The Cringe Dwellers

When the Prime Minister announced his recent trip to the US, the ‘cringe dwellers’ emerged in numbers.  First the Opposition coined what it thought were cute descriptors: ‘Kevin 747’ and ‘Prime Tourist’, which apart from giving it some amusement, exposed an underlying attitude – who does the PM think he is, jetting off when he should be at home minding the shop?  An unspoken sub-theme was ‘What could Kevin Rudd possibly have to contribute?’

Soon columnists joined the chorus. The Sun-Herald’s Andrew Bolt in the 29 September issue begins his blog Rudd gets busy with WorldWatch: “What a strange addiction Rudd has for strutting the international stage, doing almost nothing at all of any note.”  Note the words “strutting” and “doing almost nothing at all of any note”.  But what could be expected? After all he’s only the PM of Australia, a large chunk of land with just 20 million down-unders, only an ex-diplomat, only a past Shadow Foreign Minister; what would he know that anyone else in the world would want to hear?  What could Australia possibly contribute on the world scene, and who would listen anyway?  What message could he bring from arguably one of the best regulated financial systems in the world to large nations like the US?  They must know better.  Otherwise the monumental financial mess they’re in would have been much much worse.  Bolt, like others of his type think it’s pretentious and arrogant for an Australian PM to be telling any other country anything.  He depicts them as trembling with apprehension as Rudd delivers yet another ‘lecture’.  Most of Bolt’s following think the same – they had a field day with this blog.  The Sunday Telegraph’s Editorial of 28 September Time to clip Rudd’s wings echoed “Kevin Rudd's travel addiction is getting out of hand.” and mockingly questioned the value of his visit, suggesting email and the telephone would have sufficed.  Same sentiments as Bolt.

Then there was The Australian’s Dennis Shanahan’s 26 September audio report from the US about the Rudd address to the UN.  Although he went on to explain why Rudd’s agenda had necessarily changed because of the global financial crisis and what Rudd had done during his visit, he could not resist beginning by saying that taxpayers watching Kevin Rudd’s address to the UN could be forgiven for wondering why the PM had gone there in the first place instead of staying at home to attend to the financial situation there and to his legislative agenda. 

On Channel Ten’s Meet the Press yesterday Glen Milne took a sideswipe when he said, with his usual dose of sarcasm, that Rudd seemed to have plans for global action on many issues but no plan for supporting pensioners.  Again the message was - how dare he get involved in global politics.  Even the benign Mark Riley in his Channel Seven Sunday Riley Diary made fun of the Rudd visit, although subsequently in his serious comment he acknowledged all that Rudd had accomplished and that his presence in the US was important.  Then on the ABC’s Insiders Piers Akerman predictably ridiculed the visit, as if someone as insignificant on the world scene as Kevin Rudd, Australia’s PM, could offer any useful advice.  Even the cartoonists portrayed on Insiders had a field day.

To balance this, thoughtful commentators like Paul Kelly, Malcolm Farr and Annabelle Crabb, also on Insiders, acknowledged it was important that our PM was in the US meeting with world leaders, updating himself with the latest on the financial crisis, speaking to the UN on financial regulation, climate change and world poverty, as well a canvassing a seat for Australia on the Security Council, the original reason for the visit.  But Insiders still took the time with its visuals to poke fun at Rudd’s UN appearance highlighting the empty seats and the sleepy audience. More...

The Turnbull Report Card 10 days in

10 days ago Malcolm Turnbull became Leader of the Opposition at a time of intense political activity and global financial turmoil.  This is one view of how he’s travelling.

As argued in another post: Will the real Malcolm Turnbull please stand up? Turnbull’s performance varies according to whether he is advancing a case in which he believes, or one in which he does not.  It is in instances of the latter that he has been unconvincing.

