The former Australian prime minister, Paul Keating, recently gave a must-read newspaper interview. There were many interesting insights, but the media picked up on his observation that Australia’s current Labor government lacks a narrative.
"The failure of the Rudd and Gillard administrations is the lack of an over-arching story, the lack of a compelling story . . ."I'm happy that Labor took us through this dreadful financial crisis so competently. But they are not in the business of teaching. And governments, to succeed with change, must be in the business of educating the community."Our Labor governments have failed to conceptualise the changes. We need a framework . . . “
He went on:
"I think the Australian people are very conscientious. During the 1980s and 1990s we proved they will respond conscientiously to necessary reforms. They mightn't like them but they'll accept them. But reforms have to be presented in a digestible format."I know that in the age of the internet, opinion and perpetual static it is difficult to get the message over. I accept that. But the big messages have their own momentum. If we get the story of transition right then other things will find their place."
I agree with Keating on where the Gillard government is going wrong. But I was more interested in his take on the most basic argument about the essence of political communications. More than that, he discussed the purpose of leadership in democratic societies.
Should leaders act in accordance with their core values and try to shift public attitudes, in support of big changes and hard choices? Or should they follow the basic contours of public opinion and avoid unpopular and difficult decisions? Leaders taking the latter course may give themselves a better chance of staying in power and, just possibly, strengthening their ability to “do the right thing” in the longer term.
Keating’s answer was as romantic as it was unambiguous:
"You need a higher calling or some inner system of belief - here I mention Kant and the inner command that tells you what is true, what is right, what is good. The inner command must be the divining construct in what you do.”
“In the end, everyone in political life gets carried out - the only relevant question is whether the pallbearers will be crying."
I am a long time admirer of Paul Keating and the verve with which he approaches politics. I agree with him that politics should be about big ideas and grand visions, rather than simply following fads and focus groups. Political leaders should have core beliefs, deep passions and big agendas.
But what Keating calls the “higher calling” or, in other times, the “big picture”, is not necessarily the same thing as the “narrative”. I see the “narrative” as the means by which leaders market themselves and seek electoral popularity. Having gained power, democratic leaders use narratives in order to persuade people to follow them in a particular direction; more likely, to accept change.
Both types of narrative must be a story, with people, events and something unanticipated. They must also evoke an emotional reaction in their audiences.
In his seminal book Leading Minds, Howard Gardner studied a number of successful leaders from a range of fields. He concluded:
“A leader must have a central story or message. The story is more likely to be effective in a large and heterogenous group if it can speak directly to the untutored mind – the mind that develops naturally in the early lives of children with the need for formal tutelage. Stories ought to address the sense of individual and group identity, the “we” and the “they” thought that sense may actually be expanded or restricted by the story. They should not only provide background, but should help group members to frame future options.” (1)
Later, he observed:
“Leaders benefit from the ability to build on stories that are already known – for example, those drawn from religion or history or those that have already been circulated within an institution – and to synthesise them in new ways, as Martin Luther King Jr was able to do.” (2)
Gardner also argued that there would be tensions between inclusionary and exclusionary stories. He stressed that leaders must embody their narratives to maximise the chances of success. Recall, for instance, Churchill’s refusal to leave London during World War II.
I have argued previously that, whist all politicians and parties have narratives, they can exercise only limited control over them, a point that Keating acknowledges, above. Moreover, politicians are most successful when they speak to the stories that are in the minds of their target electorates – the public’s core values, Gardner’s “stories that are already known” – as well as their current anxieties and concerns about the future. [For some examples, click here and here.]
At the same time, a successful narrative must be based firmly on a clear, coherent set of ideas. Michael Deaver once said that one of the biggest lessons he learned from working with Ronald Reagan was that:
“You've got to know who you are before you can communicate it.”
Keating’s political career, with its spectacular highs and lows, demonstrated all of these points. He never wanted for visions and higher callings and, with Bob Hawke, sold difficult economic changes to the Australian public by levelling with people, getting out and selling their policies and, yes, telling stories.
Hawke was an effective prime minister who projected himself as a national leader, an embodiment of Australianness. But Keating was the master of personal persuasion, using anecdotes and easy-to-understand illustrations, to show people the merits of policy changes.
In 1992, Keating, now prime minister, developed the theme of Australian national identity with his landmark Redfern Park speech on Aboriginal reconciliation. The following year, he delivered his moving eulogy for the unknown Australian soldier.
Through all those years, he showed how “romantic” political narratives and those more concerned with political marketing can work in tandem, and how they work against and supersede one another.
And, lest we forget, Keating’s government was decisively defeated in 1996. He had been around too long, and seemed out of touch and remote from public concerns. The Australian electorate lost interest in his “big picture” and Keating’s narrative was no longer theirs.
Still, I’d prefer that kind of finish to a leadership with no vision at all.(1) Howard Gardner, Leading Minds (Harper Collins, 1995) p 290