A Faceless Strategy with a Public Face

Ben-Scott For a strategist that prides himself in statistical evidence and research methodology Karl Bitar listened too much to what he wanted to hear rather than what he needed to hear, writes Benjamin Scott.

“Just keep stirring the pot, you never know what will come up”, once quipped American political strategist Lee Atwater. Always a man to listen to the Republican supporter base and add a V8 engine to that research, these techniques delivered more than one American President for the Republican Party.

The Australian Labor Party is currently looking at a once pristine and all-Australian made V8 political machine which has been reduced to a Korean 4-cylinder.

It has been interesting to observe the ramifications of this as state apparatchiks and has-been hacks accuse the state and federal Labor organisations (and each other) of gross campaign incompetence. Much of this has been directed at current National Secretary or ‘Chief ALP faceless man’ Karl Bitar.

Karl Bitar is an interesting individual. An economics and research methodology graduate from the University of Sydney and former statistician at the Department of Education, Employment and Training during the Keating years, he knows plenty about political pain.

It may be surprising but the criticism levelled at him following the 2010 Federal Election surprises me. This is a political animal trained in the most hostile of political environments, with crumbling political power in his home state of NSW to a potentially disastrous scenario playing out in Canberra, yet he sought to ‘sandbag’ electorates and is now widely accused of doing so.  What is the big surprise here?

The big surprise was in the very sub-standard and inadequate results his usually impeccable research has produced for past ALP victories. Specifically for this occasion is the failed research they produced on his target…Tony Abbott.

From day dot, the ALP research and campaign machine sought to portray Tony Abbott as ‘unelectable’. This was a fatal mistake and it was a mistake that was recognised by their political opponents from a very early stage. This seemed to create a permanent ‘feedback loop’ to the remaining research and strategy for the ALP campaign. In political campaign terms, that in itself is like a cancer and is almost just as impossible to stop.

What is currently occurring amongst the ALP structure after this federal election is akin to removing a terminal cancer in a vital organ. If they fail, the ALP is facing a fatal outlook for future state and federal elections.

Perhaps the most ironic part of this clinical assessment is the fact that Karl Bitar is amongst the most intelligent and ruthless strategists the ALP may ever see. So why is he being crucified? The answer lies in research only just delivered to him. That he was listening to people who wanted to win rather than people who were telling him how to win. In other words and in a very crude sense, he listened far too much to ALP supporters rather than those voters in the marginal seats of QLD, NSW and WA that he was seeking to ‘sandbag’.

Of all things spoken about Karl Bitar both past and present, I doubt political commentators will accuse Mr Bitar of listening to the ALP base too much. But in reality, that is exactly what he did.

Benjamin Scott is the Inaugural Vice President of the Young LNP in Queensland, was an LNP campaign strategist in the last election and a former staffer to politicians at all levels of government. He now works as a Government Relations and Communications Manager in the private sector.

The Spoonman

Ben-Scott When it comes to a serious policy debate or true structural reform Kevin Rudd has proven that he is ‘The Spoonman’ of Australian Politics, writes Benjamin Scott.

Max Moore-Wilton has been given many an epithet. “The Axeman”, “Max the Axe”, “The Bureaucratic Terminator”. Okay, I made the last one up. Nonetheless, the respected corporate director and former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet reportedly struck fear into the heart of many a Canberra bureaucrat. As a believer in smaller government and less state intervention I suppose I’ve always considered these sorts of comments a compliment. Our current Prime Minister has also had his fair share of similar comments, mostly relating to staff turnover as opposed to any genuine reform or any net reduction in the bureaucracy. However, I have the sneaking suspicion that Mr Moore-Wilton’s only public policy crime was to deliver some of the more efficient, direct and honest reforms undertaken in the Australian Public Service.

As someone who is frequently tasked with unpacking government communication strategy (that is spin for unspinning the spin) I’ll be completely up front: I absolutely resent how 24 hour and real-time news cycles have resulted in a large net-negative for political debate and public policy in this country. Before I am accused of being completely and utterly politically naïve, I must reassure readers that I am well aware of the inevitable symbiotic relationship between government policy, political debate and the news cycle. It would be futile not to work with it. In fact, even if Nikki Savva is correct in her assessment that political journalism is not much more than a “modern day protection racket”, I still believe it is necessary to work with it. Where I draw the line is being totally controlled by it.

We need look no further than the current Australian Government for numerous examples of this. “Education Revolution”, “the greatest moral challenge of our time”, “root and branch reform” or “the buck stops with me”. These statements, taken on their immediate merit, all sound very worthwhile and admirable. Now take them and place them in the context of the current government and their policy positions. I’ll be gracious and go as far to say the majority of ministers in this government actually deliver the above lines extremely well on the rapidly changing political stage. Yet, it’s when one takes the time to see what is going on behind the curtains and backstage of these performances that we find not much more than a few make-up rooms, a script rehearsal area and a large props closet. Public policy initiatives and the associated communication of them by government have ceased to work with a news cycle; it is now totally controlled by it. The aforementioned sound bites are simply products of it.

