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Dear Prime Minister: we want stories, not lessons

Julia Gillard has to communicate her government’s reason for being. AAP

Former US presidential speechwriter, the late William Safire, outlined the components of a perfect political speech as follows: “tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em – then tell ‘em – then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.”

The message is straightforward really. Successful political communication is about consistency, clarity and simplicity. It is a lesson the Gillard Government has been slow to learn.

In policy terms, the Rudd and Gillard Governments have actually had quite a reasonable story to tell. They protected Australia from the ravages of the Global Financial Crisis, are pursuing a telecommunications game-changer in the form of the NBN, and have just ploughed $2.2 billion into the vital area of mental health.

They commissioned the wide-ranging Henry Tax Review and revitalised intergovernmental cooperation through COAG. But like a best-selling author with writer’s block, the Government is full of ideas and achievements that it just can’t get out. It has the ingredients of an interesting story, but no idea how to tell it.

Tony Abbott has stepped into that void. Where the government has a complex mishmash of conflicting stories, Abbott has a core of three or four simple messages. It’s relentless rhetoric and it cuts through. Boats, taxes and waste.

While the Government has handwringingly wrestled with how to define itself, Abbott has pierced the complexity with images that the Government can’t seem to shake off.

Wherever they go, Gillard and Swan are stuck with Abbott’s scarlet letter around their necks as the leaders who gave Australia boats, taxes and waste.

Politics is an emotional science. It’s human. The Government makes the mistake of couching its messages as if all 22 million of their fellow Australians care as much about the nuances of language as they do.

They have found their way further and further into a dark cave of their own rhetorical complexity. They have tried to find terms to help bring them back out – “patchwork” economy, “back in the black” – but they are terms devoid of emotional connection.

When Abbott talks about helping the “forgotten families” he is creating an emotional connection with every Australian family that feels like the government doesn’t care about them. The fact that some of those families might own a BMW and have their kids in a private school is irrelevant.

It’s inclusive rhetoric with an emotional hook to which everyone can relate. It provides an emotional core that a political narrative can be built around.

A political narrative is a story. It’s a story that explains why a Government is there and what it’s trying to do. It’s more than a list of policies, and it’s more than a set of slogans. But it’s less than a detailed defence of particular policy settings.

The Government has alternated between trying to find slogans to match the Abbott penchant for finding a “great big new label” for everything, and with trying to explain in great detail why individual policies are necessary. What’s missing – the narrative – is somewhere in the middle.

What is the story that links the NBN to the Carbon tax and mental health investments to cut-backs on middle class welfare? To simply assert that the Government stands for good policy isn’t enough.

And saying that the budget is about “jobs, jobs, jobs” isn’t enough either. Has there ever been a budget that has been sold on the basis that it is against jobs?

The other essential ingredient is authenticity. Tony Abbott has a reputation for saying what he thinks. He has the knack of being able to sound authentic because he focuses on messages that are simple.

Of course, he is a very smart politician too. There is an “art to his artlessness”, to quote from a recent article in the Australian Journal of Political Science.

But when Wayne Swan and Julia Gillard try it – like Kevin Rudd before them – it doesn’t seem to work. Remember the outcry when Rudd as prime minister started using Australian slang to show how grounded he was. It didn’t sound authentic, and therefore didn’t serve him well.

When Rudd sounded like an intellectual policy wonk committed to doing good things for Australia, the public loved him – because it was authentic. If there is a message in that experience for the contemporary political leader it is this: to thine own self be true.

Julia Gillard is probably the most quintessentially “Australian” prime minister for decades. Everything from her accent to her outlook is grounded in experiences that every Australian would understand.

Yet that authenticity has got lost amidst a sea of policy inconsistency and wooden self-awareness. To find her narrative, perhaps the Prime Minister needs to lift herself above the policy language of Canberra and the complexities of public life to reconnect with the reasons that drove her into politics in the first place.

And not some banal, watered-down-for-public-consumption story about seeking “opportunity for all”, but a from-the-heart reconnection with the essence of Australia at an emotional level. Now that would be a story to tell.

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