Yesterday’s Honours List announcement was the single worst piece of political communication for a generation, surpassing even the infamous Latham-Howard handshake in 2004.
One week ago I described how token gestures to the Toff-Tory subsets of the Coalition pose difficulties for political communications, particular those directed at decent, swinging voters. At that time I was referring, only as an example, to the reinstatement of the barrister rank Queen’s Counsel. That debate over Royalist flummery continues (here and a rebuttal here), with added piquancy as the Toff-Tory celebrations for Knights and Dames begin.
Note now, my sensitive monarchist friends, that my concern is with communications, swinging voter intuitions about the Coalition, political capital to drive difficult reforms, and winning elections.
Like the Latham-Howard handshake, in one iconic action the Abbott government has confirmed the opposing party’s narrative, whether it is true or not. For Latham, it was that he was a loose cannon, uncontrolled and unrestrained, and likely to do anything to further an irrational hatred.
The Left’s smear-du-jour for Abbott and the Abbott government has been that they will take the country back to the 1950s. As an example, at every opportunity my local barista loudly declares the Federal government is doing just that. In communication terms, it is simple, catchy, and pregnant with meaning.
Every misogyny beat up, every unjustified panic over abortion laws, every piece of moralising over necessary public sector reform, every class envy card, every implication of racism can all be summarised under that narrative: back to the 1950s.
Confirming your opponent’s narrative is about the worst thing a political communicator can do.
This is even more damaging – if that is possible – when a government with an easily sellable message fails to build a meaningful, coherent narrative of its own. That is where the Abbott government is right now. It is where the O’Farrell government is right now. It is where, for the most part, centre-right governments across the world are right now.
We have a ‘confirmed’ Left narrative, and an absent Right one. Guess whose message is going to be stronger?
The Missed Narrative Opportunity
Left-leaning parties across the world have been undermined by the ideological dregs of the middle class – people focused on fads, tokenism, green misanthropy, moralising and control. People who disdain the values and social and political choices of ordinary people. The old Left ideas of giving people enough financial and occupational opportunity to allow them to build fulfilling lives remain only in a disappointed subset of those parties. That is why I left the ALP many years ago.
Ordinary, no-bullshit Australians from blue collar workers to tradies to farmers to forklift drivers to retail workers deserve a clear message that speaks to them – the centre-right will do what matters, will focus on substance over seeming, make hard decisions rather than buy votes. And that it will focus on financial and occupational opportunity that will let people choose their mode of life without banning, taxing, moralising or nudging.
The Coalition has hardly even tried to sell that. And now it has shown itself willing to put Toff-Tory seeming over substance, just like those Greens did with their bans and taxes and confected moral outrage.
This is an embarrassment. This is political idiocy.
A Meaningless Change
What is so disturbing is that this expenditure of political capital is for something so meaningless. Whether you’re a constitutional monarchist or a republican, these honours should be irrelevant. They change nothing of substance, they set no precedent. For republicans, get a grip: they aren’t Imperial honours. For Toff-Tory monarchists, put the champagne away: they aren’t Imperial honours.
Indeed, probably the only people who would legitimately have a gripe would be those (like me) who are uncomfortable with state-sanctioned honours for people who already benefit from the status, financial, security and psychological aspects of their private success. For those gripers (like me), state honours should be confined to outsiders who do the extraordinary. Not the connected insider or the already-successful. Otherwise it is just laying privilege upon privilege. But I digress.
The Free Kick of All Free Kicks
From now on the Abbott government – and by association, all State Liberal governments – are open to attacks based on a ridiculous Toff-Tory caricature. It gives the Greens, ALP, NGO mafia and media a readymade rhetorical device to counter every policy proposal.
It may not be a logical counter – it is a rhetorical one. But political communications is all about using what rhetorical and emotional tools you have available to win the hearts and minds of swinging voters.
All this is infuriating for those who see the need for real reform to support the prosperity that makes ordinary people’s lives better. By pandering to the Colonel Blimp Right and Queens-for-the-Queen subsets of the Coalition, the Abbott government just made doing that a whole lot harder.
Update 2:30pm 26 March
Tweet via Latika Bourke: PM TA ‘I’ll tell you what our priorities are’ ‘Knights and Dames’ interjects a Labor MP. #qt
The narrative is already in place. A government that focuses on the symbolic and irrelevant for the satisfaction of their Toff-Tories. The fun has begun.