Leaders’ Debate 11/8/13 – style, not substance?

August 12, 2013

Last night’s Leaders’ Debate should have been an opportunity to hear the candidates being closely questioned. It should have been a chance to have policies put up directly against each other. It should have been a moment where hard questions were put, and pressure kept up to force Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to actually provide some answers.

It wasn’t. The debate was disappointing, at best – and not just because the questions were clearly given to the candidates long beforehand. There were at least two clear ‘gifts’, one for each candidate – in Parliament, they’d be called Dixers – and the last question was almost served up on a platter to allow a policy announcement.

I’m only going to look at a couple of significant moments from the question and answer period, however, because I want to focus on the commentators, post-debate.

Generally, Abbott’s answers tended to be either riddled with slogans, or entirely composed of criticism of Labor. At one point, he referred to Labor’s policies as ‘waffle’, and at another, laughed derisively during Rudd’s answer. Rudd, as sitting Prime Minister, had the advantage of being able to base his answers on the government’s achievements, and go on to talk up new policies. There were few surprises, policy-wise, but it’s rare to see major announcements during a debate.

Rudd stumbled badly on the question of whether a Labor government would build a second airport for Sydney. Although his answer was essentially the same as Abbott’s – ‘we’ll have a look at that with some experts’ – he failed to point the finger at either the former Howard government or New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell. He could have said that earthworks were actually in progress, stopped by Howard. He could have said that O’Farrell had absolutely refused to work with federal Labor. It’s anyone’s guess why he didn’t, but then he compounded the error by pointing out that there were infrastructure needs right across the country. No one likes to hear that their needs might be less important, no matter how true that may be.

For his part, Abbott came a cropper on the issue of aged care. The Coalition’s ‘Real Solutions’ booklet has a vague paragraph promising an ‘agreement’ with providers in the sector. Pressed for detail on actual policy, Abbott had nothing to add. In fact, he grudgingly admitted he would keep the reforms passed under Labor.

Abbott also ruled out any changes to the GST – but was unable to answer why, in that case, the GST would be part of his promised tax review. He also tried to say that any change to the GST would have to involve the agreement of all States and Territories, and therefore unlikely even if he were looking at that. Speers pulled him up immediately for that piece of misinformation. A sitting government has the ability to change the current legislation, without undertaking any consultation.

But it was the last question, leaked some time earlier, that drove the biggest wedge between the leaders – that of marriage equality. The two answers could not have been more different. For Abbott, the issue was settled last term. Besides, there were much more important things. Effectively, the Coalition considered marriage equality a dead, second-order (at best) issue. Abbott did offer a sop at the conclusion of his answer, suggesting that the party room might look at the situation if anything changed. He certainly gave the impression, though, that it wasn’t worth holding your breath.

Rudd reiterated his change of heart, and commitment to marriage equality, calling it a ‘mark of decency’. Then came the election promise. Within the first 100 days of a Labor government, they would introduce legislation removing the impediments within the Marriage Act, and allow a conscience vote. It’s still highly unlikely that such a bill would pass, given the Coalition’s stance, but – unlike Labor’s former position – this would be a bill introduced by a Minister and backed by the Prime Minister. Such things carry their own weight and, while Labor would still have to deal with its own Right faction’s opposition, it gives them a stronger base from which to begin.

So much for questions. Let’s look at how the commentators and audience polls wrapped it up. Having the debate broadcast far and wide provided the opportunity for a real cross-section of viewers. Here’s how the polls saw the debate:

Channel Ten (One HD) = Rudd 61 – Abbott 39
Channel Nine (GEM) = Rudd 59 – Abbott 41
Channel Seven = Abbott 68 – Rudd 32
ABC = Rudd 71 – Abbott 29

Fairly decisive, you’d think. With one exception, every poll gave the debate to Rudd. The ABC’s poll, conducted via Twitter, could rightly be set aside as have a particularly limited audience – but even without that, on balance Rudd won the debate.

But then there were the commentators, who, almost as though they were working from the same script, gave the debate to Abbott. This was particularly startling in the case of the ABC, who published the results of their own polls, then proceeded to completely ignore them.

And why did Abbott ‘win’?

Because Rudd ‘started off nervously’.

Because Abbott ‘sounded confident’.

Because – you have to love the vagueness of this – Abbott ‘looked Prime Ministerial’.

Finally – and this was the point where credibility went out the window – no less a personage than Laurie Oakes asserted that Abbott had won, not in spite of his reliance on three word slogans, but because of them.

