17/10/2012 - 10:36

Barnett, McGowan and a worm that turns

17/10/2012 - 10:36

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The candidate who connects with the public on ‘big picture’ issues could take the spoils come election night.

The candidate who connects with the public on ‘big picture’ issues could take the spoils come election night.

A STRANGE thing happened with the worm during the leaders’ debate at the last state election that went largely unnoticed.

The worm is a real-time onscreen measure of how people are responding to what our political leaders are espousing during the debate. Selected members of the audience turn a dial either upwards or downwards, depending on whether they like what they are hearing.

The cumulative results of voter sentiment then appear on our television screens as a wormy line that is either tracking upwards or downwards – it’s all very scientific.

I make reference to this event because we are witnessing a similar measure of voter acceptability playing out on TV screens across the US in the lead-up to next month’s presidential election.

When our own state election campaign kicks off in earnest in the New Year, Colin Barnett and Mark McGowan will participate in a leaders’ debate and be subject to the vagaries of the worm in deciding the winner and who will be judged the ‘better’ leader.

What was illuminating during our last leaders’ debate was that the worm’s responses went north when then premier, Alan Carpenter, and current premier and Liberal leader, Colin Barnett, spoke about why they wanted the top job.

I recall that both aspirants seemed to get the biggest kick when they spoke not about law and order or health or pitched some policy or other, but when they spoke with passion and commitment about their own motivations.

State politics, on the whole, is a very ‘vanilla’ business. It’s mostly preoccupied with: budgets, bureaucracy and programs; the never-ending self-justifying promotion of ‘achievements’; excuses for failures; and the inevitable ‘blame it on the other guy’ nonsense.

This is a real turn-off for voters who should be forgiven for being cynical, bored and dismayed at the constant ‘tit-for-tat’ approach to political debate. 

During the past few years, our political discussion has been characterised by our political leaders constantly seeking to exploit the failings and shortcomings of others as a means of creating a viable point of difference.

State Labor says the premier is old and out of touch (which is incredibly ageist), while the Liberals point to Labor’s past track record in front of the Corruption and Crime Commission and the mess that is federal Labor.

Our political leaders don’t seem very interested in playing to their own strengths, agenda and vision. 

Businesses work hard at promoting their unique selling proposition to distinguish themselves from their competition. Their focus is on their strengths, and the really successful ones are best at getting us to understand and accept their true sense of purpose.

Mostly they don’t play the man; they play their own game.

Successful businesses and business leaders seek to raise our expectations and then work damn hard at meeting or exceeding them. 

In the US, Barack Obama is floundering because he isn’t meeting the expectations he created four years ago.

But in this pre-election environment, our politicians seem to be spending all their time lowering our expectations (which seems to come naturally) and then telling us to support them because the other team is even worse.

Our political choices aren’t between good and great; they are between bad and worse.

At the time of writing, the Labor Party is still asking us to wait for its policy details because it’s frightened of being drawn into having to either promote or defend their aspirations for our community.

It reckons it’s got some good ideas about what’s important, it just hasn’t worked them out yet or the narrative with which to communicate it.

The government, on the other hand, is preoccupied by the day-to-day problems of governing and wondering what curve ball the police commissioner or Treasury is going to throw at it.

Among all this noise, nothing seems very clear or relevant to people going about their daily lives.

The government talks about how busy it is in delivering the ‘big picture’, but I’m still waiting for someone to tell me exactly what it is and how it relates to the issues and concerns that are important to me.

Politics, whether state or federal, is supposed to be about the battle of ideas supported by strong and articulate leadership – creating a sense of common purpose that excites and motivates.

Instead, the future direction of the state is being bogged down in arguments about where a sports stadium should be built and how much it’s going to cost. 

More troubling for the government is that the community is starting to question the commitment to these big-vision projects at a time when the budget is being cut placing at risk the things people really care about, such as law and order, health and education.

This is a real problem for the Liberal Party, particularly in its own heartland of the western suburbs where two Liberal independent candidates last week announced they would be contesting the blue ribbon seats of Cottesloe and Nedlands.

While it would take something of an electoral tsunami for Colin Barnett to lose his seat, Bill Marmion could find things a bit tight, given that his seat has been held by an independent in the past.

What is hurting the government is the lack of a compelling narrative that speaks of the government’s commitment to making Perth and Western Australia a better, fairer and more equitable place to live.

The time is fast approaching for our political leaders to speak to us of their motivations and vision for our state beyond bricks and mortar, and how they intend to deliver those opportunities.

Whether its Colin Barnett or Mark McGowan – whoever does this better may just make the worm turn in his favour come March next year.

• Paul Plowman is a former head of the state government’s media office and is currently MD at Plowman & Co, which specialises in business-to-government relations. 


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