Reform is not dead, you’re just doing it wrong

All those who are handwringing should take heart. Australia is not “ungovernable”. Reform is not dead. You are just doing it wrong.

There’s a theory around that no modern government can get the public support it needs to pursue reform. The story goes that no leader can ever survive difficult policy change because the difficulty will give rise to unpopularity, which will, in turn, lead to the leader’s removal – or the removal of the government.

Voters dumped first term governments in Victoria and Queensland. That is not a sign of the impending end of democracy. Nor is it a harbinger of the end of reform. Contrary to some of the commentary, those two elections served as a reminder that, fundamentally, politics has not changed, despite new technologies. Political success remains as dependent as ever on the relationship between the government and the governed. And that relationship can withstand a fair bit of testing – as long as people don’t feel like they’re being played for fools.

Deploying ethos in rhetoric depends not only on your content, but also, and equally, upon how your character is perceived. You cannot be persuasive if your audience thinks you’re trying to pull the wool over their eyes. In business, being known as less than honest makes it extremely hard to strike deals. In the law, a reputation for sharp practice makes judges and colleagues suspicious, nobbling your ability to advocate for clients. And in politics, if you come off as sneaky you cannot be persuasive about the challenges faced, or how your proposals would help.

Consider the new Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk. Like her Victorian counterpart Daniel Andrews, she offers a strong contrast to her predecessor. In just three years of government, the LNP’s Campbell Newman had tabled legislation in the wee hours of the morning, had fought with doctors, lawyers, corruption-fighters and everyone else, and had run the most expensive push-poll in Queensland’s history, the “Strong Choices” campaign. Mr Newman had started his term with a positive “Can Do” image. In 2015, that image was in tatters. New Premier Palaszczuk is plain-spoken and lacks artifice. She’s an everywoman, but that’s not a cultivated image. It’s authentic. Some are baffled about why her inability to recall the GST rate a couple of days before the election didn’t cost her more votes. But people don’t expect politicians to be perfect, or not to make mistakes. They expect politicians to be real.

“Real” is not a synonym for “ill-disciplined.” It is possible to choose your words carefully, while remaining authentic and avoiding sneakiness.  If you speak in nothing but code and weasel words, you can hardly complain when people stop listening to you. Strong arguments can fail if the advocate appears untrustworthy.

Governments and other public institutions should take communication seriously. This is a lesson that the US central bank has had to learn in the years following the Global Financial Crisis. The Fed has used unconventional monetary policy to try to recover from the crisis in an environment of very low interest rates. That unconventional policy famously relies on quantitative easing. Just as importantly, it relies on “forward guidance” – its communications strategy.

Janet Yellen, now Chairman of the Fed, led the communications subcommittee established in 2010. In a 2012 speech she said:

“A growing body of research and experience demonstrates that clear communication is itself a vital tool for increasing the efficacy and reliability of monetary policy. In fact, the challenges facing our economy in the wake of the financial crisis have made clear communication more important than ever before.”

She went on to explain that where once secrecy had been thought essential, transparency is now de rigeur. She observed:

“James Tobin and Milton Friedman, both Nobel laureates, disagreed on almost every aspect of monetary policy, but they were united in arguing that transparency regarding central bank decisions is vital in a democracy to lend legitimacy to policy decisions.”

Like the Fed, governments need to find ways to give policy decisions legitimacy. Reform is possible only if it has the legitimacy that comes with discussion and debate. That discussion and debate must occur in an environment where even if the electorate vehemently dislikes the policy, and the government, people don’t feel like they’re being conned.

Elucidating instead of obfuscating is crucial. A cute phrase may be memorable, but it’s much less useful than having a plain, but not condescending, discussion with people about the claimed challenges, and the likely effects of policy change.

This doesn’t mean an end to talking points, or consistent language. To the contrary, having a planned approach is an important part of making a case for the ideas being pursued. But the content must be genuine, the arguments must be cogent, and the person doing the talking has to be authentic.

Reform is possible. Change is hard, but Australia’s not ungovernable.

About Terri Butler

Terri Butler

Terri Butler is the Shadow Minister for the Environment and Water, and the federal Labor Member for Griffith, Queensland.

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