What makes good online journalism?

Recently Mark Bahnisch of blogsite Larvatus Prodeo said he "...would be interested in what LP folks think makes an excellent piece of online writing in journalistic form...a set of criteria distinctive to feature writing or reportage produced specifically for the online medium rather than print..”

In responding to that request, I took the view that good journalism, whether in print or online, had many features in common.  So I compiled a list for online journalism, but many of the items are just as applicable to print journalism.  This is my list, enlarged on reflection.

Readers’ additions would be welcome, as well as comments about how well The Political Sword meets the listed criteria. More...

Mummy, I’m bored

Like kids at the end of the school holidays, some of our journalists are bored stiff.  They want some excitement to make their dull life a little more bearable.  The Press Gallery sits in Parliament, hangs around the precinct looking for doorstops, dwelling on the occasional press conference.  It’s a pity the news is so depressing; it’s not much fun reporting financial doom and gloom or making sense for their readers of the mind-numbing climate change debate.  So any light relief is seized upon like a kid offered a bag of potato chips.

So it was a heaven-sent gift when Tony Abbott, bored and frustrated himself, said on Fox News that Kevin Rudd was a ‘toxic bore’.  Now don’t ask what ‘toxic’ is supposed to mean, but we do understand ‘bore’.  Tony, for the want of anything better to do with his time, or in the absence of any sensible comment on the problems besetting this nation, decided that slinging that insult over the airwaves would be good sport, and certain to attract a headline, something he craves desperately. More...

The Turnbull ETS wild card

 This week’s Newspoll must be a worry for the Coalition, showing as it does the same 2PP of 58/42 as the poll in early February.  Since that poll the Opposition has made a display of what it believed was economic responsibility by opposing the fiscal stimulus package, a move it hoped might bolster its economic credibility.  However it prudently acknowledged that it ‘might take a hit in the polls’ for opposing a Government move that would likely be popular with the people.  The fact that today’s poll was no worse for the Coalition has predictably been interpreted by some of its members as reassuring, especially after last week’s party dissonance.

But there seems to be something else happening.  After the Newspoll of December 5-7 where the 2PP was 59/41 in contrast to figures around 55/45 for months, there was the suggestion that that poll was aberrant, as occasionally an individual poll can be.  That feeling was reinforced when the next one came in at 54/46, a return to the Newspoll ‘norm’.  Since then though two polls have been at 58/42, so three of the last four Newspolls, taken over the last three months, have been around that figure.  Does this mean that the trend is towards a resetting of the Newspoll norm to around 58/42?   Other polls over the last month or two give even poorer results for the Coalition: Essential Research this week was 62/38 and Morgan 59.5/40.5.  Possum’s Pollytrack shows 59/41 and his All Poll Average 58.6/41.4.  They are all in the same ball park, despite varying methodologies. More...

Malcolm Turnbull’s intelligence

There seems to be little disagreement, even amongst his detractors, that Malcolm Turnbull is highly intelligent.  It almost goes without saying.

Yet how can someone with his purported intelligence do such dumb things all through last week?  Is it because intelligence is not a homogenous attribute?  Is it because one can be intelligent in some areas and the opposite in others? More...

A heart-warming remembrance

The National Day of Mourning for those affected by the February 7 bushfires in Victoria has been crowned this morning by a moving heart-warming event at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne.  With Ian Henderson of ABC Melbourne TV as the dignified MC, the service proceeded faultlessly through music, song, speech, vision and touching gesture to a final poignant address by our PM, the singing of We Are Australian led by singer Bruce Woodley, and the song Touch led by Michael Paynter, which invited everyone to reach out to those in need.  Everyone did.

The event was brilliantly organized and superbly choreographed, everyone who spoke did so from the heart; no one was forgotten.  It was an event that any who witnessed it will never forget.

Politics were set aside; no doubt with the resumption of Federal Parliament tomorrow, hostilities will resume.  Pity.

The problem with economists

The central problem with economists is that not one of them fully understands how the world economy came to be in the mess it’s in.  They can give partial explanations that describe a series of events and actions that have brought us to where we are, but these explanations are always incomplete.  The complexities of national economies and how they interact is so bewilderingly multifaceted, the intricacies of the interactions among the myriad of variables so byzantine, that the human brain is incapable of comprehending them.  Only a powerful computer would be capable of processing the millions of bits of information involved, and even if that were available, inputting the relevant data would be an overwhelming task.  Anyone familiar with systems theory and chaos theory will understand this.  So economists have to do the best they can with the limited information they have at their disposal and the inadequate processing capability available.  So we ought not to be too critical of their inability to give us unassailable insight and clear direction. More...

Matthew Franklin’s having a bad ‘scare’ day

First he confidently predicted that Julie Bishop was safe in his piece in this morning’s Australian Bishop retains Turnbull backing only to have her quit her Shadow Treasurer role within hours.  His opening sentence “Liberal frontbencher Julie Bishop looks safe as the Opposition's Treasury spokeswoman in the short term, despite widespread concern among her colleagues over her performance”  was not as smart as Chris Uhlmann’s assessment on ABC 774 Melbourne radio that if your leader insists that you’re doing a great job and has every confidence in you, you’re soon for the chop.

Then he writes a front page piece Rudd accused of plagiarising quotes titled Questions on wording in Rudd essay in the online version, where he shows a ‘stunning resemblance’ between one of Rudd’s passages in his essay in The Monthly and an article published by Roger C Altmann a month earlier.  Rudd does not quote the earlier article, he quotes the same quotes from French President Sarkozy and Chinese Premier Wang Qishan as does Altmann, both quotes in both articles being correctly attributed.  Franklin doesn’t seem to realize that any number of authors use the same quotes; it’s whether they are attributed properly that counts.  It’s ludicrous for a senior journalist to imply that not only must the original quotes be attributed, but also others who have used the same quotes.  That such an inconsequential article could be written by the paper’s ‘Chief political correspondent’ and pass the paper’s editor suggests that substance is unimportant so long as a spurious political jibe is made.  If you’ve the stomach to read the whole sorry piece, it’s here.


