Image for A Tale of Two “Leaks” … and Bartlett in Apology Mode

DAVID BARTLETT’S January 31 “Building a Strong Tasmania” speech before assembled Labor candidates tells us more about the grim results of Labor’s internal polling than the recent strategic “leaks” of polling results to media outlets. Political campaign speeches are, after all, carefully crafted to blend a motivating pitch to a party’s core constituency with a dash of reassurance to recent swinging supporters along with an enticing appeal to the first-time voters and soft supporters of other parties.

Bartlett’s 2,173-word speech was essentially a limbering up speech for themes that will be developed in Labor’s advertising, ministerial announcements and events. While in part it was intended as a rallying cry to the assembled Labor candidates, the media would not have been invited if it was only intended as an in-house speech. As it was, it was yet another Bartlett event at which journalists were told beforehand that he would not be taking questions afterwards. (See HERE for earlier examples.)

So what was in the speech?

After a brief introduction on why he got into politics (to “help out” and “to care”), Bartlett moved on to the obligatory mea culpa on behalf of a government that is clearly on the nose with the electorate. “At times, we have tried to do too much all at once, and didn’t listen enough to the voices of the people we were doing it for ... We have coupled our determination to build a stronger Tasmania with a renewed determination to listen to the concerns of Tasmanians right around the State,” Bartlett’s speech notes state. (The speech notes are marked “check against delivery” but I couldn’t make it on the day).

Next up was an acknowledgment that Tasmanians trust in government had been seriously undermined. In response, Bartlett touted the recently passed ethics legislation as a measure which “begins the process of restoring trust and healing public cynicism.” But, after just 123 words on the trust in government theme, he moved on.

The Global Financial Crisis was next on Bartlett’s agenda, where he claimed that the government took “prudent steps to tighten our belts”, made “difficult choices” and that Tasmania emerged as “one of the strongest, fastest growing economies.”

Bartlett acknowledged that “students and families have been hit by the high rents that accompany higher house prices” and that young couples are having “to save longer and harder to try and buy their first home.” But Bartlett wasn’t about to note the irony that he got elected in 2006 on the coat-tails of the pro-Labor Tasmanians for a Better Future advertisements which cited rising house values as a good thing which would be jeopardised if the Greens held the balance of power.

Instead of mentioning his 2009 budget plan to slash 800 public sector jobs, now Bartlett wanted the audience to believe that “we [Labor] get stuck in and stand shoulder to shoulder with every Tasmanian to try and protect their job and create new jobs for them and their kids.” (Anyone thinking that there might be a confession that the abolition of the Department of Environment, Parks, Heritage and the Arts was a decision that he later regretted, were to be sorely disappointed).

Then in case we hadn’t got the earlier message about Bartlett’s government listening skills, he laid it on a bit thicker. “We have heard your voices, and we stand with you. We are listening. And we will not let you down,” the speech notes stated. Just in case you still hadn’t got it, Bartlett reprised the audience with details of recent backflips on water and sewerage price rises, land tax and electricity concessions.

Finally, over 1200 words into his speech, Bartlett obviously thought that enough of the skeletons had been poked back into their closets so that it was safe to move on to what should have been Labor’s bread and butter issues of job creation, health, education and housing.

After stating that the challenge was to “build the next 40,000 jobs while continuing to keep Tasmania debt free”, Bartlett opined that “there is only one way that can happen, and that is if all of us as Tasmanians work together.”

But “all of us”, he made clear, doesn’t really mean “all of us”. The choice for the Tasmanian population, he claimed, was between going “forward with Labor” or “backwards with Liberal”. The sins of the Liberals in Bartlett’s eyes are “Work Choices, Liberal debt and the destructive economic theories of Abbott, Abetz and the radical right.” Exactly what these economic theories are wasn’t elaborated, let alone why it is we are supposed to believe that Labor aren’t or won’t implement them themselves. Nor was there any mention of Hodgman and, as for the Greens, Bartlett wants us to pretend they don’t exist.

Jobs lecture over, it was time for education to get a bit of a mention. Well, 175 words to be precise. Even then, it was a collection of feel-good aspirational statements like “all of our children are entitled to the best.” But with the spectre of the unpopular education changes still lingering on, Bartlett had to offer up yet another mea culpa. “Where mistakes are made, we will fix them, and where improvements are necessary we will make them,” the speech notes stated. The alternative, in case we hadn’t got the point earlier, was “going backwards with the Liberals.”

By this stage, one had to feel sorry for the poor anonymous speechwriter given the brief of trying to craft something positive and upbeat to address the deep concerns documented by internal Labor Party polling.

