980s when there was a limited number of media outlets across TV, radio and newspapers and even tabloid current affairs programs ran prime ministerial interviews. Governments can have the most compelling narrative possible, but if a substantial chunk of the electorate simply refuses to pay attention to political coverage, it’s irrelevant.

All of which suggests that if Labor wants to meet our benchmark of successfully communicating a narrative, it should keep it simple, negative, divisive, artificial and relentlessly controlled. As if that would keep us happy.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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76 thoughts on “Does the Labor narrative narrative stand up?

  1. Hamis Hill

    Sure, after exposure to “there is only one truth” propaganda people are inspired to seek out balancing information.
    So that is how “Rabble-Rousing ” works then?
    Keep The Balance is what voters will be doing in September to avoid the imbalance of Wall to Wall coalition govermnments.
    One-sided political commentary, you seem to accept Patriot, that it does exist, does not “Keep
    The Balance”.
    The licence to broadcast to the whole population implies that the whole of the interests of the population should be balanced in any broadcast otherwise the risk of incentment to hatred and division becomes too high.
    Keep The Balance will be applied, without thought police or coercion, by the voters in September.
    Keeping the balance in licenced, “public” broadcasting is not coercion or thought policing it is just good governance.
    This can only happen in a well educated population who don’t, as a result of that education, spend all their credulity on the first argument, peppered with outright lies and deliberate inaccuracies, thrown at them.
    We have seen how the conservative side of politics has adhered to this aspect of good governance by systematically reducing funding to education.
    Unbalanced broadcast opinions exploit the resulting weaknesses and threaten good governance and the stability of society.
    Thought policing is what happens with right wing shock jocking, it is insidious and dangerous and potentially destructive.
    And uncivilised, giving way to the law of the Jungle.
    But law and order campaigns are always good for conservatism aren’t they, like Charles Court making three people gathering on a footpath illegal, does anyone remember?
    This not propaganda because it is actually true.
    The democratic guidelines for public broadcasting were set up by the BBC, How soon we forget the comparison with 1930’s Germany. Thought police?

  2. Hamis Hill

    “A wicked and adulterous generation will seek signs and find none”.
    So what about a prime ministerial narrative?
    Just as Rudd was visibly, “John Howard Lite”, a not too scary change of older for younger, what if an Abbott PM would be a sort of “Ruddstoration”?
    In this narrative there are the similarities of childhood education, where in the manner of “give me the child and I’ll give you the man” the foreign (To Australia), fuhrer pricip of leadership infallibility took hold along, with a deliberate and implicit denigration of democracy?
    The same democratic leadership deficit sank Keating’s Prime Ministership for the same reasons.
    More signs; both Rudd and Abbott fear (and hate?) a non-believing female PM for the same early childhood reasons?
    No, the wicked and adulterous will not see the repeat Prime Ministerial narrative of democratic leadership disaster and failure inherent in Abbott, Rudd and Keating.
    They will seek but they will not find being blind to the truth of this “narrative”. (No fault of their own, having been brainwashed at a vulnerable age).
    Abbott who lived by the backstab will die, politically, by the backstab, because Australians, even in the “NewLiberal” party will see that the best leaders come from the protestant democratic traditions that are the heritage of the majority of Australians and distinguish the nation from the Banana Republics. Turnbull suffered the same leadership deficiencies for the same reasons.
    I give you Menzies, Hawke, Howard and Gillard, who learned about democratic leadership in their childhood, whereas the failures were deied this virtue.
    It is the separation of church and state thing ” Render unto Caesar” and keep god out of it?
    A prime ministerial “narrative”, that we need to have?
    Who brought religion into politics? There’s a sign for ya!
    Very very wicked and fundamentally un Christian.
    “Render unto Caesar” now who said that, wicked ones?

  3. kraken

    Any analysis of the Labor government’s so-called lack of narrative (which is a media construct in any case. Howard never had a narrative – he had asylum seekers and middle class welfare) should acknowledge its record, which includes “Australia’s world-beating economy during the global financial crisis, the carbon tax, the NBN, increasing the tax free threshold for low income workers, increasing compulsory superannuation, refurbishment of schools, increased pensions, pursuing the National Disability Insurance Scheme, creating ocean parks, the Murray basin buy-back scheme, and health reforms like the recently announced PBS for hepatitis sufferers. All of these and many more pieces of good legislation have been passed in the most difficult political circumstances.”

    Journalists and columnists are guilty of joining the News Ltd feeding frenzy, whose staple is endless recycling of simple-minded “Labor is doomed” or “Julia vs Kevin” narratives. The majority of the press gallery have been playing rats to Abbott’s pied piper for over two years. They’ve not only fallen for the small target strategy of the Coalition, they’re in thrall to the constant pitch to the lowest common denominator, hysterical rhetoric on a ‘crisis’ in the body politic & economy, undermining of Parliamentary process and the legitimacy of a minority government, propaganda strategies to demonize issues such as the carbon tax and asylum seekers to whip up fear, and a relentless wooing of blue collar votes embedded in small businesses.

    Poor fella my country…

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