Devine, van Onselen and Shanahan sit in judgement

The Australian on Friday 13 February and this Weekend Australian carried pieces by Frank Devine, Peter van Onselen and Dennis Shanahan, all directing acerbic attacks at Kevin Rudd.  Devine’s piece attacks Rudd’s article in The Monthly, the others Rudd’s ‘connection of the economic stimulus package to the Victorian bush fires’.

In case you are unfamiliar with his background, Devine has been editor of the New York Post, the Chicago Sun Times, and The Australian. He now writes regularly for The Australian.  I can’t find the link to his article on 13 February but it was titled Words pour out of PM, but each of them ring hollow. That’s all you need to read to imagine what followed, but here’s a sample:  Devine starts by describing how he had waded “...through several hundred thousand words of disconnected chatter (it can’t possibly be the terse 7700 words pedantically claimed for it) Kevin Rudd has passed off on The Monthly as a scholarly essay about the economic crisis.”  That sentence removed any doubt about the tenor of his piece, but intrigued I pressed on.  In case you thought he might be a Rudd admirer indulging in some harmless satire, he then went on to condemn Rudd’s grandiosity for calling the 2020 Summit, for his “...plan to lead the world to nuclear disarmament and Asia into an economic community...” and his “...rapidly fading scheme to combat global warming.”  He then quotes ‘people’ having listened to Rudd who ask ‘But what did he say’, the old Ruddspeak chestnut. 

Having primed his readers he finally got round to lampooning Rudd for his introductory sentence: “From time to time in human history there occurs events of a truly seismic significance, events that mark a turning point between one epoch and another, when one orthodoxy is overthrown and another takes its place.”  And a later sentence “There is a sense that we are now living through such a time...”   He calls ‘is a sense’ a ‘slippery’ phrase.  Note the word ‘slippery’ which is creeping into anti-Rudd writing.  Expect more of that word which seeks to portray Rudd as a slippery character.  And Devine then queries who has this ‘sense’.  Where has he been?  Practically the whole world has a ‘sense’ that we are living through epoch-making times.  He then asks “Is ‘neo-liberal’ a Rudd coinage”.  No Frank, try Google-ing ‘neoliberal’ – there’s lots of references there.  It’s really too painful to dissect in detail any more of Devine’s piece, but one of his conclusions is that the “The leitmotiv of Rudd’s essay is that it is irresponsible for anyone to interrupt him when he’s thinking big.”  Well Devine’s leitmotiv is that Rudd’s a poor communicator, a babbler with ‘varying degrees of coherence’, does not understand the subject of his essay, who can’t define what he’s talking about, and who is so grandiose in his ideas that no one must interrupt him.  So there it is.  It would be easy to similarly dissect Devine’s piece, which exhibits the very incoherence that he lays at Rudd’s feet.  But why bother.  The central message from Devine is that he can and will find little in Rudd to commend.  Expect more of the same. More...

At last Julie Bishop exits the Shadow Treasurer role

After media speculation that intensified over the weekend, Julie Bishop has just announced she is stepping down from the Shadow Treasurer role, and will take up the Shadow Foreign Affairs job.  No mention yet of what Helen Coonan will do or who will take Bishop’s job.  Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb are the hottest contenders.

Bishop was never suited for the job she insisted on having, as is argued in a piece What should we expect from the Shadow Treasurer? on The Political Sword on October 5.  She’s lasted just over four months. The piece concludes: “The old adage applies: ‘Be careful what you wish for.” and is accompanied by some prescient comments.

UPDATE - .Helen Coonan will take Shadow Finance and Joe Hockey will be Shadow Treasurer.  This gives Joe a big leg up towards Coalition leadership should Malcolm Turnbull falter.  Julie Bishop cannot covet that position- she's fortunate to retain the Deputy Leader job.  Joe Hockey's eligibility for leadership was canvassed on The Political Sword in a piece with a strong naval theme Opposition ships docks for repairs on December 9.  It concludes: "Meanwhile Sub-Lieutenant Hockey shines through as the most plausible, personable, articulate and effective crew member, one who would make a good captain.  With youth on his side, with a mind open to contemporary thinking about strategy and tactics, he might be the answer to the HM Opposition’s yearning for a return to naval power."

Why did Janet Albrechtsen write ‘Who is the real Rudd?’

First you may wish to read her piece in The Australian on 10 February.

What is the message she sends about Kevin Rudd?  Her conclusion spells it out: “With philosophical principles impossible to pin down, his only consistent and coherent belief is in political power. Every Rudd position has been determined by how to get it and, now, how to keep it.”  Clearly, she believes that all that counts to Rudd is POWER.

Such strident condemnation warrants some supporting evidence.  Here’s what she advances for her readers to ‘be the judge’.

First she contrasts Rudd’s opposition to the introduction of the GST in 1999 and his comment in 2006 that it was Howard’s ‘regressive consumption tax’, with his contemporary acceptance of it as the prime funding for the states.  Did she really expect Rudd to repeal the GST legislation on his election in pursuit of consistency?  Later in her piece she justifies Howard’s about-face on the GST after his ‘never ever’ rejection, as ‘pragmatism’, which she insists “...was, of course, part of Howard’s political make-up. For example, he rejected a GST only to later embrace it as part of much needed tax reform, despite the political risks.”  So it’s OK to take a diametrically different approach so long as it’s ‘pragmatic’.  Kevin Rudd, please note.

