Sent: 21-03-2013 09:12:02
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Ministers Need to Decide: Policymakers or Commentators?
Trade Minister Craig Emerson was interviewed on the ABC Lateline program for 14 minutes and 40 seconds last week without mentioning trade policy a single time. The failure of ministers to talk about their areas of specialisation is a self inflicted blow against their own communication effectiveness.
There is nothing new in a politician lamenting that people are not listening. For many years, until an imminent outbreak of war saved him from political irrelevance, an increasingly despondent Winston Churchill failed to persuade his party or the broader British electorate to tackle the scourge of German Nazism. Little hope, then, for a relatively benign mining tax today.
Churchill lobbied journalists and business people, wrote articles and made speeches in the House of Commons to excite support for his warnings of the danger of a rearmed Germany.
Politicians are forever seeking ways to get their messages across. Use of mainstream electronic media, going over the heads of the commentators through talk back radio, gimmicky photo opportunities, tweeting on the run and early morning TV guest spots are just some of the modern tactics which were not available to Churchill.
The use of the sound bite to get messages across is now recognised as a de rigueur communication tool for corporate executives as well as politicians. Media advisers urge their clients to speak succinctly even to the point of being overly simplistic.
The political sound bite itself can get swamped by the constant daily chatter surrounding political reporting but, it seems, those good enough at political phraseology will be winners. Craig Emerson is thought to have the necessary skills.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott excels. He has seemingly mastered the daily political calendar. As he dons yet another fluoro vest for another day's media event he creates havoc among government ministers.
Labor ministers had initially believed Tony Abbott was unelectable. Their starting strategy was simply to mention his name. Asked about their own policies, they would begin an answer by saying "Of course, Tony Abbott would...."
Penny Wong, regular front person for the government, was especially adept at turning every question into an assertion about what Abbott would do. Rather than scare off people toying with the idea of voting for him, the ruse helped build his profile. Now, ironically, he plays the same card. He simply mentions Julia Gillard in the belief that the name alone is so toxic listeners will be repelled immediately. He has discovered the ultimate sound bite.
Last week, trade minister Craig Emerson was given nearly a quarter of an hour on national television. Commendably, the ABC tries to move beyond the daily sound bite to explore policies in more detail by offering time for extended interviews.
This was a chance for Emerson to talk about the successes of Australian exporters in international markets. Or, if there had been no successes to speak about, he had an opportunity to talk about what had to be done to rejuvenate Australia's trade performance.
Leading discussion is one of the comparative advantages ministers have in talking to the electorate. Unfortunately, Emerson was drawn quickly into the role of commentator, talking about the government and its travails as if he were an objective observer.
There was a time when any minister, asked about a matter outside his immediate portfolio, would decline to answer and suggest the interviewer address any enquiries to the relevant minister. This tradition has been abandoned.
One of the consequences of ministers running far and wide across all portfolio responsibilities is that politicians become commentators. They join the throng of professional journalists, op-ed writers and bloggers. In doing so, they risk losing their identity and forgoing their comparative advantage in defining problems and leading the discussion toward implementing solutions.
Minister Emerson is responsible for a critical area of government policy where continuous improvement is required to ensure the nation's competitiveness and economic well being. Rather than act as a cheerleader for the government he could be creating enthusiasm among exporters.
Other ministers could be doing the same. Simon Crean expressed surprise last week, after an interview on ABC radio, that the whole interview had been about his recently launched arts policy. It is possible.
Having ministers with a soundly founded understanding of their areas of responsibility leading national discussions should be considered an incomparable advantage by any government. Having ministers forgo this gift to cross over into the role of general commentator will be accommodated readily by those running media agendas because it works for them. There will be no limit to the time they will give to commentator politicians.
This is an opening fraught with dangers. The old model seemed to work. Then, someone had the bright idea of getting an education minister, for example, to take advantage of their time in an interview to promote tax policy never expecting that, one day, a portfolio minister could be on the air for 15 minutes without mentioning his portfolio once.
If all ministers and their opposition counterparts gave up their roles as commentators, interviewers would be greatly annoyed but interviewers would be forced to engage on policy substance rather than wafting over policy outcomes while they make a beeline to the inevitable question about party leadership.
In a world in which single term political leaders are becoming more frequent, this is as much a reform challenge for Tony Abbott as he edges toward government as it is for Julia Gillard now.
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