Yeah, you read that right.

Because, apparently, the essential qualities in judging whether someone is a good debater have nothing to do with the substance of their arguments. Or how well they refute their opponent’s points. No, no. It’s all about style.

Oscar Wilde observed that those who used the phrase ‘style over substance’ was a marvellous and instant indicator of a fool.

Now, call me the product of a bygone generation, but when I was at school, we were taught that debates are won on the quality of your argument. We were taught how to construct initial statements, build on those, and to rebut and dismantle our opponents’ arguments. We were assessed on those criteria, and the winner was whoever could do that better. Call me a wide-eyed optimist, but I thought that was still how we determined who won our debates.

Oh, silly me. I keep forgetting that modern political reporting has less to do with issues of substance and more to do with whether Kevin Rudd’s hair was mussed up by the wind or Julia Gillard’s shoes sank into the lawn. It’s about whether the person in front of the cameras grabs attention with some snappy talking points, not whether they’re actually saying something of significance.

Think I’m exaggerating? Go take a look. The number one story to come out of last night’s debate is whether Rudd broke the rules by taking notes to the podium with him. And whether Abbott, lauded as being ‘note-free’, might also have had notes, as claimed by Lindsay Coombs, who tweeted a screen-grab showing notes on Abbott’s podium.

(For what it’s worth? The note issue is – and should be – a non-issue. Rudd made no attempt to conceal his notes, and said that as far as he knew, having them was permitted. Clearly, he was wrong. Last night’s setup was the exception rather than the rule for debates. It’s possible Rudd did assume he could act as usual. But really, is there any need to prevent someone from taking notes into a debate? What does it prove? It’s not as though a Prime Minister is required to operate under exam conditions – he has access to experts, briefs, any amount of needed information.)

So this is where we are. What should have been a way for us to learn more about the policies of the new major parties, vigorously debated, analysed at length with the precision that comes from long experience in political journalism – was a farce. Commentators ignored clear poll results, dismissed substance in favour of style, and focused on the existence of a few typed pages.

And today, those same commentators complain that last night’s debate was boring, and that no one will want to watch any others. How ‘lucky’, they said, that Channels Nine and Ten had secondary (read: less popular) channels to carry the broadcast.

I suggest that perhaps those commentators might better use their skills as judges on ‘Australia’s Got Talent’, or similar shows. Meanwhile, perhaps we could have a real debate – and get some real analysis, while we at it.


Campaign 2013: Not an auspicious start

August 5, 2013

2013 Campaign, Day 1.

Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m rather over it already. In the last 24 hours, these are just a few examples of how things are shaping up.

On the politician front, we saw Clive Palmer, head of the Palmer United Party, assert that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was ‘afraid’ to debate him. This fear, he claimed, was because Labor had no ideas, and couldn’t make a decent counter-argument to his calls for a ‘revolution’. I didn’t see any flags or chanting crowds with upraised fists, and Palmer wasn’t wearing a beret with a red star badge on it, so I’m not quite sure what he means by that. But then, he could be right. It’s hard to make a counter-argument when there isn’t something against which to argue.

Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, speaking on behalf of his leader, and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott grudgingly praised each other’s families when pressed to name one good quality about their opposite numbers. Ah, family. Isn’t it heart-warming that even bitter enemies can say, ‘Well, at least they love their kids?’

Of course, had Julia Gillard still been Prime Minister, we’d have heard nothing of the kind. Likely, Abbott would have given us one of his trademark snide comments, while reminding us all that he’s married with kids. At least that issue is neutralised, though that’s hardly something of which we should be proud. The presence or absence of family is in no way an indicator of whether someone can be an effective Prime Minister.

With his early morning media appearances over, Abbott decided to get some work done early. No sense waiting until the election actually takes place, is there? Of course not. Democratic process? Pffft.

Abbott wrote to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, virtually instructing them to cease their activities. Thoughtfully, he also gave its employees plenty of advance notice that he’d be shutting them down altogether once he was in government.

Tony Abbott's letter to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation

Tony Abbott’s letter to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (my emphasis)

While he was at it, he told the media that he’d informed the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet of his first activity as Prime Minister – which would, of course, be repealing the ‘carbon tax’.

The arrogance is breathtaking. Publicly, Abbott’s out there saying it’s going to be a long, hard fight, that it’s hard to win from Opposition, that Labor has the advantage. Privately, he’s already throwing his weight around the Canberra bureaucracy, claiming the authority of a Prime Minister and, apparently, expecting to be treated like one.

