The long view
As Laurie Oakes retires, politicians could do worse than reflect on history
When you go on TV it is your interview. You are under no compulsion to answer what you have been asked. You are there to use the opportunity to fulfil our objectives. You are there to use the media. Just as they will use you, if you let them, for their objectives – whether they be political, or simply in pursuit of controversy or “bright” television. Remember, 30 to 45 seconds, say what you want to say, and say it every time you appear.
That is from a document prepared by an advertising agency for the Labor Party. It’s not exactly surprising, because we’ve all seen this behaviour on display. But it’s still mildly shocking to see it put so bluntly.
But before Labor MPs panic about this awful leak, or Liberals get excited at a much-needed change in their fortunes, the other thing you should be aware of is that I came across it in a book of columns by Laurie Oakes, who is retiring from the Canberra press gallery this week, and that that particular column dates from 1980.
Because we’re so accustomed to such tactics, we tend to think of them as normal, if frustrating. But actually it’s incredible. Almost four decades later, and with technology and viewing habits having warped beyond recognition, our politicians are still using the same tricks. Advice like this, almost word-for-word, is still provided. I know, because I’ve distributed some of it myself.
Without referring to that advice, Oakes made this point himself on the weekend, in his final column [$]:
Voters are not mugs and have learned to spot the tricks politicians use – evasions, scripted talking points, giving answers unrelated to questions asked.
Those tricks, honed in media training courses as politicians became more risk averse in the television age, have gradually become counter-productive thanks to television.
It is glaringly obvious to almost everybody now that a bit of straight talking works much better on TV than pollie-speak and dishonest shuffling, but it’s taking politicians and their minders a long while to adjust.
Having been a minder, I know how most will react to that piece of advice: “It’s a good theory, and it might even work in practice, but it’s a massive risk to take.” Politics is funny like that. In business, every innovation is adopted, for fear of falling behind. In politics, the old ways linger on, because nobody wants to be the first to make a new type of mistake. Far better to keep making the old ones, is the general attitude. At least that way you don’t invite ridicule.
I’m being unfair to staffers, many of whom may wish their bosses would change their styles. The truth is that even if it were suggested, it is very difficult for a politician who has spent a decade or several doing things one way to suddenly alter their habits. And that is now all of them: every federal politician now serving was elected in the 1990s or after.
This is a long way of saying two things. First, that, unsurprisingly, Oakes is right, and that the first leader of a political party to take his advice will get a windfall in public support.
The second thing is that an attention to history is an invaluable tool in politics. It’s one thing to say, “Yes, but this is the way everyone does it.” It’s another to suddenly recognise you’re employing tactics the public has been watching for 40 years.
This is an important point because Parliament House is, almost by definition, awash in inexperience. Staffers, who exert a large influence on events because they have access to politicians and play a role in controlling what information reaches their bosses, are very often young, as I was when I worked in government. This is likely always to be the case, because of the family-unfriendly demands of the job.
But it’s not just staff. Should the Coalition lose the next election, there will be a mass clean-out of MPs with ministerial experience. Because Labor retains many of its ministers from the Rudd–Gillard years, it will experience a similar renewal within a decade.
There is no substitute for experience, but in its absence a deep knowledge of history is the next best thing.
In a column from 1976, Oakes lamented the public’s distaste for the Constitution, noting that “the Constitution is still about power – who wields it, and how much they wield – and therefore it is of relevance to us all. The difficulty lies in convincing people how important this is.” If the Coalition had read that a while ago, this week might have looked very different. If more people were familiar with the Constitution there would have been less surprise at the prime minister’s early recall of parliament last year.
Or how about these words, “It has been my view for a long time that Mr Hawke’s best chance of becoming prime minister was to face an election as soon as possible after becoming Labor leader … Once Mr Hawke has to start taking firm positions, expounding detailed policies, actually making decisions … he will begin to alienate some people. The longer he is leader, the more difficult he will find it to be all things to all men – and all women. That is inevitable.”
That was in 1983, but substitute “Turnbull” for “Hawke” and it applies equally well to 2016.
My point here isn’t that Oakes is a Cassandra. The truth is that history never repeats exactly. Historical lessons must be loosely applied.
But anyone working in politics who doesn’t take advantage of the opportunities to gather what they can from history is a mug. Politicians often barrel along as though they’re the first to have confronted particular difficulties, when that is rarely the case.
Looking at Oakes’ book made me wish for more collections of columns by our greatest political analysts. But it’s not just columns. Go and read The Victory by Pamela Williams, or The End of Certainty by Paul Kelly, or Michelle Grattan’s edited book on prime ministers, or, in a different genre, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart by former speechwriter Don Watson. Space prevents me from going on.
It may seem, these days, that history is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake, as that other James Joyce – not Barnaby’s father – put it. But history can also be a way to wake ourselves, if we pay it proper attention. It doesn’t hold all the answers, but then what does? Politics, governing, journalism and engaging fully in a democracy are all difficult things. We must use the few clues we are given.
In other news
- The Immortals, a photo. And Laurie Oakes’ last appearance on the Today Show.
- Pauline Hanson is an idiot (though this is putting it too flippantly), but George Brandis is an unexpected hero. Eric Abetz is also an idiot.
- Citizenship fiasco: More possible challenges. “Despair” [$] in the Coalition. James Campbell says Bishop is overrated, and ridicule is deadly. Level-headed wisdom from Mark Kenny on accepting government assertions. Niki Savva says Joyce is not to blame, but 2017 is a write-off [$]. Greg Sheridan on the damage to foreign policy [$]. Labor’s counterattack plan.
- Stagnant wages.
- Yarra Council in Melbourne is seeking a meeting with the assistant immigration minister over the Australia Day controversy.
- Marriage equality: Christine Forster presents the yes case. ABS workers have “grave doubts” the postal plebiscite can be managed well. Also, the ABS will let us know if the results are rubbish.
- The role of Australian intelligence [$] in the killing of Khaled Sharrouf.
- US: The latest Trump crisis.
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