MCM Strategic Communications

MCM Strategic Communications
Leading Canberra-based government relations and media relations consultancy firm.

16 May 2017

Unique insights into effective ministerial engagement

Dennis Richardson AO delivered one of the more memorable and entertaining addresses to the National Press Club last week, a speech which also included an enormous amount of extremely valuable advice for anyone who is or who is thinking about engaging with a government minister.

Indeed, the principal points about this which were made by Mr Richardson – who, until his retirement as Secretary of the Department of Defence last Friday, was one of our most experienced and respected public servants – apply to engagement with all key political stakeholders.

In short, Mr Richardson said engaging with a Minister, particularly when communicating information the Minister might not necessarily like, is similar to engaging with a member of your family – carefully consider the person you are about to engage with before doing so. Among other things, think about whether they are a “morning person” or not; think about how and where you will deliver the information, notably what would be the most effective setting. Mr Richardson said it might just be that the message is most effectively delivered halfway through walking the dog.

Mr Richardson went on to state there is virtually no point in getting upset at a Minister. While this may make you feel better, it is highly unlikely you will achieve the outcome you are seeking.

In other words, potentially, the two most important aspects of ministerial engagement are to determine what outcome you are seeking and decided on what is the most effective way of achieving this outcome.

If you are new to communicating with government or even if you have been engaging with government for years, it’s well worth taking time to analyse Mr Richardson’s points – ahead of interacting with all key political stakeholders. His points should directly inform the development of your strategy for engaging with key political stakeholders and at all times during the implementation of the strategy. Doing so will maximise your chances of success.

These rules of thumb certainly served Mr Richardson well in a career in the public service which lasted almost 50 years. We wish him a happy and fulfilling retirement.

- By Hamish Arthur

20 March 2017

Transparency for Australian consumers

Australia’s consumer law framework and its watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), rarely draw praise.

As is the case with many other areas of regulation, if the laws and the regulator are meeting their objectives, then there is little or no public commentary. However, if there are challenges, the public outcry can, at times, be loud.

On a recent trip to the US, it became apparent that a part of Australia’s consumer laws and the work the ACCC has carried out in this space has many benefits – and it’s important these benefits are highlighted.

Specifically, there is no standard obligation in place across the entirety of the US which makes it compulsory for businesses to display the final price that a consumer will actually pay out of their pocket for a product or service. Therefore, if you are to walk into a café in Washington and ask for a flat white coffee, the cost displayed on price boards inside the café might be, for example, $3.79, however, the amount you actually pay might turn out to be $4.05, once taxes are included.

A couple of other examples stood out on this recent trip. One retail outlet in New York charged tax on a cap, yet a similar cap at a similar shop in a similar area did not. It was an almost identical situation for a six-pack of the same type of beer in Los Angeles – at one liquor store, the beer attracted an additional $1 in tax, while at another liquor store less than 200m away, there was no tax on top of the amount paid for exactly the same product.

One of the central themes of the regulatory framework in Australia is transparency. When a consumer drives past a petrol station and sees price boards next to the road, sees a price displayed above (or below) an item at their local supermarket or when they visit an aggregator of travel products online, it should be very clear to the consumer the final price that they will be paying.

The ACCC over-reached a few years ago when it issued a ruling that restaurants would have to introduce different menus on Sundays and public holidays to reflect any different prices they might offer on those days of the week (due to higher staffing costs), but, sensibly, this changed such that as long as restaurants made it very clear to consumers there was a percentage surcharge on top of standard pricing on days when this applies, then this would be acceptable.

Yes, on the whole, when it comes to clarity of pricing for consumers, Australia is doing extremely well.

- By Hamish Arthur

11 May 2016

Brief: 2016 Federal Election - 2 July

(8 May 2016)

Election date confirmed as 2 July, campaign is now officially underway


The Prime Minister, Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, has made a rain-soaked journey through Canberra’s inner-southern suburbs to Government House at Yarralumla to make a formal request to the Governor-General for a double-dissolution election on Saturday, 2 July.
·        Mr Turnbull is aiming to retain power for the Liberal Party-Nationals conservative coalition, while the Leader of the Opposition, Hon Bill Shorten MP, will be hoping to create history and lead the progressive Australian Labor Party back into office after just one term in opposition. The last one-term government in Australia was in 1929-1931.
·        As many Australians are aware, Mr Turnbull forged a successful career as a journalist, lawyer, founder of a large IT company and head of the Australian Republican Movement before entering Parliament in 2004. He was a Minister in the Howard Government and had an unsuccessful stint as Leader of the Opposition from 2008-2009. Mr Shorten worked as a lawyer, political advisor and union leader before entering Parliament in 2007. He was a Minister in the previous Labor Government. Before entering politics, Mr Shorten attracted national headlines as the union leader who assisted two workers who were trapped below ground (and were eventually freed) when a mine collapsed in Tasmania almost exactly 10 years ago, in 2006.
·        It will be Australia’s first double-dissolution election since 1987 (when Labor was returned to office).