And then there were the Greens. Oh dear, dear, dear.

Now, no one could ever accuse the Greens of lacking in absolute commitment to their principles, and a willingness to pursue them with passion. But leader Christine Milne’s media conferences last night and today were, frankly, cringe-worthy.

She spent the bulk of her media time calling both major parties ‘cruel’, so many times that even experienced commentators lost count. This was largely directed at their respective asylum seeker policies, and it’s fair to say that at best those policies could be considered completely self-interested. A word repeated too many times, however, loses its impact, and that’s what happened here – particularly after Milne extended her accusations of cruelty to include environmental policies.

The other problem was that Milne backed herself into a corner on the issue of another possible minority government. After her condemnation of both Labor and the Coalition on asylum seeker policy, she stated flatly that the Greens would not, under any circumstances, enter into an agreement with the Coalition. Of course, the natural follow-up question was, would the Greens back Labor – and that’s where she came unstuck. It was clear Milne was more inclined to agree to that arrangement, but since she’d described both parties as almost identical in their ‘cruelty’, she had no justification for saying so. Instead, she fell back on repeating she wouldn’t support Labor’s ‘Papua New Guinea gulags’.

To say the media smelled blood in the water then was an understatement. Her appearances dissolved into incoherence.

Speaking of the media …

The Daily Telegraph’s front page left us in no doubt as to their opinion.

The Daily Telegraph's calm and measured start to its election campaign coverage.

The Daily Telegraph’s calm and measured start to its election campaign coverage.

Hilariously, the paper solemnly assured us that it was declaring its support for the Coalition ‘calmly and reasonably’, that it would not ‘play Labor’s game’.

I pause for howls of derisive laughter.

News Limited can hardly be accused of showing bias towards the government. A quick perusal of their headlines and op-eds shows that. For them to claim otherwise is a bald-faced lie. Today’s headline, though, goes one step beyond even Fairfax’s pathetic bleat that under Gillard’s leadership, it was impossible for the media to have a policy-driven debate.

The Telegraph isn’t merely complaining. It’s outright telling people how to vote. Yes, this tends to happen as a campaign goes on, but on Day 1? In tones best reserved for a pub owner dealing with a few rowdy drinkers? And on the front page?

This is nothing more than the Tele treating its readers as mindless mugs. Where Fairfax wrung its hands and wailed, News Ltd has opted for the blunt instrument approach. It’s crass, it’s obvious, and it’s insulting.

Finally, this piece of do-it-yourself campaign material deserves a mention, if only because it shows just how toxic the political atmosphere is right now.

It turned up in the form of three badly printed, badly photocopied pages shoved in the mailbox of a friend. That friend lives in a predominantly middle-class, ‘Anglo’ neighbourhood – which is right next door to one of the largest concentrations of Middle Eastern and Muslim populations in Melbourne. Here’s a sample:

Anti-asylum seeker campaign material

Anti-asylum seeker campaign material

In case it’s difficult to read, it boils down to: all refugees are trying to get to Australia so they can claim welfare payments. Once they’re here, they go back to their own countries, bring over fake families, and then settle down to have as many children as possible so they can claim even more welfare money. Just to be sure the message is properly communicated, the anonymous author/s of this piece of ranting garbage draw a false contrast between post-WWII European migrants (‘ALL THEY EVER ASKED FOR WAS A JOB, ANY JOB NO MATTER HOW DIRTY, STINKING LOW PAID IT WAS’ – original punctuation and capitalisation) and ‘refugees’ (who ‘GET NAMES THAT ARE MILES LONG AND UNIDENTIFIABLE’ … who ask ‘WHAT CAN I GET, WHAT WILL YOU PAY ME FOR JUST LANDING ON YOUR SHORES/COMING TO AUSTRALIA’.)

These pages are accompanied by selected ‘Letters to the Editor’ badly clipped out, pasted crookedly and photocopied, with helpful commentary in the white spaces.

There’s no organisation identified as being behind this material, although the use of the word ‘LEVIATHAN’ to name the text file from which it’s printed suggests the author’s have read at least a few articles in The Australian or the odd right-wing blog (which is rather fond of using that word to describe welfare or taxation of any sort).