Why is this?  Looking back at Turnbull’s career he has had success as a barrister and a merchant banker.  A barrister takes a brief and argues the merit of the client’s case against that presented by an adversary, often a prosecutor.  From what we hear of Turnbull’s successes as a barrister, it appears that it has been greatest in those cases where he was an enthusiastic advocate.  The ‘Spycatcher’ case is an example.  Since entering politics he seems have done best when his heart is in his advocacy, such as signing Kyoto or saying ‘sorry’.  His is less convincing when his heart is not in it, such as was the case in the 5c/litre cut in fuel excise.

Since his ascent to leadership we have seen several pointers to his modus operandi:

First he will not shrink from populist politics if he sees it as advancing his and the Coalition’s cause.  The fact that he endorsed Brendan Nelson’s populist positions without hesitation, when he could have stepped back from at least some of them when he assumed leadership, shows that he has embraced the ‘anything it takes’ approach to winning.  The statesmanlike utterances he made shortly after he entered parliament have given way to ‘political-speak’.  So he gets a tick for his ‘win at any cost’ approach, but a cross for populism.

Second, he has shown that he performs best when, to use his media cheerleaders’ words, ‘he takes it up to Rudd and his Government’.  This is perhaps most closely aligned with the skill of advocacy at the bar, where the job is to take the client’s case up to the prosecutor, something at which Turnbull has excelled.  So his aggression at Question Time or in proposing censure motions is to be expected.  Although he knows he is unlikely to succeed, for example with censure, he proceeds with great vigour and eloquence, knowing that this will hit the news bulletins, and that when shown on TV will promote the strong advocate image, that of someone who can take the fight to the adversary.  That the argument he is making may be flawed or his facts faulty, is no deterrent, so long he considers he is giving the impression of a strong articulate leader.  His trenchant criticism of the exchange of abuse at Question Time on the ABC TV’s Q&A programme this week would have been more plausible if he had not been contributing to it so fulsomely. So he gets a qualified tick for his performance in the House. More...

Integrity in journalism

How do you react to journalists who quote ‘informed sources’ or ‘senior public servants’ or ‘experienced politicians’ but never name them?  How much credence do you place on such anonymous sources?  How reliable do you believe this ‘reporting’ is?  Yet such journalism still exists, even appeals to some readers, if one can judge from their reactions.

In The Australian of 23 September there was a blog by Glenn Milne, Rudd’s control issues that exemplifies this type of journalism.   A man on a mission, Milne has been pushing the ‘Rudd is a control freak’ notion for a while now, and like anyone that harbours a pet idea, he’d like to be proved right.  So he often returns to that theme.  He also finds irresistible the ‘Rudd lacks a narrative’ mantra, so he frequently returns to that.  And since he enjoys heaping scorn on the emphasis that Rudd places on process, that took centre stage in this article.

In Rudd’s control issue we have a piece that pushes all these themes. Reporting on a speech by Kim Beasley at a Chatham House rules Australian Defence Industry Network seminar in Canberra three weeks previously, he quotes the recollections of ‘those present’ of what Beasley, among other things, is purported to have said about process:  “...the pace of reform under Rudd had been slowed by the constipation of process”.  Is this exactly what he said, or a dimming memory of it, or a paraphrasing of what was thought to have been said?  Milne conceded that he had not been able to talk with Beasley to confirm these recollections, so we’ll never know.

 It seemed not to matter to him that he broke the Chatham House rules of secrecy by quoting ‘those present’, or that he had been unable to confirm what was said.  In his piece he went on to recycle comments by Paul Keating that supported his case, to assert that ‘every senior bureaucrat’ knows about “the self-obsessed sclerotic arteries that run from the PM's office”, (every senior bureaucrat - a bold assertion).  He then quoted without qualification the view of anonymous ‘senior public servants’ that as a result there is ‘policy paralysis’.  His piece ended with what supposedly was Beasley’s gratuitous advice to Rudd, as if Rudd would take the time to read it. 

I marvel that he could expect thinking, rational people to take him seriously?

I note though that many of his respondents did.  They were not disturbed by his approach to journalism.  Indeed they seemed to welcome the opportunity to lambaste Rudd, his ministers and the Government, and in so doing confirm Milne’s views, thereby stroking his ego. 