Key policy issues


·        Coalition – The economy
The key message used by the Treasurer, Hon Scott Morrison MP, has and will continue to be “jobs and growth”; the Federal Budget, which was handed down last Tuesday, was described as a “national economic plan”.
·        Labor – Education and health
Mr Shorten will run hard on education and health, and is pushing the message he will “put people first”, if elected to the top job.

The first shots


Both leaders held their first media conferences of the campaign a short time ago.
·        Speaking in Canberra, Mr Turnbull emphasised the Coalition’s jobs and growth mantra, saying a return to Labor would result in higher taxes and higher levels of public debt. He pointed to recent major defence and employment announcements, and the importance in the future of services industries, including tourism, and agriculture.
·        Speaking in Launceston, Tasmania, Mr Shorten signalled Labor’s clear attack points, saying it is more united than the Coalition and Mr Turnbull made no reference to climate change during his media conference. Mr Shorten said Labor will focus on education, health and, as part of his climate change commitment, renewable energy.


Opinion polls and betting odds


After wresting the prime ministership from Hon Tony Abbott MP in a leadership coup in September 2015, Mr Turnbull enjoyed a honeymoon period in the polls until the end of last year. The Coalition’s standing has since dropped away to the point where a month ago, it fell behind Labor on a two-party preferred basis for the first time since Mr Turnbull became leader (49-51).
·        The most recent Newspoll, released on 18 April, showed the Coalition still trailing Labor 49-51.
·        Mr Turnbull has always held an edge over Mr Shorten as preferred prime minister and although the 18 April Newspoll still had Mr Turnbull ahead 47 per cent to 28 as preferred prime minister, the gap is well down on the 39-point margin Mr Turnbull had on this score at the beginning of 2016.
·        A short time ago, bet365 listed the Coalition at $1.33 to win and Labor at $3.25.

Despite the closeness of the polls on a two-party preferred basis, most commentators are expecting the Coalition to win the election – but with a vastly reduced majority (it currently holds 90 of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives and Labor holds 55; the other five seats are held by minor parties/independents). Despite this, Labor can win the election. In essence, this means while the Coalition is favoured to win, an upset is not out of the question.

What’s different this time?


·        Double-dissolution election – All 226 seats in of the House of Representatives and the Senate will be decided at the upcoming election. At “normal” elections, only half of the 76-seat Senate is up for re-election. The double-dissolution election was triggered because the Senate twice failed to pass legislation which would have reinstated a “watchdog” for the building and construction industry.
·        Long campaign – The election campaign will last for eight weeks, making it one of the longest ever campaigns. Many are expecting this will work in favour of Mr Shorten and Labor.
·        New Senate voting rules – The election will be the first to take place under new voting rules for the Senate. The new rules simplify the process of voters filling out voting forms and minor parties are no longer able to swap preferences to secure seats. The new rules will make it more difficult for low-profile independents to win Senate seats.

Key battlegrounds


The key marginal seats where the election will be decided are, by and large, located in north Queensland, outer-suburban Brisbane, northern NSW, the NSW Central Coast, western Sydney, Tasmania, SA and WA. Not forgetting the bellwether seat of Eden-Monaro. Since 1972, this regional NSW electorate, which surrounds Canberra, has been held by the party which has formed government.
·        WA is the State to watch
The Coalition holds all but three of the federal seats in WA, however the conservative State Government is unpopular and with the federal Coalition set to lose seats, the key Coalition-held marginals of Swan, Cowan and Hasluck could be in doubt. A new, notional-Liberal seat (Burt) will add to the intrigue in WA.