Nonetheless, this is the direct result of a political discourse that thinks nothing of using a vulnerable group of faceless people as little more than a football. Scoring political points by stirring up ill-feeling against asylum seekers is, unfortunately, an effective tactic. It panders to the most xenophobic aspects of human character – and in doing so, tacitly gives approval for the kind of propaganda that paints all asylum seekers as potential welfare cheats, breeding uncontrollably in order to overwhelm the ‘real’ Australians and bring in sharia law.

I’m sure there’s more out there, from Christopher Pyne absurdly claiming three different policy decisions in less than 24 hours to the Katter Australian Party supporter in a giant hat who photo-bombed an ABC News24 reporter who was desperately trying to fill time while waiting for the Prime Minister’s plane to land.

This is just a sample.

And it’s only Day 1.

Strap in, folks, and lay in a good supply of whatever gets you through all this.

You’ll need it.


We can start the policy debate

June 24, 2013

In my last post, I took aim at The Age’s contention that it was ‘impossible’ to have a policy debate as long as Julia Gillard remained our Prime Minister. I stand by what I wrote then: as long as the media continues to give space to articles and op-eds which speculate about how long she will keep the top job or how hard it is to write about policy, the less actual scrutiny of policy and ideas there will be.

That said: to suggest for one moment that Rupert Murdoch or Gina Rinehart lurk in the background like megalomaniacal overlords, chuckling evilly as they manipulate the election in order to get the result they want, is patently ridiculous. There are any number of studies pointing to media bias in one form or another (or even that the media roughly evens out), and that’s clearly something that these organisations should acknowledge, and, possibly, correct. This does not prove conspiracy.

I grew up in a media household. My stepfather worked for both Fairfax (as Features Editor) and News Limited (in various roles, including editor-in-chief for the Gold Coast Bulletin). My brother now also works for News Limited. Over the years, no directives came down demanding that editorial content favour any given political party. No subtle discouragements filtered through to reporters that they should ‘go hard’ on one leader, while giving another a free pass. Was there bias? Almost certainly. Was it part of a greater agenda? No.

Attributing what’s going on in our media to conspiracy just avoids the real issue – which is how to make policy the focus of political coverage. It won’t happen by accusing News Limited of being a pawn in Murdoch’s nefarious schemes, or saying that Gina Rinehart’s interest in Fairfax is the ‘real’ reason The Age ran that editorial. It probably won’t even happen by demanding that the media start asking some real questions. The questions have to come from the rest of us in whatever way we can ask them.

Hit politicians’ websites. Write to them. Visit them when they’re on the rounds promoting something – their itineraries can usually be obtained, especially for backbenchers moving around their own electorates – and ask them face to face. Ask about the policies on their websites – or why they don’t have policies easily obtainable.

Get involved.

Heck, start a blog, write about what you want to know, and ping it straight at politicians. Most of them these days have Facebook or Twitter accounts. Make social media work. The most common criticism levelled at social media is that it’s no more than an echo chamber, out of touch with reality. To an extent, that’s true. You only have to spend a bit of time reading the #auspol timeline to realise just how much bandwidth is given over to partisan rubbish – and a staggering amount of truly vile sentiment. It makes ‘Ditch the Witch!’ look like a compliment.

That doesn’t mean these must be the only voices to be using social media, however – or even the dominant voices. Just as the mainstream media is not the only voice.

I wrote that if The Age isn’t writing about policy, they have no one to blame but themselves. The same is true for all of us. We shouldn’t wait to have our electoral choices spoon-fed to us.

If your reason for not voting Labor at the next election is ‘Julia Gillard knifed Kevin Rudd’ … if you take the dreadful, misogynist attacks against the Prime Minister as a reason to vote for her … if you spend your time arguing about whether Rudd or Gillard should be leader, rather than scrutinising policy from all sides … then you’re contributing to an already huge problem. You’re enabling a policy-free zone to proliferate.

We can do better than that. We can stop mindlessly marching to the beat being set for us. Ask yourself: who does it serve to have all the attention focused anywhere but policy?

It certainly doesn’t serve us – the people who will determine the outcome of the next election.

Perhaps Rudd will challenge Gillard tomorrow. Perhaps Gillard will step down, or be forced out. Turnbull might challenge Abbott (yes, I know, virtually impossible). But let’s be blunt: what matters, ultimately, are the policies each party takes to the election. I’m not for a moment suggesting that the leader doesn’t matter: of course they do. It’s why Keating challenged Hawke, and why Costello didn’t challenge Howard. But the leader isn’t the be-all and end-all of an election.

It’s time we all started remembering that. So here’s my proposal: let’s ask the questions that really matter.