Which leads to the question: “What was the purpose of the article?” Did Milne believe it would change anything?  Did he think his assertions, his conclusions and his advice were sound, that he’d made the right diagnosis and suggested the right treatment?  Did he ever consider he might not be right, that he might not understand the way Rudd and his Government work, and that the process-intense approach he pillories might be the one that will give the best result?

Would a serious journalist really believe that this style of journalism could enhance his, or his paper’s reputation?  But if the prime aim was to write a provocative piece that evoked emotions and engendered angry and conforming responses, judging from the comments of respondents, the article was a success.

Integrity in journalism is a precious thing.  Truth, honesty, accuracy, and quoting reliable, named sources are its lifeblood.  Good journalists know this; lesser ones seem not to know, or care.

Do we want our Prime Minister to travel overseas?

Just when it was hoped that a change of leader might bring a less opportunistic approach to opposition than did Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull outdoes his predecessor by turning up the heat on Kevin Rudd about his visit to the US. 

We all know why Rudd is going – to speak to the UN about Australian membership of the Security Council and climate change, and now that global markets are in turmoil, to consult with many of the 100 heads of government that will be in New York for three days where the number one topic will be the content of a further global response to the financial crisis.  We know he plans to have formal bilateral meetings with more than a dozen of these world leaders, and informal meetings with another ten to fifteen.  He plans to have contact with US President George W Bush and key financial figures, and take part in a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting on reform of financial regulation.  All in three days. 

Turnbull knows what is planned, but calls the whole trip “a waste of time”.  We have the spectacle of him making a scathing attack on Rudd insisting he should stay at home and deal with the ramifications here of the global financial meltdown.  He doesn’t give a clue as to what he would actually be in a position to do here in Australia over and above what has already been done, is being done hour by hour by the regulatory authorities APRA and ASIC, the Reserve Bank and the Stock Exchange, and what his Treasurer could do during his absence if necessary.  Turnbull knows he’s talking gibberish, but that doesn’t faze him so long as he can score a political point or two.

Turnbull can tell you where Rudd has been, how many trips he has made and how many days he has been overseas, all critically important facts his people have ferreted out.  He asserts that he has been overseas more than any other PM or his own Foreign Minister, both of which are incorrect.  By why worry about factual accuracy. "Have we elected a prime minister or a prime tourist?" he asked with scorn on the Nine Network on Sunday.  While he conceded that overseas trips and personal contact with world leaders were important, he insisted Rudd was “overdoing it”.  He’s chuffed with his new slogan ‘747 Kevin’, his suggestion for a T shirt logo with ‘where the bloody hell are you’ on the back.

He mockingly enlightened Rudd: "There is such a thing as the telephone".  But Turnbull insisted he needed a face-to-face meeting with finance officials in the US in April; presumably a telephone was not sufficient for him.   He quips: "Just because you're sitting on an aeroplane flying to New York doesn't mean you're doing anything", and accuses Rudd of "mistaking motion for action".  His insists “his travelling is extraordinary and so early in his term - he seems to be constantly on an aeroplane."  All very amusing stuff if the world was not embroiled in such a global financial crisis that threatens this country as part of the global economy. More...

Political commentating as a blood sport

Political commentators thrive on controversy, upheaval, changing fortunes, changing circumstances.  They particularly enjoy a contest between political parties, between opposing leaders and between ministers and their counterparts, and the more bloodshed the better.  They are like spectators at a cockfight, so enjoyed in many Asian communities.

Since the election the fight has been somewhat one-sided.  Brendan Nelson has not been a match for Kevin Rudd.  He started in a weakened state after narrowly pipping Malcolm Turnbull, the then media favourite.  A gentle rooster, he began with one leg pulled one way by the Howardites, the other pulled by the Turnbull team.  He never had unqualified support from the Coalition cheer squad; there were too many who would have preferred Turnbull in the cockpit, or even Peter Costello.  Moreover Nelson’s spurs were never as sharp or as long as Rudd’s, and the moves he made were awkward and easily countered.  The media, rather than cheering for Rudd, gave Nelson the thumbs down; they did not see him as a winner against Rudd, and they wanted someone in the cockpit that would draw blood, get some feathers flying, and eventually win, at least some of the battles.  They wanted a gory fight with a clear victor as much as they wanted a particular winner.

