Yesterday morning, at 7.30, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a “message from the Prime Minister — Future growth and prosperity”, accompanied by a YouTube video filmed in the Prime Minister’s courtyard. In the video, Abbott explained how great for Australia his free trade agreement with China would be — along with those with South Korea and Japan. As of 24 hours later, it had around 250 views. In time, most of Abbott’s videos eventually reach two or three thousand views. This one has some way to go yet.

The emphasis on the free trade agreement marks something of a shift in language. Since the middle of the year, Abbott has liked to talked about security and prosperity, using the clunky phrase “a strong and prosperous economy for a safe and secure Australia”, a line that ministers and backbenchers were compelled by the PMO to shoehorn into their speeches, media releases and statements, no matter how inapt. “Cutting red tape is at the heart of this Government’s mission to build a strong and prosperous economy for a safe and secure Australia,” Small Business Minister Bruce Billson declared without irony a month ago, perhaps thinking the government is merely deregulating the Federal Police and ASIO from burdensome requirements to observe the basic rights of citizens, although it’s a little hard to see how expanded control orders and mass police raids fit anyone’s idea of cutting red tape.

But the FTAs now look to be a key government theme, although Trade Minister Andrew Robb set the rhetorical bar a little high by calling them “the biggest transformational initiatives in public policy since the floating of the dollar over 30 years ago”, a piece of hyperbole that even Robb, an experienced and intelligent economist, presumably doesn’t believe.

Voters may not understand free trade agreements, but generally think they’re a good idea — free trade! Yay! — but even if the government somehow successfully connects them to Australia’s future economic growth, it’s not the sort of thing that drives votes, except if it produces more xenophobic headlines about Chinese property investment in Sydney, and then of course it drives them the wrong way. Whether the government can communicate anything effectively, though, is the more important question. Two examples over the last week demonstrate how straight-out dumb the government’s approach to communicating with voters is.

“The other question in all this is whether this is just the result of poor judgement in the PMO … or whether it’s innate in Abbott and his core team.”

First, the reaction to the Obama speech. The President didn’t even directly criticise Australia. But such is the power of the office and Obama’s charisma that even a glancing blow about climate change floored the government. Eventually the government hit back via Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, contradicting Obama on the fate of the Great Barrier Reef, saying it was in no danger from climate change. The problem was, that only prompted an array of scientists to emerge to say it was very much in danger. Worse, the government’s own Reef Authority agreed. Why on earth was Bishop feuding with the President of the United States over a matter of detail, and why was that detail something on which your average voter could see Bishop was wrong?

The other example was the government’s insistence that it wasn’t cutting the ABC and SBS, as it went about cutting $300 million from the national broadcasters. Even the usually eloquent Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull was forced into tongue-twisting contortions to explain that. Not merely was the government setting itself in opposition to an institution far more trusted by voters than any government ever will be, it was insisting that black was white, or if black wasn’t necessarily white, that the original statement relating to black had to be understood in the context that in fact it was really relating to white. With respect, your honour.

Both examples reflect a persistent theme in the government’s communications: a defensive insistence that something that is demonstrably true in fact isn’t, that voters are wrong, or confused, if they believe something that differs from the government’s narrative. The ABC isn’t being cut, the Great Barrier Reef is in no danger, the Budget was fair, tax increases are not tax increases, deregulating will just lead to more competition not higher university fees, Direct Action will reduce carbon emissions. The government’s communication strategy is always “no, you’re wrong. You’re just wrong” — an approach that as any PR specialist will explain, doesn’t normally work too well.

The other question in all this is whether this is just the result of poor judgement in the PMO — the same poor judgment that saw Abbott deliver a parochial stump speech to the G20 leaders’ retreat — or whether it’s innate in Abbott and his core team. Abbott, the post-modern Prime Minister who reached the highest office in the land by persistently rejecting the need for consistency, evidence or logic in relentless attacks on the government, who crowned one argument about how education bonuses were different to Baby Bonuses with “they just are”, seems to find it difficult to argue any other way. The consequences of such a denialist approach to communication appear to be on vivid display in the current polls.

Peter Fray

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