But press on the speechwriter did, rolling out the line that “Labor has an agenda to move forwards by working together with Tasmanians.” Just not the Liberals, who Bartlett claimed, only offer the “same old, discredited policies that Tasmanians have rejected time and again.” (And obviously not the Greens, who he still hadn’t mentioned).

And, just in case we still hadn’t tuned in to all the previous mea culpa’s, the speechwriter whacked in another one. Labor, the speech notes stated, is “a government that has made mistakes but has learnt from them and is getting on with the job.”

And, there was just one more mea culpa for the road. “I can not promise that things will always work out, or that mistakes will not be made. But I can promise you that I will always listen; I will work hard every day to earn your trust; I will admit when mistakes are made and work to fix them; And I will never forget where I came from and who I work for. That much I can guarantee,” the speech notes stated.

With the end in sight, the speechwriter figured it was time to end with an uplifting appeal. “And together, we will ask the Tasmanian people to join with us in moving Tasmania forward.” By now we knew that he didn’t mean “together” with the Liberals. And certainly not the Greens.

After over 2,100 words, it was finally over.

What was covered, what’s not

The content of the speech is illuminating for the amount of time devoted to obliquely apologising for a partial list of Labor’s sins. It is also remarkable how much of the content of the speech is a defensive pitch to past Labor supporters who are clearly in the mood for punishing Team Bartlett big time. With so much of the speech allocated to playing defense, there was little time for any detail on what precisely Labor would do.

And even the attempt to create a Liberal bogeyman as a differentiating tactic was rather lame. Aside from ignoring the numerous areas where the Liberals and Labor are in furious agreement, the attempted critique of the Liberals barely goes much beyond the vague accusation that it “thinks it can coast into office on vague, unfunded campaign promises and a pocketful of hollow pledges.” There are substantial questions which need to be put to the Liberals about their policies but Bartlett did little by way of articulating what he sees them as being.

Bartlett’s refusal to even mention the Greens is also rather revealing. Mentioning the Greens obviously risks raising questions about minority government that Labor would rather not answer. With Labor’s electoral stocks so low, raising that issue, no matter how obliquely, could be enough to push those who want a majority government above all else to vote for the Liberals. And mentioning the Greens could also be enough to remind soft Labor supporters that the Greens could be an effective insurance policy against the sins of a re-elected majority Labor government.

Clearly Labor has decided that the best strategy is to ignore the Greens in the hope that they will be starved of media coverage and voter support will dwindle during the election campaign. (Which is why Labor was so keen to enlist Sky News and some big-name journalists to legitimise a media “debate” which squeezes the Greens out of the frame).

Perhaps even more tellingly, there are the numerous issues Bartlett doesn’t mention at all. If the pulp mill is supposed to be such a economic boon for the State, it is notable that it is so politically toxic that it didn’t even rate a passing mention.

Nor was there any mention of irrigation schemes, though presumably this is hinted at in the statement that the government would invest $3.9 billion in an “infrastructure program”. There was no mention of poker machines. No mention of railways or roads through the Tarkine. Nor of national parks, climate change, canal estates, water quality, forests or any environmental issue. Even “renewable energy” is missing from the mix.

What about those internal polling “leaks”?

The Liberals “leaked” mid-December internal polling HERE of a small focus group reportedly found:
* a sense that Labor had been in government too long and “had lost their edge”;
* David Bartlett “doesn’t offer strong ideas or leadership”.
* a lack of action on infrastructure;
* that education reforms had “backfired”.
* that the Liberals plan to scrap land tax within a decade was a positive for them;
* that Labor was dogged by scandals.

The more recent Sue Neales article HERE on “leaked” internal Labor polling claimed that those participating in focus groups praised Bartlett for for his new “listening” and “hearing” approach”; and expressed support for his willingness to “admit mistakes and to backflip on unpopular earlier decisions, such as hefty water and sewerage charges and increased land tax bills.” However, other issues which Bartlett addressed in defensive mode, such as the loss of trust in government decision making, were either not in the polling results or were omitted from Neales’ articles.

Comparing Bartlett’s “Building a Strong Tasmania” speech to the themes raised in the two batches of “leaked” polling indicates that the greatest overlap is with the story on the Liberals “leaked” polling.

Bartlett’s constant re-iteration of his willingness to admit “mistakes” and “listen” is ultimately confirmation of how desperate things are for Labor. In the world of PR crisis management, frequent reiteration of statements of contrition and “listen” is a tactic to be employed when the public is so sceptical that they won’t listen to anything else a company or government says until they are sure the offender has been sufficiently punished and done their penance.

The fundamental problem for Labor is that they have sinned for so long that many people, including traditional supporters, have clearly come to the view that their penance requires a spell on the opposition benches.