Let’s ask the Coalition why most of their stated policies to date involve little more than reversing everything accomplished by the Rudd and Gillard governments. Let’s ask the Greens what they plan to do if the Coalition successfully repeals carbon pricing. Let’s ask the Independents what they would do if we end up with another minority government. And let’s ask Labor for more detail about the Gonski reforms, and how it plans to address shortfalls in project mining tax revenue.

It will be up to us on September 14 – but we shouldn’t wait until then. We should start now.


For the sake of the nation, the media should do its job

June 22, 2013

If you’re a reader of Fairfax newspapers, this is what you woke up to today:

‘It is time for Julia Gillard to stand aside as leader of the federal parliamentary Labor Party, as Prime Minister of Australia, so that vigorous, policy-driven democratic debate can flourish once again. Ms Gillard should do so in the interests of the Labor Party, in the interests of the nation and, most importantly, in the interests of democracy.’

No, really.

You’d expect to read something this pompous from the likes of Andrew Bolt or Gerard Henderson, both of whom are known for their grandiose language and outrageous sentiment. But from The Age? Offered not as one journalist’s opinion, but as the endorsed view of the entire newspaper?

It gets worse.

Assuring us that the paper ‘does not advocate this lightly,’ the editorial went on to say:

‘The Age’s overriding concern is that, under Ms Gillard’s leadership, the Labor Party’s message about its future policies and vision for Australia is not getting through to the electorate. Our fear is that if there is no change in Labor leadership before the September 14 election, voters will be denied a proper contest of ideas and policies – and that would be a travesty for the democratic process.’ (my italics)

It’s not necessary to quote most of the rest. Voters are ‘distracted’ by Labor leadership tensions. The electorate is ‘despairing’ of internal party tensions. Australia deserves a government that can clearly lay out its plans and policies. Oh, and here I will quote:

‘Mr Abbott is being allowed to run almost entirely unchallenged with his preposterous claim that a Coalition government would “stop the boats”, in part by turning back the pathetic trail of rickety vessels laden with asylum seekers’

It’s all in the interests of democracy, you understand. It would be a terrible thing if the Coalition gained control of both Houses, and Labor was unable to step up in Opposition to hold them to account. For all these reasons, the editorial gravely tells us, Prime Minister Julia Gillard should resign.

The arrogance and blinding irony in this editorial are unbelievable.

The Age apparently wants its readers to see it as a victim, shaking its head sorrowfully. ‘We would give you substantial policy debate. We want to discuss real issues, and get to the heart of things. If only, if only, we could do that. It’s not our fault. It’s all because of Gillard. If she was gone, everything would be better’.

Back up a step or two there. I have a few questions for you, Fairfax. And for the rest of the media.

At what point did Gillard hold a gun to your metaphorical heads and force you to write endless, speculative op-eds about the Labor leadership?

At what point did Gillard, or any of her Ministers, refuse to talk about policy?

At what point did Gillard put you in a position where you were ‘unable’ to challenge Tony Abbott on – well, anything, really?

For that matter, since when has the Federal Government had any control over your editorial standards or content? (With the exception of the ABC – and even then, the government can’t prevent coverage of issues.)

If the Australian people aren’t informed about policy, media, whose fault is that? The answer is very simple: yours. Every time you choose to give space to yet another tired op-ed that attempts to convince your readers that a leadership challenge will happen any moment now, that’s one less article about policy, or legislation before the house, or even – heaven forbid – question why we’re still being polled about whether we’d prefer Malcolm Turnbull to Tony Abbott as leader.

Forget the op-eds for a moment. What about the interviews, especially on television? There’s your chance to get some real back-and-forth going on policy. Get some Labor politicians in the studio with you, and make them answer the hard questions. There’s your ‘ideas and policies’ right there.

Except that’s not what happens. It’s practically formulaic by now. The script goes something like this: interviewer asks a question about the leadership; Labor interviewee answers and then tries to move on to policy; interviewer persists in asking the same leadership questions, ignoring anything else the interviewee has to say.

Here’s a particularly egregious example – click through to 15:50 minutes. Craig Emerson, Minister for Trade, was Leigh Sales’ guest on ABC 730 last Thursday. Emerson did not avoid the initial questions about leadership. When he attempted to move on to talking about policy, however, Sales repeatedly interrupted him with what amounted to variations on the Rudd/Gillard theme. Even as this was occurring, Sales asked why Labor couldn’t get its message out.

