The People’s Forum no one saw

May 24, 2011

I’ve been watching the Climate Change Forum currently underway in Canberra, part of the government’s Climate Change Commission. This coincides with the expected release of the Commission’s first report, The Critical Decade, on Monday.

There’s a panel of experts in everything from ecology to economics to geology and emergency management. In the audience are representatives from all areas of Australian life including agriculture, and small business.

Each question-and-answer session tackles a different aspect of the climate – the science itself, consequences of climate change if left untackled, ways to reduce emissions, and economic incentives to promote renewable energy – to name a few. The experts speak in clear language largely devoid of jargon and explain some of the more complex issues in clear and simple ways.

In this morning’s session the panel fielded questions from a farmer, an activist from an environmental campaigner, and – surprisingly – Shadow Communications spokesperson Malcolm Turnbull, who had apparently been sitting quietly in the back for quite some time. (His presence, in particular, lends an air of bipartisanship to the Commission – and creates a potential headache for Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, who has repeatedly refused to have anything to do with it.) Not everyone was happy with the answers they get, but significantly, no one was complaining that they didn’t understand or were being fobbed off, either.

It’s probably the single best strategy the government could employ. One of the strongest criticisms levelled at former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd over his proposed carbon pricing scheme was that his cabinet were either unwilling or unable to explain any part of it in simple language. Now, Rudd has an enormous vocabulary, and he’s not afraid to wield it – but that’s exactly what didn’t work, and the Coalition capitalised on that.

It seems as though someone in the current government had that in mind when organising this forum. It’s less of an info-dump by experts, and more like an episode of the ABC’s QandA (minus the political spin that inevitably occurs when politicians appear on the latter show). Ordinary people and experts are trading questions, answers, suggestions, complaints. It’s extraordinarily informative.

So the question inevitably arises: why is this forum getting such limited transmission?

You can only see it if you’re able to access the high-definition ABC News Channel – or if you have cable television, you can watch Sky News. Mind you, it’s not on the main Sky channel. You need to go to their ‘multiview’ section, which provides a tiny picture and truly shocking sound quality via a camera microphone – not even a media split for the audio. And you can just bet that – at most – there’ll be a tiny sound grab on the news bulletins about it. Depressingly, the most likely piece of footage we’ll see is the farmer whose frustration at not gaining enough support for soil carbon initiatives boiled over until he was shouting into the microphone.

This forum is exactly what’s needed to ‘sell’ the government’s carbon pricing and climate change strategy. It answers the demand for information, not just from so-called ‘interested parties’ like steel manufacturers or agribusiness, but from Australian people in general. The science is explained clearly, suggestions are welcome, complaints are heard – nothing is obfuscated or blocked from discussion. Most importantly, perhaps, it is a rational, patient voice to answer fear-mongering and misinformation with facts.

It does what no amount of glossy advertising or tedious media conference speeches can do. And yet the majority of people won’t even know it’s happening, let alone be able to access it.

The government’s decision to keep this forum largely invisible makes no sense. It can only help the cause – and the presence a senior Coalition MP like Malcolm Turnbull participating constructively in the discussions lends even more legitimacy to the government’s whole strategy.

Perhaps the government decided no one would be interested – but then, isn’t the whole point to inform people so that they will support action on climate change?

Perhaps it thought that spending the money to buy more accessible television time was wasteful – but that’s hardly going to stand up after some of the government’s more lavish advertising campaigns.

Or perhaps – and I think this is most likely, and most dreadful – they simply didn’t think at all.

There’s a lot of talk in the media about how the Coalition’s near-constant criticism undermines the government and muddies the waters so that Gillard can’t get her message out – but really, the government don’t need any help from the Opposition.

They’re doing fine all by themselves.

They’ve squandered the opportunity to reach a significant percentage of the Australian population on a major policy area. In doing so, they’ve effectively ceded the advantage to Abbott. He’s out there nearly every day visiting businesses and telling them that the sky is falling and how their way of life will be destroyed by a carbon tax – and he’s not going to stop any time soon.

