Labor politics better played with heart than with abacus

June 24, 2013

By Dennis Glover

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness , we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

That great opening to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities could easily be the opening of A Tale of Two Labor Parties. How curious that in its worst of times politically, federal Labor is in its best of times policy-wise, with the imminent establishment of DisabilityCare Australia, soon perhaps to be joined by the Gonski-inspired National Plan for School Improvement.

It’s a good thing too, because the glow from those policies may well be needed to keep the true believers warm in the wintry years ahead.

How can such extremes of political triumph and electoral tragedy come from the same team? In the midst of a global economic downturn, with the budget in deficit, how can Labor have engineered the most notable reforms of the welfare state and the education system since 1974, and potentially its most catastrophic electoral loss since 1975?

In part it’s a contrasting tale of stunning communications success and abject communications failure.


Take the communications success, the NDIS. Its triumph can be understood by something as old as politics itself: the importance of getting emotional buy-in from the people. The campaign for it moved many to tears, including the Prime Minister herself, who famously crumbled while introducing the legislation in Parliament. The Liberal Premier of Victoria, Denis Napthine, also broke down, even though it involved supporting Labor policy. Let’s face it, accurate or not, no one is going to hand over more tax just because some economist makes an educated guess that it will increase GDP by 1 per cent by 2050. But those same voters will consider it – if they think it will help a loving mother care for her profoundly disabled son after she is gone, or give a hard-working child a fairer go at school.

It’s literally Politics 101. Back at the birth of democracy, philosophers like Aristotle and Cicero recognised that citizens are much more than just narrow, rational calculating machines, and that closing the deal with them required a successful appeal to their emotions as well as their reason. Closing the deal emotionally is one of the foundation arts of democratic politics, but today’s politicians tend to be lousy at it. They think that talking like a human abacus makes them sound smart, but it only makes them sound emotionally dumb. It definitely makes them less able politicians.

But when it came to the NDIS, the government spoke differently, recognising that the issue was about human values not economic calculation, and it pitched its case with emotional intelligence and success. And, as a result, its campaigning on the issue has had a genuineness that has sometimes been lacking elsewhere.


It’s instructive, for example, to contrast the government’s successful political sale of the NDIS with its unpopular climate policies, which began to lose support when responsibility for developing and delivering the message was handed over to earnest economists who turned it from a moral crusade into a financial transaction.

Similarly, the Prime Minister’s attempts to connect with women have, with the notable exception of her original misogyny speech when she let her true self rip to great emotional effect, sounded somewhat formulaic and contrived. And much the same can be said about other big policy areas like economics and immigration, where stronger emotional connections with voters might have been forged.

Obviously the NDIS, with its heart-wrenching pathos, is a far easier emotional sell than many other tasks of government. But its triumph demonstrates that reform success is possible when our representatives are unafraid to talk and act like the human beings they really are.

With just months to go to the next election, it may be worth putting away the already cliched Obama playbook and showing some heartfelt Labor belief and emotion instead. Even the best social media campaign can’t substitute for everything. What is there to lose?