The X-factors


·        Former Prime Minister, Mr Abbott
Mr Abbott promised not to undermine Mr Turnbull’s leadership, but this hasn’t stopped Mr Abbott from speaking publicly about policy issues he feels strongly about, creating difficulties for Mr Turnbull. However, in the past few weeks, Mr Abbott appears to have changed his messaging to underline the importance of the Coalition being re-elected. Should the type of internal divisions which sabotaged Labor’s 2010 election campaign after it removed a sitting prime minister surface within the Coalition during the campaign, it could result in the Coalition losing additional seats.
·        High-profile Independent Senator Nick Xenophon
On the strength of his enormous popularity in his home state of SA, Senator Nick Xenophon is set to play a major role during and beyond this election campaign. Under the banner of his new political party, the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT), he will be re-elected and is set to be joined in the Senate by other NXT candidates. There is a strong chance he could hold the balance of power in the Senate in the next Parliament. He could even win a seat or seats in the House of Representatives, most likely in SA.

How Senator Xenophon distributes his preferences among the major parties will have a significant bearing on the outcome of seats in SA.

Engagement during the campaign


Engagement between business and government during election campaigns is usually relatively limited, with the exception of fundraising events and public appearances, however, the unusually long campaign means things could be different in 2016. If a campaign announcement directly impacts on business, then engagement could be both necessary and possible. Given the heightened level of sensitivity which exists in an election campaign environment, engagement – including any public response by business to campaign announcements – must be even more carefully considered and, as always, conducted in a strategic way.

The latest “Guidance on Caretaker Conventions” which has been released by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet states:

“The business of government continues and ordinary matters of administration still need to be addressed. However, successive governments have followed a series of practices, known as the ‘caretaker conventions’, which aim to ensure that their actions do not bind an incoming government and limit its freedom of action. In summary, the conventions are that the government avoids: making major policy decisions that are likely to commit an incoming government; making significant appointments; and entering major contracts or undertakings.”

Quotable quote


In yesterday’s “Weekend Australian” newspaper, a former Chief of Staff to Mr Turnbull, Chris Kenny, highlighted the challenges facing the Coalition:

“The Government is defensive, ill-disciplined and vague. If this doesn’t improve, the Coalition will lose.”

What’s next?


·        Major announcements – The Federal Budget was very light-on for major spending commitments for an election-year financial statement. Therefore, expect the Government to make many significant funding announcements throughout the campaign, particularly in key marginal seats.

·        Election advertising – Election advertising will bombard our screens (including on the internet and social media), radio programs and newspapers. Much of it will be negative, i.e. it will focus on the deficiencies of the leaders and the policies of the major parties.

16 February 2016

Major parties take on the new team in town

One of the most intriguing aspects of this year’s Federal Election will be how much of an impact the new political party which is being led by Independent South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon will have.

The “Nick Xenophon Team” (NXT) was launched in December 2014, but it’s only in the past three months that its activities have gone up a gear with the unveiling of many of its House of Representatives and Senate candidates.

When Australia goes to the polls – most likely in the second half of this year – it’s almost certain that the biggest splash the NXT makes will be in Senator Xenophon’s home state of South Australia. At the last election in 2013, Senator Xenophon attracted more than 250,000 votes – almost 25 per cent of the overall vote in SA, ahead of the Labor Party which secured just under 23 per cent.

A major part of Senator Xenophon’s appeal is that, to the average Australian, he comes across as being a voice of reason within the Parliament, while the overwhelming majority of other MPs and Senators are seen as being “just another politician”.

Soon after Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP seized the leadership of the Parliamentary Liberal Party in September last year – therefore becoming Prime Minister – he quickly demonstrated that he was aware of the threat that Senator Xenophon and the NXT could pose to the Liberals in SA. Realising that the NXT is a real chance of winning the prize Liberal seats of Sturt (held by the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Hon Christopher Pyne MP) and Mayo (held by Hon Jamie Briggs MP), the then new PM said on ABC Radio in Adelaide in October: “Nick will be running Nick Xenophon Team candidates; they are not robots, they are not clones of Nick Xenophon, they are individuals. And whether they can actually in practice represent his values or work as a team remains to be seen.” Mr Turnbull also highlighted the falling out Senator Xenophon had with another candidate who ran on his ticket and was elected to the SA Parliament’s Legislative Council, as well as the difficulties mining magnate and current Member for Fairfax, Mr Clive Palmer MP has had holding together his Palmer United Party.