This would be bad enough, no matter what the proposed legislation. In the case of combating climate change, though, it’s potentially catastrophic. The government has a responsibility to inform Australians about all aspects of this issue. It’s not enough just to say, ‘The science is settled,’ and indulge in a bit of mud-slinging at the Opposition – people need to know the why and the how.

The Climate Forum, with its articulate experts capable of both formulating the plans and communicating the issues, was the perfect vehicle to answer those questions.

But instead of supporting the forum – of securing air time on a free-to-air analog channel, and playing it during the evening prime-time slot instead of after most people are either at work or otherwise occupied for the day – they relegated it to a limited, interested audience whose minds are likely already made up about climate change.

The government blew it. We can hope that somehow, the information presented at the forum will get out to where it’s needed – not mediated through the politicians, or the news, or pundits, or any one of a dozen lobby groups for and against action on climate change. That is something entirely out of their hands now.

It shouldn’t be. Some things are too important.

Advertisements

Fair and balanced?

May 19, 2011

One of the most rewarding – and most deeply frustrating things about being a news junkie is that you get to see a lot more than the few soundbites that make the evening bulletins. Rewarding, because you get to hear what politicians say in context, and in full, when you watch the media conferences. Frustrating, because you also become rapidly aware that the treatment given to politicians is astonishingly uneven.

Greens leader Senator Bob Brown, Prime Minister Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott all gave media conferences this morning, and the contrast between how the media treated Senator Brown, and how it treated the two leaders, could not have been more marked.

In Brown’s conference, the questions and answers flowed pretty easily at first. For example:

What did Brown think of Malcolm Turnbull’s apparent disloyalty to Coalition climate change policy in his appearance on Lateline last night? Brown: ‘He’s been loyal to Australia and to the common sense that says we must tackle climate change … he’s exhibiting a wider loyalty’.

How about the UK government’s announcement of a 50% carbon reduction target, should Australia do the same thing?
Brown: ‘Australia has to take that into account … (but) the UK is not Australia’. Then came the first criticism from Brown: The maturity of the debate in Australia is very much under question … the Murdoch media has a great deal of responsibility to take for debasing that maturity’.

Asked about what sort of measures should be in place to ensure the carbon price scheme is ‘shyster-proof’, Brown responded simply, ‘Good ones’. He then addressed the journalist directly, pointing out that his position on a particular issue was misrepresented by that journalist in an article, and commenting, ‘Back to the question, we’ve got to look at shysterism and fabrication all over the place and do what we can’. (my italics)

That was the turning point. From then, the questioning became increasingly aggressive. Now, there’s nothing wrong with aggressive questioning in itself. It’s one of the ways the media can force a politician to answer. That’s not what happened here. Several times journalists attempted to interrupt Brown in his answers, and one journalist repeatedly interrupted Brown, describing his answers as ‘political gobbledygook’. She didn’t preface this with the phrase, ‘With respect, Senator …’, which usually accompanies a criticism.

Then Hugh Riminton dropped the bomb. He referred to Brown’s recent description of News Limited papers as ‘hate’ media’, and asked if this was a change in tactics for the Greens leader: ‘Are you on the front foot?’

Brown replied: ‘Yes, I’m being very much on the front foot here because I think the media – with some very, very good exceptions – can at times lose track of the fact that it’s part of the process of moving Australia into a much more secure future … some heat needs to be put onto those sections of the media which are trying to drag this process down’.

A journalist off-camera asked if Brown meant The Australian, and challenged him to name a paragraph, repeatedly interrupting Brown’s answer in an angry voice. Brown commented, ‘You compare and contrast and take on politicians and other sections of the media, but you don’t like it when we take you on … don’t be so tetchy’.

