Navigating Federal and State Government Messaging Confusion During a Pandemic

By Dieter Lehmann, Commtractor and 25-year+ Corporate Affairs practitioner, including Federal and State Government Relations. He’s a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (GAICD) and Fellow of the Centre for Corporate Public Affairs (FCCPA).

“How long are we allowed out today? One or two hours? With how many others? Any friends or just immediate family? Masked or not? Inside by 8 or 9pm curfew? Are we allowed to serve dine-in or just takeaway? Does that include Uber-Eats? Are the kids back at school or not? Just year 12 and preps only? Is it a staggered full-time or part-time return to the classroom? Should I go to work this week or work remotely again? Whose border is open to whom? The PM’s saying one thing, but the Premiers and Chief Health Officers seem to be saying another. Who’s right?”

Sound familiar? Confused? If so, don’t fret. You’re not alone. Not by a long shot.

There might only be one global pandemic grabbing headlines right now, but there are eight different state and territory interpretations of what we should do about it. And, of course, there’s the Canberra to consider. Ahhhhhhh… federation, don’t you just love it?

If the daily press conferences from across Australia at all levels aren’t enough, the amount of reportage interpreting it often leaves one, well, a little confused and overwhelmed. And that’s even when the reporting’s accurate!

It all started so well. In fact, the new National Cabinet established in mid-March to fight the COVID scourge did a remarkable job to help flatten the curve across the country. So much so, we were hailed as a world-leader in how we achieved it so quickly. The PM, and eight Premiers and Chief Ministers all on a series of flatscreen TVs, worked impressively well together for the sake of the country. So much so, this style of collegiate working will now be permanent, at the expense of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG).

But then came the Ruby Princess fallout, the Melbourne “Quarantine” Hotels shemozzle, border hoppers, “rings of steel”, COVID deniers, freedom fighter protests, and “Karens” everywhere. While some of these might seem humorous, others were outright deadly and health policy disasters of the highest order. We’re still yet to see the true depth of mental health implications, the impact on businesses and the real long-term damage to the economy.

The reality is that metropolitan Melbourne remains in strict lockdown, Victorians are still barred from going interstate and we are in serious recession – with probably the worst still to come when JobKeeper and JobSeeker support ends. Federal Budgets are always worth deep analysis but the one on October 6 will definitely be must-see TV.

So what does this mean for governments and companies who use (or should be using) government relations practitioners? The old KISS principle (let’s call it Keep It Simple Silly) might be an oldie, but surely it’s a goodie when confusion reigns.

For those giving the message, enough of the sparring, enough of the barbs and enough of the blame. With politics being politics, and politicians being politicians, all of that can come when we’re on the other side of this challenge. Ensure those precious column inches and air time is filled with simple, clear and coherent context and instructions. This one’s not a game. It’s people’s lives and livelihoods.

For those interpreting government and departmental messages for their businesses, check, check and triple check the details. Make absolutely sure that you’ve analysed announcements through both the Federal and State or Territory lenses that are relevant to your people, customers and commercials. Like the politics of this, it might serve best to be more collegiate across your industry or sector. Talk to peers, combine questions and have a united front so you can get the best outcomes for your stakeholder groups.

And remember, if you’re not sure, ask again. It might cost you $1,652 if you miss your 8pm curfew in Melbourne. Or is that 9pm these days? I must check.

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