Again, I am not so naïve as to suggest this notion has begun with the Rudd Government. This is hardly a new phenomenon as governments of all persuasions have implemented public policy that was influenced by the news cycle and popular opinion, to some degree. It is as old as democracy itself. The difference being those words “to some degree”. What I honestly believe as unique here is that never before have we seen a single government’s initiatives and public policy agenda wholly owned by a news cycle. Whilst there are many commendable efforts from public servants and other third parties to soften this worrying situation, it has quickly reached an unsustainable level and the government is beginning to wear the repercussions.

There is no profound secret to the appeal of a straight-talking Tony Abbott. As is there no doubt that Abbott’s approach visibly irritates Kevin Rudd and his ministers. Witness almost every Abbott announcement that is more often than not considered by mainstream commentary; those talkback listeners, letters to the editor which form suburban ‘kitchen cabinets’. It is here that you would be politically naïve in the extreme to begrudge a politician for utilising all communication strategies within reach to promote such an image. Fortunately for Tony Abbott, the image is also the reality whereas in Rudd’s case, it is far from reality. Yet no one is saying Kevin Rudd has to be a ‘straight-talker’ because we all know that he is not. His attempts to talk tough and direct, such as his comments regarding the “revolting” Bill Henson or a more recent issue of a few drops of oil spilt off the coast of Queensland, tend to totally miss the target and just come across as odd.

What is disastrous (even politically fatal) for Rudd is that whilst he has attempted to craft and then totally control the image, he has now become a victim of the news cycle and failed in his objective. In fact, it is the very news cycle producing the Rudd government’s agenda that has become the Prime Minister’s own worst nightmare.

Take every recent government debacle that has been substantial fodder for the news cycle and the Opposition over the last few months. From the ETS, to ignored safety warnings in the implementation of various government programs and the monumental wastage in the school hall projects right through to the so called “root and branch” Henry Tax Review which the Rudd Government managed to turn into a fig leaf. Recall the obfuscation, excuses and buck-passing of Ministers, all the way up to the Prime Minister. Even Rudd’s objective with the current health debate appears to begin and end with a political fight against unpopular state governments rather than any lasting reform.

However, they say ‘Max the Axe’ struck fear into the heart of many a Canberra bureaucrat. In fact,  Max Moore-Wilton was bestowed such a reputation by the bureaucracy and the media because his only real ‘crime’ was public policy considered unsensational to a media cycle yet was entirely admirable in its objective. Views such as this:

“Ministers and Departments do have an obligation not just to achieve the bottom line that is often the key outcome sought by private companies. We owe it to the community to establish public trust that we work with integrity and put public interest ahead of personal gain. Ensuring the transparency of our processes can focus our minds on the need for each individual decision we take to be justifiable in terms of strict propriety”

Personally, I would rather a Max ‘the Axe’ instigating a direct and honest series of reforms than a Kevin 07 still mouthing platitudes and replacing the entrepreneurial endeavours of private enterprise with the distortion of massive government spending. Recall again though, the excuses from Ministers on any number of its failed programs, the most recent being a remarkable trivialisation from the Treasurer in an interview with Ray Hadley, and Moore-Wilton’s message seems to be a very distant concept for the current Rudd Government.

This is a Prime Minister completely beholden and ultimately becoming victim to a news cycle that will still be here long after he is gone. If he still is, or indeed ever was that ‘nerd bureaucrat’ or ‘policy wonk’, he would have realised this long before now. Instead, Kevin Rudd has become The Spoonman of policy debate in this country, be it the welfare spoonfeeding or the series of blunted nothing statements. If Max Moore-Wilton’s only public policy crime was to deliver some of the more efficient, direct and honest reforms undertaken in the Australian Public Service, then Mr Rudd’s greater crime is to do no such thing.

Benjamin Scott is the Inaugural Vice President of the Young LNP in Queensland, was an LNP campaign strategist in the last election and a former staffer to politicians at all levels of government. He now works as a Government Relations and Communications Manager in the private sector. 

The Natural Party of Small Business

Ben-Scott Small business is ‘naturally’ forgotten by the Labor Party, writes Benjamin Scott.

“The natural party of opposition” and “The natural party of government”. Both are such bold statements, and whilst I sincerely hope the Australian Labor Party represents the former and The Liberal-National parties the latter, I must admit to not yet finding extensive or credible evidence for either.  Academics and commentators have written widely on the concept with numerous attempts to achieve validation using all sorts of electoral statistics in the history of Australian Federation. However, the idea of a ‘natural party of government’ remains elusive. Less so, is the concept of “natural constituencies” which raise many questions about political representation.

