Election 2013: A tale told by an idiot

June 10, 2013

It’s time. Time for the media to bring out tired old speculation about the Labor leadership; time for obsessive focus on a single, arguably self-interested poll that indicates an ever-greater victory for the Federal Coalition; time for backbench politicians in marginal seats to become the hottest headlines in political reporting.

Yes, it’s time.

And if you spotted the mangling of an old election slogan here … well, that’s rather the point. The September 14 election looms ever closer. The Coalition helpfully told us last week that we’d passed the hundred-day mark – though why it would bother is a bit of a puzzler. After all, the Coalition hasn’t stopped campaigning since the result of the 2010 election. Notwithstanding, the official election campaign is about to begin, and all parties are getting ready in their own way.

The government is at pains to point out how much legislation has been passed under Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s leadership. Led by carbon pricing, the mining tax, the National Broadband Network, increasing the compulsory superannuation contribution from 9% to 12%, education reform, and the NDIS, the government have passed over 300 pieces of legislation. ‘Obviously’, this points to a stable, functioning government.

Then there are those polling numbers, that so rarely seem to go the government’s way. Gillard seems unable to take a trick, especially when it comes to the Newspoll. ‘Surely’ this indicates the people don’t want another Labor government.

And let’s not forget the Greens and Independents. Without them, the government could not have passed so many bills. They ensured a full term of Parliament, and helped institute Parliamentary reforms that gave a greater voice to cross-benchers. Their influence is ‘out of proportion’.

But you know what? None of that matters.

The amount of legislation passed by the government is irrelevant.

The polling numbers are irrelevant.

The stability of the Parliament is irrelevant.

Oh, and that little thing called policy? Irrelevant.


Because this election will be about nothing more than ideology.

The facts don’t matter, you see.

It doesn’t matter whether the Federal Coalition refuses to delineate its policies, or to have what little detail it releases costed through Treasury. It doesn’t matter that the two major parties are effectively in lockstep on asylum seeker policy, pursuing an increasingly inhumane agenda. And it certainly doesn’t matter that the Prime Minister has managed to administrate a minority government in an effective, consultative way.

What will matter in this campaign is nothing more than a narrative created by the Federal Coalition. The story it wants to tell is one of desperation; of a weak Prime Minister manipulated by factional ‘warlords’, a government at the mercy of an ‘extreme’ left-wing minor party, and a country at the mercy of crippling taxes levied upon a populace that simply cannot afford to pay for the government’s ineptitude. Add to that a hefty whack of xenophobia (‘the boats, the boats!’) and the hackneyed ‘Rudd wants his job back’ motif, and there you have it.

The Coalition’s description of itself is, of course, far more optimistic. Its narrative boils down to, ‘Under us, you’ll have more money and sleep safely in your beds at night’. It’s all sleight of hand, of course; you’re expected to believe that somehow the Coalition – the so-called ‘party of the free market’ – can force power companies to drop their prices, simply by removing the carbon price. You’re also supposed to believe that refugee boats will stop coming – or, if they do come, that there’ll be no ‘convicted Egyptian jihadist terrorists’ roaming free to (presumably) threaten Our Way Of Life. Never mind the increasing evidence that said ‘terrorist’ may well be nothing of the kind. It’s all about how many times you say something – not whether it’s true.

Labor’s story isn’t much better. It got spooked by the Coalition’s unrelenting insistence on knowing when the Budget would be in surplus – at a time when the majority of the Western world was struggling with deficits of, in some cases, trillions of dollars. It made the critical mistake of promising big, then having to walk back expectations. That’s a gift to the Coalition. The polls are terrible, but rather than eat any form of humble pie and promise to listen to the electorate, Labor’s strategy is to say, ‘It wasn’t our fault’. And out comes the increasingly tattered spectre of WorkChoices and the threat of razor gangs rampaging through the halls of the public service. Labor’s trying to recapture its old image of ‘the workers’ champion’ – whether or not its deeds match its words.

The minor parties, of course, criticise everybody. The Greens and the Katter United Party make for odd bedfellows, but when it comes to ideology, you can’t beat them. Both are light on policy, heavy on rhetoric. So far, that’s working – and perhaps Labor, in particular, should have looked at the election results and seen that.

The voices crying in the wilderness are the Independents, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. They’re Parliament’s equivalent of the strange uncles that one has to invite to the family reunion, but no one wants to get trapped in a corner listening to them. A pity, that, since they’re the only ones talking policy and making sense. They’re not interested in narratives; they want to hear some policy detail. How quaint.

Duelling narratives. It would be funny if it wasn’t so frustrating.

And the media are enthusiastically complicit. Here’s a sample, just from recent news.

Dennis Atkins is particularly good at this game. ‘Labor sent packing by nearing gallows poll‘! ‘Federal Labor a dead government walking as September election approaches‘!

