I recently came across this short video documentary, which was released earlier this year by the Australian Labor Party (ALP) to mark its 120th anniversary. The video is meant to articulate the core values that make the party relevant and distinctive and that drive its policies and decisions.
It’s a missed opportunity. There’s some interesting material and great footage (hey, I recognised Al Grassby!). But the array of talking heads and mind numbing, power point-style lists of past policies and legislation, almost entirely devoid of colour or context, will baffle most people.
The ALP is trying to present a political version of what Annette Simmons calls, in the organisational context, a “value in action” story. She explains:
Values are subjective. Integrity may mean doing what your boss tells you to do, or saying no even if it costs your job. This is why the only way to communicate a value is by example (best), or with a story (2nd best). The word “integrity” is abstract and tossed around so much people pretend they have communicated. Nothing is communicated if no one knows what you mean when you say “integrity.” If you want to encourage or teach a value a story provides a “demonstration” by showing in the theatre of your listener’s mind what that value means, behaviorally.
Or, to put it another way, actions speak louder than words. The question is, how to make the actions speak, so that people can see and hear the values for themselves.
Any story must contain people (heroes and villains) and events. There must be causality: one event leads to another. Something unanticipated has to happen; in other words, trouble or, as is often the case in politics, a problem, challenge or crisis. (For further details, click here and here.)
In politics, when you’re trying to give your own account of the past, your story should show how the party had to confront the challenge, how it made choices and how the party’s decision changed the country (or the city, or the locality, or the world) for the better.
Richard Maxwell argues that a persuasive story will contain a moment of awareness that allows the hero to prevail. I believe that in politics, such a moment comes when the party (the hero) recognises a challenge to its values and acts in accordance with those values when providing a solution.
Maxwell also says that there must be a transformation in the hero and in the world that naturally results from their actions. In politics, the demand for the happy ending is straightforward: how do things get better?
And there’s a final, crucial element: the story and the events or crisis must affect people and their world views in some way; in short, they must evoke an emotional reaction. This is usually hope or fear. But anger, compassion, envy, greed, and others, may come into the picture. These are, of course, questions of values.
I invite you watch the ALP’s video (it’s only about five minutes long) and identify these elements of a story. I can’t see them, though one or two interviewees’ comments look as if they might open up stories. But too much is glossed over and not enough is explained.
OK, you can’t fit 120 years of triumph and tragedy, hope and heartbreak into a five minute video. But you can tell the stories of a few key achievements, to show some core values in action.
For instance, the footage of then-treasurer Paul Keating could be used to explain how he and Bob Hawke inherited a flat economy in 1983 and set in train the reforms that engaged Australia with the world and set the country up for the next 25 years.
The footage of former prime minister John Curtin could be used to explain in more detail the dire situation that he inherited upon becoming prime minister in 1941 and the leadership he provided to a nation at war. Curtin’s example could open the story of how successive Labor governments have tried to chart a more independent course in foreign policy. .
And the Whitlam footage could begin the story of Labor’s commitment to healthcare policy or, for that matter, anti-discrimination policies.
The New Zealand Labour Party did a little better with the opening broadcast for its recent general election campaign, but fell into list mode, and worse, with a car crash closing broadcast. (Click here.)
To be fair, “the story of the party” is a hard one to pull off. Does anyone know any examples of a political party successfully telling its own story?