Next, she mentions that Rudd described global warming as “the great moral issue of our time”, and the signing of Kyoto with the conviction that climate change was “the defining challenge of our generation”. Then she describes ‘the Rudd shuffle’ as his reducing “the great moral issue...to a meaningless carbon emissions reduction target of 5 per cent by 2020.”  Ignoring the Opposition’s much weaker stance on climate change, she condemns what she perceives as Rudd’s change of position.  She doesn’t see it as ‘pragmatism’ in the face of the global financial crisis and the international response to date.  No, ‘pragmatism’ is Howard’s prerogative.  Keep your hands off pragmatism Rudd.

Then she quotes Rudd’s statement from Opposition in 2007 that a Labor government would be taking legal proceedings against President Ahmadinejad on a charge of inciting genocide when the Iranian President spoke about wiping Israel off the map, but last December announced it would not pursue legal action.  What a shameful retreat.  Could it be that such action was not then considered legally or diplomatically possible or appropriate?  Should Rudd have doggedly stuck to his original intention in the face of changed circumstances and contemporary advice?  Or was Rudd just being ‘pragmatic’.

Her next charge is that Rudd’s intention to take Japan to the International Court of Justice or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea over whaling has “evaporated into the political ether of office”.  Should Rudd have stuck to his guns over this issue?  Or was it more fitting for him to take a ‘pragmatic’ approach?

Then she accuses Rudd of getting on board “the responsibility agenda of indigenous politics only after it was politically safe to be on that side of the ideological divide, buffered by black leaders such as Noel Pearson and Warren Mundine.”  No evidence to support this confident assertion is offered.  Then she contrasts him with John Howard who “staked out his ground on the dangers of victimhood politics and the need for practical reconciliation long ago.”  What a joke.  Is she serious?

Her next argument is that Rudd “morphed into an economic conservative when it was electorally popular to carve out those credentials”, but now “... amid a global financial crisis, when it is fashionable to attack the free market, Rudd’s stripes have changed”, and now “... he is a social democrat...and has turned into ‘a big-spending Keynesian PM’.”  What he was before he morphed into an ‘economic conservative’ is not stated, nor does she think it’s right for him to attack the free market which by all accounts has been criminally manipulated by banks and financiers to their own end to the awful detriment of the entire world economy.  Nor does she acknowledge that many, if not all economists think Keynesian priming of the economy is what economies round the world now need.  She writes like a free-marketeer and an anti-Keynesian.  Does she believe that the financial crisis, no matter how serious it is, does not demand an adaptative response?  No, she suggests that “Billions on cash handouts and ‘social’ spending look like Rudd’s down payments on the next election dressed in the slippery language of ‘stimulus’.”  Slippery indeed!  Has she contemplated the possibility of Rudd being an economic conservative and a social democrat at the same time?  What does she understand by the terms?  The definition of such terms is so imprecise that like Humpty Dumpty the words can be made to mean whatever you want them to mean.  This is not science.

She then castigates Rudd for being hypocritical by not being true to Bonhoeffer’s ideal of not using inflammatory rhetoric that seeks to gain political advantage.  Shame Rudd!

She finishes “Again and again, Rudd has conjured up the imagery of crisis to pump prime his political leadership: saving future generations from climate change, rescuing Australia from Howard’s “Brutopia” and now liberating Australia because ‘the great neo-liberal experiment has failed’.  His war-footing language serves to undermine the confidence that is sorely needed and by not negotiating with the Opposition he exposes the emptiness of his language, given that a true economic emergency would demand genuine co-operation.”  It must be reassuring to her readers that she thinks that ‘crisis’ imagery is over the top. 

There she rests her anti-Rudd case.  How well would she do arguing it in a court of law?  I suspect even junior counsel would soon demolish it.

So why did she write it?  For whom did she write it?  Maybe her editor; maybe to satisfy her own need to strike out against a party and a PM she despises.  But maybe the answer lies in the comments that follow her piece.  She has 329 to date.

Here’s a small sample of the anti-Rudd comments:
Nice digging, Janet.
Anyone with half a brain could tell that KR was all style and no substance from the outset. Rudd really does lack substance. Of course, we were all warned prior to the election.
A pusher of a national socialist agenda? Defining KDudd - look up Adolf Hitler.
A lightweight so far, when compared to Mrs Thatcher and John Howard.
He’s a political cyborg. He believes in everything, yet he believes in nothing.
Janet, thank you for documenting the breathtakingly audacious swings in the doctrine of Rudd.
Well written Janet.  I expect a torrent of derision from the Ruddites will soon be headed your way.
With every day that passes, the emperor’s nakedness is becoming more and more evident.
Great article Janet. In my opinion your best of recent times. It is time this self serving, visionless Kev Quixote was unmasked for the charlatan he is.
Keep it up Janet, love your work.  He is a feeble lightweight masquerading as a leader.

And so on it goes.  You may wish to read them yourself.  If you do, see if you can detect the impeccable reasoning that accompanies the comments, the withering logic. 

Without doing a tedious count of the 329 responses, there seem to be more agreeing with her than disagreeing, but she certainly doesn’t have it all her own way.  But the responses quoted may point to at least one reason she wrote this piece, namely to give those who are anti-Rudd a chance to express their venomous feelings about him, which they do with gusto.  When one reads them there is a consistent theme – this man is no good, was never any good, will never be any good, the people of Australia were deluded, even deceived when they voted him and his party in.  Among many of the comments one can detect anger, great and persisting anger, that the Coalition and Howard were rejected and Labor elected.  It may never subside.

