It was as if Malcolm Turnbull couldn’t win. Criticised for “waffling” and verbosity in the first six months of his prime ministership — as he sought to explain, with nuance, the policy positions his new government was considering — in the election campaign he switched to relentlessly repeating the same simple themes of jobs and growth, over and over.
And in the second leaders’ debate of the campaign he stuck fast to talking points reflecting his campaign themes. As a result, he was criticised, along with his opponent, for being boring.
After that debate, even many political journalists agreed that a debate format in which “ordinary” voters asked questions, not journalists, was superior to the standard debate format that operated like a more formal version of a standard political media conference.
There’s a potent symbolism here: both politics and the media are industries suffering from high levels of disengagement and even disillusion among their “customers”. Politicians have been able to stave off the impact of this disengagement on their business model because they control the law and the country’s finances. They reward themselves with taxpayers’ money for every primary vote received at each election, and they make voting compulsory, so that they get the best part of $45 million at least every three years.
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Despite much of that money flowing into advertising, the media has been helpless in the face of internet-driven disengagement that has dramatically cut revenue, especially in print. Even so, politics also remains susceptible to disruption from outsiders (or, often, insiders masquerading as outsiders) who can effectively tap into disillusion and disengagement; we don’t yet have a Donald Trump, but Pauline Hanson and Clive Palmer have demonstrated there remains a disaffected chunk of the electorate ready to be exploited by someone from outside the major parties. Nick Xenophon might be the next major disruptive figure, and he’s likely to be a more permanent fixture than either Hanson or Palmer.
As both are communications industries, the media and politics are locked together in a kind of death spiral. Politicians are ever more reliant on talking points and pre-prepared lines, which frustrates journalists who are ever more ready to hype any deviation from talking points as a “gaffe” or evidence of division, reinforcing politicians’ determination to adhere to talking points.
It’s a rare major party politician who can safely depart from talking points: Barnaby Joyce is indulged as an eccentric who can utter the most demonstrably absurd, and often offensive, nonsense with no consequences; Lindsay Tanner used to combine an ability to get his party’s message across with a capacity to sound like he was, and believed he was talking to, an intelligent adult, but he is now virtually forgotten.
Anthony Albanese has an effective “what you see is what you get” style that probably shouldn’t be dignified as “oratory” but appears authentic (primarily because it is — Albo is the same whether he’s in front of a camera or privately). Turnbull is one of the few genuinely outstanding orators of politics in recent generations — perhaps the first since Gough Whitlam, but he’s now curbed that tendency in exchange for a more banal and typical Canberra style; perhaps it will return if he leads his party to victory and the “old Malcolm” can, if not emerge, then at least poke his head around the door occasionally.
There has long been a contradiction within the media about communication. Turnbull isn’t the first leader to be criticised for prolixity: it was a regular charge against Kim Beazley, as well, who was held to be too ready to argue detail and nuance. But as we’ve seen, the dumbing down of political communication and ever-greater reliance on talking points and slogans also frustrates the media who — like the rest of us — “just want politicians to answer questions”.
All sides want every politician to have the skills of Paul Keating, who could explain complex ideas with simple analogies, blunt language and striking imagery. But Keating was sui generis, and in any event developed his skills in an environment that simply no longer exists — a political party riven by difficult and passionate debates about fundamental economic issues like the role of government in an economy and the efficacy of socialist economic ideas, in which the capacity to effectively debate complex issues was a matter of political life or death.
The only genuinely effective format for political communication — from a user point of view, not a politician’s — is the long-form one-on-one interview, which is primarily the province now of pay TV (which has tiny audiences), radio and the ABC (and Laurie Oakes prior to the budget). Lindsay Tanner used to say that talkback radio was the best format for discussing policy, even if the shock jock on the other end of the microphone was anti-Labor, because at least they would devote a substantial block of time to discussing policy issues.
One-on-one television interviews tend to focus less on policy, but — especially on Sky News when David Speers can grill a frontbencher at length — that format also allows something that goes beyond the standard format (question, talking points, question, talking points, etc) that most political communication has devolved into.
What would be healthy is if the media recognised it can’t have it both ways on communication — it can’t lament prolixity, nuance and detail, while also complaining about politicians relying on talking points. But given the pressures on the media, don’t expect there to be any break from the death spiral both politicians and journalists find themselves in.