Friday, 22 February 2013

It's not about good policy or effective government, it's about the "narrative"

This picture represents what Waleed Aly thinks is important for political parties to look like to the public. Aly published a clever piece today in the Fairfax media about how Labor has apparently "lost the plot" and the "narrative" ever since ... Well, ever since Hawkie's market liberalisations. Then Howard got in and stayed in because, well, he had a "narrative" didn't he. Then there was the Ruddbot who adopted the Labor Right's poll-driven flip-flopping and subsequently fell at the hands of that same power bloc within Labor. (Live by the sword ...) Then along comes Gillard who gets the independents onside after the 2010 election, beating Abbott squarely in the negotiation stakes, and proceeds to get passed through Parliament a huge quantity of legislation despite howls of protest from the Coalition, who think the political settlement is "illegitimate". Then Gillard announces the date of the 2013 election and her poll numbers crash faster than a shot galah and, suddenly, she's got no "narrative".

As if having "narrative" was what government is about. I thought it was about serving the public interest. Silly me.

The thing that Aly points to is the media's decision to turn against Gillard because she doesn't give them what they need: a consistent story. Gillard's pragmatism and consensus-style method of governing is too messy, too much like work, too short on conflict, too ... real. What the journos want is biffo, and if they don't get it from the PM they'll manufacture it, so two ministers resigning just after Gillard announced the election date becomes part of a wider problem within the Labor caucus. Signs of internal disaffection. That fits the narrative, which is ... Leadership change!

Gillard's success making laws does her no good; there's no "narrative". Don't be effective, be controversial. It's funny how if Labor is the middle ground politically, stuck firmly between the Greens on one side and the Coalition on the other, it "stands for nothing"? This all just seems odd, as if we hate pragmatism, hate ourselves. Hate our routine existence, one unleavened by the drama of explosive success, of revenge consummated, of foes cut down in a dramatic denouement. It's important to point out that it's not the media's fault alone, although you can justifiably accuse the practitioners in it of a certain lack of imagination. The fact is that these are the types of narratives we tell ourselves as we walk down the street, either clothed in fear or in excitement. They are what we recognise as stories, and journalists try to give us something that resembles them. But catering to this need has got nothing at all to do with government, good policy, accommodation, compromise. Giving ground is seen to be weak. Better for your image to take a polar position, but better for the country? Politicians are forced into these decisions by the community's expectations and mental habits.

Somehow, no matter how effective and useful you are, you have to be a bastard. You have to have something that people hate. If you're like Howard, you have something people hate but in such a way as nobody can touch you. The lesson for Gillard from all this is: be more of a bastard. Invite hatred. Welcome it. The punters won't like you unless they can hate you. The trick is in correctly choosing what you are to be hated for.


Anonymous said...

This critique of Waleed's piece assumes he was talking about why the #media has turned against Labor. But Waleed wasn't talking about that so much as why #Labor hasn't managed to capture the support of the people in general. There is very good social theory that explains why a coherent #narrative is important - Hard for people to understand the benefits of good future focused social policy unless there is.

TeddyC said...

Very well written.Thanks!

Jenny B said...

i take on board some of Waleed's assumptions, but it is clear that no matter how the Labor party proceeds on any policy, negotiating with an extraordinary diverse group of players, the MSM has decided to crucify them. There is no clear air for policies to be discussed rationally. The opposition are a mindless bunch of rabble whose only aim is to destroy the parliament