The deception of the public seems to be continuing.  Rudd enjoys continuing high popularity in the polls with an approval rating of around 60 percent, is preferred PM by 42 percentage points (Newspoll 62/20), and currently the ALP enjoys an average 2PP advantage of 18 percentage points (59/41), which if repeated at an election would ravage the Coalition. 

How can so many Australians be so wrong, how can they not see Rudd’s gross and presumably irreparable flaws when Janet Albrechtsen and her supporters can?  Curious.

What is Malcolm Turnbull up to?

An alternative title could have been ‘What is the Coalition up to?’ but it seems as if opposing the Government’s  economic stimulus package is Turnbull’s initiative, possibly urged on by the young turks in the party room who want to take the fight up to Kevin Rudd.  This is understandable as it has looked as if the Coalition has too often rolled over in front of the Rudd steamroller.  But why pick the economic stimulus package against which to flex his muscles?  A coincidence or a carefully crafted action?  He is said to have had two-thirds of the party room behind him, but that means one third were not, amongst them, as we understand it, Nick Minchin and Fran Bailey in the most marginal seat in Australia.  With that level of non-support, Turnbull would need everything to go according to plan.

He acknowledged from the outset that he would take a ‘hit in the polls’; he knew his move would likely be unpopular with the electorate.  His insistence that he did it ‘because it was right’ strains credulity.  If it is right it would be so on ideological or economic grounds, that stimulatory handouts are not effective or not as effective as other measures, such as tax cuts.  The convoluted arguments used to make this case look unconvincing, and would be ignored by most of the electorate.  As there is little prior experience, data is sparse.  What little evidence exists comes from the December stimulus package, which according to some measures has been successful.  Surveys suggest that a significant part of the December package was spent, and the boost in retail sales is evidence of this.  Arguments that revolve around whether it is spent or saved are of doubtful validity, because money saved now to pay off debt will likely loosen up money that can be spent later.

The argument that the package is too expensive and would plunge the country into long-lasting debt lost much of its potency when it was pointed out, and not contested by Turnbull on Channel 10’s Meet the Press on Sunday, that his package would cost $180 billion over the coming years, as against Rudd’s $200 billion, not a massive difference in Federal budgetary terms.

So was the reason for Turnbull's strategy other than ideological?  Was his leadership wobbly in view of continuing poor polls?  Was the end-of-year schemozzle seen as a sign of flawed leadership and lack of party discipline?  Is Peter Costello’s rousing from sleep a sign of resurgent leadership ambitions, or a response to Rudd’s demonization of neo-liberalism and a consequent desire to preserve the Howard/Costello economic legacy?  Are the young turks getting restless, tiring of the irrelevance of opposition?  Certainly Turnbull himself hates irrelevance.

Turnbull was wise to predict a ‘hit in the polls’, because that has been the outcome.  Maybe he hoped it would not be as bad as he publically predicted and he could then claim public support for his position.  More significant than the widening of the 2PP gap from 8 to 16 in the most recent Newspoll, is the narrowing of Turnbull’s satisfaction/dissatisfaction gap from 14 to 6, largely due to almost a quarter of the previously ‘uncommitted’ now recording ‘dissatisfied’.  Essential Research figures are worse still.  They shows the gap changing from a positive 9 to a negative 11, a turnaround of 20 (41/30 to 32/43).  There is also a widening of the preferred PM gap from 38 to 42 points (60/22 to 62/20) in Newspoll.  Essential Research gives a similar result (60/20).  So this ‘hit’ is more of a hit on Turnbull than on his party, although that has suffered too.  How long will this hit need to persist to bring on murmurings about his suitability as leader?  He is not in a much better position poll-wise than Brendan Nelson when he was ditched.  The fact that suitable alternative leaders are not in abundance may save him temporarily.  But, as Possum points out on Pollytics, once a leader ‘tanks’ personally in the polls, it’s hard to recover no matter what the 2PP figure is.

Since taking his stand, insisting that the Coalition would vote against the package in the House and the Senate, thereby having effectively dealt the Coalition out of the action, the Government has been productively negotiating with the Greens and Independents, and laying the blame for the non-passage of the package with all its goodies at the feet of the Coalition.  Turnbull’s aversion to irrelevance had him lamenting that the Government was negotiating with the cross benches but not the Coalition, and calling on Rudd to negotiate with him.  What did he expect after dealing the Coalition out?

Yesterday in Crikey Bernard Keane reported that Turnbull had told the Coalition joint party room that while he was happy to take a short-term political hit, he was willing to negotiate with the Government to pass the package.  If that’s the case, it will look like a major back flip after so publically refusing to pass the package, and likely to further diminish him in the eyes of the electorate and his party room.  It is unlikely that Rudd would be interested in allowing Turnbull a slice of the action if he can get the package through, with agreeable amendments, with the support of the Greens and Independents.  Rudd would know that to let Turnbull have a say, would have him taking credit for having ‘rescued’ or improved the package.  Despite Turnbull’s stated willingness to negotiate, by yesterday evening the minority position of the Coalition in the Senate was to oppose all elements of the package.  The rationale underpinning the strategy Turnbull and the Coalition are employing remains a mystery.

So let’s see what happens over the rest of the week.  It might give us some idea what Turnbull’s really up to, provided there is a clever master plan at all.

Kevin Rudd’s essay on the global financial crisis

This Wednesday past the February issue of The Monthly reached the newsstands.  The lead article, Kevin Rudd’s The Global Financial Crisis, is informative.  Few will read it; those interested in economics and the current crisis should if they want insight into Rudd’s thinking.