That statement apparently angered a 2UE journalist, who started haranguing Brown: ‘You just come out here every day and just bag out the Murdoch press …. why are you so obsessed with it … you bag out the Murdoch press, anyone you don’t like’. This went on for several more minutes, with the journalist not so much asking questions as taking Brown to task. It was difficult to follow Brown’s responses, due to the interruptions. Off-camera, several others called out, ‘Why won’t you answer the questions.’

It was a more aggressive and lively media conference than I’ve seen in a long time. Certainly, the media had no fear of Brown’s position as a party leader and influential Senator – in fact, their treatment of him bordered on completely disrespectful.

Gillard received very different handling. Questions were asked in an orderly manner, and in neutral tones. She was asked about Brown’s comments on the Murdoch media, the carbon price, and the UK government. Unless the question allowed her to score against the Opposition, she dodged it and served up a good helping of government talking points instead.

She was never pushed to answer the question, never interrupted and never subjected to insults or raised voices. Even when she brought up a recent example of The Australian misrepresenting the position of Westpac CEO Gail Kelly, she was not attacked.

Abbott, visiting a Sanitarium manufacturing plant on the Central Coast, was even more blatant in his refusal to directly answer questions. While challenged twice on Malcolm Turnbull’s comments, the questions were respectful in tone and did not interrupt. Abbott responded by restating coalition climate change policy, attacking the government (‘Our way is the smart way … theirs is the dumb way’) and bluntly informing the journalist that he was ‘completely misunderstanding Malcolm’s approach’.

Again, no attack followed this comment, and Abbott cut off that line of questioning. No one protested.

The rest of Abbott’s conference consisted of journalists asking questions, Abbott regurgitating talking points and criticism of the government, and never being challenged for it. Asked if Sanitarium had said they would suffer terribly under the ‘carbon tax’, Abbott replied that everyone would suffer. Asked if he thought Brown’s comments about the Murdoch media were fair, Abbott responded that Brown should tell the public about his dealings with Treasury on carbon pricing.

Not one of these evasions was challenged. Abbott controlled the media from start to finish.

This is not balanced coverage. This is not equal treatment. Each of these three leaders is enormously influential. What they say and how they say it informs the public in a way that no amount of sound bites can do. The media, as the sector that has the responsibility of bringing that information to us, should at the very least ensure that they subject them all to the same rigorous questioning. Why was Abbott allowed to turn the entire Q&A session into another platform for his message, while ignoring what was actually asked? Why was Gillard permitted to dodge a question on just how high she was prepared to consider setting her carbon price? And why was Brown the only one repeatedly challenged when his answers didn’t satisfy?

For that matter, why was Brown treated with far less respect than Abbott? Perhaps because – despite the Greens’ central role in policy and legislation under the minority government – he’s still portrayed as a Johnny-come-lately, an ‘extreme’ leader of a ‘fringe’ party. Or perhaps because he challenged some of the media for doing exactly what they are doing – giving the government and the Opposition a pass on actually providing any information, while focusing on trivial issues, misrepresenting people’s positions and generally engaging in blatant bias.

Exhibit A, the report that hit The Herald-Sun online front page at 12.30pm today.

The report was nominally about Brown’s press conference. The headline? ‘Greens Leader has no plans to return’.

That should read ‘retire’, and speaks to how quickly the article was produced (and just how valuable sub-editors are, but that’s another story).

Sky’s headline, ‘Browned-off leader takes on media’, was a little better, but the story was the same.

Instead of talking about carbon pricing, asylum seekers or anything else that was actually asked of Brown (including the announcement he had made at the beginning of the media conference regarding a current enquiry before the Senate), the article opened with the news that Brown did not plan to retire any time soon. It mentioned that Brown had referred to Rupert Murdoch, who had just celebrated his 80th birthday with no plans for retirement.

Rupert Murdoch is, of course, the owner of News Limited, which controls The Herald-Sun and Sky.

The only other mention of the media conference conflated Brown’s response to the question about shysters with his response to the question directly about News Limited. Their selective reporting characterised Brown as taking a cheap shot at one reporter, to which all the assembled media rightly took offence – and that when they did so, Brown abruptly ended the conference.

