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Selling The Carbon Tax: Less Is More

Julia Gillard should have stayed in bed this week, for all the good her carbon tax campaigning did.

In fact, she ought to just shut up about the carbon tax and get on with something else.

This week smacks of the same hopeless political strategy that Rudd and Gillard have fallen for before, the strategy that says you have to run around the country like a maniac and never shut up.

It’s also the strategy that gives Tony Abbott a daily free kick as the media treat the circus like an election campaign and give him equal time.

Take Gillard’s appearance at the National Press Club yesterday. Her speech on climate change was quite good, but it was overshadowed by the personal development lecture from the Unley High school girl.

Last night’s television pictures duly centred on Gillard’s teary moment and her injunction to the press gallery to “stop writing crap”. Forget about any coverage of the economic imperatives of the carbon tax.

That argument was left to Paul Keating who, in 20 minutes on Lateline, managed to put the case better than any minister in the Government has managed for years. In that inimitable style of his, Keating positioned the tax as a necessary response to a transformative need in the economy. As an advocate, he shamed the Government with his easy command of striking political imagery.

It reinforced the sense of another wasted week for the Government.

Consider some of the silly moments that could have been avoided.

On Wednesday we had the Brisbane housewife whose civic disposition is such that she takes a political placard with her on a shopping trip.

The “most incompetent government since Whitlam”, it read. It so enraged another woman that the two of them engaged in a slanging match about the definition of a mandate.

It says something that this incident in a shopping concourse can be broadcast as a lead item on every television channel in the nation. Two women argue in a shopping centre. Stop the presses!

At the other end of the country on the same day, in the Melbourne bayside suburb of Frankston, there was another faint whiff of a well-planned spontaneous demonstration when a member of the Australian Greens decided to turn up at a public forum organised by the Liberal Party.

Booed by the audience for expressing support for the carbon tax, the young woman was interrogated by loyal Liberals who established that she was a blow-in. The outsider was duly pursued down the street by the champions of freedom.

The incident was, of course, recorded by television cameras and the scene of the woman sobbing into her mobile phone for someone to come and take her away was broadcast on the evening news on every channel.

The thuggery and incivility of the woman’s tormentors was rightly condemned all round, but forgive me if I point out that her made-for-television moment was a sign that you don’t have to be an electioneering politician to pull a stunt.

The average “punters” – as an ABC presenter patronisingly described the citizenry – are trying their hand at the same game of manufacturing conflict and confrontation in the pursuit of colourful pictures. They know the media will slobber over these “events” and report them as if they mean something.

But accepting the rules of the game for what they are, the prize for best-stunt-of-the-week goes to the other Brisbane woman who bailed up Julia Gillard and demanded to know why she had lied to us. Her two minutes of fame are likely to be remembered long after the other sideshows have faded from memory.

The encounter highlighted Gillard’s continuing problem in the trust department, the issue that cruels the pitch every time she talks about climate change policy.

The encounter killed Gillard’s message for the day and also showed everything that grates about her.

She repeatedly touched the woman on the arm as if to reassure her. Robot-like, she launched into her stock-standard lines about her commitment to “pricing carbon”. Her questioner was treated to a mini-lecture on how to get to an emissions trading scheme via a short-term fixed price. The woman made it clear she had heard all the lines before and was having none of it, carefully timing her interjections to knock the prime minister off course.

Throughout the painful encounter, the Labor member for Moreton, Graham Perrett, stood beside his leader like a bunny caught in the spotlight, occasionally sticking his head up to offer a line that might assist Gillard out of the hole she refused to stop digging. He was simply slapped down by the woman, presumably one of his constituents, with a dismissive, “I’m not stupid”.

Raising her hand at him like a teacher in reprimand mode, she hushed him at one point with a stern, “do you mind?” Perrett stood silently for the rest of the time, a sickly wan smile fixed to his face. He knew his moment on TV with his leader was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

But if the angry voter reminded me of an in-control school teacher, I realised Gillard reminded me of the teacher who can’t gauge her audience, the one who doesn’t know which switch to pull when the kids get stroppy.

Every student in every school knows who the good teachers are. They know who’s on top of their material. They can sense genuine enthusiasm and commitment. They punish those who find it impossible to deviate from the prepared lesson plan.

Indeed, we all know when we’re in the presence of someone who really knows their stuff. You sense it in a person’s comfort with interruption and diversion. The person in command of their subject is capable of darting off down a tangent and coming back again in triumph, having found a new way to explain their point. They offer variation, humour and a touch of showmanship in their performance.

Keating was a master of this. John Howard could do it, albeit without the pyrotechnics. Both men could turn a question to their advantage. Gillard seems incapable.

Like too many of this current breed of parliamentarians, she speaks the language of process. The arcane jargon of the political insiders and the institutional policy-makers fits her like a glove. But talk to an ordinary voter and it all falls flat. Don’t forget this week began with Gillard’s Sunday night address to the nation in all its sing-song, repetitive, condescending glory.

In another television appearance on Sky News, she took questions from self-professed swinging voters who frequently rolled their eyes or visibly bristled as she skated around their questions. The event demonstrated that the bustling activity had misfired and larger questions of credibility held sway.

So too with her appearance on Denis Wright went so far as to claim she is at her best when “engaging spontaneously with people on a popular show”.

She was certainly more relaxed and comfortable than Tony Abbott was in his appearance on the same show on Wednesday. Whereas she engaged with the format, Abbott appeared wound up, wary and on guard.

It is widely believed that shows like The 7PM Project are now the major source of news for many and are thus politically influential. Perhaps that’s why a parade of politicians featured on the show this week. They might also consider the dangers of looking too much at home on a lightweight show.

But evaluating these individual appearances obscures a more significant point about what’s been happening since Sunday.

The frenzy of media appearances has filled another week of programs, especially on the 24-hour news channels that hardly anyone watches. It’s filled column inches in all the newspapers. It’s helped the news media get through another week. The incestuous world of political talking heads has been in overdrive.

But by running around the countryside in virtual election campaign mode, Gillard may be making a big mistake.

There is much heat and theatre in what’s taking place, but very little light.

In this environment, Tony Abbott is beating her hands down, even if he did mishandle some curly questions last night in his equal time appearance on the Sky News forum.

Don’t forget in the orgy of talk this week that Newspoll reported an all-time low of 27 per cent in Labor’s primary vote. Who still needs an explanation of what that means?

Maybe Gillard should just shut up about the carbon tax, leave it all to Greg Combet and Penny Wong, and get on with something else.

After all, the carbon tax will be legislated, barring a political calamity. It will be in force for over a year before the scheduled election is due. Why not stop the campaigning, which only fuels the agitation for an early election, and get on with governing? Bring the parliament back and take advantage of incumbency. Sticking your head up in public when your poll numbers are scraping rock bottom only invites attack and displays of animus like we’ve seen this week.

In embarking on a traditional sales crusade around workplaces, shopping centres and TV studios, Gillard could well be squandering the only weapon she has left: the incumbent’s ability to make executive decisions and look truly prime ministerial.

Her critics aren’t going to be persuaded whatever Gillard does.

But the people who may just possibly be open to reconsidering their positions are unlikely to be persuaded by this week’s half-arsed media frolics.

Sometimes in politics, less is more.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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