It’s the economy stupid: power and persuasion in Australian politics

Treasurer Chris Bowen’s change in economic message is more than just a new view of Australia’s economic outlook. AAP/Alan Porritt

Rhetoric designed to persuade and influence is applied in the political, corporate and sporting worlds as part of every change strategy. But it is just that: rhetoric. When newly-minted treasurer Chris Bowen spoke of the “careful management” of the economy, it was not rhetoric. It was propaganda, and it set a dangerous precedent.

When Julia Gillard, in one of her last statements as prime minister said the Australian economy was “growing, stable and strong”, she was speaking to a diffuse electorate. She was keen to underpin her government’s authority on the strength of the economy in order to move it away from the political mudheap it had driven itself into. For Gillard it was a political truth.

Gillard’s statement, however, should be viewed as a set-piece of political rhetoric. It had been washed and scrubbed clean by a phalanx of media relations wonks before it was set free to run among the voters.

The paradigm shift in political discourse that accompanied the dramatic change in parliamentary leadership in the Australian Labor Party is not new. It is a strategy to keep fans alive to their sporting teams when they fail to make the grade. A new coach and a new rhetoric designed to persuade and influence will not, however, help the Australian cricket side to bring home the Ashes.

If viewed in this light and combined with the variety of set pieces from the past three years - including “real Julia” and fake Julia - it was harmless rhetoric. It neither altered the direction of the markets nor had an impact on the thinking of the governor of the reserve bank.

Bowen, however, has provided a different view of the economy. He has stated it is none of the above: not growing, not stable and not strong. It is, he said, a week after Gillard’s announcement, uncertain and requiring “careful management”. There may be some truth to Bowen’s claims: leading economists have indicated that Australia’s predicted economic slowdown will be worse than earlier predictions.

Bowen was following Gillard in speaking to the wider electorate. He was speaking to the voters who had watched from the sidelines as prime minister Kevin Rudd was replaced by Gillard in 2010 who was then replaced by Rudd.

For Rudd and Bowen the time was ripe for another equally dramatic replacement. The political rhetoric that had sustained the latest Rudd leadership change — similar to the various metaphorically bloody political party leadership changes since the end of World War Two — also had to change.

It is important here to reflect on the Australian political discourse that has existed for more than 65 years since the end of World War Two. It has included the rhetoric of persuasion and influence and focused on the ballot box and the regular election process.

Australia is no stranger to propaganda campaigns, with more than 65 years of propaganda campaigning in our national political history. Norman Lindsay

Political persuasion and influence was a vital part of political campaigning leading to a general election. It worked best during a six week period of sustained advertising, media coverage and other traditional elements of political discourse including speeches, rallies, fiestas, and politicians wandering around shopping centres kissing babies.

Unlike election campaigns in developing countries, where propaganda as power and persuasion through vibrant street theatre was an important tactic due to low literacy rates, election campaigning in developed countries was relatively sedate and well, frankly, boring.

Rudd, Bowen and their policy and media strategists decided to change the game. Mild, boring political rhetoric designed to persuade and influence had to be replaced by power and persuasion. By propaganda.

It was a clever tactic. Bowen’s statement did not directly contradict Gillard’s. What it signalled was its intent as a deliberate tactic to create economic - rather than political - uncertainty. It was designed to shift the gaze from the political road smash within the party towards the billboard image of an economy that was now in the same precarious position it was in immediately before the global financial crisis in 2008.

The fabrication of truths is the central element that sustains propaganda. Bowen’s fabrication that the Australian economy required careful management would have gone unnoticed and unreported if stated by opposition spokesman Joe Hockey. It would have been viewed as a set-piece of political rhetoric in the wider political discourse.

The unprecedented length of the election campaign, when combined with the drastic need to shift the focus from the political upheaval within the Labor Party, gave Rudd and Bowen a tactical advantage. Propaganda has surfaced in Australian politics.