Compare and contrast with the actual events, an audio transcript of which is available on the Greens website.

These are major news organisations. The Herald-Sun’s circulation alone is over half a million readers. They have a responsibility to report the news fairly and accurately, and to clearly label anything that is opinion. Their own code of ethics emphasises this:

1. Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis. Do your utmost to give a fair opportunity for reply.

And sadly, this is precisely what we don’t get.

Today is just a snapshot. The mainstream media gets away with this every day. And Murdoch media, at least, doesn’t take kindly to being criticised.

But this is precisely why they should be criticised. They should be held accountable to their own code of ethics, and be made to remember their obligations to the public.

Until they are, the only alternative is to find out for yourself what was really said, by whom, and in what context. Footage or transcripts of media conferences can usually be found with little difficulty.

It can be … enlightening.


Married to the lynch mob

March 24, 2011

There’s a truism that says Australia is the 51st state of the US – a McDonalds on every corner, a rather pathetic desire to curry favour with the President, and a willingness to be screwed over in treaties and trade agreements by an ally.

After yesterday, I think, we can really claim that title. Yesterday, we saw the Tea Party come to Australia, with all its hysteria, fake claims of ‘grass-roots’ sentiment and lies. And – just as in the US – we saw a conservative political party try to convince us that they weren’t causing the hysteria, just listening to ‘the silent majority’ finally rise up and exercise their right of free speech.

Radio station 2GB – home of ultra-conservative ‘shock jocks’ like Alan Jones – helped organise a protest rally against the government’s proposed carbon pricing scheme at Parliament House yesterday. According to the Australian Federal Police, about 1500 people gathered on the lawn, led by former rock singer Angry Anderson. In the crowd were One Nation, the anti-Semitic Australian League of Rights and former One Nation MP Pauline Hanson. On the platform were discredited scientists, self-styled ‘experts’ and carefully chosen ‘ordinary Australians’.

And the Coalition came out to meet them with open arms.

All well and good. People have a right to protest, despite the best efforts of politicians like former Prime Minister John Howard and former Liberal Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen (who infamously legislated to declare any gathering of three or more people in a public place an ‘unlawful assembly’). That right isn’t limited to any cause, or restricted to reasoned debate in conference halls. When people feel passionately, they want to be visible, and they want to be heard.

But what happened in Canberra yesterday went far beyond ‘protest’ – it was an ugly mob, and the Coalition pandered to it and whipped it into a frenzy.

Speaker after speaker mounted the platform to address the rally. Every one of them repeated the lies that form the now-familiar Coalition message: that Prime Minister Gillard’s broken promise on a carbon price was a deliberate deception on her part; that every Australian would suffer terribly by being forced to pay a carbon tax; and – with the notable exception of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott – that climate change was simply not happening.

Well, they can lie. They should, and are, being called on those lies, but it’s free speech, right? As Liberal MP Kelly O’Dwyer repeatedly yelled over both Labor MP Nick Champion and Sky’s Keiran Gilbert this morning, they’re ordinary Australians who are allowed to have their views heard. Even if those views are the kind of personal insults yelled by Pauline Hanson (who fronted the cameras to attack Gillard for being unmarried with no children).

Except this isn’t about free speech. This isn’t about the person who carried a sign protesting against everything from the ‘carbon tax’ to the IMF, the UN and ‘one world government’. This isn’t about the person who carried the brightly-coloured placard that made ingenious use of fridge magnets to spell out ‘NO LABOUR CARBON TAX’. It’s not even about the ‘My Mom Is Cold’ sign that popped up. (And can anyone explain that? Anyone?)

This is about the so-called alternative Prime Minister of Australia standing on a platform with his senior colleagues, scare-mongering and lying, while standing in front of this sign (photo credit to the ABC’s Latika Bourke):

Notice the flames of hell?

This is about Senator Barnaby Joyce trembling with anger and screaming red-faced into the microphone, ‘She lied to you! She lied to you!‘, then smiling and nodding as the crowd roared, ‘BITCH! BITCH! BITCH!’

This is about not one of the Coalition speakers asking the crowd to show respect for the Prime Minister – or even for the office of Prime Minister. Every single one of them either stood silently with approving smiles while the crowd roared, or actually encouraged further abuse.

It was a mob virtually baying for Gillard’s blood, and being encouraged to do it.

Unsurprisingly, those actions provoked shock and outrage – although, to listen to some media outlets, you’d be forgiven for thinking the rally was just an excitable picnic rather than a sustained personal attack on the Prime Minister. Senator Bob Brown sent a letter to the Prime Minister yesterday afternoon expressing his feelings of disgust at the abuse they’d hurled at her, along with his wish that Abbott would apologise for endorsing such sentiments.

Abbott, however, was having none of that. Late last night he issued a statement saying he regretted the actions of ‘a small group of people’ – but no apology, no admission that he and his colleagues had helped fuel the situation. Confronted by the media this morning, he expanded on those remarks. Let’s take a look.

‘A few people went over the top … naturally I regret that … but I can understand that people feel passionate.’

A few people? There were hundreds of people waving abusive signs and chanting ‘Bitch!’ and even ‘Kill the Witch!’. A sky writer even gave us the benefit of his opinion at an opportune moment. And it was particularly impressive how many of those signs were identical and professionally produced.

But what about this?

Abbott: ‘Let’s face it, this is a Prime Minister who told us before the election that there will be no carbon tax … it was unfortunate that some ppl chose to go a bit over the top yesterday … I would urge all people to conduct this debate with respect … but if we are going to build respect for the democratic process in this country it is important for the Prime Minister to seek a mandate for her carbon tax.’

‘It’s a pity when some people go a little over the top … it would have been better for everyone if the Prime Minister had said “I don’t want to deceive you, there will be a carbon tax” … if the Prime Minister had been straight with the Australian people before the election we wouldn’t be in quite the situation we’re now in.’

A ‘little over the top’? Calling for violence to be done to the Prime Minister of the country?

Just in case we didn’t pick it up, Abbott kept repeating that the ‘real’ problem here was Gillard’s broken promise – what he consistently referred to as a ‘lie’ or ‘deception’.

Yes. You read that right. It’s Gillard’s fault. She made these poor people howl for her blood. If only, if only she hadn’t ‘lied’, we could all be having tea and scones right now.

In the real world, Mr Abbott, we call that ‘blaming the victim’.

Then there was this gem:

‘People are entitled to feel pretty unhappy … I want the protest to be civil … but let’s not get too precious about these things.’

No, let’s not get concerned about the fact that the Coalition egged the protesters on to louder and more abusive expressions of intended violence. Let’s not worry about Joyce’s endorsement of the kind of abuse we consider unacceptable if it’s yelled in the street. Let’s not get precious, because after all, she brought it on herself.

Asked why he and his colleagues addressed the rally, Abbott replied: ‘I thought it was important that … politicians should speak with them.’

Oh, how disingenuous. Abbott was just doing what politicians should do – speak to the people. After all, other politicians go out to see protesters on the lawns of Parliament House – why shouldn’t he?

Because other politicians confine their actions to talking one-on-one with protesters. Other politicians listen to grievances – they don’t deliver speeches designed to turn a rally into a screaming lynch mob. Other politicians carefully demur when asked by protesters to endorse their slogans.

In other words, Mr Abbott, other politicians speak with protesters, not to them.

Abbott even suggested that Gillard was at fault for not going out to speak to the protesters, as he had. Given the mood of the crowd, she would have been mad to do that. We’ve already seen people throwing shoes at politicians and burning their pictures – and that’s without the Coalition helpfully whipping them along. Watching that rally yesterday, I don’t think many people could doubt that Gillard’s safety would have been at risk.

