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.

The Government needs a clearer, more coherent narrative. And it needs a hero, to personalise that narrative. Julia Gillard has the gift of reducing issues to their basics. She dominates Parliament. She is respected by opinion-makers nd the public. She needs to become the reforming hero of the Rudd Government, and shape its story.

Peter Fray

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