Sunday, July 20, 2014

Syria and the NBN

Today's AFR has a column by Phillip Coorey which starts:

Sooner or later, leaders are tested by tragedy, and the cynical nature of ­politics is that they are rated on how well – or otherwise – they handle it.

Later he notes:

Tony Abbott’s handling of the MH17 atrocity is being universally admired...There is nothing confected about the combination of anger, grief and frustration that has emanated from the Prime Minister since Friday morning. It reflects the national mood.

Another story by Coorey and John Kerin is headed World backs Tony Abbott fury over MF17. 

What the AFR is saying - and it is reflected across the media - is that the Prime Minister's response has tapped the national mood and has reflected the international mood. The statements have been measured but direct, firm but not disproportionate.

What has all this to do with Syria and the NBN? Simply it relates to a decision made on the campaign trial at the last election on Saturday 24 August 2013. In his book The Rudd Rebellion Bruce Hawker wrote of that day (slightly abbreviated):

Following the frenetic pace we had set yesterday I was looking forward to a quiet Saturday in Sydney. However, I woke up before 7 a.m. and found a message from Fiona to say she was ill and would not be able to attend the press conference. So I got dressed and went out to Kirribilli and went through the issues - including the latest round of terrible polls showing, among other things, that Kevin would lose his own seat...We then went to the NBN Discovery Centre at North Sydney, where we found out that the Syrian crisis was escalating, following the revelation that Syrian authorities had used chemical warfare on their own people. I said that we should make this the story of the day and ensure that Kevin said he would be offering Abbott a briefing. Nothing is more likely to worry the voters than the thought of Tony Abbott being in charge during a Middle Eastern crisis. Imagine Julie Bishop calling the shots while Tony does a triathlon....
The press conference went well.

There is nothing in the book to mention why the Prime Minister was visiting the NBN Discovery Centre on a Saturday. It reveals a lot about the campaign.

Since before the leadership change the PM's office and the Minister's office had been trying to organise an "NBN Day" where the focus of campaigning could be on the NBN and the more important Digital Economy issues. The leadership change derailed the initial plans and nothing else was able to be arranged prior to the election being called.

Once the election was called, campaign HQ continued to plan for an NBN day. As was documented in the official ALP review of the campaign "There were serious difficulties managing the liaison between the Travelling Party and Campaign Headquarters." Planning for an NBN day was one specific case.

The visit to the NBN Discovery Centre was planned and deferred about three times, with the final visit scheduled for the Saturday. In the meantime Campaign HQ worked with the Minister's office to prepare a document making the case for Labor's NBN. I created a longish word document that drew on all the work we'd done before, including many speeches, and on a number of "one page" briefs prepared by my colleagues Andrew Rodger, Adam Sims and Andy Byrne. Jessika Loefstedt, who was formerly from both Albanese's and Gillard's office, worked with the design people at Campaign HQ to prepare an excellent brochure I Want My NBN

So everything was set. Hawker even records in his book that on 20 August ALP pollster John Utting had advised the need to do more NBN stories - especially to appeal to male voters. (Don't accuse me of being sexist - I am just reporting how Hawker described the polling data.)

So the visit to the NBN Discovery Centre was arranged. I attended only to be able to answer any NBN specific issues that the PM might have that others in his party couldn't.

The Prime Minister arrived and was surrounded by the press pack as he toured the centre.

After the tour the PM and his entourage disappeared into a meeting room to prepare for the press conference - and were there for an extensive period. Based on Hawker's account above that was presumably when the decision was made to make it Syria day.

When the PM emerged that is what the press conference was about. It is even (by my recollection) what the PM started with...a statement on Syria.

Unfortunately I haven't been able to find a video clip or transcript of the whole press conference (if a reader has a link please letme know). The SBS online story actually mentions that the PM was at the Discovery Centre promoting the NBN, but the story is headed and dominated by the fact that he talked about Syria.

An adviser was thrusting at the PM from the side an iPad with the 'I Want My NBN' brochure and website for promoting the story, and the PM did refer to it. He also very briefly mentioned some small business initiatives.

All of this was lost under the guiding hand of Bruce Hawker and the idea that making Syria the issue would be good for Labor.

The outcome was vastly different. For the next two days the PM was battling accusations of a stunt. He claims he did not say he was "suspending campaigning" because of the situation in Syria. He did cerainly say he was returning to Canberra for a full briefing. But he didn't reveal that he was first returning to Brisbane to film Annabel Crabb's 'Kitchen Cabinet'. This, in turn, led to accusations that the PM delayed the briefing for the puff piece.

And now, ten months later, we actually see the new PM being lauded by his measured approach to an international incident. I don't see the Australian people being worried about Mr Abbott being in charge, nor is Julie Bishop taking control while the Prime Minister is exercising.

But far more significantly for the political judgement of Bruce Hawker - the PM's polling hasn't jumped because of his performance over the issue. In the final analysis, even when there are Australian citizens directly affected, Foreign Affairs is a hygiene factor in Australian politics.

The economy and our social fabric - and the role communications infrastructure could play in it - well that's another story.

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