Abbott tried to shift the blame to Gillard. He tried the old ‘oh, it was just a few mavericks’ line. He tried the free speech and ‘caring politician’ defence. In short, he did everything he could to excuse himself – everything but apologise. In the words of Jake Blues:

But – as Keiran Gilbert asked this morning – what more could he have done?

How about this?

He could have asked the crowd to stop yelling abuse.

He could have insisted that the ‘Bitch’ sign be taken down while any Coalition representative was on the platform.

He could have made it clear that he wouldn’t tolerate any of his colleagues encouraging abuse.

He could have forbidden any Coalition representative from addressing the crowd as a whole, and confined his actions to listening.

But he did none of these things. By mounting that platform yesterday, he married the Coalition to the lynch mob

Abbott should now apologise without reservation on behalf of himself and his parliamentary colleagues. And he should stop treating the Australian people as idiots. After yesterday, he has no basis left for his persistent claims that he is not contributing to fear and anger. After yesterday, he has no credibility whatsoever.

Independent MP Tony Windsor was pooh-poohed when he expressed the concern that the anti-carbon price rhetoric was becoming so inflammatory that it might well spill over into violence directed at those politicians who supported it. Actually, it’s more accurate to say he was mocked – everyone from politicians to media to tweeters rubbished the idea.

After yesterday, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched, does it?

Mr Abbott and his colleagues need to realise that sooner or later, violence may well erupt as a result of their lies and fear-mongering. And if it does, and all their protests of ‘free speech’ and ‘it’s not our fault’ will mean exactly nothing. They will have blood on their hands.

What’s truly frightening – and after yesterday, seems even more likely – is the idea that they know that already, and they simply don’t care.

AFTERWORD:

Two senior Coalition members chose not to attend the rally yesterday – Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey, and former leader Malcolm Turnbull. Neither of them gave their reasons – perhaps it was political expediency, perhaps a recognition of just how inappropriate and damaging it would be.

What’s important is that they did not endorse, either by their presence or their words, the abuse, offensive language or threats of violence that occurred – unlike their leader and their colleagues.

For their common sense, they should be commended.


What’s in a name?

September 15, 2010

We appear to have become a nation obsessed with semantics.

Since Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s announcement of her Cabinet line-up on Saturday last week, the commentary has zeroed in on two ‘issues’ – the appointment of Kevin Rudd to the Foreign Ministry, and the absence of the word ‘Education’ in any of the portfolios.

The former is understandable, if a little tiresome. Rudd’s relegation to a subordinate position, when three years ago he was the one making the appointments, was always going to attract attention. Much has been made of his apparently ‘stony’ face and ‘disengaged expression’ during the swearing-in ceremony that took place at Yarralumla yesterday. It seems that no amount of denial or reassurance on his part will stop that, and I suspect it will simply be a matter of time before the media and the Opposition find something else to talk about.

When it comes to the question of portfolio names, however, the arguments get a little silly. Correction – they get very silly.

True, Gillard had not named an Education Minister. What she had done was split up the portfolios between two other Ministries – Schools, Early Childhood and Youth under Peter Garrett; and Jobs, Skills and Workplace Relations under Chris Evans. For a government self-admittedly preoccupied with educational matters, this looked at first glance like a remarkable oversight on her part. Universities were particularly worried; to all intents and purposes, it appeared as though tertiary education was being treated as entirely vocational. The unfortunate result of the initial announcement was that people – perhaps with some justification – thought that education was being devalued.

The Opposition went to town, and pundits everywhere pounced on this disquiet. Instead of evaluating the situation, however, media shook their heads over what a ‘bad look’ it was, and accepted without question whatever they were being told by those with a vested interest in undermining the new government’s reputation.

In perhaps the most obviously example, the Opposition proclaimed that Gillard had actually forgotten to name an Education Minister. One particular sound bite of this was replayed ad nauseam by Sky News – a particularly irresponsible move on their part, since it gave legitimacy to something that was not merely spin, but an outright lie.

