May 17, 2012

Come in Spinner: a new narrative for Julia Gillard

Australians pride themselves on their resilience and the belief in our resilience is so strong that it can be used as a basis for a national narrative.

Noel Turnbull

Adjunct professor of media and communications at RMIT University.

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. 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.

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2 thoughts on “Come in Spinner: a new narrative for Julia Gillard

  1. DF

    Mate and I have been discussing this for some time. Our ideas include:

    1. Zero tolerance for lies and inaccuracies. Whenever an opponent or media person refers to high-taxing, high-spending or whatever, quote the true figures back at them. Stephen Koukoulas had them on his blog recently – in terms of percentage of GDP, this is the lowest taxing and spending govt since at least 1980. I sent the figures to Joel Fitzgibbon (Chief Govt Whip) and suggested he get them printed on a credit card and laminated so all MPs could whip it out whenever required – but he’s next to useless so I’ll bet he did nothing. Ditto the BER school halls success rate and the insulation fire deaths stats which were debunked by Possum Comitatus – never never never let an inaccuracy go by without correction. Watch Judith Sloan do this – she argues argues argues every point and concedes nothing. And when Chris Uhlmann or the Sydney shock jocks gets uppity, stop them in their tracks and tell them in your best Thatcher imitation that you won’t put up with unacceptable behaviour and you demand respect as a person and because of the office you hold. No-one likes or trusts the media anyway.

    2. It’s probably too late but every reference to the carbon “tax” should be corrected to “emissions trading scheme”. No ifs or buts, just pull the speaker up and correct the record. If asked why now, it’s because “I’m tired of the lies being told about the govt”. And do it every single time until the interviewer realises his interview is going to be a dud unless he falls into line. And ask the interviewer what did Tony Abbott say when the interviewer asked him about the Direct Action Plan and using taxpayers’ money to subsidise multinational corporations, and when the interviewer says he doesn’t know then remind the interviewer it’s his job to do that. In other words, control the agenda and narrative and remember an interview is an opportunity for you to make your point, not to answer some idiot’s gotcha-seeking questions. Hawke won great kudos for telling Carleton he was impudent when he asked the blood on the hands question in 1983.

    3. Compare the risk-averse small target do-nothing approach of the Opposition to the great achievements of Australians working together, with the help of govt, in the past. This Opposition would never have supported the Snowy Mountains Scheme or built the Harbour Bridge or put a railway line from Sydney to Perth, or built the Great Ocean Road during the Depression, or lead Australia during the Depression and WW2. The Liberals don’t do social reforms – it’s not in their DNA – they only do economic stuff and always to the benefit of capital and detriment of labour.

    4. Remind people that it has been Labor govts who have been responsible for the great social reforms, eg Medicare and old age pensions, in the past. Conservative govts don’t do these things. Get Gillard to back down on gay marriage – it’s a no-brainer but she seems to have an unerring ability to make the politically maladroit call on so many simple issues. Ditto pokies reform – chuck out the silly voluntary commitment cards, just limit machines to a one dollar maximum bet which everyone can understand easily and bring it on. To hell with the clubs – the move would be popular, the clubs can be seen as self-serving and anyway their vote is already lost so there’s nothing to lose. Tell the punters you are doing them a favour – they can still get their rush from the spinning wheels, it just won’t cost them as much to do it.

    5. Play the class war for all it’s worth. Since Australians have a sense of entitlement, tell them they could have more if only the miners would pay their fair share of taxes on their super profits. Frighten people by reminding them their govt goodies will disappear along with the mining tax if Abbott gets in. As we have seen from Abbott, the critical thing is not the truth, it is getting people to believe you. Facts have their place but cannot make the journey unless accompanied by faith.

    6. Remember the point of govt is not to be re-elected but to introduce and implement policies you believe in (there was a good piece by Tim Dunlop in The Drum yesterday). Accordingly, don’t hold back – bring in all the things you think would be good for the country and the nation, sell the policies by explaining why they will be good, and then, if Abbott does win the next election, he can show his true colours by either winding them all back (and risking a poll backlash) or leaving them in place, in which case the outcome is what you were after.

  2. Blaggers

    although generally speaking we are actually a mob of whingers and lurk merchants with an over-developed sense of entitlement

    Sad, but grudgingly true…

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