The Sydney Morning Herald zeroed in on the Labor leadership. Tony Wright opined that Labor MPs are under a self-imposed vow of silence. That article was helpfully accompanied by a poll asking readers who they’d like to see as leader. Jacqueline Maley urged the ‘Ice Queen’ to thaw. That article featured the following astonishing description of Federal Labor:

‘Some are traumatised and attacking each other, some are so depressed they’re literally packing up in anticipation of their ruination at the polls, and some have just gone bonkers.’

Bonkers. There’s some hard-hitting analysis right there.

It goes on. Latika Bourke, on ABCNews24’s Breakfast News, spoke solemnly of a ‘mood of despair and despondency’ in Labor, this morning. And last week Chris Uhlmann threw around phrases like ‘death rattle’ and ‘the September poll feels more like a coronation’. Mind you, that article did, at least, point out that Education Shadow Christopher Pyne was telling porkies about the Prime Minister – although Uhlmann didn’t quite go as far as to call Pyne a liar. He said, carefully, that Pyne ‘really needs to get better Labor sources’.

So there you have it. No substantive discussion of policy. No policy, for the most part. Just endless regurgitation of old ideas and advertising slogans served up to us disguised as meat. Why not? It worked in 1972, when Whitlam, with little more than a catchy tune, convinced the Australian people that record low unemployment and a high Australian dollar were dire circumstances that required them to vote in a new government.

And we’re expected to swallow it all. We’re not supposed to ask questions, or demand detail. Silly electorate; anyone would think this election was something serious.

This campaign is already nearly three years long. The final days will be, in the words of Shakespeare, ‘A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.

Unless, of course, we make it clear that we won’t settle for that. Unless we demand something more. Something better.


Reblog: The Geek on ‘What Happened to our ABC?’

February 5, 2013

Just a quick reblog before Parliament resumes, to highlight one of the best articles I’ve seen on the current state of our national broadcaster when it comes to reporting on Australian politics. But first, a little background.

The ABC had a charter forced upon it by the Howard government, using the pretext that the broadcaster was consistently demonstrating a ‘leftist’ bias. The government argued that, since the ABC was a taxpayer-funded organisation, it had to be completely impartial. As such, for every interview with a ‘leftist’, there must also be an interview with someone on the ‘right’ side of politics.

In theory, it’s not a bad idea. Getting both sides of the story – and subjecting both sides to the same tough scrutiny – is rarely a wasted effort.

But then there’s the Senate Communications Committee (thoroughly populated by Coalition members), that regularly hauls the ABC onto the carpet to make it defend its actions. This can go to absurd lengths, sometimes. In 2011, some wit on Twitter decided that comments on Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s Budget Reply speech should be hashtagged ‘#budgies’ (an obvious reference to the many photos of Abbott in his Speedos, as well as a pun on ‘budget’). In order to reach their social media audience, the ABC’s journalists (and every other media figure on Twitter) went along with it. For this, they were roundly abused by the Committee; at the height of the diatribe, the ABC was castigated for not forcing Twitter to use a hashtag that was ‘not offensive’.

As if any media organisation has ever been able to force Twitter to do anything it doesn’t want to do.

The result of ridiculous charges like this, though, and the constant harassment from the Coalition, has led to a parlous state of affairs in the ABC. It’s rare, these days, we’ll see a hard-hitting interview of a Coalition member (ah, remember that wonderful time when Kerry O’Brien utterly shredded Abbott’s arguments on The 7.30 Report?), let alone a balanced piece of news about something involving the current government. Opposition members virtually have the run of the ABC, while shows like Insiders regularly allow flagrantly Coalition-partisan journalists like Andrew Bolt or Piers Akerman to shout down any dissenting view.

And that’s just the background.

The Geek, over at Australians for Honest Politics, has gathered a damning collection of examples of just how this pressure from the Coalition has warped our national broadcaster. The ABC leaps to apologise if it catches a Coalition guest in a lie, or pushes them for an answer until they get worked up and complain – yet it treats the ALP (and the Prime Minister) completely differently. The list of incidents goes on and on; it’s comprehensive, and disheartening, but it’s an article that is absolutely required reading. In a country where claims that our media has a ‘leftist’ bias, this piece lays out the evidence that – if anything – the reverse is true. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The Geek asks, quite rightly, ‘What Happened to our ABC?’ That’s something I’d like to know, and I suspect I’m not alone in that.

The sky is falling … or is it?

September 8, 2010

It’s only just 24 hours since Labor was given the nod to form government, yet it seems that the world is already on an inexorable slide to utter destruction. The rhetoric, in fact, is positively apocalyptic.