I read it unburdened by a profound knowledge of economics, and unfettered by a predetermined ideological position on macroeconomics.  So this is an ordinary man’s view.

First, I was impressed with what seemed to me to be Rudd’s grasp of macroeconomics, his knowledge of its history, and his understanding of the financial crisis.  For our PM to be so literate in these matters is encouraging, even if surprising.  He seems to be a fast learner.  To put his views in writing for all to see is laudable.  No commentator on his essay that I have read has questioned the quality of his narrative, even when they disagree with his position.

The essay is about the ideologies that underpin thinking and reasoning in the field of economics.  Crikey editorializes that the public don’t care about ideologies or any of the historic figures who adorn economics texts.  Of course they don’t.  But does that absolve our politicians from adopting an ideological position upon which their actions are based, and telling us about it.  Of course it doesn’t.  If a leader or a party has an ill defined position, how can logical decisions be made?  And just as importantly, how can outcomes be measured validly if the criteria for success are based on ill-defined positions.  So whether one agrees or disagrees with any position, it is essential that the different ideologies be acknowledged, their history understood, evidence to support or refute them be carefully documented and examined, and above all the context in which the ideologies were born, and flourished or withered, be described.

It is noticeable that some who comment on the conflicting ideologies seem to be already trapped by their own positions, and contaminate their writings with their inbuilt biases. Thus some who have commented on the Rudd essay expend their energies agreeing or disagreeing with Rudd’s position.  Few give a balanced appraisal.

Rudd’s thesis is that the current crisis is the outcome of what he terms ‘neo-liberalism’, which he describes as a “particular brand of free market fundamentalism, extreme capitalism and excessive greed.”   He goes onto say that neo-liberalism’s foreign policy cousin is neo-conservatism.  Neo-liberalism believes in free markets and that they are self-regulating.  External regulation is considered unnecessary, and governmental interference in markets anathema.  Rudd proposes other terms for neo-liberalism: economic liberalism, economic fundamentalism, Thatcherism, or the Washington Consensus.

Any debate about the appropriateness and meaning of  the term ‘neo-liberalism’, or for that matter ‘social democracy’, which he uses to label his position, is pointless since there is no firm agreement on their meaning.  As Wikipedia puts it: “The term [neo-liberal] is most often applied by critics of the doctrine, to the point where one commentator remarked ‘the concept itself has become an imprecise exhortation in much of the literature, often describing any tendency deemed to be undesirable’. The central principle of neoliberal policy is untrammelled free markets and free trade.”  Wikipedia has this to say about social democracy: “Social democracy is a political philosophy of the left or centre-left that emerged in the late 19th century from the socialist movement and continues to exert influence worldwide.  The concept of social democracy has changed throughout the decades since its inception.”  As Humpty Dumpty said in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.  'When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.'  So since Rudd has defined what he means by the terms, they are indeed meaning what he means them to mean.  So let’s accept his meanings.

Rudd asserts that the global financial crisis has become “one of the greatest assaults on global economic stability in three-quarters of a century, a crisis facing the world’s largest private financial institutions, credit markets, debt markets, derivative markets, property markets and equity markets, that is causing not just an economic crisis but an employment crisis and a social crisis”  with long-term geo-political implications.  In support of his argument he quotes Alan Greenspan’s recent mea culpa that his neo-liberal ideology, upon which he based his advice to government as chairman of US Federal Reserve for a decade, was flawed.

Rudd sees social democracy as saving capitalism from ‘cannibalizing’ itself, while recognizing the great strength of open competitive markets.  He believes “the social-democratic state offers the best guarantee of preserving productive capacity of properly regulated competitive markets, while ensuring that government is the regulator, that government is the funder or provider of public goods, and that government offsets the inevitable inequities of the market with a commitment to fairness to all.”  He continues “Social democracy’s continuing philosophical claim to political legitimacy is its capacity to balance the private and the public, profit and wages, the market and the state.”  He insists that if it fails “there is the danger that the new political voices of the extreme Left and the nationalistic Right will begin to achieve legitimacy hitherto denied them.”

He urges a frank analysis of neo-liberalism in the underlying causes of the current economic crisis, and a robust analysis of the social democratic approach to properly regulated markets and the proper role of the state.

Rudd’s stance is aligned with the Keynesian tradition, whereas neo-liberalism is more aligned with Hayek and von Mises

The essay expands on the contrasts between opposing economic theories, and comes down strongly against neo-liberalism and in favour of social democracy as its counter.  

The essay is not just an ideological treatise; it is a political statement that aims to label the Liberal Party as neo-liberal, with all its drawbacks.  Yet only one paragraph is pointedly devoted to this.  It begins “The political home of neo-liberalism in Australia is, of course, the Liberal Party itself.  Over the past decade the Howard government reduced investment in key public goods, including education and health.  It also refused to invest in national economic infrastructure, notwithstanding multiple warnings from the Reserve Bank of the impact of long-standing capacity constraints on economic growth.  The Liberals in government set about the comprehensive deregulation of the labour market – based on the argument that human labour was no different to any other commodity....”  And on it goes.  He does not mention Malcolm Turnbull.

He then contrasts the Liberal approach with Labor’s competing political traditions: “Labor, in the international tradition of social democracy, consistently argues for a central role of government in the regulation of markets and the provision of public goods”  

Those commenting on Rudd’s article, such as the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt in Where did our economic conservative go? of 1 February, can’t reconcile Rudd’s claim to be an economic conservative and his advocacy of social democracy.  Rudd defines being an economic conservative as being committed to balancing the budget over the economic cycle, respecting the independence of the Reserve Bank and keeping interest rates low.  The latter two are extant and balancing the budget is still Rudd’s intention notwithstanding a temporary deficit.  So where’s the incompatibility between being an economic conservative and Rudd’s basis for advancing the Government’s economic stimulus package?   Bolt should confine his remarks to what he understands.  But he never lets accuracy of facts or understanding of the issues get in the road of a good story that will appeal to his reader demographic.

