The Productivity Commission is starting what will be the sixth major inquiry into aged-care funding — a policy area that has become a no-go area because of poor initial communications.

In becoming a no-go area it also played a minor role in accelerating the creation of what Ian Ward, of the University of Queensland, describes as the PR state.

Aged-care policy is not that hard. As the population ages and lives longer, we need more high-level care places and a means of paying for them. The simplest way to pay for them is a system of accommodation bonds — already applying for some nursing home beds — and the best way to finance that is to require people to sell, or borrow against, their homes to fund the bond. General taxes can then go to help those who don’t have assets to draw down.

The Productivity Commission points out that five inquiries have all come to roughly the same conclusion on how to do it.

But the first major attempt at policy change, in 1997 by Howard Government, ended in disaster. It is hard to imagine, but once upon a time Cabinet submissions went forward with no attached communications plan. Then in a radical departure cabsubs went forward with a draft press (as they were called then) release, which could be distributed as part of the decision — preferably after it had been announced in Parliament.

When the 1997 aged-care cabsub went forward, there was no communication plan because everyone agreed it was good policy and would be widely accepted. Instead, there was a backlash. Much of the backlash was hypocritical and some was self-inflicted.

The main reason for the backlash was that greedy baby boomers were sweating on inheriting their parents’ home. There is ample evidence of neglect and exploitation of elderly parents by greedy children. And there is equally much evidence that many of those who are not neglectful, yearn for a mid-life boon from booming real estate prices.

The second reason is that people who go into nursing homes tend to live, on average, no more than two years. So even if the house is sold and an accommodation bond paid, there is likely to be a bit left in the kitty afterwards. But governments are reluctant to point out that people die soon after going into aged care, and it is easy to occupy the moral high ground by appearing to fear for the well-being of aged parents while arguing that taxpayers as a whole should meet their needs.

The government was on the defensive from the start and ended up capitulating on what was one of their best long-term policy initiatives. And we all know what happened then. No major Howard government policy was announced without massive supporting communication activities such as expensive TV campaigns, issues management plans and all the other paraphernalia of the PR state.

Today, the policy changes would be given some variation on the Resources Super Tax Profit, such as the Better Living program. Incidentally, such short titles are not necessarily a bad thing. Ken Smith, then Michael Wooldridge’s adviser, Quantum Market Research and the author, came up with Lifetime Health Cover to describe a policy the internal working title of which was incomprehensible and unsaleable. In that case, the branding work was undertaken months before the policy launch, an approach that seems to have been neglected, or has not worked, in the resource rent tax campaign.

Indeed, one wonders what on earth the PR state was doing when they put together branding, communication and issues management strategies for the resource rent tax. Such strategies must have been written although there is little external evidence of consistent communication thinking on the campaign. The branding is pathetic and, sadly, it is probably too late to change.

Despite the massive mining industry campaign, it is a relatively simple campaign to run: focusing on who really owns the assets; talk about the long-term national benefits; line up a chorus of third-party endorsement; and, use the miners’ hysteria as a leverage point — just as judo expert would — to enhance your own campaign. The government is doing some of all of this — just not very well.

It is still unlikely that the miners will win, but there is always the possibility that another good policy will go the way of aged-care reform — killed by poor communications.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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