It’s very easy for a politician to say something that is not much more than a trifle. That’s what happened to Treasurer Joe Hockey this week.
But seasoned politicians know well that words are bullets. And words that become political symbols can be damaging. And symbols can be more than words; for example a Winston Churchill or Joe Hockey cigar.
My mate Bob arrived this morning to finish fixing the doors in our kitchen. He is a good weather vane. The first thing he said was: "Joe Hockey is in a bit of trouble today for saying that poor people don’t have cars so they will not be paying the proposed increase in the fuel excise." I mentioned Hockey’s response and Bob said: "Yeah, but …"
Unfortunately for Hockey a ton of statistics from the Treasury will not convince the average voter. I was not totally convinced myself after reading his press release although he had an argument.
But it will be a passing issue because the real issue is what happens if the government is stopped by the Senate from reducing spending and cutting the debts left by the previous Labor government. If Australia does not better manage its budget then everyone will be worse off.
But this minor kerfuffle is a reminder that the trick for politicians is to avoid comments that can be used against them. It’s better not to give political opponents the chance to reinterpret words to their advantage at your own expense.
I do not claim to be any better at it than anyone else but I used to have a process to work at it. I had an adviser who came to my speeches and media events and afterwards we always had an honest post mortem examination on what I said and how I said it. I practised the lines. If you are doing one or two speeches a day it’s not hard to fine tune the presentation. When I ran the 1988 referendum campaign, once I got going I was even practising my jokes. Reputedly, former prime minister Paul Keating used to practise his answers to Dorothy Dix questions. Keating was very good in Parliament. Practice is a good idea.
Of course, we are all human and drop the occasional misspoken comment. Hockey has the reputation of being a good communicator. But for now, people are after him because they don’t like the budget and Hockey’s only respite will come when the budget debate is concluded.
Peter Reith was a Howard government minister and is a Fairfax columnist.