Paula Matthewson

Paula Matthewson
Monday, 4 May 2015

“Egalitarianism is under threat”?

Paula Matthewson is a freelance communications adviser and writer on politics. She was media advisor to John Howard in the early 1990s and has worked in communications, political and advocacy roles for the past 25 years, and blogs regularly on The Drum.

She rolled her eyes on Twitter at Bill Shorten’s statement “Egalitarianism is under threat.”  So we said we’d love to see her justify that in 650 words – and this is what she came up with in an afternoon.  

We’re far from convinced, and we believe this kind of value-neutral, hyper-criticism is a big problem in Australian policy debates – but what do you reckon?

Aside from the factions trying to tear the ALP apart over philosophical differences, the biggest problem Labor leader Bill Shorten has is that Australian voters don’t know what he stands for.

Shorten’s predecessor as opposition leader solved this conundrum by interminably chanting a three word slogan so that even the most disengaged voter ended up knowing that Abbott stood for stopping the boats and fixing the budget.

Shorten has shown no less aptitude than Abbott for negativity, and this is being reflected in his disappointing opinion ratings. However, the current opposition leader has an additional problem, which stems from Labor’s amateurish messaging combined with Shorten’s poor communication skills.

Corny dad jokes and mangled zingers might amuse journalists and comedians, but they don’t help to convince voters that Labor should be considered as a viable alternative.

The hidden power of Abbott’s slogans was that they had a dual purpose; they not only offered an alternative but did so while highlighting the then government’s negatives. So the slogans conveyed that Abbott would stop the boats (unlike Rudd and Gillard who re-opened the borders), scrap the taxes (that increase electricity prices and prevent jobs), and balance the budget (made untenable by those Labor spendthrifts).

In contrast, voters are having trouble making sense of Shorten’s garbled messages and this lack of clarity is reducing everything he says to white noise.

Shorten has moved to address this perception deficit with the early release of some policies, and a headland speech today that dedicates Labor “to the positive plans and policies Australia needs to succeed in the future.” The speech tries to make a connection with voters using Labor’s version of a three-word slogan: a “smart, modern and fair Australia”.

Unfortunately this slogan is a pale motherhood statement next to Abbott’s version. And if there is a dual meaning in those words, then it’s mostly unclear. Will Labor make Australia smart because Abbott has made us dumb? Do we need to be modern because we’re languishing in the previous century?

At least we get the “fair” bit, following on from last year’s budget.

The rest of Shorten’s speech is also a depressing display of the extent to which the opposition leader is being let down by the wordsmiths in his office.

It’s littered with mixed and confusing metaphors that counterproductively distract the reader. Along with barrier draws and winning races, there’s pulling levers, an economic touch screen and Escher staircase economics. The “bright line of self improvement” smacks of British PM David Cameron’s “golden thread” for alleviating poverty, and the mention of high street suggests even more influence from the UK.

And like Labor’s “debt sentence” meme on social media, the speech simply tries too hard. At one point it says the Coalition only ever talks about the future as a dystopian mix of The Hunger Games and Mad Max, and at another throws the switch to hyperbole, warning “egalitarianism is under threat”.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter that the speech is so poorly written that its flaws distract the reader; at most only a few thousand people will read it through. Most voters will simply note the points reported by the media, and a small percentage of those might remember that Shorten said something about Australia not being able to afford a “dull” budget.

The more important issue is what the speech represents – a Labor communications team that has less idea about what it’s doing than a work experience kid from an ad agency.

On the evidence to date, Shorten’s writers are more interested in gags, memes and hyperbole than delivering what Shorten needs. And what he needs is crisp, clear dual-purpose messages that (1) he is capable of delivering and (2) which convincingly pitches the positives of an alternative Labor government in terms of the current Government’s negatives.

About Paula Matthewson:

Paula Matthewson is a freelance communications adviser and writer on politics. She was media advisor to John Howard in the early 1990s and has worked in communications, political and advocacy roles for the past 25 years, and blogs regularly on The Drum.