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Community cabinets could be the cure for Gillard’s communication conundrum

By all accounts, in person Prime Minister Julia Gillard is relaxed, funny, engaging and a good listener. Her ministers say she is tough, masters briefs well, leads, and takes decisions. On top of that…

Gillard shines when she is closer to voters, such as at this week’s community cabinet in Paramatta. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

By all accounts, in person Prime Minister Julia Gillard is relaxed, funny, engaging and a good listener. Her ministers say she is tough, masters briefs well, leads, and takes decisions. On top of that, Parliament works with hardly a hiccup to the Government’s legislative agenda despite tight numbers.

But Gillard’s private personality rarely comes through in public and she is described as wooden, scripted, plagued by her accent and framed by allegations that she lied about the carbon tax, dudded Andrew Wilkie on their agreement about poker machines, and is dominated by the Greens’ policy agenda.

Most voters never get to meet a prime minister. They form their judgements from television performances and the way the mass news media frames, reports and comments on day-to-day politics. Mostly, the dreaded 24-hour news cycle is dominated by the views of which political party can best give a catchy comment. Thus Abbott still gets coverage for his “great big new tax on everything” mantra.

A prime minister’s inability to sell a government’s message can be terminal. The strategic communication issue for Gillard and her advisers is to work out how they can transfer her private personality to her public persona before voters simply stop listening to her - if they haven’t already. The time they have to do that is evaporating.

One way Gillard can reach large numbers of people, and show her private personality, without her messages and image being mediated by journalists and TV footage, is through the community cabinet process, which she has continued (the latest in Parramatta, NSW in Easter week) since taking office.

Gillard’s predecessor Kevin Rudd initiated community cabinets when he came to office, as a way of avoiding what he described as the danger of politicians being “locked up” in Canberra without the chance to hear what is happening on the ground in local communities.

He viewed community cabinet meetings as a valuable opportunity for people to put forward ideas on local and national issues. More than 10,000 Australians participated in 24 community cabinets held during his prime ministership. Just under 1000 of them held one-on-one meetings with the PM or other ministers.

Gillard has held fewer community cabinets, but the Rudd experience demonstrates their potential for directly reaching significant numbers of people with additional flow-on effects from the accompanying local media attention.

Meeting people in this way is engaging in interpersonal communication, an important tactic in professional communication practice. Despite the expense of this approach, it is the most effective way of passing on information and for discussing and resolving issues.

Gillard gets close to voters in Paramatta. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

In a political context, interpersonal communication through community cabinets also carries the risk that the government’s issues and messages may not be those that interest local communities.

Research has found that the issues people raised at community cabinets were not always those that dominate the daily news.

People were generally interested in the big issues, but with a focus on local aspects, and not in the same ways as the day-to-day political dogfights were framed in the news media. For example, community members were focused on practical matters and often on local implications of policy, including cost. Of more importance to citizens were disability, education in specific contexts, indigenous issues and housing affordability. Of six questions about climate change, a major political issue, only one related to what the government would do after the Copenhagen conference.

Gillard often says she is focused on the concerns of ordinary Australians, on doing what is right for the country and not their political futures. Community cabinets provide them with opportunities to engage on the issues that concern ordinary Australians, and to explain why tough decisions are necessary, directly to voters. The most direct example is opposition to the carbon tax, especially the potential impact on living costs and jobs.

Community cabinets provide the government with one, but not the only, vehicle for direct engagement with voters and one that should help Gillard to positively demonstrate her private persona.

Whether that happens depends first on the time available and second on decisions Gillard’s advisers take about her communication approaches.

The 18 months between now and the next election may be too short for the “real Julia” to emerge. The prime minister’s communication advisers need to decide whether her approach will be a mid-term strategic one or a tactical fight in the spin battle with the opposition.

None of this is easy, but if they revert to type and focus on the daily trench warfare, the prime minister will remain framed as she is now.

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8 Comments sorted by

  1. Marilyn Shepherd


    In person Gillard comes across as stupid, dishonest and ignorant.

    Sorry to burst the bubble but I spent a considerable amount of time with her at forums in Adelaide while she was writing the current absurd and expensive refugee policy.

    She had one refugee plan then and refused to listen even to an Iraqi refugee begging her for help to get his family out of Baghdad because they were being persecuted as Sabean Mandaeans.

    Then she ignored the plight of a young Iranian homosexual when his lawyer…

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  2. Penelope Milstein

    Sustainability Director

    I am loathe to lower the tone of The Conversation by leaving the subject of the essay to talk about the commentators. However I do recognise 'Marilyn Shepherd Pensioner' from the comments section of a few online publications.
    Without fail she uses the space to air her (very bad) opinion of the government. I find it very interesting to conjecture just who Marilyn Shepherd is, and what makes her write with such venom.

    1. Roger Jones

      Australian Citizen

      In reply to Penelope Milstein

      Penelope, it is still just her opinion. People reading it will judge themselves whether they think it reasonable or not. If she writes like that elsewhere then at least she is consistent.

      You, on the otherhand have come on here to just critisise someones opinion but made no opinion of the article at all. Someone who adds nothing to the discussion is usually refered to as a troll.

  3. Michael Brown

    Professional, academic, company director

    The prime minister doesn't seem to have any communication issues at all. She speaks very clearly and reasonably precisely, to the extent that I doubt anyone is confused or misunderstands what she is saying. The problem she has is the nature of her decisions. For example, she stopped the live cattle trade on the basis of some television pictures, throwing many people out of work instantly. And today, in spite of all the earlier talk of transparency, she refuses to allow the Fair Work Australia report to be made public. Each decision like this alienates a certain number of voters, and over time, the majority disapprove. She needs policy and technical advisers with experience in the real world, not communications advisers.

  4. Roger Jones

    Australian Citizen

    The article sort of misses the main issue. Yes their communications are crap, they seem unable to learn from experience stepping from one rake onto another and then another and, the cabinet has limited talent. But the real problem is they can't for the life of them deliver a policy properly. The Govt wouldn't need to spin so much if the cock-ups weren't there. Take any number of examples from Pink Batts, Cash for Clunkers, to NBN ($36Bn project hacked out on the back of a fag packet with no business…

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  5. Roger Jones

    Australian Citizen

    I would love to see Gillard doing a Community Cabinet in QLD at the moment.

  6. Scott Hartnett

    logged in via Facebook

    At first I would disagree with the article and community groups traditionally have formed around authoritarian personalities both the extreme left and right of the spectrum. However the article raises a valid issue about the media cycle.
    Performances have been far too controlled by the media cycle. I can remember seeing Kevin Rudd on late line and being amazed by his ability with detail. To then see the performances that were crafted and scripted for the cycle is somewhat disappointing, to which…

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  7. Peter Redshaw


    After watching some of these community cabinets, in difference to Marilyn above, I found that Julia Gillard and her government Ministers performed very well and appeared to be received very well by the community participants.

    Of course it is always in the eye of the beholder, but that often depends on how open or closed our minds are to what we are watching or listening to. If we have our minds totally closed than of course all we will ever take away is our own preconceived views and it will never make any difference what Gillard and labor do or say within these community cabinets.

    And of course the question has to be asked outside of the community participants I wonder how many people take the time to watch them on the ABC, or know that they are on.