Yesterday, in the midst of the Facebook news-cancelling brouhaha, one question kept circling around: why is the federal government so god-awful terrible at cutting deals?
Too much of federal politics is captured by the haloed memory of that grand Howard Tampa declaration of 2001: “We decide who comes to this country and the manner in which they come”. A Churchillian assertion of national sovereignty. It probably won the Libs the election that year.
Last month Prime Minister Scott Morrison took a similar (albeit mangled) tilt at the sovereignty windmill in response to Google’s threat to withdraw search from Australia: “People who want to work with that, in Australia, you’re very welcome, but we don’t respond to threats”.
He circled back again yesterday in response to Facebook: “We will not be intimidated by Big Tech seeking to pressure our Parliament”. Good on ya, champ. If only the world were that simple.
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All the government’s big stumbles come from a failure to remember that politics is, as Otto von Bismarck said, “the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best”.
From the collapse of the Australian car industry all the way back in 2014, through the disintegration of the China relationship, right up to this week’s big tech v old media imbroglio, the government’s negotiating bumbles have impossibly, almost invariably, made things significantly worse — and Australians have paid the price.
Look, I like to help. I’ve done a few deals as a trade union negotiator over the years, and I’ve found some useful tips for the Morrison team in Kenny Rogers’ 1978 classic The Gambler.
‘Knowin’ what the cards were by the way they held their eyes‘
You’re negotiating with people who are holding cards of their own. It’s not hard to work out what they are. (If in doubt, remember the advice of Jack Lang courtesy of Paul Keating: “Always back self-interest. At least you know it’s trying.”) Don’t mistake the politeness of, say, “Sundar from Google” for weakness.
Their cards may be better than yours. They may (*cough* like China) come to the table with a bigger stake. Perhaps, like car industry manufacturing, there may be other tables they can play at.
‘You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em‘
Negotiations depend on a hard-headed understanding of the cards you hold, not the cards you might wish you had. Sure, you’re the treasurer of Australia. That’s a powerful position… in a country that’s about two-thirds the size of the tech giant’s home state of California.
Car makers, China, big tech — they all got where they are by crashing through rules and throwing their weight around. So, sure, sometimes threats (wine exports! No search!) are bluffs. And sometimes… well, they’re not.
‘The secret to survivin’ is knowin’ what to throw away and knowin’ what to keep‘
When it comes to big tech, Morrison seems prepared to discard his insistence on go-it-alone sovereignty, noting yesterday that he’s talking to “world leaders”. By the way, there’s another secret to survival where it would help to work with others: global warming.
A better secret is understanding that negotiations are a path to an outcome, not an opportunity for grandstanding machismo.
”Cause every hand’s a winner and every hand’s a loser‘
Good negotiators can turn a losing hand into a winner. Take Malcolm Turnbull’s conversation with a newly elected Donald Trump where he persuaded the “build the wall” US president to abide by the refugees deal.
But the Morrison government is better at turning a winning hand into a loss. Take Facebook (please!).
‘And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep‘
In negotiating lingo it’s called BATNA: the best alternative to no agreement. It may not be what you want, but sometimes you need to recognise that it’s the best you can get.
‘There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealing’s is done‘
I know. It’s not the Morrison way. Why count your winnings (real or imagined) once when you can big-note by announcing and reannouncing hundreds of times. See also: vaccine rollout.
Remember: “If you’re gonna play the game, boy, you gotta learn to play it right”.