Now Labor has gone public with its attempts to discredit the NXT. Last Wednesday, just before the House of Representatives adjourned for the evening, the member for the SA seat of Wakefield (and the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Manufacturing), Mr Nick Champion, gave a short, but detailed speech raising questions about the NXT. Of Senator Xenophon, Mr Champion said: “Is he independent? Is he leader of a party? Is he convenor? Is he all three? It sounds like a recipe for confusion and division to me…confusion and division that the nation cannot afford.” Mr Champion then used seemingly conflicting statements on the NXT website and within its constitution to say it was unclear whether NXT candidates would be bound by NXT policies or whether they would be free to exercise a conscience vote when it came to making decisions.

Mr Champion then went a step further, telling Parliament that a reference in the NXT constitution which covers the death or incapacity of Senator Xenophon was “like something out of a Woody Allen film”.

Whether you agree with the Prime Minister and Mr Champion or whether you are a supporter of Senator Xenophon – and by extension, other members of the NXT – it is now very clear that both of the major parties have redirected some of their guns away from each other and towards Senator Xenophon and the NXT. However, Senator Xenophon has shown that both at state and federal government level, he will be a formidable foe, largely because of his popularity in the electorate.

- By Hamish Arthur

31 December 2015

Is it time for a new Tourism White Paper?

The year 2015 has marked the end of the Parliamentary careers of some prominent Australians and their contributions to public life as elected members are worth reflecting on before the year officially comes to a close.

There was the shock of the sudden passing of the House of Representatives Member for the Western Australian seat of Canning, Don Randall. For those who knew him, Don was a very effective local member whose style of not being frightened to call a spade a spade won him respect from across the political spectrum when he represented his constituents in Canberra.

The year 2015 also saw Joe Hockey retire from Parliament, bringing to an end more than 19 years of service as the member for North Sydney. Ultimately, Mr Hockey, who has since been appointed as Australia’s next ambassador to the US, was collateral damage in the demise of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister in September. With incoming Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull promising a new economic direction, there was no chance that Mr Hockey would stay on as Treasurer after the leadership change.

Mr Hockey enjoyed many successes during his time in Parliament. So much so that in his valedictory speech, which was delivered on 21 October, he tabled a document titled “Community Service Report Card to the People of North Sydney”. The 16-page document lists Mr Hockey’s achievements as a Minister in the Howard Government, as a Shadow Minister after Kevin Rudd led Labor back into power in 2007, as Treasurer in the Abbott Government and as the member for North Sydney.
The fourth page of the report card looks at Mr Hockey’s time as Minister for Small Business and Tourism from 2001-2004. The tourism industry, in particular, is greatly indebted to him for what he achieved when he was in charge of this portfolio.

In September 2001, leading domestic carrier Ansett Airlines collapsed. It immediately ceased flying and never operated again. This came just days after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US which caused many people around the world to re-think their travel plans. In short, Australia’s tourism industry was teetering on the brink.

As the Minister for Small Business and Tourism, Mr Hockey developed a blueprint for the future of the industry which was arguably the most significant tourism public policy document that Australia has ever produced – “Tourism White Paper – A medium-to-long-term strategy for tourism”. In the introduction to the white paper, which was released in 2003, then Prime Minister John Howard wrote: “The Government looks forward to working closely with the industry on the implementation of this plan. Working together to achieve future growth in the delivery of quality tourism services will provide very significant economic benefits for the nation.” Then Minister Hockey wrote: “The Tourism White Paper represents input from our best tourism minds and outlines a series of key strategies to underpin the industry’s drive to achieving its full potential.”

Among other things, the release of the Tourism White Paper saw the establishment of Tourism Australia, the Government’s tourism marketing authority, and a pledge from the Government to invest an additional $235 million over five years to support the implementation of key measures in the policy blueprint.

That was in November 2003 when it was fair to say that tourism advocacy to government was incredibly strong. In the 12 years since, the tourism industry’s ability to successfully advocate to government has appeared to slowly diminish. This hasn’t been through lack of effort – there are many passionate public advocates for tourism – rather, this has more to do with the fact that other industries have committed more resources and in a more coordinated way. In Canberra, tourism is seen as fragmented because it has representation from too many industry bodies and therefore, other industries have surpassed tourism in the eyes of many decision-makers in Canberra, notably within the bureaucracy.

With tourism now at the point where there are strong growth predictions for the next decade, it could be time for the tourism industry to reflect on whether it needs to band together to lobby for a new Tourism White Paper. With the mining and manufacturing industries suffering downturns in the past three years, tourism looms one of the most viable alternative economic drivers, particularly in regional parts of Australia. However, there is a risk that without a stronger focus from government and industry combined, this growth potential will not be realised.

