If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my marketing career, it’s that a brand does not belong to those who own it. Nike is not defined by what Nike chooses to say about Nike. Your local restaurant can claim to be sell the best meal in the city. But none of what they say matters nearly as much as how those who consume the brand identify with the brand. Perception is reality when it comes to branding. No one is ‘cool’ because they say they are. Even people’s personalities are a reflection of what others think their personalities are. Someone else decides you are shy and it doesn’t really matter what you think you are. If others see you as shy they will treat you like a shy person. People are cool because other people think are cool. People who try to be trendy are the least trendy. Trendy is other people’s perception of you.
It’s exactly the same with political narratives. I’ve been learning this the hard way by studying the political narratives of the major parties in relation to Labor’s mining tax. What I’m finding is that Labor did have a clear message when it came to the mining tax, but they never had a consistent narrative because the electorate never saw the mining tax the way Labor hoped they would. I’ve been reading everything Labor said about the mining tax from the day it was launched in May 2010 to the day Kevin Rudd was fired from the position of Prime Minister (an excruciatingly long seven weeks), and I’ve seen with my own eyes the effect that the electorate’s perception of the mining tax had on the Labor Party. In the first couple of weeks, Labor announced the policy with the confidence of people who think they’re going to be patted on the back. They felt they were the bearers of good news. But it all fell apart very quickly.
Why wouldn’t Labor expect to be congratulated for introducing the mining tax? Ordinary Australians were being told that their retirement savings would be pumped up at the expense of billionaires who would remain as billionaires while they chose to keep making billions out of mining. Every company in Australia was being offered a tax cut and small businesses were getting generous tax allowances on top of this. Infrastructure spending was increasing, equating to many new jobs in construction – an industry that employs thousands more people than mining and that has a much bigger multiplying effect on the economy. A super profits tax, by its very nature, does not affect jobs. The argument for the mining tax was sound and Labor communicated this argument clearly. The resources the billionaires were mining were owned by us. So why shouldn’t we see some benefit from them being pulled out of the ground, something that can only happen once? Why shouldn’t we each improve our own individual sovereign wealth fund, our superannuation account, during a once-in-a-generation mining boom?
The argument was sound. But for some reason, all Abbott had to do to oppose the mining tax was to say it would cost jobs (something which is completely untrue) and the whole Labor argument fell to pieces. The electorate preferred the doom and gloom negative message from Abbott which was dutifully reported as fact by an always-compliant-to-right-wing-messages-of-doom media. Even when the mining tax was still a popular policy, the electorate still turned on Labor and took the word of Abbott and his big-mining donors over the word of the Labor government. As soon as Labor realised they weren’t being patted on the back, their argument wobbled, and then cracked, and then broke. There was chaos. They lost confidence in what they believed in. If the electorate doesn’t want the mining tax, what do these ungrateful sods want? For Rinehart to keep getting richer while they all stagnate or get poorer? You can see it right there in Hansard. You can feel the Labor government pulling their hair out in despair. Their mining tax argument died because the electorate didn’t buy it. The narrative is owned by the people, not the government. The perception of the policy is owned by the voters. And once they decide they don’t like it, there’s very little you can do, or more importantly, say to change that.
There’s a lesson in this for Abbott. Not that he’s the type to learn lessons. I’ve seen right wing commentators, and even members of Abbott’s governments complaining that they need a better narrative. But a narrative is just a reflection of the story voters are seeing rolled out in front of them through everything the government does. Every policy announcement. Every policy outcome. Every press conference, every interview, every comment. All of this shows people the story of the government. You can’t fake it because it is what it is. You can manicure your Facebook profile to look like you have a glamourous, exciting, interesting life, but if your life is ordinary, unglamorous and run-of-the-mill, your Facebook friends aren’t going to be fooled. And the electorate hasn’t been fooled by Abbott. He can say all he likes about what his government stands for. He can sprout three word slogans like ‘open for business’ and he can promise a grown up government and one who takes responsibility for their actions. He can also try to focus on the parts of his first year which he thinks were successful, and hope that everyone forgets all the bad bits. But there’s no lying because we’re all here. We can see the economic figures which show the country is worse off than it was under the Labor government. We’ve watched Abbott break promises. We know we don’t like university deregulation or the end of universal health care or cuts to the ABC or innumerable other policies which have been inflicted on an unsuspecting electorate. Abbott can try to justify his cuts to welfare as good for the economy, but we can all see these are ideological attacks, inconsistent with the Australian value of fairness and egalitarianism.
People need to stop talking about the narrative as if it’s something that can be manufactured to justify behaviours of the past. Everyone’s personal story is told in the way they conduct their lives and a political narrative is no different. Abbott’s narrative of petty ideological revenge on his political enemies is as clear as day to anyone who cares to look. We own Abbott’s narrative and there’s nothing he can do about it except to change his behaviour. He’s made it clear he has no plan to do that. So his ever growing unpopularity will continue to increase. And his government will be voted out after its first term because of it.