It matters not which came first; content-free politicians who treat voters as idiots, or voters so disengaged that all they notice are three-word slogans and emotional smears. The result is the same. Politics is dominated by ever-declining levels of mutual respect between the political class and the electorate it seeks to manipulate.
Australian political communication has been progressively emptied of content following the failure of John Hewson’s Fightback! in 1993 and the electoral success of Bob Carr’s model of do-nothing government. It reached its nadir in the trite slogans of the 2010 Federal election, which was the least engaging and most disrespectful of the electorate in memory.
Regardless, political operators smugly point to their electoral “success” and focus-group numbers as evidence that their small-target/five-words-or-less approach works. The result is a political horizon completely devoid of a major player who is willing to identify key issues, engage the electorate on why they are important, make a case for change, and keep making that case for years if needs be. Can you imagine a single contemporary political leader doing what Paul Keating did in 1985 to drive the GST reform? Or John Howard more than a decade later?
Electoral politics is the art of the possible, and no party can govern from opposition. But strategic politics is also the art of engaging with voters to change what is politically possible. Political strategists have narrowed their conception of politics and shortened their reference timeframes to such an extent that it has silenced the policy conversation with the electorate.
That silence increases voter disillusion and mistrust, which in turn drives risk-averse and content-free communications. And, sadly, content-free government.
This is a mistake. It completely misses the emotional messaging expressed when a politician drives serious policy reform. It treats a media-savvy electorate as though they don’t see through what is being shovelled. It privileges the gotcha mentality of the media and political classes, best expressed in the bubble that is the Twitterverse. But above all else, it treats voters with transparent contempt. The NSW ALP learnt the hard lesson of doing that.
This absence of passionate policy leadership presents the political class as being interested in nothing except indulging purposeless personal ambition, and in maintaining the income stream of the party faithful. No wonder respect is so rare.
But recent events indicate that treating voters as adults isn’t just good for governance, it’s good political communication in itself. Ed Miliband’s marathon, content-rich speech to the Labour Conference in Manchester this month has been credited with the beginnings of a turnaround in UK Labour’s fortunes. Mitt Romney’s detail-dominated first debate appearance and choice of wonkish Paul Ryan as running-mate are central to his resurgence as a viable presidential candidate.
Here in Australia, Queensland Premier Newman has taken controversial policy steps, though without really making a strong case for those steps. Despite this, and the surrounding sound and fury, it has had little effect on his electoral standing. These are but small deviations from the circle of triteness, but they have been noticed and have made a difference.
Compare these events with the recent spasms of confected outrage and the desperate “ism offensive” from the Left here and in the US. Both electorates see through them, and they have had no effect on polling numbers.
Policy-free politicians, trite election campaigns and undergraduate spinning labelled as genius aren’t the only issues. Mutual respect is completely undermined when the electorate votes for transformational change and delivers a record mandate, and then receives nothing but risk-averse managerialism.
It is an unfortunate necessity that political leaders are shaped 20 years before they reach leadership positions. Their intuitions and style are formed by earlier successes and failures even if those are no longer relevant. In Australia, that means the shadow of Bob Carr’s do-nothingism is still cast over our politics. In the UK, for example, this lag effect led David Cameron to run a campaign in 2010 that was appropriate for the 2005 or 2001 elections, and he paid the price.
Too many of our leaders are governing as though it is still 1995 and the GFC, EU and US debt crises, and Australia’s public-sector explosion haven’t happened. And as though the mainstream media is still the all-powerful gatekeeper it was in the 1980s. Thus, they privilege risk aversion, conventional wisdom and media management over policy leadership and program execution. They simply refuse to realise that voters are ahead of them and desperately want to respect a political leader who speaks passionately about concrete policy changes, and who doesn’t shuffle problems to the next electoral cycle. Who, in short, treats both governing and the electorate with respect.
It’s just that those voters can’t find anyone who does that.
James Falk stood as the Liberal candidate for Balmain