OPINION

How good is political spin?

Scott Morrison is an ad man - and he's far more skilled at it than most. Picture: Getty Images

Scott Morrison is an ad man - and he's far more skilled at it than most. Picture: Getty Images

It's the rhetoric game, a simple skill but one that pays huge rewards. It's called "using your words". Today it's the key to getting ahead in politics - because it's all about putting something over everybody else.

What's most critical is the ability to shape the conversation.

Take decisions. There are always alternatives - the key political skill is the ability to frame the questions and guide the discussion, generally, until issues are perceived the way you want them to be seen. Then, once ideas have crystallised in the mind, the snap closure. Make the question into an either/or choice, one where the answer that's instinctively correct is so deeply embedded in the question that there's only one possible response. Just try this one:

"How good is Australia?"

Pretty hard to get it wrong, isn't it? Scott Morrison's simple formulation tugs at emotions instilled virtually every day of our lives until rejecting the very premise of the question is impossible. Of course he's right, and so, like it or not, we are spun into accepting the whole series of predicates on which he's built his case. What we should really be asking is another question - how could Australia be better? By parsing the issue the way he has, however, the former ad man shows how he can transform our political conversations to meet his needs. It's a big part of the reason he's become PM.

Morrison demonstrates, daily, that an ability to shape the frame of reference we use to understand our world is the only core skill a politician requires. It's simple, subtle, and is fast becoming the preferred way of pulling political wool over our eyes - precisely because it's so obvious. It closes off unwanted distractions, appeals to our emotions, and leads us completely the wrong way.

Gladys Berejiklian is also a skilled framer of political issues. Picture: Getty Images

Gladys Berejiklian is also a skilled framer of political issues. Picture: Getty Images

Take another, simply rhetorical question: "Who hasn't gone out with the wrong person?"

Ask it like that and hands shoot up everywhere. Yes! Anybody - everybody - can identify with that, and in doing so Gladys Berejiklian frames the issue and plays the electorate like suckers. See, she says, she's just like us, after all. She plays up her "plainness", positioning herself as just a simple girl, looking for love and then finding it - alas - with the wrong man, a bad man, someone who was doing bad deals and acting in ways that she couldn't possibly have suspected.

Except that she cut him off, saying "I don't need to know that".

Really? Why not? Why, exactly, wasn't this woman (of searingly sharp intelligence) interested in something the "one" person she'd felt could be a soulmate was wanting to share? Why, precisely, was she hiding this relationship from everyone (with someone who'd resigned after admissions to a corruption inquiry), especially when she hoped might be "the one"? No warning bells ringing yet? Really?

Berejiklian's proven herself a woman of fierce determination, a person who's perfectly happy to shred political opponents like confetti; somebody sharp and focused enough to climb to and hold the peak position in her profession. Her ability to shape the questions others are asking has been a vital skill accompanying this rise.

And the words! We pretend journalists choose words carefully, but look at Berejiklian's remarkable precision describing her relationships. It's a legal requirement under the state's ministerial code to acknowledge a potential conflict of interest if you're involved in an "intimate personal relationship" with someone. How fortunate, then, that although the Premier was in a "close" relationship that she'd hoped might blossom into a shared life together, she knew, somehow, that it wasn't of "sufficient status" to divulge.

It's a fine - some may say hair-splitting - distinction.

In a weekend paper, Berejiklian's being portrayed as the sad, disappointed lover. She chose who'd receive the exclusive well. Perhaps that's why the reporter didn't bother asking why it had taken the Premier so long to come clean about the relationship. Was she only prompted to tell the story once she knew ICAC was in possession of a tape recording of potentially incriminating disclosures, and so that she could frame it the way she wanted?

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That's the advantage of an "exclusive".

The reality of most of the stories badged as such is that they're not really special at all; the politician just wants to frame an issue before people get to think about it too much. The unspoken deal is that the journalist reports the story using the interpretive structure the source wants used. The questioning is real, but soft, and certainly not pursued as hard as it could be.

Playing this game is dangerous for anyone who's engaged in public discourse, and it's why good spin doctors are so highly sought after. Politicians know these professionals are vital. That's why they spend so much to obtain the best advice and keep people with these skills engaged at the highest level. The alternative is bureaucratic failure.

Take Australia Post's hapless Christine Holgate. Although she receives $110,000 a month, the chief executive wasn't clever enough to see how bad handing out Cartier watches to other executives might look - particularly to a government that needs to affirm it reflects society. Spun differently, by somebody attuned to public relations, these could have (if only just) passed muster. All that was needed was to have removed the exclusive designer label, given out cheaper watches as reward for delivering "on time" performance, and also to have distributed a couple to line workers rather than just senior executives.

Holgate failed to frame the issue properly and today she's paying the price.

Perceptions matter and the way events are interpreted is critical - but only for so long. Eventually, however, reality will kick in. People will see things the way they really are. That's the problem for people who play the rhetoric game.

Berejiklian will go, her party will get rid of her before the next election. The next fun game is watching to see which colleague is the most supportive. Often they'll have the longest knife.

  • Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer and a regular columnist.
This story How good is political spin? first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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