Political commentators are always looking for defects, deficiencies, inadequacies, weaknesses, vulnerabilities in the contestants.  Unlike sports commentators, they are less likely to applaud strengths.  Those who have partisan political views barrack, often subtly, but sometimes blatantly for their favourite.  They are quick to highlight the opponent’s slip-ups, ‘gaffes’ as they like to call them; they criticize their decisions, demean their behaviour and expose their indiscretions – all with the intent of giving their favourite an advantage.  But if despite this their favourite still messes up, still looses most of the time, still fights below their expectations, fails to draw blood, they push hard for a change of rooster.  Cockfights are not much fun if your favourite usually gets whipped, and worse still if the crowd that has come along just for the spectacle give your favourite the thumbs down. More...

The ‘ain’t it awful’ syndrome

The Liberal Party is still mourning its loss of Government.  As pointed out by Maxine McKew on the ABC TV’s Q&A last Thursday, Peter Costello’s Memoirs, written well after the loss, express surprise that a Government that had done so much, which had governed Australia during such a time of prosperity, was rejected by the people.  As Maxine said: “They just don’t get it”.  They accept that Howard stayed too long, but they don’t accept that they wasted the bounty the country enjoyed, that they failed in a time of great affluence to invest in infrastructure, skills and education, and instead spent profligately.  We know that much was spent preferentially on what would give them the best chance of re-election.  On the same show, Tony Abbott’s reaction was that the Rudd infrastructure fund was just a slush fund to prop up the States, and dismissed it as “all nonsense”.  He just doesn’t get it, he never has.

We all remember his lament about the poor pre-election opinion polls, which were a mystery to him “as we’re such a good Government”.  He said the electorate seemed to be sleep-walking, and hoped it would wake up in time for the election.  The lament and the mystery continue in the Coalition to this day.   ‘Ain’t it awful’ and ‘We was robbed’ remains a prevailing sentiment.  Coalition members behave like football supporters whose team had already won four premierships, still considered it the top side, but unfairly lost the fifth Grand Final. 

The consequence is intense anger and frustration, exhibited most blatantly in Question Time where they make repeated and rowdy interjections and spurious points of order, and refuse to listen attentively to answers to their own questions.  They are having difficulty accepting that they are no longer in power and that the adversary has been chosen by the people to govern the country.  They see the Coalition as the natural party to govern and hope Labor in power is just a temporary, albeit unpleasant aberration, a one-term government.  So their focus is on winning the next election rather than advancing policies that will be more attractive to the electorate than the Government’s.  “We Will Win” was the Sun-Herald’s 20 September banner headlines, paraphrasing Malcolm Turnbull’s “We think we can win the next election”.  Judging from what he told the Sun-Herald, producing good new policy seemed secondary to winning.  And some Liberals still seem enamoured of some of the old policies that brought them undone, such as John Howard’s IR.  Julie Bishop is one that seems still wedded to WorkChoices.  More...

Will the real Malcolm Turnbull please stand up?

When Malcolm Turnbull first entered parliament he cut an impressive figure.  Good looking, personable, articulate, experienced, knowledgeable, well informed, and credible.  His utterances exuded common sense.  He said what he thought, and it sounded convincing.  He came with a background of successful lawyer, journalist and merchant banker – a spectacular CV.  Many quickly saw him as a future Prime Minister.  Then John Howard appointed him as his Parliamentary Secretary with a brief related to the environment and climate change.  The ensuing change was palpable.  He had to toe the party line, not something to which an independent thinker, a successful entrepreneur was accustomed.

