Why Andrew Robb should replace his speech writer(s)

Or, on how the Coalition sucks at communicating its philosophy.

I teach on Wednesdays, and it has become a tradition to do something after classes finish. Last night (I started this post late 2014) we decided to attend a talk by Andrew Robb at the State Library of Victoria (do you have a better way to spend a Wednesday night?).

One of the thoughts I came away with was that Mr Robb, and the current Coalition government in general (and perhaps pretty much all Australian politicians) are terrible communicators. Now, before anyone (in my readership of three people) comes back and says “but Abbott demolished the previous Labor government with his 3 word slogan skillz”, I mean talking about complex ideas (which are an inherent part of governing) and not reciting talking points, which are the debating/communications equivalent of training wheels. I think more recent event help prove the point that a successful government needs to retain the ability to communicate in ways more complex than three word slogans.

From listening to Mr Robb (and my other observations), I do believe there’s a coherent philosophy behind a lot of the Coalition’s policies. Robb mostly spoke about trade policy, but also touched on wider economic matters. Their governing philosophy was there, under the surface, but he was largely incapable of pulling it together and making it clear. And I think that is the main problem with this government (and perhaps Australian politicians in general): they are largely incapable of discussing complex policy and political philosophy. If it comes to more than three word slogans and talking points, or a laundry list of policies, they really struggle. That doesn’t mean the ideas aren’t there (I think they mostly are), but they can’t or won’t talk about them. What I write below is not necessarily an endorsement of these policy positions, but how the Coalition could explain them to make (what I believe is) their underlying philosophy clearer. At present their underlying philosophy is largely opaque.

The deficit

For instance, early in his speech the Minister mentioned Australia was currently spending more than $1 billion each month on interest payments. And left it at that. I think for most listeners this figure would be largely meaningless, and the comment would have little effect.

If he had wanted to make that statement to mean something, he needed to say something along the lines of “Currently Australians are spending $1 billion each month on federal government interest payments. This is $1 billion each month we don’t have to spend on schools, or hospitals, universities, nursing homes, or infrastructure like new roads, railways  and bridges. This is $1 billion that could be used to invest in the future, instead at the moment it is $1 billion we’re spending on interest. We need to pay off the debt so in the longer term we have the money to spend on our country’s future.

Did he say any of this? Nope. Provided the $1 billion per month figure and left it hanging. Opportunity missed.

Cars, tariffs and all that 

Another topic Robb touched on that he flubbed (in my opinion) was saving the automotive industry. He pointed out (correctly) that if they had provided the car makers with a bailout, or raised tariffs to reduce their competition, it would have ultimately been paid for by other Australians.

However, once again he failed to connect this policy position clear with the lived experience of most Australians. He left it abstract and difficult for most people to grasp.

The smart thing to talk about would have been that cutting tariffs on imported cars would make the new car needed by a single mother to drive her children more expensive to purchase (and eventually the higher prices would flow through to second hand cars, too). That if they had subsidised the car makers, it would have been thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars spent on each job saved (probably temporarily). That this money would have come from other tax payers, or from money that could have otherwise been spent on schools, hospitals, universities etc. That, unfortunately due to a range of factors (high costs, small markets) Australia doesn’t seem to be able to make it’s own cars at an affordable price.

Basically, the opportunity cost involved in propping up the car makers could have been better explained.

Free trade

The biggest missed opportunity was on free trade, though. Mr Robb was asked at the end whether Australia should pursue free trade with countries like Bangladesh, where working conditions are often quite poor. Although this was possibly his strongest performance, it was still not good enough.

The obvious answer, to me at least, is that if we stop trading with Bangladesh, the workers there won’t have better working conditions, they’ll have higher unemployment. The alternatives to crappy jobs in crappy sweatshops for many Bangladeshi’s aren’t better jobs, but (even worse) poverty. As has been shown again and again, through examples like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and now China, the way to improve working conditions is to improve the affluence of a country. The wealthier a country gets through trade, the more options workers have, and the less likely they are to accept sub-standard conditions. If we want to improve the lives of Bangladeshis, we need to trade with them more, not less. Sure, shame those companies that take cost savings too far, but don’t lobby for them to close their operations in Bangladesh down completely. That will do more harm than good.  

My final points

What I wrote above is not an endorsement for any of these policies. I’m not saying there are not alternative arguments to the points above. All I am saying is that they were stronger than the arguments Andrew Robb made last night (several months ago), and than the government has generally been making about their policy positions since being elected in 2013. I personally believe there are real philosophical arguments being made by our political parties. Unfortunately, neither the Coalition nor the Labor Party are very good at making them, or appear willing to really communicate those differences to the electorate in a strong way.

Our democracy is poorer as a result.



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