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Hockey-Frydenberg show how a simple message can reap benefits

8 August 2015 149 views No Comment

At the beginning of this year, if you stood up in the local pub and suggested the Abbott government would have a chance of winning the next election, you might well have been met with some raised eyebrows by punters before they went back to their game of pool or downed another beer.

Now, only months later, if you did that, many more people might say, “You’re probably right and possibly even engage you in conversation. If the punter were a tradie, the talk might well turn to how they were using the $20,000 immediate assets write-off announced in the budget. For the first time in years, the game of pool is playing second fiddle to politics.

So what has convinced the tradies — and the broader public — that things have changed?

The change in the government’s messaging has played a big part. Messaging is all about the art of simplicity and repetition. Thus, when a politician has said something 100 times, chances are many punters are hearing it for the first time.

The Abbott government now well and truly recognises this fundamental political truth.

This is because the government was — quickly and, in some ways, harshly — brought back to earth by backbenchers who tried to unseat a first-term prime minister.

In some ways, this was a wake-up call and a small blessing in disguise for Tony Abbott. He would prefer it never to have happened, but he made the most of it when it did.

The events at the beginning of the year focused the Prime Minister on two things he does best: fighting for Australians and selling a simple message.

Politicians have tried this formula for years and Abbott and his team know it is a winner.

John Howard and Peter Costello tried this strategy and succeeded when they repeated the mantra about keeping interest rates low in the lead-up to the 2004 election.

Federal Labor also showed signs of developing this narrative early in its first term after the 2007 election — but, sadly, the political misjudgments of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard overpowered the economic and political pragmatists in the ALP, such as Chris Bowen.

However, in 2015, the strategy is working, again.

There is still a long way to go. After all, as Finance Minister Mathias Cormann says: “Politics is a marathon and not a sprint.

But since February the government — with the conspicuous exception of ex-Speaker Bronwyn Bishop — has picked up its game. Ministers are out selling their message. And Coalition backbenchers relish in telling constituents how they will benefit from key small-business measures, including the $20,000 immediate assets write-off.

The entitlements furore of the past couple of weeks has been a distraction from the government’s core message. But chances are that it will blow over. The reality is that no one wants a race to the bottom on politicians’ entitlements — especially as some key Labor MPs, including frontbenchers, are also being exposed for what seems like shady claims for travel and other expenditure.

Abbott’s team is getting ready for a forthcoming federal election — in 2016, if not later this year.

The Coalition backbench is armed with the information it needs to convince voters that the Abbott government has a plan for the future. Ministers have been working hard to convince stakeholders with reasoned and well-researched policy proposals.

The government is turning around its political fortunes by playing to its strengths: economic and fiscal responsibility, coupled with a strong view that a job is more valuable to both the individual and the government than a welfare payment.

This is a simple narrative that needs to be communicated in a simple and effective manner.

For the rest of the year, the ­Abbott government will be getting back to basics, especially talking about the Australian economy.

Coming from a small-business family himself, Joe Hockey knows precisely what the issues are when his colleagues call him about small-business issues — and the impact of small business on the broader economy.

Hockey is backed by an able and enthusiastic Assistant Treasurer in the form of young MP for Kooyong, Josh Frydenberg, who certainly has a healthy dose of chutzpah. Sitting together on the all-powerful expenditure review committee, the two form a formidable team.

Frydenberg also brings his acute attention to detail to the role. He is not one to tick and flick spending or revenue proposals without knowing how they will work in practice, who they will ­affect and what they will mean for the budget. This means he and Hockey must sometimes have difficult conversations with their other ministerial colleagues, but ultimately these are discussions that need to be had for the sake of the country.

The two, working in tandem, can have these conversations knowing they have the confidence and respect of the vast majority of their colleagues.

In terms of media strategy, the two work hand in hand.

Hockey will often hold a positioning media conference in the afternoon to sell the government’s core economic message.

Frydenberg will then convincingly back this message by blitzing morning radio, breakfast television and online news sites the next morning.

The Hockey-Frydenberg relationship is a stellar example of how ministers should be working together.

Indeed, it is possible there has never been a stronger relationship between a treasurer and an assistant treasurer in modern Australian history.

The rest of the Coalition’s economic team, including Cormann, Small Business Minister Bruce Billson and Social Services Minister Scott Morrison, further reinforces their holistic communications strategy.

Hockey and Frydenberg are positioning Australia for the ­future, especially as it will allow them to tackle the challenge of tax reform head-on. Moreover, there is no better team to convincingly argue against unnecessary extra regulation.

Hockey knows the real-world cost of red tape.

He has seen it firsthand, first when growing up and, second, as a banking and finance lawyer before entering politics.

Frydenberg also can take much of the credit for one of the big successes of the Coalition since coming to government: that is cutting more than $2 billion a year of red tape.

Cutting red tape in the taxation system — which means fewer forms, less time spent waiting on the phone and less time spent going over complex depreciation schedules with accountants — is the next opportunity as Hockey and Frydenberg develop Australia’s key economic narrative.

So, in the lead-up to the federal election, don’t be surprised to hear in pubs and poolrooms throughout the nation much more discussion about the state of the economy and whether it is the government or the opposition that has the best capacity to manage Australia.

Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 37 books, including his memoir ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’, which is available as an e-book and a talking book from Vision Australia.

The Weekend Australian, August 8-9, 2015, Commentary p 22.

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