Emerson, rightly, pointed out that he was trying to do so.

And it’s in this atmosphere that Fairfax publishes its faux-reluctant editorial, blaming the Prime Minister for ‘distracting’ the Australian people.

Breaking news, Fairfax: if we’re distracted, it’s not because of the Prime Minister. It’s because what we see and read, day after day, is what you and News Limited want to serve up to us.

Try this for an experiment. See if you can get through one interview without mentioning Kevin Rudd, or ‘leadership tensions’. See if you can actually write one op-ed that is entirely focused on policy. Contrary to what you’d have us believe, there’s plenty out there – at least on the Labor side. You might ask the Coalition about their lack of policy while you’re at it.

But – to coin an unmistakably Australian phrase – don’t come the raw prawn with us. Don’t claim you have nothing to write about. Don’t claim the Prime Minister possesses some sort of press-gagging superpower.

If the lack of policy debate in this country is what truly concerns you – then start one.

For the sake of the nation, indeed.

UPDATE: After the incredible amount of responses to this post (and the debates that are still going), I thought that a follow-up post was needed. We can start the policy debate.


Dear media, write about something else

June 19, 2013

In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s an election coming. It’s about this time we should be seeing politicians nailed to the wall about their record, and their policies. So what do we get from our media?

Do we hear about the 1632 children being held in detention solely because their parents risked their lives to seek asylum in Australia? Children who grow up in an atmosphere of utter despair, in conditions of squalor, and with no realistic hope of escape any time soon? For that matter, do we hear that Parliament’s own Human Rights Committee sounded a note of warning, urging MPs to comply with our international obligations?

Do we hear about the Coalition’s plan to flout international law, and Australia’s treaty obligations, by deporting any refugee convicted of a crime with a sentence of 12 months or more back to their home country? To speed up the process, any such refugee would lose their ‘normal rights of appeal’. (Yes, you heard that right. No judicial process for you, refugee person, even if you were wrongly convicted. We’ll put you on a plane and fly you right back into the hands of the country you fled in fear for your life. Bye-bye, now.)

Do we hear about the Coalition’s lack of any substantial education policy, other than to reverse anything the government manages to set in place? Christopher Pyne doesn’t think the education system needs fixing – oh, except for that pesky National Curriculum. That’s got to go. Too ‘black armband’. We can’t have our kids growing up thinking our history contains anything shameful.

How about the major parties marching in lockstep to preserve a duopoly between Coles and Woolworths, which causes immense harm to primary producers and small businesses? The complete silence on Arts funding? The government’s undignified scramble away from legislation to regulate poker machines? The Coalition’s intent to widen an already huge gap between wealthy and low income families through a number of policies, including its misnamed Paid Parental Leave (only available to women) and removing means testing on so-called ‘middle class welfare’ schemes like the Schoolkids’ Bonus?

Do we hear incisive analysis about the issues? Informed, reasoned commentary? Close questioning in interviews?

We do not.

What we do hear is, day after day, the same pap regurgitated.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott visits yet another small business, telling us that the ‘carbon tax’ is killing the country. Or the mining tax. Or both. The script is so predictable that one suspects he may, at times, be talking in his sleep. But that’s perfectly all right, because no one is likely to ask him any hard questions.

Yet another opinion piece pops up, telling us that Kevin Rudd’s supporters are massing for a tilt at the leadership, and that Labor is on the verge of self-destruction. That a challenge is imminent. Ignore anything that Labor politicians actually say – just keep presenting the conjecture as fact. Sooner or later, it’s got to be true, right? Even a stopped clock is correct twice a day.

And then there are the endless, endless discussions of polls – but only some polls. Only the polls that show the government heading towards an unprecedented defeat. Only the polls that show Rudd is more popular than the Prime Minister. Don’t worry about the polls that have consistently shown a different trend, which – at least – suggest that closer analysis might be in order. Don’t worry about polls showing Abbott’s popularity pales in comparison to that of the leader he ousted, Malcolm Turnbull.

