The tyranny of talking points


Talking points suck the life out of more than just genuine human engagement, they’re also innovation killers by defensively protecting today’s policy orthodoxy. ASPI’s Peter Jennings on how Canberra could cut briefs and we’d all be better off as a result.

Here’s one suggestion that will sharply improve the performance of the Australian Government and Opposition. It’s a small step to make a big change and it doesn’t need a plebiscite (postal or otherwise), or even a vote in the Senate. The government could enact this change overnight. It won’t of course because, well, our politicians and our public servants are addicted to the very brain-eating drug that I would have them ban.

Talking points, dear readers! Talking points are the fluff that fills the gap where policy used to be. If you’re interested in strategy or politics you’ll hear talking points deployed to blandify morning radio while you smash your avocados. Their muffled prose turns newspapers into slush ponds of guff. Evening television flees from talking points into the arms of glassy-eyed ranters, but that’s surely better than being drowned in tar pits of talking-point complacency, telling us in the third-person passive that all’s right with the world.

You can tell when a politician lapses into talking points. Suddenly they’re reading at you, not talking to you. There was one on Radio National yesterday morning, sounding like captive children sound at school when reading 1984 aloud in class. In a monotone voice, they shuffle to the end of the sentence, thinking ‘Just let me get through this agony and then Fran can play the track of the week. I don’t believe what I am saying. You don’t believe what I’m saying. But the bell will ring soon and then I’ll go back to my office to ask my department for more talking points. Better ones than these.’

During my time in Canberra, now approaching a geologic span, I have seen the explosive proliferation of demand for talking points briefs. Ministers stagger in to question time clutching bulging folders bejewelled with tabs and yellow sticky notes. At Senate Estimates, Defence public servants hide behind multiple binders of talking points so thick they could stop a bullet. The single-most preoccupying function of many, many officials is producing endless updates for hot issues briefs, holding briefs, question time briefs, estimates briefs, travel briefs.

Equally there’s the spiralling industry of ministerial staffers—packed into Parliament House like sardines minus the spines—doing no more than tasking their departments to produce this material. When Kevin Rudd was prime minister, the min wing was clocking on at 5 a.m. to feed Kevin’s insatiable appetite for briefings. Ministers’ staffers could be reduced to quivering heaps with a call from the PMO asking for a ‘round the world’ brief on any topic. In Defence, we would get calls like: ‘GIVE ME EVERYTHING YOU’VE GOT ON AFGHANISTAN … NOW!’ (Rudd government staff spoke in upper case.) When Stephen Smith was Defence minister, a small division of the department was geared to provide a daily early morning talking points pack—often more than 50 pages—responding to even the most minor issue running in the media. Then there would be the question time briefing pack delivered (hopefully) around 12.30—and at any other moment on call.

It’s not just that there are too many people tasking too many others with doing this work. The pernicious effect of talking points is worse than that. The biggest problem is that the whole purpose of talking points is to defensively protect today’s policy orthodoxy. They are innovation killers. Say that ASPI publishes a report calling for reform of Defence’s pencil procurement system. The ministers’ offices (all of them) will demand a defensive talking points brief—just in case a journalist breaks through the outer perimeter. The brief will say that Defence’s pencil procurement strategy is world’s best practice and produces pencils optimised for Australian conditions. Made by Australians. In Australia. There is no possible requirement to rethink anything to do with pencils. Thus are all new ideas erased from possibility.

Another damaging effect of talking points briefs is that those who use them gradually come to believe they do real things. Watch and learn: North Korea launches a missile. We will say ‘Australia condemns North Korea’s latest … test in the strongest possible terms.’ We will declaim that ‘North Korea’s ongoing reckless and menacing behaviour is in violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions, is a threat to regional and global security and stability, and is in violation of the rules-based order we seek to promote and advance.’ Yea, verily, do I smite my foe in 12-point font.

The third damaging effect of talking points is that they suck all personality and believability out of the user. Public servants might aspire to reach this Zen-like state, but it’s death to politicians, who, above all else, must connect with their voters as human beings. Show me a politician who looks authentic and I’ll show you someone who has stopped hiding behind talking points.

The reality is that a talking points brief won’t save a politician or senior public servant if they aren’t already across their issues. Canberra could produce 98% fewer briefs and we would all be better off as a result, with more authentic policy discussions—and more open even to new thinking.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. This article was first published by The Strategist.

Top photo: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas. Scott Morrison, Malcolm Turnbull and Josh Frydenberg about to speak during a press conference after meeting with electricity companies this week.

  • scott Bourke

    Peter – nice article and germane to the broader challenge of empowering, facilitating and enabling innovation, at least the potential for innovation, in the Australian public sector. My simple observation is that the primary reason anyone in a discourse reverts to talking points is for convenience (perhaps also simplicity is of communication is almost important) and because the discourse is framed as a debate. By definition, debates – in which there can only be a winner and a loser – are ‘zero sum games’ that are not concerned with value, only winning. Whilst I wholeheartedly endorse your identification of the problem of talking points as important (it is but one of many ‘innovation killers’) and the solution (being fully across one’s brief), I wonder if it’s not the framing of the discourse that is the more fundamental and, in turn, significant challenge to be addressed in our society more broadly, not just in politics and the bureaucracy?