One of the issues obsessing Democrats as they brace for a mid-term savaging is their apparent inability to communicate effectively with voters. The disconnection between the Democrats and working-class voters, and especially white, and male, working-class voters, has long been an issue of concern to Democrats, except when a political natural such as Bill Clinton showed how it could be done. But after the Tea Party’s effective harnessing of voter anger, and the Republicans rolling out of Gingrich-era stunts, the Democrats, and even the great orator President Obama himself, look as inarticulate as ever in communicating even with what should be key middle-class constituencies.

It’s a debate with any number of parallels in Australia. Except, progressives in the United States at least have the excuse that, for all the efforts of the Obama Administration to forestall another depression, the US economy remains mired in a low-growth/high-unemployment state from which there seems no escape.  Millions of unemployed Americans might be hoping that, as usual, the Republicans fail to live up to their small government rhetoric if they seize Congress.

Labor has no such excuses. The Australian economy is the wonder of the world, and for all that credit rests with previous governments’ reform efforts, a booming Chinese economy and luck with our financial system, the Rudd government’s stimulus packages were, with the RBA’s aggressive easing of monetary policy, crucial in keeping unemployment down while maintaining, by world standards, a very low debt level. Yet Labor struggled to sell this success story to voters — and not just after Julia Gillard’s installation as Prime Minister made hyping the successes of the Rudd government a double-edged sword. Labor had a communications problem under Kevin Rudd that was partly the fault of its Prime Minister, but the communication problem continues today.

It is not that the Rudd government didn’t have a communications strategy. It had one, all right, a comprehensive one. Its characteristics were tight message control, a constant stream of announcements to give the impression of activity and constant repetition of self-identifying phrases (“working families”, most famously) and key talking points to obtain voter agreement.

It was also a strictly enforced strategy. Rare were the ministers who didn’t fall into line and follow it. Lindsay Tanner was the clearest exception, in his reluctance to use the government’s list of official clichés and his question-time notes written in longhand (Tanner particularly disliked the obsession with the word “tradies”, which became one of the government’s most overused words in the second half of 2009).

But the communication strategy, like the broader political strategy of the Rudd government, was more about the process than about outcomes. Towards the end of the Rudd prime ministership, his government resembled a cult continuing to undertake the rituals that had long sustained them, oblivious to the fact that they were having no effect of any kind on the real world. They kept performing a rain dance as the sun beat down ever harder.

The Rudd government’s problems were not limited to communication. Indeed, there’s a strong argument — to be advanced on a later occasion — that communication wasn’t even its primary problem, but rather the decisions it communicated. But it is the problem that has continued over into the Gillard Government, and which is likely to guarantee that, even in the event this turns out to an effective government (as, economically, the Rudd government was), it will never be able to convince voters of that fact.

One of the most striking features of the Rudd and Gillard Governments has been that not merely have they been poor at offering a convincing narrative either in a whole-of-government sense or in relation to specific policies, but that this failure has extended to allowing their opponents to offer a damaging narrative and actually facilitating that process by engaging with their opponents on the latter’s terms.

This is a political death wish, especially when your opponent is a former journalist skilled at framing stories voters want to hear, such as Tony Abbott.

This is a problem Labor has in common with the Democrats, of allowing their opponents to frame the debate. The two most common cases are in relation to fiscal policy and the alleged trade-off between the economy and the environment. Conservatives in Australia and the US have persistently argued that progressives are incapable of managing budgets when in government, and that any government debt or economic stimulus is a form of national sin. Moreover, they have been effective at personalising the debt issue, reducing fiscal policy to a personal credit comparison that isn’t even internally consistent, given the mortgages many voters have, but that  nonetheless strikes a chord with voters. There is plenty of hypocrisy in this stance — a little in Australia, where the profligacy of the last term of the Howard government saw the budget plunge into structural deficit despite the resources boom, and a whole lot in the US, where the Republicans blew the surpluses of the Clinton years and compiled vast deficits even before the GFC.

Labor has, apparently, been happy to play along with their opponents, neglecting the idea of explaining the importance of deficit spending when the economy needed it in favour of emphasising how it was a temporary but shameful aberration. It’s no coincidence that, according to Essential Research’s polling, the first real dent in the Rudd government’s support came after the 2009 Budget, where Rudd and Wayne Swan managed to draw plenty of attention to the size of the deficit by their refusal to say what it was — to the extent of not saying the figure in the Budget speech, and, childishly, refusing to append “billions” to the number. In effect, Rudd and Swan were saying, the government expected voters to be happy with the size of the deficit when they wouldn’t even say what it was, let alone defend it.

This gave the Coalition’s focus on the iniquity of debt a huge boost by legitimising their claim that the deficit was an evil, when it was sound economic policy. It was a re-run of what the coalition did to Labor from government in 1996, when it demonised the debt it inherited from Labor as “Beazley’s $10 billion black hole” when the $10 billion was a fictitious figure and mostly a product of the slow, jobless recovery from a savage recession in the early 1990s.

It was a worse effort in relation to the CPRS, where Labor had actually managed to establish a convincing narrative around the need for action — so convincing John Howard was unable to fight it and had to agree to an ETS himself before the 2007 election. Labor then reinforced the narrative by engaging Ross Garnaut to undertake a Stern-style economic analysis of the options available to it, thereby establishing the “problem” phase of the narrative in a convincing, high-profile way. From such a strong position, Labor allowed the debate to then devolve into a dispute over jobs versus the environment — a favoured conservative narrative in which voters will always, finally, decide that the former are more important than the latter. By refusing to cast the CPRS as a critical economic reform, and implicitly accepting the hysterically overstated claims of polluters about employment impacts by repeatedly caving in to them, Labor again allowed its opponents to frame the argument as a debate over whether we should protect the jobs of Australians or do something about the environment.

The same failure is currently being replayed by Tony Burke over the Murray-Darling Basin, where the focus is on “balancing” supposedly competing economic, social and environmental concerns, rather than framing the issue as one about enabling the entire basin — communities, farmers and the river — to function sustainably, and ending the hidden but massive costs of the current over-allocation of water.

But it’s on banking reform where Labor’s willingness to let its opponents frame the debate has gone to an absurd degree. Swan now seems to have embraced the role of guardian of our banking oligopoly, putting stability and the need for strong banking profits ahead of both a compelling policy case for reform, and strong support from voters for reform. Labor has now adopted the traditional conservative position of looking after the banking oligarchs — despite the conservatives themselves acknowledging the case for reform and moving against the cartel.

It’s a position that may yet prove very costly for Labor if voters decide that they really are sick of being gouged by the cartel and are prepared to back politicians who are serious about taking them on. It’s a position that Labor has an historic claim to — I’m not just talking about Ben Chifley but about Paul Keating’s stoushes with the likes of Nobby Clark. But it is now in the process of ceding that claim to the Coalition. They haven’t just let their opponents frame the debate, they’ve embraced their opponents’ narrative even when the latter have rejected it.

Tomorrow: the “reform” narrative and where Labor lost its way

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey