10/06/2010 - 00:00

Where is the policy substance?

10/06/2010 - 00:00


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Good communication is a handy skill for political and business leaders, but it’s nothing if the substance is lacking.

I HAVE been bemused by the federal government’s response to its consistently poor showing in the opinion polls in recent weeks and months.

The recurring response from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and others is that the government needs to get better at communicating its message to the voters.

To some degree, this makes sense. Massaging its public relations and advertising spin is one thing the government can do with relative ease. It also helps if the government can quickly find a lazy $38 million to run an advertising campaign to defend its controversial tax package.

The much harder part is changing the substance of its policy record, yet surely that is where the fundamental problem lies.

The Rudd government lifted expectations prior to the last election, and continued doing so after it won power, and has failed spectacularly to deliver on many of its promises.

The voters of Australia are clearly frustrated by the wide gap between promise and delivery, judging by the latest opinion poll results, which show either a dead-heat at the next election or a coalition victory, something that seemed a near impossibility just a few months ago.

Looking closely at the polls shows that the coalition still has a tough battle ahead.

One of the most striking features of the polls is that the big parties’ combined vote is just 76 per cent, the lowest since May 2001.

Voters are not deserting Labor and going to the coalition, with many instead having gone to the Greens and other minor parties. It is likely that, on preferences, Labor will end up gaining the support of many of these disenchanted voters.

With the federal election due later this year, it will be a struggle for the Rudd government to significantly change perceptions, no matter how much it spends on advertising.

Its disinterest, or inability, to focus on the substantive policy issues is highlighted by a few recent events.

One has been the attack on Queensland mining entrepreneur Clive Palmer, who has been caricatured as the ugly face of capitalism. It’s a cheap shot for the government and might win it a few votes but does nothing to address the real issue.

Second has been the launch of a scare campaign against coalition leader Tony Abbott. Rather than trying to sell the positives of its own achievements, the government is seeking to frighten voters by raising the spectre of WorkChoices and other contentious policies supported by Mr Abbott.

Third has been the lame response of Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard when she was in Perth this week and asked about the resource super profits tax, which is undoubtedly the single most important policy issue facing the nation presently.

Ms Gillard is the second most senior member of the government, and someone who aspires to the leadership, yet she brushed off questions on the RSPT, saying that was the responsibility of Treasurer Wayne Swan.

Maybe Ms Gillard has read the political winds and doesn’t want to defend a tax proposal that the government is under enormous pressure to modify.

There is a loose parallel between the Rudd government’s woes and the pressure facing US president Barack Obama.

He is a renowned orator who captured the imagination of many Americans, and others, who voted for a fresh start at the last presidential election.

Since then, Mr Obama has found that brilliant communication skills are not enough.

The voters are looking for him to deliver substantive policy achievements, yet he has struggled to get his proposed reforms through a hostile Congress.

Back in Australia, Mr Rudd faces his own battles, trying to shake off an image of someone who backflips on the big policy issues, yet coming under more and more pressure to compromise on the mining super profits tax.

The longer he holds out, the harder it is likely to be for an effective compromise to be achieved, leaving voters with the prospect of a stark choice at the next election.



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