Soon we saw him having to make statements or support positions related to his new role with which he did not feel comfortable.  His discomfort was obvious.  His language was guarded, his delivery stilted, his argument unconvincing.  The man who was used to making up his own mind and expressing his views persuasively, found himself having to promulgate other views, views with which he seemed to be not in accord.  The independent thinker and decision-maker was being forced uncomfortably into a political mould.  From then on his authority faded.  He became less convincing.  Time and again we saw him struggling with issues, struggling because he seemed to not have his heart in what he was saying.  Reflect on his contributions to the Gunn’s pulp mill debate.

Then the Coalition lost the election and from the moment Peter Costello declined the leadership, Turnbull put up his hand and hit the airwaves with his views on ratifying Kyoto, climate change and an apology to indigenous people.  He seemed to relish the new-found freedom to say what he thought.  But it brought his leadership ambitions undone.  Upset by his liberal views, his ready retreat from the Howard doctrine, and his willingness to say what he thought even if it varied from the party line, Howardites Nick Minchin and Tony Abbott persuaded a small handful of Turnbull supporters to switch to Brendan Nelson to give him a 45/42 win.

It must have been a bitter pill to swallow, another taste of how different politics is to business.  It must have been a rare experience to suffer defeat. More...

The hardest job in politics

How many times have we heard that ‘being Opposition Leader is the hardest job in politics’?  Almost since the day Brendan Nelson was elected we have heard this mantra from Coalition members, increasingly in recent months as Nelson’s performance failed to improve.  There seemed to be a need to excuse his performance by pointing out how hard his job was.  But is the mantra true?  Is being Opposition Leader inherently as hard as has been asserted?

Let’s look back.  We can still remember the days of Simon Crean.  Coming as he did from the position of Shadow Treasurer, he carried the baggage of that position, a position in which he was often carping about what the Howard Government was doing.  Although a thoroughly decent person well versed in his shadow position, he was characterized by the media as whining, lacking charisma and not up to the job.  It wasn’t long before one could see the writing on the wall.  The media began to write him off.  He was unable to meet the expectations people had of him.  Eventually he succumbed to the pressure.  But was this because his was ‘the hardest job in politics’?  No.  It was because of his unsuitability for the position and the media’s realization of this.

Take Kim Beasley.  He had two stints as Leader of the Opposition.  He suffered electoral defeats.  He was well liked by the public, his fellow parliamentarians and by most of the media.  During the years he exhibited competent leadership no one mentioned that he had the hardest job in politics.  But because he was seen as verbose, and eventually boring, people stopped listening.  He was, to use a media cliché, no longer ‘cutting through’.  A reason to replace this nice man was needed.  It turned out to be a couple of small verbal blunders – we all remember the Rove McManus – Carl Rove gaffe.  From then the mood for change crystallized.  But was his political demise the result of him holding down ‘the hardest job in politics’?  No.  It was of his own doing, with help from the media and some of his colleagues.

Remember Mark Latham.  His early days as Opposition Leader generated great excitement.  He was someone ready to take on John Howard.  We all remember his successful attack on parliamentarians’ superannuation.  He was riding high.  No one said he was labouring in the toughest job in politics.  It was not until he began to make tactical mistakes, beginning with the surprise ‘we’ll bring the troops home by Christmas’ announcement that he was increasingly seen as erratic, too emotional and angry about media intrusion into his family life, too unpredictable.  He lost the election and retreated.  But was his departure because the job was too hard?  No. It was because he proved to not have the temperament, the judgement and the wisdom a leader needs, and his colleagues, the media and the public had lost faith in him. More...

Peter Costello’s painful parting

What happened?  Why?  What’s next? are questions we all ask.  Peter Costello has given us his answers to the first in The Costello Memoirs.  But not why, and what’s next?

Why did he never challenge for the leadership?  Why didn’t he accept it after the election?  Why has he refused it ever since despite his party’s pleading?

