Old advice for new times

by Damien Hickman

Reform is never easy.

Just under 500 years ago Niccolo Machiavelli said:

“There is no more delicate matter than to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to set up as a leader in the introduction of changes. For he who innovates will have as his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new”.

For the Gillard Government it’s as if this was written last week, even yesterday.

Whether it’s the gaming reforms for poker machines, the resource rent tax or the pricing of carbon; the Gillard Government has embarked upon a delicate, dangerous and, if you live believe the polls, doubtful policy path.

Today, one factor making reform difficult is that vested interests can wage public information campaigns with equal or greater effectiveness than the government.

The ability to share information almost instantly across large audience networks means that ‘flooding’ people with information supporting a particular view is easier now than it has ever been.

With the aid of a 24/7 media cycle that needs to provide anything on something at all times, the internet, blogs, twitter and other forms of social networking vested interests can ‘flood’ the public debate with information favourable to their cause. This is a much more competitive space in which government has to engage, inform, convince and persuade the public of their reform agenda.

To use a boxing metaphor, the fight to be the peoples champion is no longer one between lightweight and heavyweight, but between two super heavyweights. Super heavyweights with powerful, finely honed skills that can inflict serious, if not lethal, damage in the quest to be undisputed champion.

In the fight over the carbon tax, one super heavyweight challenger is the Australian Trade and Industry Alliance.

Comprised of organisations including the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Minerals Council of Australia, the Australian Food and Grocery Council, the Australian Coal Association, the Plastics and Chemical Industries Association and the Australian Logistics Council,it has at least $10 million in the bank as a starting point.

This almost equals the $12 million set aside by the governments for its public education campaign. Just like the government, the ATIA willbe campaigning on television, radio, print, the internet and social media.

Within seven days of the government announcing the final details of its carbon pricing scheme, the ATIA is to run its public information campaign while the parliament considers the legislation.

Running full page ads in the countries major broadsheets and daily’s does not come cheap but with the same expertise, time and financial strength ATIA can match the government in convincing key sections of the electorate to an alternate view.

It is clear ATIA is determined to counter punch the government’s message to convince the Australian public that the clean energy future package is ‘carbon tax pain’ for ‘no climate gain’.

Another super heavyweight fight also took place over the governments Resource Rent Tax.

This time with a point’s decision win going to the Mineral Council of Australia. With $17 million the MCA fought hard, it had deep pockets, access to the latest information technology and a media campaign strategy as sophisticated as the government.

Again it was a fight on equal terms. In a twist of fate, they used the same marketing company (trainer) Labor did to formulate the Kevin 07 campaign; beating the government at its own game.

One of the panellists on the Gruen Transfer, advertising and marketing expert Todd Sampson, has described current government efforts in its public information campaigns as fighting ‘an image war with a water gun’.

What then is a reforming government to do?

In The Prince Machiavelli advised: ‘Where the dispositions are strong the difficulty cannot be great’.

Recently, on Lateline, former Prime Minister Paul Keating echoed this when he said the best way to deal with powerful interests is from a position of strength. However, in the context of a hung parliament, weak polls and an opposition leader that is running a guerilla-like disinformation campaign, this is easier said than done.

No one denies the Gillard Government faces a challenging set of circumstances. Change and reform is never easy, especially now when vested interests can outspend governments in the information campaign.

Yet, in-depth and substantive conversations are what is needed to bring the public along with its vision for our country’s future.

In the fight for the hearts and minds of the voting public, we are in a new paradigm and to have a reform win will take the full 15 rounds. But win the government can, as long as it articulates a strong, substantive vision and follows through with the courage to take the blows while keep punching.

To paraphrase Mohamed Ali, the government must ‘float like a butterfly and sting like a bee’.

This is the kind of decisive action celebrated and advised by Machiavelli, where ‘Fortuna’ is tamed through having the courage to grasp and the intelligence to make the most of opportunities when they arise.

Damien Hickman is a Political Science PhD candidate at the University of Newcastle. His area of study is the influence of interest groups in the Australian policy process.

OnLine Opinion

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