By Malcolm Cole
SAS Group Director of Media and Communications
Changing an entrenched public view is without doubt the most difficult task in the communications sphere. This can be even more challenging when there are opposing voices resisting the change of view.
In recent days, the Turnbull Government has delivered a masterclass on how to make a neat dismount from a controversial issue – in this case the GST – and move the public debate quickly on to other topics.
This is not intended as either endorsement or criticism of the politics of the Prime Minister's decision to abandon possible changes to the GST. Rather, as communicators we are always looking at the best examples of campaigns to change public perceptions. And this was copybook.
Just one week ago, there was a widespread public perception that the Government had made up its mind on increasing the GST to 15 per cent. Whether it had indeed made up its mind is somewhat beside the point – in politics, public perception is what counts.
Late last week there was a burst of media commentary citing "nervous backbenchers" opposed to changing the GST. This was followed by a round of assurances from senior figures in the government that nothing had been decided, and that everything was on the table.
Then came a series of background briefings – each one increasingly more strongly worded than the last – in which the Prime Minister himself cast doubt on the economic wisdom of raising the GST. (The first of these stories was vaguely sourced to the Prime Minister, through the use of "sources close to Mr Turnbull", "senior Liberal Party figures" and so on. When those were favourably accepted, the PM joined the fray directly.)
This round of commentary was quickly followed up by a small army of Cabinet Ministers, who took to the airwaves over the weekend also raising concerns about whether changing the GST would deliver an economic boost.
By Monday morning, newspaper headlines declared the proposed GST increase dead (or at least on ice until 2020). The Government had turned its attention (and the media's) to other potential areas of revenue.
And for Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, six months of storming supermarket aisles in search of potential price rises was suddenly worth very little. (In fact, Shorten's campaign had also been highly effective – hence the need for the government to change its position.)
This whole exercise may seem particularly cynical to those unfamiliar with the political process. Regardless, it is a perfect example of how to credibly change one's position, and bring the public along. And it's all happened in less than a week.