The government eventually responded to concerns expressed by universities, and by the time the respective Ministers formally took up their responsibilities, the word ‘Education’ had appeared in their titles. Of course, by this time, the damage was doe, and the Opposition could then argue that the government was playing ‘catch-up’.

All this, because a single word was left out of a Ministerial title.

It can be argued that perceptions matter. That it’s important to have a clear understanding of what a Ministry actually does. In that case, the government’s failure to provide that clarity is an elementary error which will likely prove to be a continuing thorn in its side.

But, you know, it cuts both ways.

Take a look at the Coalition’s Shadow Ministry, for example.

Most positions are still held by their incumbents, although Malcolm Turnbull’s appointment to Communications and Broadband was clearly the opening salvo in what is likely to be a vicious campaign against the NBN. There are a whole slew of new Shadow Parliamentary Secretaries, including the hapless Tony Smith, whose woeful performance during the election campaign saw him banished from the Communications Ministry with lightning speed. There is a good summary, including links to websites, on The Notion Factory.

An initial failure to name a Shadow for Mental Health was quickly corrected, with Concetta Fierravanti-Wells taking on that responsibility in addition to Shadow for Ageing. There are also, apparently, two Ministers for Regional Development; Barnaby Joyce and Bob Baldwin. It’s not clear whether this is an error in the list released to the media, or actual appointments.

Some of the names for the Shadow portfolios, though, are very telling.

Andrew Robb is still the Shadow for Finance and De-regulation. He’s got an additional title now, however, that doesn’t mirror Penny Wong’s Ministry. He’s also responsible for Debt Reduction. Then there’s Scott Morrison, whose pre-election portfolio of Immigration has been expanded to include Productivity. Finally we have Jamie Briggs, who’ll chair the Scrutiny of Government Waste Committee.

See what they did there?

Those three Shadow portfolios are intended to be a constant reminder of Coalition policies and criticisms. You can just bet that any time Robb or Morrison turn up, their staff will insist on the full titles. Every time Robb comments on the ‘massive debt’, his title will be there underscoring the point. Every time Morrison takes on the asylum seeker and immigration issues, his title will underpin the Coalition argument that Australia needs to consider the effect on the economy first, and humanitarian considerations later (if at all).

As for Jamie Briggs – honestly, it’s so ham-fisted I’m embarrassed for them. This committee, linked to a truly crass website called LaborWaste, apparently exists for only one purpose – to discredit the government wherever possible. Apart from semi-regular media releases liberally sprinkled with ‘scare’ words, the website (adorned with a version of Labor’s own logo, something that may not be entirely legal) asks people to provide ‘tip offs’. Yes, that’s right – dob in the government today. You too can send in your complaints (you can even attach documents of up to 10Mb) and help participate in what’s little more than an exercise in muck-raking.

The so-called ‘waste’ claims are not examined, nor is any evidence provided. In fact, the most commonly cited ‘proof’ is a statement allegedly made by a Liberal Senator or MP castigating the government for its ‘mismanagement’. The title of the committee is a dead giveaway – this isn’t about impartial scrutiny at all. It starts with the assumption that any money the government spends is wasteful.

The irony here is unbelievable. Here is a committee, and a website, designed to perpetuate a central pillar of the Opposition’s election campaign and sloganeering – unnecessary expenditure. But back up a second. Running and staffing such committees costs money. Building, maintaining and monitoring websites costs money. Sending out media releases is cheaper than it used to be thanks to email, but someone is still being employed to sit there and write them. Granted, they’ll save a lot of money by not doing any actual scrutiny, but when you get right down to it, the committee is nothing more than an expensive, dirty, propaganda engine.

So if we’re going to point fingers at the government’s failure to include the word ‘Education’ in Ministerial titles, we should probably spend a bit of time looking at the linguistic tactics of the Opposition – which are far more revealing.