Think I’m exaggerating? Watch the headlines on the hourly ABC News24 and Sky bulletins. Go and look at the headlines under ‘Politics’ on the Fairfax or News Limited’s websites. Discount anything written by a politician, and here’s a sample of what you get:

(from Fairfax)
‘For Fix Sake, Someone Sort Out Rudd and Gillard’
‘The Loved and the Loathed’ (Gillard and Rudd, of course)
‘Little Wonder Caucus Mired in its Pool of Tears’

(from News Ltd)
‘Kevin Rudd Can’t Save Labor’
‘Gone-ski, Me? Not Today Anyway’ (Fairfax makes Lewis Carroll references, News Ltd makes puns)
‘G-G on Hand in Case of Coup’
‘Blocking Kevin Won’t Leave Julia a Martyr’

To be fair, there were a couple of articles about issues other than the Labor leadership. One was a very short update on how 457 Visa legislation might not pass the House. Another expressed astonishment at the social media backlash that followed Senator Cory Bernardi’s column yesterday, in which he claimed he’d been vindicated in his assertion that same-sex marriage would lead to multiple marriage and bestiality. By far, though, the majority of media coverage has been the same old same old.

Now, sure, breathless speculation about an imminent Constitutional crisis makes for great headlines. What a story – it’s got action, it’s got conflict, it’s got drama – and best of all, there’s no need to make sure that the facts are correct. Because there are no facts. It’s all one big hypothetical, and if it never happens, well, no harm, no foul, right? The next story can always be about how Rudd’s faction ‘backed away’. Meanwhile, there’s always another Abbott presser.

This is the kind of rubbish that clutters up political journalism, buries – or even outright ignores – substantial policy debate and criticism, and is served up to us. Is it any wonder that people turn increasingly to independent media?

Here’s a heretical thought for the mainstream media. Why not stop writing about how Rudd might challenge Gillard? Sure, keep an ear to the ground, and if a challenge is on, be there on the ground – but in the meantime, there’s plenty of news to go around. Get stuck into the Coalition on their resounding lack of policy. Pin down the government on their appalling asylum seeker legislation. Do some bloody analysis on Greens policies. Hell, spend some time with the Independents – all of them – and find out what they plan to bring to their election campaigns.

For the love of Murphy, write about something else.

I promise it won’t hurt. You might just find your audiences start re-engaging. And those readers and viewers would have some real content to accompany what they get from independent media. Everybody wins.

Wouldn’t that be a fine thing?


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.

Why?

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.


Hockey fumbles the ball – again – on Coalition economic policy

May 20, 2013

Sometimes, I rather feel sorry for Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey – and then I remember that this is the man who might well end up being responsible for the nation’s finances, come September.

After Abbott’s Budget reply speech last week – a speech for which he received a good deal of criticism, and (for once) a heck of a grilling from the media – someone was going to have to attempt some damage control. And that someone pretty much had to be Hockey. After all, if you don’t send out your nominee for controller of public revenue from time to time, it’s going to be hard to sell your plan. As a bonus, Hockey doesn’t look or sound like the stereotypical Liberal. No private school vocabulary, no plummy accent. There’s a bit of the bogan in ol’ Joe, and the party uses that to its advantage whenever it’s trying to ‘connect’ with the people.

Accordingly, Hockey fronted up for an interview on ABC1’s Insiders program yesterday. Generally, the Coalition get a fairly easy ride in most interviews (the notable exception being – sometimes – ABC 730). Hockey, arriving early on Sunday morning, apparently expected the same comfortable treatment.

Instead, he was metaphorically nailed to the wall by Barrie Cassidy.

Asked to justify why the Coalition insisted on using the phrase ‘budget emergency’, Hockey at first flatly denied ever doing so (even though Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is still using it as of this morning), then fell back on familiar talking points. The budget isn’t in surplus, it will never be in surplus under Labor, we’re vulnerable because we’ve borrowed money from overseas, etc. He claimed that the major reason Australia holds a AAA credit rating from all agencies was due to the Howard government – oh, and that it was ‘cute’ that we’d achieved the rating from Fitch. It doesn’t mean much, anyway, he argued, because everywhere else is so bad. Naturally we’d look good in comparison.

In one stroke Hockey dismissed the across-the-board AAA credit rating, and the agencies. He would have us believe that it’s ultimately meaningless, that it has nothing to do with our actual economic status, and the fact that countries in Europe are undergoing incredible economic stress is the only reason we have this rating. (And, in the case of Fitch, that it’s just ‘cute’.) Hang on a moment, though. Didn’t the Opposition pooh-pooh the idea that our high dollar (among other economic factors) was directly related to European circumstances? Oops, never mind. Little details like consistency aren’t important, right?

