Dear Prime Minister Abbott,
Let me begin by assuring you that in penning this letter I mean no disrespect and do not intend to simply contribute to the “electronic graffiti” that has previously dismayed you. In fact, I have great respect for anyone who chooses political office or public service, especially those who do so as a means of effecting positive change. Although others may disagree, I like to think you are someone who falls into this category (and I will continue to think so until you provide obvious evidence to the contrary).
Personally, while I have flittered infrequently and imperceptibly around the edges of politics, I do not think I am someone who could withstand the rigours of public attention, public criticism (some of it constructive but most of it not), public ridicule (my ears once looked like yours but I couldn’t take the teasing and had the condition cosmetically rectified), public attack, public highs and public lows that you experience on a daily basis.
Who am I? Nobody. Nobody important. At least nobody important outside my large family and small circle of friends. But if asked I hope they would describe me as someone who is always willing to help out and wants everyone to be the best version of themselves. Which brings me to the reason for this letter.
I do not doubt that being Prime Minister of Australia is an enormous challenge, requiring an effort that prior to taking on the role is simply incomprehensible. Neither do I doubt that the challenge requires extensive reliance on others who are hopefully specialists in what they do – policy, strategy, communication, analysis, economics, health, marketing, events and a variety of other areas. However, I am concerned that either the advice of these specialists is not of the quality one might have expected or that their advice is not filtering through to you as you attend to a workload that an average person would expect to be divided among multiple workers.
It is just as likely that any advice I offer will fail to find its intended target (for clarity’s sake, Mr Prime Minister, the intended target is you). I will offer it anyway in the hope that someone will see it and it will travel along the degrees of separation between us. (I suspect it’s more than six given that we don’t run in the same circles but in these days of national and global interconnectivity, who knows?)
I think we can all agree that the era of politicians being able to provide the “no answer” answer or the “redirection” answer to questions they simply don’t want to answer has come and gone. Journalists now persist with the question and the story doubles, triples or even quadruples in size.
Does any of this sound familiar?
“Are you refusing to answer the question?” Making you look obstinate.
“That may be the answer to another question but it’s not the answer to my question.” Making you look shifty.
“That’s not what I asked.” Making you look stupid.
I am going to propose a solution so radical that you may be inclined to dismiss it out of hand (as so many have before you). And that solution is this: when asked a question you don’t want to answer, answer it anyway and tell the truth.
I will use a recent example to illustrate how effective this approach can be. On Channel 7’s Sunrise program, host David Koch asked, “Did you ask her [Julie Bishop] not to challenge and did she refuse?” You answered, “I think people find all that insider Canberra stuff so boring.” David persisted and asked again, “Did you ask her not to challenge and did she refuse?” You answered, “I meet with Julie Bishop all the time… The public elected me as Prime Minister to end Labor’s mess. We’re not going to go back to the chaos of the Labor days.” David Koch tried one last time, “Can you just answer me? Did you ask Julie Bishop not to challenge and did she say no?” Your final answer was, “I’m not going to play these Canberra insider games. Why don’t was just leave all that insider gossip to the Canberra insiders?”
Here’s my suggestion of what you should have said. “Julie and I did discuss issues relating to the leadership of the government. I asked whether she would rule out challenging for my current role and she declined to do so, which is absolutely her right to do. It is my responsibility to service the public and fulfil the requirements of my role in such a way that I maintain the confidence of my colleagues. If I am unable to do that then it is not unreasonable to expect my colleagues to question me. While I would prefer they question me privately, they are also well within their rights and duties as fellow officeholders to question me publicly. And if I have lost their confidence, then it is up to me to work hard to win it back.”
The fundamental differences between your actual answers and what you should have said are these:
*You would have answered the question – thus your refusal to answer the question would not have become a story in itself.
*You would have told the truth – thus the perception that you are hiding something would not have become so quickly and firmly embedded in the minds of the electorate.
*You would have been respectful – thus diverting attention from the highly likely possibility that the tone of the meeting may have been less pleasant than you would generally hope for from an exchange with someone who is ostensibly on your side.
*You would have been accountable – about the simple fact that you would prefer not to have your methods questioned but that it is the duty if every officeholder to hold every other officeholder responsible for their actions and that you are not exempt from this kind of scrutiny despite your lofty office.
I hope you are able to take this feedback in the spirit in which it is intended (to help make you the best version of yourself as Prime Minister as you can be) and that you are able to make headlines from now on in relation to what you say and do rather than what you refuse to say or won’t do.
P.S. As a writer and editor, I felt fully qualified to provide the above advice in relation to communication and language. Although I am less qualified in other areas, I am willing and able to provide feedback on a variety of topics – policy, scheduling, tie selection, etc – and I would be more than happy to oblige upon receiving any such request, even if just to offer you an uninformed view indicative of what you might encounter from any other average woman on the street. Best wishes for the next couple of years. I’ll be keeping an eye on you.