By JAMILA RIZVI
Tonight is a big night for Julia Gillard and her Government.
It’s tempting to say that this Budget is Labor’s last chance to gain enough goodwill to have any shot of winning the September 14 election. But in all good conscience, I can’t.
Despite the dramatic effect that such a declaration might bring: the reality is that Tony Abbott and the Coalition have almost certainly already got this in the bag.
Enough political commentators have had their say on that matter: Endless column inches, air and screen time and mind numbing 20 second sound bites have been dedicated to distilling exactly what it is that has turned the electorate so violently against Gillard and Labor.
Perhaps, it was the change of direction on the carbon tax; a so-called ‘lie’ that undid a previously popular government. Perhaps, it was the way Gillard became Prime Minister in the first place; an overnight leadership switch that many Australians didn’t realise was permissible.
Perhaps, Labor were irreparably damaged by the Craig Thompson saga, or the poor handling of Peter Slipper’s elevation to speaker, or the seemingly endless leadership tensions. Perhaps, it was a skilled Opposition who were able to spin a narrative of political chaos (even when it didn’t really exist); a Government that was fumbling its way from one mishap to the next.
Or perhaps it was none of these things. At least not in isolation.
Perhaps, it has been the failure of the Gillard Government to articulate the all important ‘why’.
What do I mean by that?
This inspirational TED talk is one of the most watched of the whole series. In it, Simon Sinek explains the difference between a good organisation and a great one. While speaking primarily in the sphere of business, he explains ‘why some organisations and some leaders are able to inspire, where others aren’t.’ Take a look (if you’re short on time, just watch from 2.05 to 5.30)
And that, my friends, is where the Gillard Government appears to have gone so disastrously off course.
The electorate knows what governments do. They build our roads, they fund our schools, they implement our laws, they administer our health systems, they police our streets etc etc. They do the things that keep our country ticking, that protect us from harm, that ensure ongoing peace and security and that prepare us for a future of unknowns.
And most voters have an appreciation that left and right wing governments go about the business of governing a little differently; how these governments operate is different. Their approach to the same problem – even when desirous of the same outcome – will not be the same. They have different styles of management; different modus operandi.
But elections are not won and lost on the how and the what.
They are won and lost on the why.
As Sinek explains, building true brand identity (and consequently, loyalty to that brand) has nothing to do with what you make and how you make it – it has to do with why you exist in the first place.
And the same is true in politics.
There are very few truly ‘single issue’ voters. And it is unusual for voting intention to be dictated on the operational, detail-orientated level of how a policy will be implemented. What an electorate wants to know and understand about its government is their very reason for being. As Sinek puts it “What’s your purpose, what’s your cause, what’s your belief. Why does your organisation exist?”
And while Gillard and her deeply passionate colleagues might know the answer to these questions, the reality is that the public are confused about why the Australian Labor Party exists.
A historical nod to the unions, a factional system that is more complex than the Da Vinci code, complicated loyalties and a progressive but seemingly inconsistent bent. The ALP prides itself on being a ‘broad church’ but in part, that has led to an electorate that doesn’t understand what the party is about.
And just as a business’ reason for being cannot just be ‘to make money’, a political party’s reason for being cannot just be ‘to get into government’. Nor can it just be ‘to keep the other guys out’.
And for many disillusioned voters, who are desperately looking for something to believe in, ‘we’re better than the alternative’ seems to be all the politics game is about right now.
Labor have performed efficiently and effectively on the what.
And while each of us is perfectly entitled to agree or disagree with each individual policy decision and direction – love them or hate them – the Labor Party have got the job done.
500+ pieces of legislation passed in a little over 30 months. A Government hanging on by a thread in the parliament but still making the important reforms they set out to make.
Unemployment at or around 5 per cent, a paid parental leave scheme, increases to the aged pension, the school kids bonus, more funding for universities, an increased child care rebate, pay rises for the community sector, more money for superannuation and a rental affordability scheme.
But why did they do it? What is their purpose, their core, their belief, their reason for being?
I’m not sure that voters understand that about Labor.
Why? Because nobody has taken the time to tell them.
In stark contrast, the Coalition have provided barely any specifics about what they intend to do in Government. We know that their surpluses will apparently be bigger, and their promised number of created jobs greater, and we know what they’re against – boats, broadband and Great Big New Taxes.
Buuuuut, that’s about it. They’re not exactly heavy on the detail re: how said boats will be stopped and the broadband ripped up, or what they’re going to cut when they don’t have that tax revenue to rely on any more.
But what we do know is the why. Because Abbott has been incredibly successful in communicating to the Australian public why he wants to be Prime Minister.
And it is so much more than a policy promise – it’s a purpose.
People have responded to a spirit of governance, to an approach, to a goal, to a vision. And while it is almost unbelievable that that vision has been so joyously embraced with barely any substance to back it up – it’s worked.
Tonight is a big night for Julia Gillard and her Government. Because while the election is probably a done deal, there are still millions of Australians out there who are searching for a reason to believe in Labor and in progressive politics.
The Labor Government have achieved a great deal. Julia Gillard has been an excellent Prime Minister and despite the hellish time she has had, she has an awful lot to be proud of.
It will be an easy trap for the Government to fall into; to get bogged down in communicating the detail and the implementation of their final budget rather than it’s purpose. Hopefully that isn’t what happens tonight .
Her government has done many things for this country and can be confident that the history books will be kinder to her than the current media cycle has.
But the Government has fundamentally failed to communicate its purpose. They have not taken the time to explain to the people it needs to fight alongside it, why they’re fighting in the first place.
And Labor owes it to their own legacy to do that better.
Political disclaimer: Jamila has previously worked for the Rudd and Gillard Governments.