Parliament is theatre. It has to be. Those who line up opposite each other in the House of Representatives for the opening of the 44th Australian Government have script in hand, yes, but they seek to perform, to have the allusive ‘something more’.
Something more gets you noticed. Something more makes journalists glance down to check they are definitely recording. Something more turns shorthand into bold print.
It was in pursuit of something more that led to the address of the Rt. Hon. Bill Shorten MP as ‘Electricity Bill’ and the later address, albeit outside the House of Representatives, of the Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Tony Abbot MP, as ‘Typhoon Tony’.
The Sydney Morning Herald described it as a slide ‘down the mud bank and back into the pit’ having scrambled to reach a high moral ground; The Guardian declared it fundamentally about lacking manners; the Rt. Hon. Tony Burke MP, in his attempt to get ‘Electricity Bill’ ruled out of order, described it as ‘cheap schoolyard name-calling’.
It is not schoolyard name-calling because, and herein lays the crux of this issue, ‘Electricity Bill’ was not aimed at Bill Shorten; ‘Typhoon Tony’ was not aimed at the Prime Minister – both were aimed at the press gallery. They are sound bites, hence why there is currently 40 000 Google returns on ‘Electricity Bill Shorten’. Yet appealing to the media so as to communicate with the public is different to communicating with the public and allowing journalists to inform.
If undertaking the former, you work in real time, in ‘the now’ just as the media does. You have to command their present, their online, their tomorrow’s in-print: next week does not matter. Aim communication at the public and you have to engage, next week does matter, so you have to be strategic, think of the longer term: less front page splash more the drip-drip-drip of a consistent approach.
So to prevent what The Australian declared a ‘brawl’ is to communicate not to the press gallery, rather to the public gallery – the elderly person seeking respect, the business seeking confidence, the family seeking security. The ‘something more’ that makes a journalist lean forward, has to come through a strategy of seeking to communicate a compelling narrative to the electorate first, the media second – not the other way around.
Take the Government’s strategy for repealing of the Carbon Tax: objective, repeal the Carbon Tax; strategy, emphasise cost savings to Australian families/businesses; tactics, align Bill Shorten to higher electricity bills, hence ‘Electricity Bill’.
If ‘Electricity Bill’ is a communication tactic used to achieve the Carbon Tax objective, how does a government communicate other issues to the electorate: the boats, the deficit, infrastructure, the environment? Will Bill’s nickname change to suit? Of course not, but short-termism, working too much in the present to appeal to the press, will lead to a neglect of strategy and whilst the electorate will hear a lot of noise, they will not know what the government stands for.
Constant refining strategy focused on communicating to the electorate first, whilst reinforcing characteristics of good government (stability, consistency), will lead to a much greater prize than column inches – trust. When the dust settles, the newspapers recycled, and webpages refreshed, nicknames are forgotten, but the party that earns trust and communicates strategically to establish true credibility, will be the electorate’s first, be it ‘Trustworthy Tony’ or ‘Believable Bill’.