So if you get the chance to read Kevin Rudd’s essay, you will likely find it worthwhile, and at least you will become appraised of his views and the basis for his behaviour, words and actions in the financial crisis.  To whet your appetite, the first 1500 words are free online hereAgree with him or not, he leaves the reader in no doubt where he stands.  If he were capable, it would be helpful if Malcolm Turnbull would similarly inform us in the same detail of what ideology and economic theory drives his thinking and actions.  Then we might understand what he says and does, instead of having to speculate, as is the case with most journalists who attempt to comprehend his response to the complex financial crisis in which the world is entrapped.

The truth is that nobody, but nobody fully understands what has happened and why, and still less is sure of what to do about it.  Everyone is flying somewhat blind.  Let journalists, and economists, acknowledge that and desist from being too smart by half, too dogmatic about what to do, too critical of the efforts our politicians are making to reverse the frightening trends we see day after day.  Rudd may not be right, even he admits that, but at least his essay shows us the ideological base from which he’s doing what he’s doing.  Time, not smart-alec journalists burdened with a paltry understanding of economics, will be the judge.

What does the Opposition believe should be done about the GFC?

The Government has released its latest stimulus package.  The Opposition knew it was coming.  So what did it do to contain the positive political advantage the package is already bringing to Kevin Rudd and his Government?  Let’s look at what it said before the package was released.

What did Malcolm Turnbull say?  In an interview on Sydney Radio 2UE on 2 February, knowing Turnbull’s preference for tax cuts, Steve Price asked him:  "What level of tax cuts would you look at? I mean what rates would be slicing into?"  Turnbull said: "Well Steve you’ve got to make sure that the cuts are ones that provide real incentives to work and to invest. At this time the most effective places to cut income tax will be to provide incentives to low and middle income earners. Now that benefits all tax payers of course – if you lower tax rates at the lower thresholds everybody benefits. So there is an across the board benefit but it’s particularly important to help low and middle income earners."  He went onto say that Mr Swan's "...position has been so contradictory. They seem to be in a state of real confusion, Steve. The Treasurer says tax cuts are out of the question and attacks me for suggesting that they could form an important part of any fiscal stimulus. And then a day or two later he is saying he is going to have tax cuts, but apparently he is still trying to suggest that they’re different from what we’re talking about. It’s very hard to follow what Wayne Swan is on about."  So the message was that the Opposition favours tax cuts, but the Government doesn't and is confused, and Swan seems not to know 'what he’s about’.  Turnbull did not elaborate on the pros and cons of tax cuts.  The real message was that he had the wisest approach, and the Government was confused.

On 1 February in an interview with Helen Dalley on Sky News, Julie Bishop was more forthcoming on the value of tax cuts.  (See Peter Martin’s account).  She said: ”...any stimulus package should include tax cuts, broad and sweeping tax cuts that will increase the tax base and increase tax revenues.”  The next day, asked for clarification, she said: “There is substantial evidence to show that tax cuts, including lower marginal tax rates across all tax brackets and cuts to corporate tax, increase productivity by providing incentives to individuals and businesses to work, invest, take risks and pursue entrepreneurial activity.  The new growth in jobs and output will expand the tax base and thus tax revenues.  It has been the experience in Australia and other OECD countries that reducing tax rates and expanding the tax base increases tax revenues. This requires reductions that are durable, credible and wide-ranging and that help reduce the distortions taxes create to incentives to work, save and innovate."  This sounds like Reagan-style economics.  Why didn’t Turnbull give the same reasoning?

On yesterday’s ABC’s AM, Joe Hockey was sent out to front the media.  Asked by Lyndal Curtis if it is time for the Government to stomp on the accelerator and spend up big? he replied: "Well it's now time for the Government to be honest with the Australian people, to have a consistent message and to reveal a plan. I think what the Government's doing is taking the Australian consumer, Australian households, Australian workers on a rollercoaster ride. And the rollercoaster ride is undermining confidence."  So the first slogan was: ‘the Government is undermining confidence'.

 He reinforced that by reference to the Government 'talking up inflation' last year (a time-weary chestnut), again undermining confidence. Then Hockey insisted that telling the public that revenues were falling undermined confidence, and expressed astonishment that Rudd would try to build confidence with its stimulus package. Like the rest of the Coalition, he seems to be having trouble coping with the idea that on the one hand a Government has to be honest about the situation, which may induce despondency, while building hope and confidence by unveiling a package to address the situation.  The two go together; why would a Government embark on a $42 billion stimulus if the situation was not bad? When Lyndal asked: "Isn't this just the Government being straight with people? Telling people when things are bad?”  Hockey replied: "Absolutely not, they're not being straight with people. Because for example the $115-billion figure which Kevin Rudd grandly announced yesterday included something that was announced before Christmas. So why would he announce it again? Simply to undermine confidence.  And Kevin Rudd is desperate to blame someone else for what's happened.”

When Lyndal reminded him: "...but there's a global financial crisis."  Hockey replied: "Yes, well of course, absolutely. I was about to say that. I mean of course there's a global financial crisis, but the message today has to be hope. Hope that we can get out of this, hope that there is a way, hope that there is a solution. There has to be a plan. But instead, today we'll see a stimulus package that rolls together all of Kevin Rudd's old initiatives and takes a few of Malcolm Turnbull's as well. He'll roll them all together and he'll claim that they are going to stimulate the economy, they're going to create jobs. Well, you know, it's all spin and Australians see through that."  Although Joe didn't know the actual stimulus package figure then, I guess that wouldn't have stopped him from calling $42 billion 'all spin'.

