Liberal adviser Peter Phelps is something of a trouble magnet. He earned the undying enmity of many for presiding over the Howard government’s electoral “reforms” in its last term, as chief of staff to special ministers of state Eric Abetz and Gary Nairn. Phelps has earned the undying enmity of quite a few in his own party for his activities on behalf of the Right of the NSW Liberals. He embarrassed the Howard government in 2007 when he accused Labor candidate Mike Kelly of using “the Nuremberg defence” at a debate in the close-fought Eden-Monaro campaign. He clearly enjoys a stoush.
Today he’s in more hot water over an email in which he proposed some tactics for garnering media attention, which was subsequently forwarded on by a staff member in Malcolm Turnbull’s office. “Dig dirt, Turnbull office urges,” was the damaging headline.
You can see where this is going to go on a sitting day. A government minister will rise in question time and, courtesy of an appropriately worded Dorothy Dixer, will find their way onto, in the Prime Minister’s parlance, “the politics of fear and smear”, a line Rudd pulls out at the slightest provocation.
Apparently there’s a high road in politics, on which only policy is ever discussed and the air is filled with genteel debate on the merits or otherwise of different approaches to the complex issues of public life. And then there’s the low road of fear and smear, where dodgy characters defame and dig dirt.
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Phelps’ advice was perfectly sensible.
“You don’t get news stories by trying to change perceptions, you get them by reinforcing stereotypes,” Phelps wrote.
“While policy discussions are nice, the simple fact is that in opposition, the majority of our successful news stories are going to be ones which are a little quirky and which draw the attention of journos.”
Those words should be in the DNA of any opposition media adviser. If they’re not, they should be printed off and hung on the office wall. What’s wrong with telling the public about over-remunerated public servants and MPs? What’s the problem with talking about special interests getting handouts, or dodgy tendering processes?
Apart from the fact that it’s those stories that will get a run in the tabloid press rather than dry policy arguments, it’s part of basic parliamentary accountability. It’s what oppositions are supposed to do.
The fact is this opposition is good at neither the high road nor the low road. Its policies in most areas are still a matter of guesswork and confusion. And it has consistently struggled to pin down the government on poor administration, despite the stimulus packages and the willing aid of The Oz. It can’t stay consistently on message for more than about five minutes before it lapses into another bout of infighting, or someone opens their yap and distracts attention from the message. Its efforts at the one parliamentary set piece entirely devoted to finding fault with the government — Estimates — are all over the place.
The government, on the other hand, has a military precision to its campaigns along both roads. No opportunity is missed to point out divisions or stuff-ups in the opposition. There’s no media opportunity too obscure that a government adviser isn’t all over the transcript spotting errors and inconsistencies. Its control of the media cycle has been, until asylum seekers started hogging the agenda, nearly absolute.
At the moment the opposition isn’t even in the game. If they don’t think they need some advice on lifting their game, they’re kidding themselves.