Bob Hawke used it to lead the nation into an unprecedented period of economic reform. Paul Keating used it to propel an aggressive agenda of social and economic change. John Howard used it to assure voters he shared their values and concerns even as he pursued his own program of reform. And all used it brutally to undermine their opponents’ claims to office.
Kevin Rudd had it, too, for a time, but didn’t know how to use it, and lost it. Julia Gillard barely ever had it.
“It” is the soft power of political communication.
The prime ministership is the controlling position of public debate. From it, the incumbent can shape the national agenda, set the subject for the national political conversation and explain to voters where the government and, with it, Australia is going.
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There are three aspects to this soft power. One is having a compelling, influential message. Two is having the authority to deliver it. And three is a receptive environment.
The Gillard government currently has none of those aspects.
Labor’s inability to communicate has been a theme almost as long as the government has been in office. Initially, boasting high popularity, a weak opposition, the Stolen Generations apology and Australia’s first female governor-general to his credit, followed by a strong response to the GFC, Rudd appeared masterful in his ability to control the political and policy agenda.
But bit by bit the downsides of Rudd’s personality and management style took hold. Rudd was obsessed with controlling and winning the media cycle each day, which inhibited his willingness to stay on even significant issues for any length of time. Communications were structured around a limited set of talking points that everyone in the government was expected to follow, and an announcement or decision every day.
Worse, despite his popularity, Rudd showed an alarming capacity to be intimidated. Even with overwhelming support for the government’s response to the GFC, Rudd was intimidated by the Coalition’s constant emphasis on the budget deficit, to the point where he courted ridicule during the 2009 budget when he refused to state the deficit. Rather than control the political debate, Rudd had allowed the opposition to control it by making the deficit an issue.
Gillard had a formidable reputation as a communicator as deputy prime minister, but her authority and message didn’t last long once she gained the top job — probably only until she unveiled her “citizens’ assembly” climate change proposal at the end of the first week of the election campaign, and then the first leaks against her occurred two days later.
But more than Rudd, who alienated but never lost the electorate with his decision to abandon the initial carbon pollution reduction scheme (Labor still led the Coalition 52-48 when he was dumped), Gillard lost her authority as the electorate came to regard her as duplicitous and inclined to do whatever it took to get and retain power.
This was, in part, a vicious circle: Tony Abbott skillfully characterised Gillard in that way, and Gillard was unable to prevent him; the more he succeeded in framing her as untrustworthy, the less she was able to prevent him from doing so. Once again, the opposition dictated the terms of the national debate, not the Prime Minister.
But Gillard is hardly alone in struggling to deliver an effective, consistent message. Wayne Swan has struggled to do so, despite a host of independent foreign endorsements of his stint as Treasurer. While Craig Emerson has steadily acquired a reputation as federal politics’ foremost free trade exponent, the other major figure in Labor’s economic team, Penny Wong, is almost invisible.
Compared to Hawke and Keating, the Gillard government’s problems demonstrate why soft power can be as important to a party’s political fortunes as hard power. Something has happened to the party in the last two decades. Hawke came to political maturity in the union movement, a major public figure in his own right prior to entering politics, courtesy of the constant industrial warfare of the 1970s. Keating had spent a decade and longer fighting the influence of the hard left inside the NSW ALP. Both men led the reformist cause at party conferences in the 1980s.
If nothing else, dispute sharpens tongues and minds. The ALP of the 1970s and ’80s was a party of intense debate and dispute. One of the results was an outstanding generation of political talent — Hawke, Keating, Dawkins, Button, Walsh, Willis, Hayden and Richardson and, in its later stages, Faulkner, Lavarch and Ray. But Labor’s success paved the way for further problems.