In this ‘kinder, gentler’ polity, this ‘collegial’ atmosphere, those tactics make it very clear what the Opposition really plans to do for the next three years. Abbott didn’t even bother to deny it this morning on ABC radio. He made it clear that the Coalition still consider themselves a ‘government-in-waiting’ – and now, they’re just waiting to step in when ‘inevitably’ the government loses the confidence of the Independents. (He doesn’t seem to have considered the possibility that, even if there is a loss of confidence, the Independents won’t automatically turn around and crown him Prime Minister.)

In the meantime, the Opposition appear to be doing everything they can to undermine the government even before the new Parliament sits for the first time – and the use of ‘slogan’ Shadow Ministry title is just another weapon in that attack.


Brendan Nelson – the knives are out

April 4, 2008

You know, I almost feel sorry for Brendan Nelson. No, scratch that – I do feel sorry for him. He’s being comprehensively hung out to dry by his own party.

His approval rating is in the toilet. Just when he thought the tide was turning, it plummeted again – to a record low of 7% as preferred Prime Minister. His deputy, Julie Bishop, is about as unlovely and unsupportive as it’s possible to get. Think about it – how often have you seen her fronting the media at all, let alone shoring up her leader? These days, you get her occasionally in Parliament doing her best impersonation of the Peter Costello smirk/sneer (snirk? smeer? smeerk?), and that’s about it.

Then there’s the ‘whispering campaign’ being conducted by unnamed Liberal MPs up in the Press Gallery at Parliament House. Nelson’s lost the confidence of the Party. Poor old Brendan just can’t seem to pull it together. ‘People’ are wondering if he really has what it takes. ‘People’ are wondering if it’s time for him to go.

Now there’s the ‘concerned comments’ being made by one-time supporters like Alexander Downer and Tony Abbott about how much ground Nelson’s got to make up. Never mind that Downer’s practically abdicated and seems to be little more than a bloody seat-warmer at the moment – he can still claim some press credibility by simple virtue of having been one of Howard’s top ministers and a failed leader. Of course he’s going to get asked for his opinion. After all, he knows how hard it is to try to lead the Liberal Party.

Even Nick Minchin, who’s credited with being the architect of Nelson’s successful election to the leadership, has been giving little sound-bites suggesting that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all.

It’s pretty obvious what’s going on here. Things are being set up for a leadership spill. Nelson won’t resign of his own accord. He still thinks he can turn it around. I’ll say this for him – his commitment seems real, regardless of what you think of his politics. If he won’t go, then eventually a challenger will ‘reluctantly’ appear.

That challenger? Malcolm Turnbull. The ‘young gun’ who was only narrowly defeated by Nelson after the 2007 election. All this whispering and commenting is designed to do one thing only – create an atmosphere of desperation within the Party. Nelson is made to look so weak, and the Party in such dire straits, that MPs will feel that they have to take a risk. One of the things that counted against Turnbull in his 2007 challenge was his youth. It was felt he was too inexperienced to effectively lead the Party. In their Hour of Need, though, he’s going to look decisive, charismatic, and a risk worth taking.

Nelson appeared live on The 7.30 Report tonight – surely a perfect chance to come out looking like a strong leader who will pull the Party together. Instead, he seemed to have been taking a peek into Julia Gillard’s playbook. He stayed on message the whole time, and that message was a wishy-washy, general statement and re-statement of his commitment to running an effective Opposition. He repeatedly stated he wasn’t going to discuss polls or rumours, and dodged every question from Kerry O’Brien. Most damningly, he wouldn’t confirm whether he’d rung Downer, Abbott and Minchin to confront them on their lack of support.

He’s just played right into their hands. Now he not only is being described as weak, he looks weak. At a time when the Opposition have the opportunity to hit the Government hard over the Northern Territory intervention and the proposed new email surveillance laws, the focus is on whether the leader can cut it against SuperKev.

My guess is that the consensus will be he can’t. The press will help matters along, but we’re going to see a spill sooner rather than later.

And then things are going to get interesting.


%d bloggers like this: