What’s Their Story?: Budget 2016 and the election campaign

Tony Abbott’s leadership of the Coalition government ended in disaster. Removed from the top job by his own party, replaced by the very man he toppled six years previously, Abbott’s fall from grace was an un-sanctimonious end to an uninspiring leadership saga; the revolving door of Australian Prime Ministers had claimed another victim. Like Kevin Rudd’s decision in 2009 not to call a double dissolution over his failed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, Abbott’s downfall can be traced directly to a single point in his leadership: the 2014 federal budget.

Indeed, if we look at Newspoll data from 2014 it is clear that the budget had a dramatic negative impact on Abbott’s leadership: net satisfaction of the prime minister fell a massive 23 points in the fortnight following the budget. In the two-party preferred stakes too, the Coalition went from a single point ahead in early April 2014, to five points behind the week after the budget. These downward trends would continue for the remaining 16 months of Abbott’s prime ministership, only reversing when Malcolm Turnbull replaced him in September 2015.

Undoubtedly, Turnbull and new Treasurer Scott Morrison, would have been well aware of the errors of the failed 2014 budget in the lead up to their own. The proximity of the 2016 budget to the start of the election campaign would give Turnbull even more cause for concern; a failed budget, like that of 2014, would handicap the beginning of their election campaign, giving their opponents the edge, potentially causing their defeat at the July election. The stakes could not be higher.

Centre stage for Turnbull and Morrison’s budget fears would be a repeat of the unsavoury and unpopular messages trumpeted in the 2014 budget, and which proved lethal to the Coalition. These messages, pervading through the rhetoric used to sell the budget and the policies contained within its texts, are what some in the media and the academy have dubbed, the ‘budget’s narrative’.

This is a simple idea, derived from literary theory and Aristotelian philosophy which contends that when people try to persuade others, they often create different stories or ‘narratives’ to convey information. In politics this is done all the time. Indeed, election campaign narratives are easily observable and have been studied by Australian political scientists in recent times.[1]

Central to a narratives design are four basic elements:

  • the narrative must have drama;
  • plot to explain a phenomenon;
  • selectively appropriate various symbols and;
  • historical events.[2]

To see this in action one only needs to look to the 2014 budget.

As a continuation of the narrative the government assumed on taking office, the 2014 Hockey budget ran with the theme of (promptly) returning the budget to surplus to secure national prosperity.

The storyline went: there is danger on the horizon (“Without change, the budget would never get to surplus and the debt would never be repaid”); as a society we must deal with these threats together (“It is time, for all of us, to contribute and build”); sacrifices will need to be made (“Prosperity is not a gift. It needs to be earned”); and that those unwilling to make sacrifices are “leaners” not “lifters”.

The text of the budget then outlined which sections of the community would have to start doing more proportionate ‘lifting’: the unemployed, people who use bulk billing, higher education, families, pensioners, and to a minor extent, those on incomes above $180,000 per annum. This narrative portrayed the government as the headmaster whipping society’s stragglers into shape with some hard discipline.

Unsurprisingly, the public did not buy it. The story was unpersuasive to the vast majority due in large part to the fact that it didn’t pass the fairness test, and that the budget ultimately harmed more people than it helped.

Cut to the most recent federal budget, and it is difficult to see a similar narrative design. Gone is the hard disciplinarian vibe, in its place is one of cautious optimism (“these are extraordinary times”); gentle encouragement (“Australians know that our future depends on how well we continue to grow and shape our economy”); and, a focus on ensuring the substance of new budgetary policies are (perceived as) fair (“Everyone has to pay their fair share of tax”).

Indeed, this change of tone is exemplified in the way in which the most recent budget sought to treat under-30s job seekers. Contrasted to the 2014 budget which attempted to punish under-30’s on the dole by forcing them to wait six months before they would be eligible for payments, the 2016 budget took a far softer line on the same constituency by proposing the PaTH government assisted employment scheme.

Another major point of difference was Morrison’s appeal to the public as a government that  “has been listening.” Once again, this is the opposite of Hockey’s prescriptive 2014 budget mantra: “It is time, for all of us, to contribute.” And finally, the 2016 budget was about the positive message of – wait for it – “jobs and growth” – repeated 14 times during the budget speech by my count, a happier message than that of “cuts” which epitomised the 2014 budget.

The government will be hoping that this new narrative, with its softer message and positive view for the future, will be enough to show the public that the Turnbull government is unlike its failed predecessor. This is a clever move on Turnbull’s part as there is still relatively little that separates him from Abbott in a policy sense. However, a new storyline may be all that Turnbull needs to reset the agenda and leave behind the negative politics which characterised Abbott’s prime ministership. Whether or not Turnbull’s new narrative can simultaneously outperform Labor’s competing narrative of Turnbull being just a more palatable Abbott, remains to be seen.

James Frost is a PhD Candidate at the Australian National University

References:

Bartlett, David, and Jennifer Rayner. “‘This Campaign Is All About…’ Dissecting Australian Campaign Narratives.” Communication, Politics & Culture 47, no. 1 (2014): 51.

Somers, Margaret R. “Narrativity, Narrative Identity, and Social Action: Rethinking English Working-Class Formation.” Social Science History 16, no. 4 (1992): 591–630. doi:10.2307/1171314.

[1] David Bartlett and Jennifer Rayner, “‘This Campaign Is All About…’ Dissecting Australian Campaign Narratives,” Communication, Politics & Culture 47, no. 1 (2014): 51.

[2] Margaret R. Somers, “Narrativity, Narrative Identity, and Social Action: Rethinking English Working-Class Formation,” Social Science History 16, no. 4 (1992): 604, doi:10.2307/1171314.