Many Liberals thought budget week was absolutely terrific for the government and Bill Shorten’s budget reply speech wasn’t much chop, but one sharp-eyed government MP made an acute observation.
He felt the Labor leader used his big moment on Thursday night to speak directly to the people, while the government persisted in talking to the nation.
While this was a fleeting, in the moment, reaction, the hot take is acute because Shorten almost won the last federal election by doing just that, while Malcolm Turnbull spoke more abstractly through the long cold winter in 2016 about jobs and growth, revealing an empathy deficit that, much to his astonishment, almost cost him the Lodge.
There are some signs the government is trying to humanise its communications. Scott Morrison periodically breaks up his pursed-lipped hectoring of his various interlocutors, or his lobotomising, Trumpesque ad hominem attacks (#UnbelievaBill) with attempts at anecdotal economic messaging, highlighting real-world impacts of government decisions, case studies and the like.
If you’ve missed what I’m talking about, and you are interested, chase up Morrison’s speech to the National Press Club the day after the budget and you’ll see an example.
But while it’s clear some on the government benches are attempting to look less remote, not everyone is sure the right lessons have been learned from the near-death experience in 2016.
As one person puts it, senior figures are focused obsessively on Shorten being a liability because the voters don’t like him and, in the search for the knockout blow, they are not paying enough attention to the resonance of Labor’s policy pitch, or coming up with cut-through ways to rebut and redirect the conversation onto their own territory.
Some also believe that while ever the big business tax cuts remain a live option – however much that objective might remain core business for a centre-right political party – there is little prospect of voters buying the empathy experiments.
Politics is about to burst out of its own suffocating hothouse and hit the streets. A string of byelections will produce a bruising real-world testing ground over the coming month or so.
While byelections are always difficult terrain for governments – the last time a government took a seat from an opposition was actually more than a century ago – the field evidence from marginal seats will give us feedback about which political leader is better aligned with the zeitgeist.
For both Turnbull and Shorten, there will be nowhere to hide from these verdicts. Turnbull needs to show nervous colleagues the government has turned a corner, and Shorten needs to reassure his colleagues he’s not a barrier to people voting Labor when the main event happens later this year or early next.
Everybody watching politics right now can see just how brutal the contemporary game is. Both these leaders are secure in their jobs for as long as colleagues believe they can win. That’s how long a piece of string gets.
The past week has revealed a few things. On the positive side for the Coalition, as well as the budget being the first time the government has attempted to appeal to people earning less than about $90,000 (if these same people are prepared to ignore the government’s longer-term objective of making the tax system more “aspirational”, read less progressive), it was the first time in five budgets that I’ve seen any evidence of the government having an active communications strategy, both in the run-up to the budget and in budget week itself.
Some of that was just better preparation, with key decisions locked down weeks in advance. But it also points to the fact that people in the bunker are focu​sing on improving the government’s match fitness and its capacity to be battle ready for an election season.
Perhaps having a plan could go some way to addressing the collective lack of an attention span, which is one of the standout weaknesses of this government: their inability to focus and prosecute a basic case, day in and day out.
This is a small development, a little ripple on a pond and no more, given a marketing strategy doesn’t move a product no one wants to buy – but it’s interesting.
Labor did this week what was broadly expected. It outbid the government on income tax cuts for its heartland, while energetically stoking the incipient fairness narrative around the budget, assisted by respectable analyses pointing out the largesse flowed ultimately in the direction of the top end.
But while the Labor leader’s tax cut spitball flew further than the government’s, Shorten also took a bath on the dual citizenship imbroglio, and rightly so.
Shorten wears this issue in a couple of ways. The Labor leader went after the government with vigour when it ran into trouble with the cursed section 44, apparently imagining there would be no rebound on his own side from the politicking. In pursuing the short-term sugar hit, he exposed his own people, and the results of that were felt with force this week.
Shorten also exposed himself, leaving himself wide open to the critique of short-termism and opportunism which was levelled against him by opponents with some relish after the high court handed down its verdict in the Katy Gallagher decision.
It was a miscalculation. Perhaps it will just disintegrate in the daily cacophony as so much does; perhaps it will stick.
While I referenced at the start of the column the folks in the government concerned the full-frontal character attacks on Shorten are counterproductive and a distraction from the main game – some in Labor believe their leader is vulnerable on that front and think the Coalition can leverage the story in the coming byelections given the voting public is heartily over the dual citizenship circus.
Voters have been inclined to be sympathetic to incumbents booted out because of the dual citizenship fracas, but the patience of voters can’t be infinite. If people are getting testy, there is some potency associated with emphasising the point that the Labor leader wanted his MPs under a cloud to remain in the parliament for as long as humanly possible, because ... well ... politics.
It really is a cluttered world for politicians. Everybody knows it is difficult to gain the attention of voters. Everyone is always on the hunt for a magic bullet.
Back at the tail end of the Labor government, during the period of Julia Gillard’s prime ministership, a fellow called John McTernan was brought in to run the press shop.
McTernan arrived at the tail end of the carbon pricing policy which Tony Abbott was hell-bent on destroying. In an effort to try and simplify the government’s communications and revive its battered political fortunes, McTernan was fond of saying “cashy cashy cashy” to colleagues with his mild Scottish burr.
This wasn’t some weird code word, it was an instruction for the top-line messaging to focus on the hip pocket rather than the complexities of the clean-energy package. The reform was accompanied by compensation: reductions in income tax and increases to government payments, including the pension. McTernan wanted the government to focus on that message as an antidote to its own accumulated baggage.
While opinion polls have shown consistently voters favour well-funded services over a fistful of dollars in the form of tax cuts, election results suggest that at the right points in time, voters will take the bird in the hand.
Labor did of course try to invoke “cashy cashy cashy” but to little avail. No corner was turned, voters weren’t persuaded, and its own problems ultimately consumed it.
Brace yourselves for months of “cashy cashy cashy”. The question is can either side convert it into a winning message?