peter costello
Nine Chairman Peter Costello

While Peter Costello’s damning criticism of the current government might hurt Liberals, there’s a bright side — at least he thinks its problems could be fixed just with some presentational tweaking.

“I kept on waiting for the economic narrative to come,” the soon-to-be chair of Australia’s most powerful media company declared yesterday. “I think that is the problem today, I’m not sure what the narrative is among those who are making these decisions for us.”

So, put forward an economic narrative — preferably one that involves delivery right away, not over the longer term — and things should start improving for the Liberals, right?

Alas, things have changed in the decade-plus since Costello was last anywhere near government. At Crikey, we’ve regularly noted the persistence of the “economic reform” myth — the idea that if only we had politicians who could sell reform better, everything would be well. As former advocates for such a view, we feel particularly responsible for pointing out that it is an idea way past its use-by date.

The problem is not, as Costello believes, that the electorate doesn’t know what the government’s economic narrative is, but that it thinks it knows exactly what it is, and doesn’t like it. It believes the governing class in Australia has delivered an economic system that works for the powerful, for the well-connected, for corporations, for lobbyists and donors, for the wealthy, and not for the people. The electorate believes it has to make do with stagnant wages while corporations enjoy huge profits and company executives receive remuneration hundreds of times the salaries of their workers. The electorate believes it has to compete for jobs, and for access to services and infrastructure, with migrants, who undermine wages and crowd our cities.

Not all of these things are always true, and they’re far more complicated than most people are prepared to engage with, but that’s the narrative they see, and they hate it. No amount of selling is going to fix that.

And should Costello decide to reenter politics — and maybe, after all these decades — actually make a bid for the top job, he might discover just how different things are now compared to November 2007. He’ll discover that political debate now goes by very different rules, that the electorate no longer even agrees on the same facts, because it uses different and deeply fragmented media.

He’ll find social media has infected political discourse and shaped it in its own image and you can’t opt out of it. He’ll find literally everything he says is contested, often with the most ferocious abuse, and fact-checked, and then becomes just one statement in a sea of “content”. There are fewer political journalists and far more commentary, much of it from the far-right, on Australia’s version of Fox News, Sky. Most of all, he’ll find voters are significantly less engaged now than they were when he last stood for election. Nearly 4% less of the electorate bothered to turn out in 2016 compared to 2007, despite compulsory voting. Another 1% more voted informal. A further 10% more voters backed minor parties. 

Costello’s simplistic idea that all it takes is some better marketing is a quaint piece of useless advice, a time capsule from a simpler age when politicians like him had it far easier and voters didn’t know any better. If only it were that easy for today’s pollies. Whatever you think of them, however flawed they are, the world of yesterday that Costello is broadcasting from seems a political paradise.