It’s all about stability, said Hockey. That’s what the Coalition was going to provide. That statement surely had Cassidy mentally rubbing his hands with glee as he invited Hockey to give some examples, and Hockey was happy to oblige. Delay the superannuation contribution increase (from 9% to 12%) for two years. Scrap Schoolkids’ Bonus. Scrap Lower Income Superannuation Contribution Scheme. Scrap 12,000 public service jobs via ‘natural attrition’ (which is a fancy way of saying, ‘we’ll merge various departments and restructure people out of existence without actually having to call it redundancy’).

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine exactly how these cuts provide any stability whatsoever.

The delay in implementing the 12% superannuation contribution was where Hockey really got lost. Cassidy was relentless, pushing for figures, and Hockey either couldn’t or wouldn’t provide them. ‘I don’t have the actuarial tables in front of me,’ he repeated. ‘It hasn’t kicked in …’ He ended up utterly tangled in his own argument, unwilling to admit that there would be any effect on people’s retirement savings. In fact, he said that the delay was effectively a good measure, since people would have ‘more money in their pockets rather than in superannuation for just a short period of time’.

This is flatly wrong, and a very disturbing error for the putative Treasurer of Australia to make. Compulsory superannuation contributions do not come out of your take-home pay. They are paid by the employer on top of your salary or wage. Delaying the increase to 12% will have no effect whatsoever on the ‘money in the pocket’. Hockey should know this. It’s simple. Even giving him the benefit of the doubt – that perhaps it was a simple slip of the tongue – it speaks volumes about his ability to think on his feet about financial matters.

The rest of Hockey’s interview only added to the impression that here was a man who just didn’t know why he was there, or what he should be saying. He fell back on talking points at every opportunity. Whenever Cassidy pressed him, he would interpret it as a ‘sanctimonious’ lecture from the government, and throw in an assertion that the Coalition was ‘honest’. Even then, he seemed unable to stop himself.

On the NDIS, he said that there was no possibility of delay – but in the next breath, hinted that it might not be implemented because he didn’t trust the government’s figures. That undermined Abbott’s Budget Reply, in which he not only supported the NDIS, but actually claimed it was as much the Coalition’s ‘achievement’ as the government’s.

On the Gonski reforms, he tried to say that the budget actually cut education spending, while being funded from the mining tax (it’s actually funded from general revenue). At the same time, he admitted, ‘I don’t know what Gonski looks like, what the whole education plan looks like’.

On the Coalition’s proposed tax review, he ruled out any change to the GST – then suggested they might, possibly, perhaps look at it. In a year or two. By the next election, certainly. Assuming ‘key stakeholders’ (read: big business) went along with it.

Overall, Hockey gave the impression that he really didn’t know what he was doing, or why he was even in front of the cameras. It might be poor preparation, but this isn’t the first time Hockey has given such a dreadful performance. He’s been caught out on the Reserve Bank cash rate, sources of funding for various programs, the difference between zero growth and low growth, unable to explain the Coalition’s own figures, and – famously – redefining the word ‘tax’ in order to criticise the government. These might explain why Hockey so rarely fronts the media without Abbott right there to step in, since Shadow Finance Spokesperson Andrew Robb is nearly as inarticulate as Hockey himself.

It’s really not a good look in an alternative Treasurer. But there’s this to consider. Polls have (inexplicably) shown that, after the Budget was handed down last Tuesday, Hockey is preferred Treasurer. As the election nears, Hockey will have to front the media more often. If he acts as he has until now – unable to provide figures, contradicting his own party’s stated aims and policies, and making glaring errors on the simplest of economic questions – the Coalition’s claim to be better at managing the economy will be seriously tested.

It needs to be. The Coalition rests on the laurels of Peter Costello’s work as Treasurer in the Howard government (glossing over the fact that it was a much higher taxing government than Labor under either Rudd or Gillard), tends to be long on rhetoric and short on policy detail, and has a history of not releasing its costings until so close to an election that Treasury and the Australian people cannot sufficiently scrutinise them. That’s if they give their costings to Treasury at all – remember back in 2010, when they got out of submitting their costings to Treasury byaccusing them of colluding with the government to ‘steal an election’? In fact, the Coalition’s had a ‘pass’ on the kind of scrutiny that is absolutely necessary, while feeding talking points on ‘Labor mismanagement’ to the media that, too often, are merely repeated.

Hopefully, Cassidy’s interview with Hockey is just the first hint that the tide may be turning, and we can look forward to seeing both major parties (not to mention the Greens, and newcomers like Katter’s Australia Party and Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party) subjected to real investigation and interrogation from the media – whether mainstream or independent.


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