Well, what would you suggest? That is a question that has the capacity to deflate most punditry — whether the punditry be pompous or perceptive.
A student asked it a week or so ago during a discussion about what strategy PR people could recommend for Julia Gillard. “A good question” is the easiest response, followed by a rapid segue into using the question as a platform for a discussion about what options there might be. But it’s interesting how often the question is asked of people in the political persuasion business and how unconvincing most of the answers are. For most of the Canberra press gallery the question is moot because they have already written her off and are just waiting anxiously for the opportunity to write the next leadership tension story.
For the Herald Sun, The Daily Telegraph, The Australian, Alan Jones and Ray Hadley, the question is irrelevant. If Gillard resigned tomorrow, handed over the prime ministership to Tony Abbott and then ritually disembowelled herself on national TV, all of the above would still reflexively attack her.
However, some thought about the question suggests that, while it probably too late for Gillard, there may be some options. One might be to develop a new personal and political narrative crafted from a combination of what many people think is her major quality, the views of a CSIRO scientist and the thoughts of an Australian National Treasure.
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The most effective narratives are not dreamed up by political advisers, creatives in advertising agencies or PR people, but are anchored in authentically compelling stories that match the reality of human life and nature. One thing that does seem to be true and authentic about the Prime Minister is that she possesses remarkable resilience. Not many people could remain calm in the face of the vitriol (see Wendy Harmer’s blog for examples) she has faced and her own tactical misjudgments. Indeed, the universal view of all but the implacably opposed is probably that of Westpac CEO Gail Kelly, that the PM is good in small groups and very effective in working things through and getting things done.
Australians pride themselves on their resilience and (although generally speaking we are actually a mob of whingers and lurk merchants with an over-developed sense of entitlement) the belief in our resilience is so strong that it can be used as a basis for a national narrative. It also fits nicely with the national ecological reality. Dr Brian Walker, a research fellow with CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, has written extensively on the significance of resilience (which is, according to the CSIRO website, the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and to undergo change while retaining the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks) in the sustainability of ecosystems and social-ecological systems. Dr Walker’s book Resilience Thinking (Island Press, 2006) was co-authored with science journalist David Salt. The work has been championed by Australian National Treasure Robyn Archer, who wrote about it again in What is Australia For? (Griffith Review 36). Archer says: “Despite our popular image throughout the world for fun and sun, beaches and s-xy cities, sport and laid-back ratbaggery, perhaps what we are really for is something less glamorous, such as brains and courage in pioneering fields.” Her article in the Griffith Review, Girt by a Sea of Anomalies, has some other interesting suggestions to add to the narrative.
So arguably the Prime Minister’s most obvious quality is one that ought to resonate with one of our deepest-seated beliefs and the reality of the distinctive environment in which we live.
To illustrate how this might work it is worth looking at Francois Hollande’s success in the recent French election. He tapped into the French’s deepest beliefs and the myths largely created by Charles de Gaulle. These myths were national and specific to the office of the President. While Hollande’s comments about finance and taxing millionaires horrified the markets, he was re-working ideas and phrases about l’argent that de Gaulle used again and again. It may have been a counter-narrative to the currently conventional one but it was based on historical precedents. The same approach might be a useful way to develop a counter-narrative to our prevailing nationalistic, militaristic and neo-liberal conventional mythology.
But how do you shape a narrative around that and how do you communicate it tactically? A good question again. One possibility might be abandoning the attempt to respond to a 24/7 news cycle and focusing on linking every government initiative to some aspect of our national resilience. Kevin Rudd got a group of historians together in a Sydney hotel to try to thrash out an alternative narrative to John Howard’s Bradman/Anzac foundation myths. The PM should do it again and focus on some of the real reasons we are distinctive: early votes for women, free education, trade unionism, social welfare initiatives, moderately successful cosmopolitanism (marred of course by our track record on indigenous matters). If the military narrative is too important to leave out then just talk about courage in the face of danger and talk about how Australians need to be courageous in different ways in a dangerous world. It would also be easy to find lots of non-military anniversaries that provide great PR opportunities.
Within this framework stating, until you are sick of saying it, that unemployment, interest rates and the tax take are all lower than they were under the Howard government and crediting this not to government but to Australians’ and Australia’s innate resilience. Stating the same thing over and over until you are sick of it normally means that you are just being heard. It almost worked for Andrew Peacock when Bob Hawke was running his lengthy coronation campaign in 1984. To make it more effective, try to bypass the mainstream media as much as possible and work through community groups and social media — particularly those in the anti-Abbott camp. At the same time you need to be very careful not to say we have actually got it good — neither Harold Macmillan nor John Howard ever got any credit for stating the truth on that issue.
Finally, borrow from another one of our historic legacies, C.J. Dennis’ The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, specifically Bill’s cry during his trip with Doreen to see Romeo and Juliet — “‘put in the boot’, I sez”.
Will any of it work? Probably not, but it couldn’t be any worse than what they are doing now.