THERE’S an army of people in the ‘communications industry’ whose job it is to spin the truth as skilfully as a Shane Warne flipper.
They work for governments, big business, corporations and even soft and fluffy organisations like charities. Spin is all about ignoring negatives and letting positives shine like diamonds (even if the positives have to be invented). Pointed questions by constantly frustrated journalists are ignored and what we get back is a carefully constructed, and often confusing, answers that rarely say anything at all.
Much of the trouble is that we are living in the Age of the Email. Journalists get better stories and better dirt when they talk to someone. Questions can’t be skated around or ignored.
But when you send a government minister, or any other powerbroker, an email (via their ‘media advisor’, of course), it’s like lobbing a ball in tennis. The big wig and his ‘team’ set up carefully with their really big tennis racket and invariably smash a forehand winner. Sometimes you might ace them on a return, but it’s such a rare occurrence that you’d bore your friends with the anecdote for decades to come.
Of course, the people you can and can’t talk to – and the answers they give – will often change. This situation is truest in politics, when a pollie moves from being opposition to being in government. Pollies in opposition can shoot from the hip and promise the world and all its riches. In power, and enslaved by the party, the rules are vastly different.
Unwritten law of politics, No. 1: When pollies are in opposition you can call them anywhere, anytime and they’ll be desperate to speak. But when they’re in power they’re just so busy (unless they’re keen to announce something) that you’ve got as much hope of reaching them as touching the moon from a stepladder.
Unwritten law of politics, No. 2: When pollies are in opposition they will promise you anything. But when they’re in power they won’t promise you anything, and are often heard to say that the money has all dried up thanks to the financial mismanagement of the previous government.
I have a massive file called ‘Favourite non-answers by people in officialdom’ in the top drawer of my desk. Flicking through it, I come across a few of my all time favourites.
“Not in terms of anything I’ve said for the purposes of bringing this to some conclusion,” was the candid, if somewhat cryptic answer, former Roads Minister Tim Pallas gave me when I asked him if overseas drivers who were failing their licence tests in Leongatha would be taken off our roads.
Mind you, as I said before, pollies are happy to speak to the media when they’re in opposition and will make the most outrageous promises should you elect them.
Around the same time that Mr Pallas was confounding me, the now Deputy Premier Peter Ryan was dazzling me with his will-do attitude.
Mr Ryan said Mr Pallas and his Labor cronies were ignoring the sorry state of country roads. Now the Labor party, not to mention more than a few shell shocked drivers, is levelling the same criticism at the Coalition.
“The RACV has proved there is a direct link between improving roads and reducing the road toll. The simple truth of the matter is if you fix country roads, you will save country lives,” Mr Ryan said, way back when.
“Better roads equal greater cost savings for transport operators and a more vibrant regional economy in rural areas that rely on roads as a freight link.”
Some arguments remain the same, but the words are spoken by different players. Or, as is more often the case, sent by email.