Bob Hawke used it to lead the nation into an unprecedented period of economic reform. Paul Keating used it to propel an aggressive agenda of social and economic change. John Howard used it to assure voters he shared their values and concerns even as he pursued his own program of reform. And all used it brutally to undermine their opponents' claims to office.
Kevin Rudd had it, too, for a time, but didn't know how to use it, and lost it. Julia Gillard barely ever had it.
"It" is the soft power of political communication.
The Prime Ministership is the controlling position of public debate. From it, the incumbent can shape the national agenda, set the subject for the national political conversation and explain to voters where the government and, with it, Australia is going.
There are three aspects to this soft power. One is having a compelling, influential message. Two is having the authority to deliver it. And three is a receptive environment.
The Gillard government currently has none of those aspects.
Labor's inability to communicate has been a theme almost as long as the government has been in office. Initially, boasting high popularity, a weak opposition, the Apology and Australia's first female Governor-General to his credit, followed by a strong response to the GFC, Kevin Rudd appeared masterful in his ability to control the political and policy agenda.
But bit by bit the downsides of Rudd's personality and management style took hold. Rudd was obsessed with controlling and winning the media cycle each day, which inhibited his willingness to stay on even significant issues for any length of time. Communications were structured around a limited set of talking points that everyone in the government was expected to follow, and an announcement or decision every day.
Worse, despite his popularity, Rudd showed an alarming capacity to be intimidated. Even with overwhelming support for the government's response to the GFC, Rudd was intimidated by the Coalition's constant emphasis on the budget deficit, to the point where he courted ridicule during the 2009 budget when he refused to state the deficit. Rather than control the political debate, Rudd had allowed the Opposition to control it by making the deficit an issue.
Julia Gillard had a formidable reputation as a communicator as Deputy Prime Minister, but her authority and message didn't last long once she gained the top job – probably only until she unveiled her "citizens' assembly" climate change proposal at the end of the first week of the election campaign, and then the first leaks against her occured two days later.
But more than Rudd, who alienated but never lost the electorate with his decision to abandon the CPRS (Labor still led the Coalition 52-48 when he was dumped), Gillard lost her authority as the electorate came to regard her as duplicitous and inclined to do whatever it took to get and retain power.
This was, in part, a vicious circle: Tony Abbott skillfully characterised Gillard in that way, and Gillard was unable to prevent him; the more he succeeded in framing her as untrustworthy, the less she was able to prevent him from doing so. Once again, the Opposition dictated the terms of the national debate, not the Prime Minister.
But Gillard is hardly alone in struggling to deliver an effective, consistent message. Wayne Swan has struggled to do so, despite a host of independent foreign endorsements of his stint as Treasurer. While Craig Emerson has steadily acquired a reputation as federal politics' foremost free trade exponent, the other major figure in Labor's economic team, Penny Wong, is almost invisible.
Compared to Hawke and Keating, the Gillard government's problems demonstrate why soft power can be as important to a party's political fortunes as hard power. Something has happened to the party in the last two decades. Hawke came to political maturity in the union movement, a major public figure in his own right prior to entering politics, courtesy of the constant industrial warfare of the 1970s. Keating had spent a decade and longer fighting the influence of the hard left inside the NSW ALP. Both men led the reformist cause at party conferences in the 1980s.
If nothing else, dispute sharpens tongues and minds. The ALP of the 1970s and 1980s was a party of intense debate and dispute. One of the results was an outstanding generation of political talent – Hawke, Keating, Dawkins, Button, Walsh, Willis, Hayden and Richardson and, in its later stages, Faulkner, Lavarch and Ray. But Labor's success paved the way for further problems.
A young left-wing Victorian firebrand by the name of Lindsay Tanner was already complaining in 1991 about the level of stage management at ALP national conferences. When the party went into opposition, the appearance of unity became all the more important. By that time branch stacking, frequently involving ethnic groups, was rife in Victoria, Queensland and NSW. The factional system, traditionally a mechanism for resolving ideological disputes and distributing power without outright warfare within the party, had begun devolving into a simple mechanism for distributing spoils.
Labor's parliamentary talent began reflecting the party hierarchy itself, with MPs inexperienced in arguing the merits of an issue or policy but well-versed in factional deals and exploiting party rules.
But another factor confronted Labor: a media environment far more hostile than that in which the Howard government operated. This was partly the creation of Kevin Rudd himself: the high-handed way in which his office treated the Press Gallery was bound to backfire on them the moment Rudd's popularity began slipping. Moreover, as Lindsay Tanner later argued, the media cycle itself was becoming more and more problematic for politicians, driven by a vicious circle in which media trivialised politics, politicians trivialised their communication in response, and the media responded in kind.
The media environment was also fragmenting. The last days of the Howard era saw the Prime Minister, as analog a leader as Robert Menzies, venturing hesitantly onto Youtube. Social media was virtually unknown, beyond Facebook, at that point. Now politicians are expected to engage across a huge range of platforms – not just communicate, but engage and respond to voters.
But it was mostly external: News Ltd, which owns the national broadsheet and tabloids in all state capitals except Perth, was intensely hostile to Labor and campaigned heavily against the government. A case in point was its remorseless negative coverage of the government's GFC stimulus programs. These programs were highly successful: there was minimal waste, they protected hundreds of thousands of jobs and lifted consumer confidence, and individual components remain very popular with voters that have directly used them.
The only flawed program was its insulation program, in which over a billion dollars was rapidly poured into an immature industry where no standards or training existed. But News Ltd media coverage portrayed the entire stimulus program as a debacle, and particularly the schools component, which was extraordinarily effective and found to be so by independent reports including that of the ANAO. The ABC followed News Ltd's lead on the issue, to the extent that even this year in a 4 Corners program, a journalist referred to the BER program as a "political disaster".
The media environment worsened once Gillard became Prime Minister. She was the subject of remarkably misogynist coverage from newspapers and, eventually, of vicious personal attacks from Sydney radio shock jocks – another stridently anti-Labor group -- one of whom called for her to be drowned.
In such an environment, even highly-skilled commentators will struggle to deliver a message. And Labor's best minds are at a loss as to how to deal with it.
The result, as a minority Labor government teeters on the edge of crisis, is a blunt demonstration of why power in Australian politics can only be effectively wielded by those with the skills of both soft and hard power.