As Australia heads into an election year next year, it could be just the right time for the tourism industry to hold fresh discussions with all major parties to determine if there is an appetite for doing more to address the perception that some within government have that tourism is no longer all that important to the economy. A new Tourism White Paper could go a long way towards doing this.

- By Hamish Arthur

2 October 2015

Second Sydney airport a significant legacy of Tony Abbott’s term as PM

Old Parliament House in Canberra, which now houses the Museum of Australian Democracy, has a special display devoted to Australia’s prime ministers.

The display features a portrait of each of the 29 people who have held our country’s top job. Alongside each, there are a series of brief points about the major achievements of each prime minister while they were in office.

With the recent transition from Tony Abbott to Malcolm Turnbull, the political spotlight has, for a brief period, focused on what Mr Abbott’s legacy in the top job will be. His administration spent much of its initial period in office following the 2013 election honouring promises to wind back Labor policies, such as the carbon tax and the mining tax. There was also the introduction of a rigid border protection regime which stopped the passage of illegal asylum-seekers to Australia and this was arguably Mr Abbott’s most significant achievement.

However, there was another ground-breaking move the Coalition Government made under Mr Abbott which has the potential to, perhaps, be his greatest legacy – even though it hasn’t attracted anywhere near the same level of publicity as the other measures mentioned above.

In April 2014, Mr Abbott announced that Badgerys Creek, some 50km west of the centre of the city, would be the site of a second major airport in Sydney. After decades of governments at both federal and state level considering (and arguing over) many different sites – even Canberra Airport linked to Sydney with a very fast train was considered – a decision had finally been made.

At the time of the announcement, the Federal Government spruiked the economic benefits for western Sydney of a new airport at Badgerys Creek, including the creation of 60,000 jobs once the airport is fully operational, with construction to build the airport expected to start in 2016 at a total estimated cost of $2.5 billion.

There were mixed feelings among local federal MPs about the announcement. While most welcomed it, many also harboured concerns about aircraft noise and increased traffic congestion. It set the scene for what could have been a controversial period following Mr Abbott’s announcement. But this wasn’t the case.

If, indeed, a second Sydney Airport is successfully built at Badgerys Creek, then Mr Abbott will be able to claim a lot of credit for this. Given how significant this will be, it’s probably surprising that he didn’t spend more time publicly talking up the benefits of the airport when he was prime minister. It will be interesting to see if or how it appears alongside his portrait in the display of prime ministers at Old Parliament House.

- By Hamish Arthur

5 August 2015

Penalty rates reform could be just the beginning

The old weekend penalty rates chestnut has been raised again, courtesy of the release of a draft Productivity Commission report as part of its inquiry into Australia’s industrial relations framework.

The Australian Government’s principal economic advisory organisation has, among other things, recommended that for industries including hospitality and retail, high penalty rates paid to staff who work on Sundays should be reduced to the same level as penalty rates which are paid to workers on Saturdays.

The response to the Commission’s proposals was fairly predictable – unions were up in arms while business groups were, by and large, supportive.

For its part, the Government was at pains to point out that this is a report to government, not by government and that there would be no changes to the workplace relations framework before the next election. The Opposition claimed the Government was attempting to return to the “WorkChoices” regime of the mid-2000s which was one of the major reasons why the previous conservative government lost office in 2007.

In trying to predict the end result of this debate, the only certainty is that it won’t be known for some time and could ultimately be a key battleground for the major parties at the next federal election, which is likely to be held in the second half of next year.

As various stakeholders consider the make-up of their submissions to the draft report, two other points should be considered.

The issue of penalty rates on Sundays is merely one area which is holding back Australia’s tourism and hospitality industries. It could only be a matter of time before the practice of restaurants and cafes charging more for customers who eat in their premises, compared to those who take their food and drink away becomes widespread in Australia. Many restaurants and cafes in Europe already have such a pricing regime in place and it hasn’t deterred customers.

The other is the visionary call made by then outgoing union leader Paul Howes at the National Press Club in February 2014 for the development of “a grand compact in which business, unions and government all work out a deal that we all agree to live with for the long haul”. At the time he made the comments, Mr Howes attracted broad criticism, but the more that time goes by, the more sensible his proposal appears.

Who knows – if (or when) Mr Howes runs for Parliament, his plan could turn out to be the basis of a future Labor policy position on industrial relations.

- By Hamish Arthur