- A constantly reinforced government message requires rigorous top-down control of ministers and MPs that the media complains about. Remember the media's incessant complaints about the Rudd office's control of messaging? The media says it prizes authenticity and politicians who resist spin in preference for talking about things realistically. But you don't convey a consistent message by offering nuance, detail and "calling it as you see it".
- Narratives are made, not born. The Hawke government didn't come to office in March 1983 with an economic reform agenda; it was compelled to embrace one by economic circumstances and the wretched budget situation John Howard bequeathed it. And the agenda changed over time as economic circumstances changed. Governments have to operate in the real world, and the real world throws up problems to be dealt with. Labor has had to govern with a global financial crisis, a European depression, a mining boom and a bulletproof currency, and has maintained economic growth, low inflation and low unemployment, despite the apparent lack of a narrative. During the GFC the "narrative" was about protecting jobs. The strong Australian dollar has now prompted Labor to put together a coherent economic policy based around jobs, productivity and innovation, within a strongly fiscally constrained environment. It is actually a narrative. It isn't the sort of narrative that gets the media excited, but it's the one we need.
- It's easier to communicate a negative narrative than a positive one. Just ask Gordon Brown while David Cameron was painting him as incompetent, or David Cameron as Ed Miliband paints him as incompetent. Negative narratives are simple; positive narratives are complex and nuanced. It's easier for oppositions to communicate narratives than governments, because governments have to govern in the real world, with all its imperfections, while oppositions govern purely in rhetoric, where things are always easier and everything runs smoothly.
- It's easy to communicate us-and-them narratives -- whether it's the Right targeting asylum seekers and Muslims or the Left targeting foreign workers. Inclusive narratives that seek to unite rather than divide are harder to sell because they're more complex.
- Leaders with a long history in public life find it easier to communicate with voters because voters instinctively know what they stand for; politicians who are relatively recent arrivals have no values recognition to draw on in the electorate. No one ever asked what John Howard's "narrative" was, even as he shifted from a neo-liberal economic hardliner to a tax-and-spend big-government advocate of centralisation.
- And, maybe most of all, in a fragmented media, and with people able to select their own media or select none at all, communicating to the whole electorate is becoming increasingly difficult. It's no longer the 1980s when there was a limited number of media outlets across TV, radio and newspapers and even tabloid current affairs programs ran prime ministerial interviews. Governments can have the most compelling narrative possible, but if a substantial chunk of the electorate simply refuses to pay attention to political coverage, it's irrelevant.
Does the Labor narrative narrative stand up?
We all complain Labor lacks a narrative. But what if positive narratives are now impossible to effectively communicate? Look overseas and it may well be the case.