The prime ministerial promise to change: can it work?

Tony Abbott is offering logical evidence and emotional appeals, but the rhetorical problem is his own loss of credibility and authority. AAP/Mick Tsikas

“Is it me?” That was the question John Howard reportedly asked his cabinet colleagues as his government remained stubbornly behind in the polls in 2007. One of those colleagues, Tony Abbott, now confronts the same question as he attempts to recover from a “chastening” leadership spill motion on Monday.

Politics is a difficult business. It’s hard to please all of the people all of the time. Occasionally, it seems hard to please any of the people any of the time. That’s why leaders in a democracy devote so much energy to looking for the formula that will keep them connected with voters.

Like former lovers trying to rekindle the flames of a relationship, political leaders reach out when things go wrong, seeking to rebuild the affection that once connected them with their constituents and colleagues.

Abbott tried to wipe the slate clean last week with a speech at the National Press Club, followed by what he termed “back to work Tuesday”. Now, after a ballot in which nearly 40% of his colleagues voted to declare the leadership vacant, he’s rebooting his reboot, with an expressed determination to listen more and embrace a more consensus-based style of governing.

Abbott knows he has to at least try to shift gears because democratic politics is all about persuasion.

Three rhetorical tools at PM’s disposal

So how do you do it – what tools are available? The answer, as provided by Aristotle more than two millennia ago, is to use rhetoric to change the minds of an audience. Aristotle defined the elements of rhetoric as consisting of three things: logos, pathos and ethos.

Logos is all about the content of the argument; the logical presentation of evidence to draw the listener into agreement. It’s an appeal to reason.

Pathos is all about emotion; the ability to push the emotional buttons that convince people to support you. Think of Churchill’s invocation of the need to “fight on the beaches”.

Ethos is about the speaker themselves. They require trust and authority to make their message believable.

This breakdown of rhetoric helps explain why achieving a successful “reboot” is so hard.

So how does Abbott’s message break down?

Abbott’s Press Club speech would have seemed to him to hit all the right notes. It offered a logical explanation for why some policy positions had to be adopted and others jettisoned. It drew on evidence such as budgetary pressures, debt figures, the Productivity Commission and feedback from a range of stakeholders about what needs to be done.

Sure there are counter-arguments, but that doesn’t make the Abbott’s arguments illogical. So on the logos front, all seems well.

On the pathos front, Abbott’s recent rhetoric has offered much to sooth the feelings of voters and colleagues. There have been elements of contrition, appeals to keep Australia “safe” and exhortations to work together to serve the Australian people.

So there’s been no shortage of emotional appeals – from the patriotic overtones of “Team Australia” to the empathetic undertones of a prime minister determined to let everyone know he understands that he needs to change.

But the final element – ethos – cannot be manufactured through the crafting of a particular speech, or through changing day-to-day messages. That is because it is about the nature of the speaker themselves. All the logical arguments in the world, and the well-crafted emotional appeals that underpin them, are of little use if people simply won’t believe the speaker.

It is often said of struggling political leaders that voters have “just stopped listening” to them. Ethos is the factor that explains this.

Well-resourced leaders can always keep making arguments, producing evidence and offering emotional appeals, but they can’t change who they are perceived by others to be.

Once authenticity is lost, it’s hard to recover

In modern politics, ethos is closely related to the idea of authenticity. Following the 2007 election, Kevin Rudd was enjoying 70% approval ratings as prime minister. A self-confessed policy wonk, whose use of language could sometimes seem incredibly opaque, he was nonetheless embraced by voters.

Once that authenticity was replaced by seemingly “forced” choices of words (remember “fair shake of the sauce bottle”?) and an apparent willingness to walk away from tackling climate change, having described it as the “greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time”, Rudd’s ethos took a hit.

Julia Gillard, who made her political name in part as a great communicator, became so heavily scripted in office that it damaged her ethos. People no longer believed she was who she said she was – leading her to declare in the 2010 election campaign that she would go back to being the “real” Julia. Ironically, this simply reinforced the perception that she hadn’t been authentic and re-emphasised the very ethos problem she was trying to address.

Which brings us back to Tony Abbott. He was one of the most effective opposition leaders in modern times. His ability to time and again criticise the government and explain his own policies in simple, clear language left voters in no doubt about what he stood for. It defined him in the public mind.

Those clear messages of opposition have been replaced in government by rapid rhetorical shifts as the government searches in vain for a message that will resonate with voters.

Abbott’s ethos has been dented. Hence the need for a re-boot. He is attempting to redefine himself as someone who can be trusted because he listens.

For example, Abbott says he has heard the feedback on the paid parental leave scheme and responded. The irony is that he has chosen to demonstrate his trustworthiness by abandoning a “signature” policy that he repeatedly said would define him and his leadership.

While seeking to re-capture public confidence, Abbott is saying to voters that you can trust him to abandon even his most dearly held policies if things aren’t going well. It might make logical sense, but it doesn’t do much for his ethos.

Abbott hasn’t quite said he will go back to being the “real Tony”, but would people believe him if he did? Therein lies his problem.