On and on it went, a rambling reiteration of the slogans his media minders had fed him – Rudd is undermining confidence, is not honest with the people, is ‘all spin’.  It really was pitiable.  They would be better to keep Joe under wraps until he gets his lines right.

Three interviews – three different messages.  The Coalition seems not to have its PR story together, although Turnbull asserts the Coalition has been hard at work over the break.  It’s not clear what it was working on – certainly not on a consistent message.

The day was capped by Peter Costello’s appearance on Lateline.  The transcript is still to be posted.  If Costello, or Coalition supporters thought this marked his re-emergence as a political force, as Tony Jones hinted in his introduction, it illustrates the monumental level of delusion that afflicts Coalition ranks.  Some pro-Coalition bloggers even labelled Costello’s performance as brilliant, his best ever, and urged him to return.  Yet on display was the same arrogance, the same smirk, the same self-aggrandisement, the same sneering dismissal of Rudd’s views and his Government’s approach, the same avoidance of answering questions, the same refusal to say what he would do, the same ‘let me make this point’, and the same disingenuousness when he pointed to the reversal of surplus to deficit over the last six months without acknowledging that the economic environment had changed radically over that time.  In his desire to paint Rudd and Labor as once again rapidly getting the budget into deficit in typical 'Whitlam-esque' style, he talked almost as if the GFC had not occurred.  Every now and again, as Turnbull flounders, the spectre is raised of Costello rising phoenix-like from the ashes in which he has sat for over a year.  This appearance should dampen that notion permanently

This morning only Joe Hockey was sent out - to his old mate Kochie on Seven’s Sunrise to represent the Coalition’s position, namely that it hadn’t made up its mind how it would respond to the Government’s legislation.  Later this morning however it did announce it would oppose the legislation.  The die is cast.  We might now get some inkling of what the Opposition believes should be done about the GFC.  But then again...

I have a dream – no, I have a hope

It would be presumptuous to use Martin Luther King’s 'I have a dream’ theme; modesty dictates I use ‘I have a hope’.

I have a hope that one day the MSM will understand the use of language in Australian politics; I underscore Australian, because language here is unique.  Spurious comparisons have been, and will continue to be made between the oratory of Barack Obama and Kevin Rudd, and it’s no surprise who comes off best.  If simple oratory or even the capacity to write stirring prose is the basis for comparison, how does Rudd’s ‘apology’ rate against Obama’s Inauguration speech?  Both were well written, both well delivered, both were applauded.  Judging from media assessments, Obama’s speech was competent but did not reach dizzy heights.  So maybe Rudd’s ‘apology’ was better.

Yet commentators still lament Rudd’s ‘acceptance speech’ on election night.  Crikey’s Jonathan Green’s assessment was, and still is, ‘O dear’.  That Rudd’s speech was not Obama-esque is hardly surprising.  The two events, the two circumstances, the build-up, the audiences, were different.  Did Green expect an Obama-like oration from Rudd on November 24?  Culturally the two audiences were poles apart.  How would Aussies have reacted to soaring oratory at the end of a long election night?  We didn’t hear John Howard’s 2004 acceptance speech criticized. Yet it was no paragon of oratory.  Read it here Compare it with Rudd’s 2007 acceptance speech here.  Both begin with broad comments, both thank those who made victory possible, both end with a modest flourish.  Pick the difference if you can.  Work out why Rudd’s was criticized, Howard’s not.  That Green has a bee in his bonnet about Ruddspeak is suggested by his throwaway line on Crikey on 21 January and repeated that day on 774 ABC radio Melbourne, that Obama’s speech didn’t mention ‘working families’ once.  Really!  He was at it again in the 23 January issue of Crikey with his piece Rudd struggles to sell his Things Are Seriously Bad tour   Strange obsession!

Rudd fashions his words to suit his audience, just as one would expect.  Note the difference between his words to soldiers in Afghanistan, in his doorstops talking about the economy, in his press conferences, in his radio and TV appearances, on solemn occasions, and in parliament.  Each shaped for the audience.  Try to recall John Howard’s manner of speaking.  Competent, directed to his audience, not flamboyant, not over-the-top.  Both men are workmanlike, competent communicators.  So why is Rudd pilloried when Howard was not?  It might seem uncharitable to suggest that media bias is the reason.

In The West Australian on 9 January in a piece Nation lost for words at Ruddspeak howlers presumably written by the paper’s Andrew Probyn, old ground about Rudd’s language is laboriously re-worked.  He must have been light on copy.  It was so old-hat, so tiresome, so boring, so uninformative, so inconsequential, so unworthy of a decent journalist. 

I have a hope one day the media will understand and accept Ruddspeak, but don’t hold your breath.

I have a hope that one day the media will recognize that old political paradigms are dying.  The Piping Shrike alluded to this during 2008, perhaps most forcefully in his June 12 piece The rats’ problem with Rudd where he writes about three main planks of Rudd’s agenda: “...sidelining the political process, acknowledging the impotence of government and opening up to the international stage.”, all of which he saw as causing the media problems.  ‘Sidelining the political process’ is a reference to the time-weary left-right paradigm, which, while convenient as a descriptor in defining some politicians, has little utility in defining a government’s or a leader’s position.  In his acceptance speech Rudd said: “I want to put aside the old battles of the past.  The old battles between business and unions.  The old battles between growth and the environment.  The old and tired battles between federal and state.  The old battles between public and private.  It's time for a new page to be written in our nation's history.”  Obama said something similar“What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works...”   

