Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Budget Emergency

"No, I don't think you have to lie to get elected," Joe Hockey said to a ravenous pack of Panthers on the ABC's QandA program last night. The crowd erupted in jeers.

Later on in the program he admitted you could call the proposed $7 co-payment to see a GP a new tax if you wanted, but continued his denial that this added up to the Liberal Party breaking its election promises, instead saying that you could also "call it a rabbit" if you wanted.

Back in my journalist days we had a saying: "Bad news lasts a day, a scandal lasts a week". It would come up often - whenever someone chose to dig in, lie, or obfuscate when you could feel it in the air that an apology would do the trick. People can usually accept crummy news better than deception.

Hockey's meaning has been made overt in other statements - whether or not the government has raised or introduced taxes is irrelevant given the dire need to fix the budget and people should accept that.

It's an interesting study in communication. The government's belief, that they were elected to fix the economy and as long as their actions are in line with that people will understand, is clearly failing to connect with voters. Polls have slid. People have marched. Audiences have jeered. Most remarkably, Bill Shorten has turned into a person, sparked into being by community outrage. Much like the opposition before him, his fortunes rise on the government's missteps.

Why is that? No-one is surprised by the Coalition bringing a tough budget, reining in Labor's spending and pushing everything else into the back seat behind the economy. You can almost feel the bewildered frustration in Abbott and Hockey's responses these last few days: "why aren't you getting this?"

I think it comes down to three things: the (perceived at least) betrayal of trust through broken promises, the lack of articulated vision and a tendency to say random, ill-thought out stuff every day that conflicts with everything else they've ever said and get mad when people hear it.

They're all interconnected, but let's start with vision.

Abbott was an epic level opposition dude, masterfully destroying Labor at every turn. His campaign was, basically, "these guys wrecked it and are acting like children so put me in". It worked super hard but there's nothing in there that says what kind of Australia he wants. Stopping the boats was his big thing but that's arguably a fringe, populist issue designed to weaponise people's ignorance. When they took office, the Liberals remained focused on punishing Labor through things like Royal Commissions and carbon tax repeals - still no vision.

Today, their big thing is returning the budget to surplus.
Now, I know that surplus is preferable to deficit in the same way that a winter coat is preferable to a t-shirt, but my senses must first perceive the snow. Abbott and Hockey have approached our "budget emergency" as if it were as obvious and incontrovertible as a blizzard - they're staring out their frosted windscreens in disbelief while we rage against them for letting the air out of our beach balls. Now, perhaps we're inside with the heater on or maybe it's just not that cold, but we're finding it hard to listen.

Because money is a transitory thing. No (sane) person wants money because money. They want money because houses, because education, because comfort, because happiness.
This is the bit the government lacks. This hard budget will deliver a surplus, but what then? Why must we pull together for that goal? The Howard government fired surplus after surplus upon an eager populace and to what end? What did they build?
The election campaign was built on Gillard's ideals - Gonski, help for the disabled, tackling climate change. They did it poorly and lost, but there wasn't an opposing plan except for "not that" and "money". Big, abstract budgets get minimised by people - they focus on their personal situation and losing $7 if you get sick becomes the focus. The only way to combat that is with a reason why. Oddly, the Coalition has all the bits of their vision floating around out there - they want to empower individuals to contribute and be valued for their merits while helping to build an economy robust enough to provide a safety net to the true needy and withstand financial upsets - but they can't deliver it because of the other two things.

So, the other two things: Losing trust and saying weird stuff.

Lightning round of paraphrased statements and perceptions!

"The age of entitlement is over!" and 'everyone will shoulder the burden!'
This new catch-cry doesn't work when rich people will only shoulder their burden for four years and then be fine. Nor when so many effects will hit the poorest the most.

'Howard's budget was tough and they were hit hard in the polls too, so no biggie'.
Thrown out by Abbott only days ago and found to be false the next day by people who went back and looked at the polls. Further cements the idea he is making this up as he goes.

'We're on a unity ticket with Labor on Gonski'.
An example of the many promises thrown out by Abbott in the dying days of the election. Abbott is now fiddling around the edges by saying he didn't mean the Liberals would do the whole shebang as Labor had promised. This was always true, but it ignores the emotional truth of that statement. 'Unity ticket' is designed to neutralise education as a voting issue as both parties are the same. That's what people hear. You can't change that with the finer details. Further evidence of 'it sounds good so say it'.

'Australia was on notice that we would do everything to repair the budget'.
Used to imply that any broken promises are unimportant in service to a broader good and that people are cool with that. Attempts to sidestep reality of broken promises. The problem with this pitch is it exists alongside constant examples of the party refusing to answer questions of 'did you break a promise'. The two things cannot coexist.

'No cuts to ABC, pensions, SBS, dog-walking schools, etc'
Abbott bizarrely threw out a range of these promises long after it was clear the election was in the bag. They're right up there with 'no carbon tax' as so clearly articulated as to be inescapable. A prison of his own design. As said above, refusing to admit the obvious just makes one seem ludicrious.

'Y U so mad @ $7 GP payment? That's two beers! Also ciggies are totes pricey.'
Hockey's voicing the above is one of two things - a roundabout way of speaking to his base of welfare recipients as drunken bludgers or further proof of a complete lack of what words mean. Neither are good when you're trying to convince poor people to come along with you on the budget cut train. Also, please tell me where I can get two beers for $7.

I could go on for a long time, but you get the point.

Resulting perception: Abbott was elected in opposition to Labor rather than on merit or because he advocated for a society we desire.
He successfully categorised Labor as a bunch of children making it up on the run and entered a social compact with us all that he would offer maturity and "no surprises". Since being elected, he has been the opposite. His main contributions are Knights and Dames (came as a surprise, no-one asked for it) and his maternity leave scheme. His 'signature' idea, the scheme is utterly at odds with his party's entire ethos, offering assistance to people well off enough to fend for themselves. It's so gregariously apart from all other measures that it seemingly exists as originally characterised - an olive branch to the ladies in an attempt to combat perceptions that he's a misogynist. Beyond that, its very existence hamstrings the 'budget emergency - we all must help' narrative.

It's their most repeated problem: destroying their own messages. The GP co-payment is a good example. The sell is that we need to chip in to create a sustainable health system, cut the debt and reign in spending. When the budget came out, however, it was revealed that proceeds would go to funding an enormous medical research fund. There are now two competing ideas  - the one above and a "if you oppose co-payments you don't want to cure cancer" narrative which feels reflexively offensive in part due to being such a massive surprise.
The natural response is: "which is it?" If you care about a surplus you're mad at the proceeds going to a Big New Thing. If you care about medicine you're mad at the co-payment. Madness reigns and no-one created any of this save the government themselves.

There is endless evidence now to support any and all negative impressions people have of the government. Vague assertions that the Liberals hate poor people, don't believe in climate change and have a vendetta against the ABC can now be backed up with evidence they have provided. On the other hand, all positive impressions have now been betrayed. The mature hand on the wheel has found itself in a nasty skid.

None of the above, interestingly, gets in to the politics. You can believe wholehartedly with the government's ideology and still be stung by the structural problems in their communications.

All of the above adds up to an impression of a government that has no plan and is out of touch with the lives they're affecting. I'm on the record as saying politicians shouldn't make promises. This government made a lot though, and they can start digging their way out from under them with a few words, I think.

"Yes. We broke promises. We're raising taxes. We're sorry. But this is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. We're all adults here and we're capable of pulling together. Now, here's what we're going to build..."

I can't imagine the next bit, but I'd really love to see it. 
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