How building empathy for the miners stopped the super profits tax

 

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Former Minerals Council of Australia CEO Mitch Hooke, architect of the 2010 mining tax campaign, identifies empathy, credibility and integrity as the essential ingredients to the campaign’s ultimate success. In considering the relevance of empathy to the success of the campaign, we are given pause to ask, how exactly does one invite the voters of say Western Sydney, SE Queensland and suburban Melbourne to “understand and share the feelings” of an industry dominated by West Australian billionaires and multinational mining companies?

Fast forward to 2018 and the current focus on the banking sector and its social license. At this time it may be useful for the corporate communications community to revisit this question, and consider whether the key lessons from mining tax campaign have really been learned. Three core lessons stand out from that campaign for anyone wanting to establish and maintain public empathy for corporate clients - be right, be ready and be nimble.  

Be Right

Throughout the campaign, it is enlightening to remember that there was no “gotcha” moment for the Minerals Council or their members. There was no triumphant expose of false data or flawed logic that blew up their arguments or their credibility. Rather, the Minerals Council maintained their integrity, using it to build credibility with the public. And they did so notwithstanding intense scrutiny from a strong coalition led by the Prime Minister and Treasurer, supported by major commonwealth departments, the Australian Labor Party more broadly, their friends in the union movement, and even some from the Coalition. 

Despite the complexity and intensity of the debate, the Minerals Council were technically right on just about every point they made. This required cooperation among the Council’s Members, Non-member miners, State Minerals Councils and associated commodity organisations at a level which would be difficult to sustain at the best of times, let alone under the attack of an outraged government. At the same time the Minerals Council was able to build alignment between the policy people and the communications people – at least to the extent that those shaping and delivering the messages actually understood the complex technical realities.

But more than being technically correct and policy consistent, empathy with the miners depended on them being seen to be morally in the right. When Hooke took over at the Minerals Council in 2002 he focussed on positioning the industry in a positive historical context. For example, by drawing attention to the mining industry’s role in the evolving understanding of sustainable development. In the decade preceding the mining tax campaign, the miners invested heavily in sustainable development and improving the stewardship of the social and environmental assets under their care. This included adopting new approaches to indigenous engagement, best practice OH&S and environmental standards and genuinely engaging with, and investing in, the communities within which they operated.

The practical outcome of this positioning was that that the communities closest to the sector, those living and working near the mines, almost never complained or opposed the sector, including during the heat of the mining tax debate. Had they, the impact on the miners’ credibility would have been significant. The support of local communities allowed the Minerals Council to argue their technical case about driving the national economy, without interference or undue negative press. In short, a long term, symbiotic relationship between the sector and those living in the shadows of the mines was critical to allowing an empathetic link to be established with those living much further away.

Be Ready

In addition to being on the right side of history, it was critical that the mining sector be ready for the specific threat of the proposed super profits tax. The Minerals Council understood that while all their domestic stakeholders could apply public pressure, only government could directly interrupt their operations. And they used their engagement with government to understand the thinking of major decision makers (including Secretary Ken Henry in Treasury during the Henry Tax Review) and to get a feel for how such a threat might emerge.

Because the Council had been engaged with the Henry Tax Review and other stakeholders, they understood their thinking and the pressures on them, and they were able to anticipate, and effectively counter, what was to come in the form of the super profits mining tax.

Be Nimble

Despite knowing what was ahead of them, the Minerals Council could not strike first. Clear and irrefutable evidence that the industry was under attack was key to their credibility and subsequent strategy in building empathy as the victim and not the aggressor.  But when the Federal Government made its move, the Minerals Council needed to respond immediately and effectively. Had they appeared either overly aggressive, or alternatively slow and weak, any empathetic link could have been compromised.

Most will have forgotten, but the first ads from the Minerals Council appeared on the first Sunday after the super profits tax announcement from the Treasurer. This kind of responsiveness required that the Minerals Council’s Board of Directors were thoroughly engaged with the MCA Secretariat, trusted the advice they were receiving and were able to respond accordingly.

The campaign itself was notable for the ability of the miners to set, execute, review and adjust their strategy and tactics under enormous pressure and with little lag time. As a general rule, the campaign spoke with very few voices and managed to deliver complex arguments in simple consistent messages. The alignment between technical debate and mass media advertising and messaging remained throughout the campaign, and was highly effective. The result was, the Minerals Council effectively united and coordinated a large group of, high-profile personalities and companies, and produced an immediate, on-message strategy amidst a tough national onslaught.

Conclusion

Had the Minerals Council and its members failed to be nimble, ready and right, any empathetic link between them and the voters would have been broken, and their credibility compromised. Had the Minerals Council failed to understand the industry’s stakeholders and engage with them effectively ahead of time, they might have been caught unaware of the threat they faced and been compromised in their response. And had they failed to commit to sustainable development, in all its forms, the communities closest to them would likely have turned on them in the heat of battle, making it hard for the rest of us to hear their core message.

It is worth noting that, for the banks, they are not trying to make an argument to a large group of otherwise unengaged voters. Ultimately the voters the banks are trying to influence are their customers. We pay our mortgages every month and see record profit announcements every reporting season. This constituency should be the banks’ greatest strength and, in this regard, the comparison to the super profits tax is clear. Unless the miners could recover and reinforce their social license with the communities in which they operate, they could not have hoped to build empathy with the wider Australian community. So for the banks today, the current advertising campaigns which are designed to humanise the banks and connect their profits to our everyday lives are on the right track to building empathy for the sector (or at the very least, building a case for a purpose beyond profit).

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