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Federal

Jun 6, 2014

Why selling a budget is far harder than in the days of Hawke and Howard

It's no longer as easy as it once was to communicate difficult budgets, and that's unlikely to change.

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Political communication, 2014 style:

On Wednesday, Education Minister Christopher Pyne released figures claiming to show the government’s higher education reforms would only cost students an extra $3-$5 a week in higher loan repayments. The Australian, under the ambitious headline “Settling the debt row”, ran the figures as a table, but no one else gave them any prominence. But at 3.15 that afternoon, the Greens’ Lee Rhiannon launched the What Will My Degree Cost site. The site is straightforward, easy to use and produces a simple answer about how much more you’ll pay. It barely includes a reference to the Greens until you get to the end and want to know what to do about the many thousands of dollars extra you’ll be hit with to study.

Yesterday, as Pyne was attacking Labor in question time for not supporting his efforts in “trying to get young people with low SES, first-generation university goers, into university”, the Greens’ site had racked up hit number 1.2 million as would-be “university goers” and their families went online looking to information on how bad the hit would be to their finances.

The Coalition might have the massive resources of government, but the Greens are nimble and net savvy. A government site explaining the changes — assuming it would ever have been allowed — would still be awaiting approval of the outcome of a tender process while the minister’s staff desperately tried to tweak the outputs so no one would possibly see something that reflected badly on their masters. While the Greens got so much traffic the site crashed, the best the government could do was a table in an old man’s newspaper. By this morning, the site had got 2 million hits and had performed over 400,000 calculations.

It’s hard to know whether this week’s outbreak of hard-Right criticism of Malcolm Turnbull, with a mild dash of leadership speculation, has been all that bad for the government. It’s certainly not good, but the media’s obsession with this walking dead story, one that by all agreement has no life but keeps shambling on, has at least meant it no longer has to discuss the budget, a document so toxic the Prime Minister left the country rather than continue to flog it. The only really effective budget selling this week came from anonymous Liberals skiting about putting one over the Nats on fuel excise indexation. That got plenty of “cut through”. Imagine how red Barnaby Joyce went reading it.

“… effective communication beyond relentless negativity is now very difficult.”

The budget is, as even the government admits, a tough sell. It’s unfair, unbalanced, doesn’t materially improve the fiscal outlook, and contains a number of measures that individually would cause political heat, let alone when combined. Its only political payoff will be later, when Joe Hockey’s deliberately low economic and revenue forecasts end up being exceeded.

Except it isn’t at all novel that we’re lamenting a government’s inability to sell the major economic setpiece of the political calendar. We spent most of Labor’s six years in government explaining how it was unable to communicate its economic achievements after its successful handling of the financial crisis. And we ended the Howard government explaining how voters were no longer listening when it tried to explain its economic success, even when it was accompanied, in its last 18 months, by shovelfulls of cash hurled at anything that could vote. Indeed, the Howard government’s media cheerleaders actually tried to pre-empt the failure of its final budget to shift the political dial.

It’s true that specific conditions apply in each context. The Howard government was at the end of four terms. The Abbott government, despite its insistence on the level of experience it has left over from 2007, is new. And Labor had a bulletproof dollar and the task of selling its credentials on a counter-factual about what would have happened if it hadn’t responded so decisively to the financial crisis. But it may be that our expectations about political communication, shaped by the analog era, are now out of date, and effective communication beyond relentless negativity is now very difficult.

That’s certainly been the case with the Abbott government, which has so far struggled to shift from a political message of opposition of everything to properly explaining how it is governing. One of the reasons it continues, 10 months on from the election, to instinctively resort to criticising Labor appears to be that it only really feels comfortable doing that, rather than explaining policy. In that context, the comments of John Howard during the week in his double-act with Bob Hawke — that big reforms had to be perceived as fair and that post-ideological political parties are losing the ability to explain complexity and nuance — were perfect good sense.

But the environment in which that explanation occurs isn’t the one Bob Hawke or even Howard had. The media is now very different. The changing economics of the media business mean there are fewer mainstream journalists covering politics and national affairs, and more commentators. Coverage of policy is necessarily thinner; the days of experienced journalists who were experts in one or two rounds are a rivers-of-gold era indulgence. The number of free-to-air current affairs television programs with actual public affairs content has fallen significantly. The remaining news sites try to retain their readerships by becoming more openly partisan. One entire medium, talkback radio, has radically shifted to the Right, meaning the one mainstream media forum in which users participated in policy discussion is simply unavailable unless you’re a reactionary. The same increasingly goes for pay TV, where an array of old white conservative men from News Corp hold forth to micro-audiences. It’s far harder to argue for complex reform when a solid chunk of the media automatically decries anything you propose and there are fewer genuinely informed media practitioners explaining policy to readers.

And social media, which tends to lean Left, moves too quickly to control. For Hawke and Howard, a good communications strategy coupled with the unquestioning support of 70% of the metro newspaper market, as Abbott has received from News Corp, would have been enough to effectively sell a difficult set of reforms. But the budget was being incinerated on social media within minutes of its release; even before Joe Hockey had completed his speech, it had prompted a furious backlash. Social media, too, is not a good forum for constructive debate, but it is ideal for highlighting politicians’ inconsistencies and lies, and it undoubtedly influences the way the mainstream media covers policy. It is a platform the government in essence ignores.

In short, yes, politicians are less effective communicators than they used to be, but they are also communicating in a much more difficult environment, and one in which those who are fast on their feet and innovative can hit harder than those who have all the advantages of government. And exploiting the advantages of government is supposed to be what budgets have always been about.

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