Janet Albrechtsen in her 21 December piece Seduced by the Saint in which she sideswipes the media because she thinks Obama  will get “a free pass on tough media scrutiny largely because so many journalists share his politics...”  uses the left-right paradigm over and again.  She suggests: “...there is likely to be a deeper, though related, reason for the [media] bias. Progressive politics is essentially an emotional, rather than rational, pursuit. Its foundations rest on altruistic, even utopian, beliefs about the perfectibility of man and society. For progressives, hope triumphs over experience. That causes leftist politicians to place a large premium on myth-making, rhetoric and romance. And leftist journalists swallow it whole.”  Janet is like many other political commentators – seemingly unable to think outside this paradigm.  As Thomas Kuhn points out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, those wedded to a paradigm find it unbearably difficult to change.  Even as evidence builds to incontestable proportions, they adhere to their favoured paradigm until the evidence against it becomes overwhelming and in favour of another, whereupon a sudden ‘paradigm shift’ occurs.  (See the Wikipedia synopsis and Max Planck’s quote under ‘Transition period’: “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it”.)  Janet and her colleagues seem a long way from a paradigm shift.  The Coalition too seems caught in the old paradigm.  Recently Christopher Pyne was advocating it ‘shift to the centre’, whatever that means.  Does he know?  He was admonished by Eric Abetz who likened him to a snake-oil salesman as reported in a Phillip Coorey article in the SMH on 23 January Turnbull puts himself in the middle   Abetz too flogs the left-centre-right argument.

I have a hope that one day, soon, the media will make the paradigm shift away from the old to the new age of politics, where engaging any who can assist, no matter what their background or imagined political orientation, is the norm.  Kevin Rudd, Malcolm Turnbull and Barack Obama have.  Rudd is not defined by the terms ‘left’, ‘right’, or ‘centre’ – to him the terms are pointless.  Turnbull and Obama likewise.

I have a hope that one day before rushing into print, columnists commenting on political polls will take a short course in elementary statistics, at least covering the concepts of ‘margin of error’ ‘confidence intervals’ and ‘trend’  If only they would read Possum’s  Pollytics Pollytrack and ‘Pollytrend’, they may be less inclined to over-interpret results from a single poll.  They may also see the value of acknowledging the other polls appearing at the same time, whether or not they show different results.  All pollsters compare the most recent poll with their own previous polls as if the others did not exist – commercial competition at work I suppose - they never take in the others.  The most recent Newspoll illustrates this point.  By comparing its first poll for 2009 with the last for 2008, commentators saw a marked ‘reeling in’ of the Government’s lead, which they saw shrinking 10 points from 59/41 2PP to 54/46.  The maths were right, but the stats were misinterpreted.  The commentators failed to point out that the 59/41 result in December was the ‘odd man out’ in a series of Newspolls that showed around a 55/45 result consistently over several months.  So the 54/46 result was most likely a return to the Newspoll ‘norm’.  The aberrant December 59/41 result may have been due to the coincidence of the poll with Government’s economic stimulus package, but to place much significance on the change was unwise statistically, especially as two polls at about the same time of the January Newspoll (Morgan 60/40) and (Essential Research 59/41) showed the Government ahead by margins similar to their previous polls. 

Of course for Newspoll to concede that its last 2008 poll was aberrant would have negated its wild interpretation of it as a Coalition disaster.  We’re waiting expectantly for tomorrow’s Newspoll.

Another example of over-interpretation is making much of as little as a two point shift in 2PP, although it is well within the MOE.  Even Roy Morgan, who should know better, is a culprit.  In his most recent poll he pointed to a one point change (from 60/40 to 59.5/40.5 2PP) without bothering to mention that this was well within the MOE using a 95% confidence interval.  Pollsters have such touching faith in the veracity of their own polls, and their capacity to detect small changes that are genuine.

Maybe commercial considerations and the exclusivity of each poll to its sponsor makes sensible and legitimate commentary unlikely – maybe editorial copy and striking headlines are the prime object.

For serious poll addicts who value sound statistical analysis, there is no better site than Pollytics The Poll Bludger keeps up-to-date with each emerging poll and gives a balanced commentary.

I have hope that one day columnists will make comments on polls that are accurate, and frame interpretations that flow from the data by using the basic principles of statistics.

I have a hope!


The Political Sword 2009

The Political Sword resumes usual activity today.  With the resumption of Federal Parliament tomorrow, there will be plenty of political activity upon which to comment. 

The prime focus of this site is Federal politics, the reporting of it, and the comments and opinions expressed in the media.  One aim is to critique the media’s contribution to an understanding of, and informed discourse about the political process, with the hope that standards of journalism might be improved.  An article on Crikey’s Content Makers titled How Blogging Changes Journalists suggests that journalists are susceptible to the opinions of bloggers, and as a consequence may change their behaviour.  So there is hope.

The site’s additional features are intended to make it easier for visitors to keep up with political blogs; Blog Watch is updated as new items appear on the main political blog sites.  Government Watch is updated whenever the ALP website is updated and Opposition Watch when the Liberal website is updated.  It is hoped these features will provide an easy way of checking the original media releases, speeches, doorstops and media interviews that are posted on these websites, from which the media derive much of their content.

As the number of items on both Government Watch and Opposition Watch is large, a new page will be started for each at the beginning of each month.  The current month is the one with the month in capitals under ‘site pages’.

In response to a request, the font size used on the site has been increased.  I would appreciate feedback about this change.

I look forward to resuming the dialogue with visitors that began in the second half of 2008.  Suggestions for improvement of the site will be welcome.

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