His detractors conclude he has never had the courage – John Hewson uses ‘balls’ – to challenge Howard, that he wanted it handed to him without a contest.  His supporters insist that because he never had more than a third of the party room behind him, he wanted to avoid the disruption that a challenge, a defeat, a retirement to the back bench, and the appointment of another Treasurer would have inflicted on his party. They say he put his party ahead of his ambition.  He would argue that he had enough hints from John Howard and others to persuade him to be patient.  He says this was the case right until near the end, at the time of APEC.  His detractors say he never had enough 'mongrel' in him to fight for what he wanted. 

Why then did he reject leadership when handed to him on a platter after the election?  His detractors would say that the prospect of leading a defeated  party back to prominence against a popular new Government was too overwhelming, too hard a road.  Paul Keating classed Costello as the laziest Treasurer in history who lay in a hammock for 11 years, and periodically asked for a push.  ‘All tip but no iceberg’ was his acerbic assessment.  Costello’s supporters, who were surprised, mystified and disappointed, attributed his decision to a laudable concern for his wife and family, who had suffered his absences from home for 11 long years, and now deserved more of his time.  After all, ‘Australia’s greatest Treasurer’, with 11 hard years under his belt had earned the right to do it his way and to take his time about it.

Then there’s the question ‘What’s next?’  More...

In search of the political Holy Grail – the Rudd Government narrative

Part 1 – What is a political narrative? 

The recent media obsession with finding Kevin Rudd’s ‘narrative’ came to a head last month with Jack the Insider’s blog in The Australian In search of the Rudd narrative.  It attracted 386 comments. But so far no conclusion has emerged.  This followed Rudd’s Press Club address at which journalists, keenly anticipating the emergence of the Rudd narrative, came away disappointed as Rudd’s focus had been on another chapter of his ‘education revolution’.   The term ‘narrative’ seems to be enjoying the contemporary spotlight because journalists have taking a liking to it.  It’s become a political buzzword. Yet I have not seen one journalist explain what the term means.  Its meaning is assumed to be self-evident. 

A dictionary search gives the usual meaning that we all understand - a story or account of events, experiences, or the like; a literary work containing such a story.  We know too that stage and television shows have a narrative.  In medical circles the word is used to describe a patient’s life story and history of health and illness, and because of the narrative’s role in predicting future events, ‘narrative therapy’ has emerged as a type of psychotherapy. 

But nowhere is ‘political narrative’ defined.  Nor does Encyclopedia Britannica shed any light.  Wikipedia casts ‘narrative’ as a record of past events; it derives from the Latin verb narrare, which means ‘to recount’, but goes on to say “…narrative is the general term for a story, long or short; of past, present, or future; factual or imagined; told for any purpose; and with or without much detail.”  The political narrative that columnists talk about seems to about the future, an underlying theme that authenticates the direction in which a political party is intending to travel – a theme that is as much philosophical and ideological as it is practical.  Or at least that’s what I’ve come to conclude.  One can’t be sure because journalists never say.  Which leads one to ask whether they really know what it means, or at least whether they all agree among themselves what it means.  If they do, it would be good if they were to let us ordinary mortals into the secret. More...

Welcome to The Political Sword blog

This is the first posting of The Political Sword blog. Its focus is Australian politics.It is intended to give expression to those who have opinions about contemporary political events.  In particular it will provide a forum for exposing deception among politicians, bureaucrats and commentators. 

The people deserve to know the truth about political decisions, how and why they were made, and about those who made them.  They are entitled to know if political commentators are truthfully representing the situations they are reporting, and that they make clear what is fact, and what is opinion.  They owe it to their readers to validate the facts they report and reveal their source. 

By challenging politicians and commentators to stick to the truth and to justify their words and actions, it is possible that the quality of political discourse in this country might improve. The Internet provides ordinary citizens with the opportunity to influence political behaviour between elections, rather than only at election time. 

Politicians, journalists and academics read political blogs - they are bound to be influenced by them, at least to some extent.

Al Gore said that political blogs have become a significant new force in political debate and decision making in the US.  The same opportunity exists in this country to put politicians and commentators to the verbal political sword.