On the Coalition side, Steve Ciobo muttered darkly on Sky News’ AM Agenda that this was the ‘most Left-leaning government ever’, and hinted that nothing good could come of this unholy ‘Rainbow coalition’. Senator George Brandis accused Labor’s government of having ‘as much legitimacy as the Pakistani cricket team’. Senator Ron Boswell raged that ‘this is going to hurt regional and rural Australia if the Greens demand and they will get their pound of flesh’. Tony Abbott was quick to take up Alan Jones’ suggestion that ‘the boats would keep coming … [and] the debt will keep piling up’. Christopher Pyne seemed almost restrained next to them when he opined that ‘this will not be a Parliament where all of history is turned on its head and we all sit around smoking a peace pipe and singing Kumbaya’, but the prize for restraint and sensible comment has to go to the Nationals’ Barnaby Joyce, whose performance on Lateline last night was model of diplomacy and rational comment. That’s not a sarcastic remark, by the way – he was impressively statesmanlike, especially given his spray at the Independents on Election night.

When Barnaby Joyce is the sanest voice on your team, it should probably be seen as a signal that you need to get your troops together, step back for a bit and take stock before fronting up to a microphone.

The Coalition aren’t alone in their pronouncements of doom, mind you. They’re getting a lot of help from the media.

The Australian‘s Paul Kelly warned this morning that ‘a political war’ was about to begin. It’s a ‘nightmare’, a ‘diabolical situation’, a ‘combative and bitter’ Parliament. Terry McCrann, in the Herald-Sun, indulged in a little ‘I told you so’ when he reiterated earlier warnings that Australia was headed for ‘chaos and stalemate … and very bad government’. Andrew Bolt’s comments on Radio MTR were, well, predictable.

And what about the ABC, that alleged bastion of Leftist bias? Surely they wouldn’t be rushing to drink the Kool-aid?

Sadly, they went even further. Former Liberal leader John Hewson asserted that every day in the new Parliament would be an ‘intense brawl’. The arrangement was ‘unsustainable’, it ‘disenfranchised’ voters in 147 seats and we would be thrust back to the polls inside 18 months. The award for hyperbole, however, has to go to Glenn Milne, author of the ‘subversion of democracy’ tagline.

According to Milne, ‘Queen’ Gillard, a ‘a creature of deal making and unholy alliances’, is so ‘weak’ that she has to ‘plead’ with the Coalition for support. The Independents will control her, and undermine her legitimacy. Abbott is waiting in the wings to commit regicide – and Milne makes it clear that he doesn’t entirely disapprove of this notion, invoking English revolutionary history to prove his point.

Left-wing bias, indeed. Why, the ABC is clearly full of communists!

Bizarrely, some of the most rational commentary on the final election result came from Peter van Onselen, writing in The Australian. I’m not quite sure how that snuck in there.

As for the readers’ comments – well, you can look for yourselves. After a few passes through, I needed to go outside just to make sure we hadn’t been supernaturally transformed overnight into some kind of autocratic fascist state run by a few men in smoke-filled rooms. I’m happy to report that I was unable to locate any mustache-twirling villains rubbing their hands together in evil glee.

Possum Comitatus put it best – the government was legitimately returned. It passed the constitutional test. No one ‘stole’ or ‘bought’ the election. Yet this very legitimacy is likely to signal the beginning of a sustained onslaught of vitriol and scare-mongering commentary which bears very little resemblance to anything remotely resembling reality.

Already, Sky News is claiming that the government has ‘demonstrated its fragility’ because Tony Windsor has had a difference of opinion with Wayne Swan. It was Windsor’s belief that the mining tax proposal might be included in a major tax review to be undertaken soon. Swan, this morning, said that wasn’t the case. Windsor hasn’t reacted badly to finding this out – we haven’t heard any outrage, or suggestion that he feels in some way cheated by Labor. For their part, the government aren’t concerned, either. They confirmed that Windsor – like other MPs – will be consulted on the mining tax as part of the normal course of events.

If something this trivial is going to whip the media into a frenzy of Armageddon-speak, it’s going to be a very tiring three years. Clearly the Coalition (and those in the media who have demonstrably declared their partisan stance) thinks that if it can point to enough cracks – real or imagined – in the government’s arrangements with the Independents (the evil Lefty, Bandt, apparently being a lost cause), people will lose confidence and force an early election.

It’s a possibility. But the Coalition may not have taken into account that people get irritated with constant fear-mongering. The longer petty finger-pointing goes on, the more quickly opinion can swing against those doing it. Historically, Australian minority governments tend to be succeeded by increased majorities for those in power. I’m fairly sure that the Coalition don’t want that, but if they’re not careful, they may just push support back to Labor.

Abbott said yesterday that he intends to ‘rededicate’ the Coalition to the work of Opposition. It would be nice to think that meant he planned to jettison their former philosophy of ‘block the Labor agenda at all costs’. I can’t say I’m optimistic – but at least this time, there will be more voices raised in Parliament, and hopefully, less ‘he said/she said’ meaningless rhetoric.

Unlike Glenn Milne, John Hewson and the others mentioned above, there are still those who think this government will work. It won’t be easy – but nothing worthwhile ever is.

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