The Labor Party looks to highly unionised workforces as their natural constituency. Although, this has actually become increasingly debatable due to the effects of recent employment and environmental proposals that affect both the job prospects and quality of life of this constituency. In a paradoxical twist which commentators have long debated, it is apparent that activist and union movements contribute largely to the concept of the Labor Party being ‘the natural party of opposition’. It is largely a party of radical activism built to oppose. Some Labor operatives will admit in quiet moments that the party’s ignorant unwillingness to shift on its rigid IR legislation means it may one day finally claim the mantle as ‘the natural party of opposition’. 

Conversely, the Liberal-National parties have looked to the small business sector as a natural constituency. There are those who will argue that it is a fundamental philosophical basis that makes an individual ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ and it is these individuals who collectively form this natural constituency. I remind readers that there is an important section of Australian voters who actually do not vote along a hard philosophical line. I would also remind readers of that profound speech from Sir Robert Menzies citing the “forgotten people”, which continues to perfectly encapsulate Australia’s small business sector today. A case in point is the fact that Liberal-National politicians will readily acknowledge aspects of its past IR policies as ‘going too far’. Unlike Labor’s ignorance, inflexibility and stupidity on the serious issue of IR reform, this highlights the Liberal-National parties’ natural capacity to appeal to small business. Make no mistake, I feel it important as ever to reinvigorate politics through ideology and philosophy as that is truly the road to credible policy and better government. Politicians should never disregard this vital foundation. However, when we discuss representation we have moved a step beyond the realm of ideology and philosophy to a more mechanistic democratic concept.

If we look at the purely statistical snapshot of small business in Australia, leaving out its considerable extenuating social benefits, we see a compelling constituency:

• Approximately 1.93 million active small businesses in Australia.

• Small businesses make up 96 per cent of all businesses.

• Small businesses employing 3.8 million people, accounting for around 46 per cent of total private sector employment.

• More than 17,000 small businesses are exporting and just last year shipped goods estimated to be around $1.2 billion.

A compelling picture, even if we accept the view that small business contributes approximately 35 per cent of Australia’s total GDP, without considering what that percentage would be if we reduced an overspending and bloated government sector from the equation.  Even if we accept all these statistics, what we continue to see from the ALP’s philosophical and policy base is a systematic attack on an Australian’s right to go into business. Is it any wonder that small business detests the Labor Party’s obsession with centralisation and increased taxation as much as an Australian Liberal or Conservative should.

My colleague Mitch Redford, recently elucidated in his considered article, “A man in a suit with a grin, an army of bureaucrats and a wad of your cash” that the concept of taxation has morphed dramatically since inception. Ironically, whilst watching a news report on the resurgence of the ‘Tea Party’ libertarians and conservatives in the Unites States, I was reminded of one of the more interesting quotes I’ve discovered regarding the issue: “no taxation without representation”. Irrespective of your view regarding the movement or the statement, the presence of gigantic and complicated taxation systems have combined with bloated bureaucracies to muffle political representation. The actual quality in the political representation side of this equation is also, in itself, highly debatable. As are the numerous other effects of large and stifling bureaucratic entities that are killing small business in Australia. I am certain there is a potential PhD thesis in this. Possibly even a Rudd-like “polly-waffle” quarterly essay that investigates the historic parallels with the Boston Tea Party, the Thirteen Colonies and their fight for Independence pontificating on why the Labor Party are inherently against independence and simply ‘evil’. I will resist the temptation to do so.

Take an obvious example in the ETS, a monolith of a tax system not ever before seen; with previous estimates showing the small business community staring down the barrel of a minimum $1000 slug per household. Erased from the real economy and lost to Government coffers forever. An all-out assault on small business in Australia. Loaded in the second barrel and ready to fire on the small business constituency of Australia is rigid IR legislation. This will see vulnerable employees and casual workers, such as students, shown the door. Not for the fault of the struggling cafe or fruit shop owner, but for a Labor Party that perceive such people as ‘evil capitalists’ and a fundamentally flawed IR system that will cripple small businesses across the country. This constituency does not take lightly to attacks. Indeed, this natural constituency of the Liberal-National parties is once again looking for flexibility in the debate. 

As similar cries to “no taxation without representation” become increasingly muffled and distant even more convoluted taxation schemes, such as the ETS, rear their ugly head with the associated bureaucratic bloating. Or as Senator Barnaby Joyce refers to, the “battalions of bureaucratic tin gods on the quest for Australia to cool the planet”. It would serve the Liberal-National parties well to listen intently to the distant calls of an infamous ‘silent majority’ that primarily consists of small business, as they did with the ETS. The liberal and conservative side of Australian politics must never forget there will always be natural constituencies for political parties. More importantly it must recognise, in every possible way, that it has the most formidable natural constituency for a political party and that is the small business sector. Who knows, this may be the beginning in establishing evidence for “the natural party of government”. But that might be going too far.

Benjamin Scott is the Inaugural Vice President of the Young LNP in Queensland, was an LNP campaign strategist in the last election and a former staffer to politicians at all levels of government. He now works as a Government Relations and Communications Manager in the private sector.