Nature Abhors a Vacuum

Vacuums are good for many things – including boiling water at zero degrees. What they are terrible for is selling a message.

Prime Minister Turnbull came to the leadership of the nation in September last year, loosing the hounds of national expectation. Understandably he did nothing to dampen those expectations that had fairly, or otherwise, been hitched to his wagon.

Six months is a long-time in most things; even longer in politics.

The national commentary now associated with his leadership will no doubt provide sobering reading for him and his advisors.

Upon considered reflection, it is the opinion of this business that our PM is guilty of failing to manage the conversation, which in turn has resulted a massive decline in his personal standing and a 50:50 split in the most recent newspoll.

So what happened?

The only conclusion that can be drawn is that the government instigated a conversation that it was not yet ready for. It kicked it off following the tried and true method of flying kites and selected leaks. All good so far; everything was on the table.

Australians could expect that complex and difficult reform would be calmly and rationally explained, and that the government would pursue the ‘right’ path as opposed to the politically expedient one.

It’s at this point in time some folks in the back office must have started to feel pretty uncomfortable. Increasing the GST was going to hurt too much (read: scare campaign on the horizon), and changes to super and negative gearing began tearing at the heart of a core constituency (read: conservative backbenchers).

Then there was silence.

Then the Opposition put out a policy.

Before the government knew it, it had lost control of a debate that it had should have had well within its grasp with plenty of good will and political capital to expend on driving it to the conclusion that the ‘nation needed.’

Simply put, the government appears to have been carried away with its potential to tackle a politically difficult problem and rushed into it without a clear pathway to explaining (and achieving) that task. En route, it ceded control of the discussion by creating a vacuum and allowing it to be filled by others with a somewhat different agenda to theirs.

Put another way, they went sailing without coordinates for the destination or the waypoints that they should have travelled by.

If we take a moment to compare and contrast here with one Donald Trump the difference is illuminating. Trump is so busy dropping bombs that none of his opponents (nor the media) have an opportunity to really lay a glove on him. He is leading a merry dance at an unprecedented tempo that does not permit anyone to get settled and really take him on. As an organisation, we do not advocate such a scatter-gun approach; it is however instructive to examine the techniques used across the political spectrum to maintain the initiative.

Ultimately the salient point is that if you are leading, you must know where you are going. There is never any reason, or excuse, to begin a journey before you are ready.

In the Australian context it is an opportunity lost for the nation. The saddest element of which is that it will likely take some kind of economic shock before tax-reform is meaningfully tackled again in the future.

To quote William Blake:

Not with a bang, but a whimper.

Donald Trump – Man of the Year?

In 2006 the late, great Robin Williams starred in a Barry Levinson film called Man of the Year. The premise was that a political comedy/talk show host (think Jon Stewart) runs for President, as an outsider, and wins.

Levinson thought the possibility of this actually happening so slim that he wrote in a sub-plot of irregularities in a new electronic voting system that preferences candidates with double letters in their surname (Williams’ character was Tom Dobbs) to explain how the TV star turned a wave of populist appeal into an electoral college win.

Ten years later Levinson must be thinking ‘why did I bother’? The far fetched is becoming reality as Donald Trump rides a tsunami of populist appeal to primary win after primary win in the race for the Republican Party Presidential Nomination.

The real test of Super Tuesday primaries is almost upon us but, win lose or draw on that important day, Trump and to a considerable extent the Democrat “outsider” Senator Bernie Sanders, have redrawn the American political map and perhaps the way all western politicians will frame their future campaigns.

The mythical Tom Dobbs initially struggles to compete with establishment candidates but when he bursts out of the political mould, turning the switch to vaudeville (as they say in showbiz) to make his points his popularity rockets. His messages are simple, simplistic in fact, but they are delivered with naïve sincerity and are undeniably entertaining. As a result, he taps into a deep dissatisfaction with the rigid and harshly partisan two party system.

Trump has shown that he can mine that degree of voter frustration with broad statements of objectives and with often offensive comments that would see career politicians crash and burn. But he just gets stronger. He took on the Pope for heaven’s sake, and the Pope issued a clarification!

Sanders is a 25 year veteran of the Senate who is running as an “outsider” by to positioning himself as a Democratic Socialist. A term that until recently would have seen any American politician laughed off the stage. Yet he is tapping the same frustration, just with a younger audience.

Politics as usual is becoming anything but. Hillary Clinton may still prevail through tight organisation, demographics and getting out the vote, but the political scene has changed, forever.

We have had our brush with shallow populists in Australia. Think Pauline Hanson and Clive Palmer. However, our electoral system does not offer the opportunity to catapult to the top job without first earning at least some political stripes. That’s probably a good thing. It allows time for the imposters to unclothe themselves.

In a multi-media, instant gratification, increasingly superficial message driven world it will be a brave politician who ignores the lessons already provided by the USA’s electoral process.

In 1976 the Sidney Lumet film, Network, written by Paddy Chayefske, had Australian actor Peter Finch, as top rating news anchor Howard Beale, deliver rants against the comfortable coalescence of media, business and politics, always ending with a trade mark cry of :

” We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take this anymore.”

Hollywood may have proven to be more prophetic than even it could imagine.