Living in a bubble of unreality

Reading today’s editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald, Rudderless leader? creates the feeling that there must be another world out there inhabited by a collection of journalists whose perception of reality is in sharp contrast to that of the man in the street.

After publishing the essay by Kevin Rudd at the weekend and having been accused of giving him a free kick, is this the SMH’s way of evening the score, kicking Rudd where they think it might hurt? More...

The great heath care awakening

Those involved in primary health care will smile wryly as they read the Final Report of the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission of June 2009 - A Healthier Future For All Australians released yesterday and peruse the proposed elements for redesigning the health system.  The first element is ‘to embed prevention and early intervention into every aspect of our health system and our lives’. 

This is exactly what has been advocated by family physicians for over 40 years.  When the principle of prevention and early detection of illness was advanced in the seventies as the most effective approach to improving health and lightening the burden on hospitals, it was not taken seriously until a minister in the Whitlam Government accepted that thesis and continued the funding of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners’ training programme for family doctors.  Despite that display of support for this principle, the pre-eminence of the specialities at the time curbed its widespread acceptance by the medical profession.  All that has now changed as even the narrowest of specialties recognizes that preventing illness and detecting it early is not only better for the patient, but far less costly than having to undertake complex management of advanced disease undetected until in its late stages. More...

Is the CPRS really a dog?

How many, other than those steeped in environmental science, have a clear idea about what is entailed in the Government’s CPRS?  Ordinary people could be forgiven for feeling that they are flying through thick climate change fog in an ill-defined direction towards an uncertain destination, with the flight crew being harangued by reluctant passengers, some wanting to turn back because they never wanted to embark in the first place, with others wanting to continue but in a different albeit hazy direction.

The CPRS to be presented to the Senate on 13 August has been described as a dog, a deeply flawed scheme, a pointless exercise that will make a negligible difference to environmental pollution.  Such generic descriptors do nothing to clarify what has always been, and increasingly is confusing to the average citizen.  Words like ‘deeply flawed’ or the canine metaphor are singularly unhelpful. More...

The Garrett enigma

It’s happened before, but criticism of Peter Garrett, Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts has been re-kindled following his approval of mining at the Four Mile uranium mine in South Australia.  In accepting the conclusions of two independent reviews of the likely environmental impact of the proposed mine that it posed no credible risk to the environment. Garrett, having satisfied himself that specified environmental standards would be met, was bound to give his approval.  He was never in a position to allow any personal feelings he might have had about uranium mining to influence his decision. More...

The media versus the politicians

The last two pieces on The Political Sword: Let’s leave it to Kevin and Media flounders over the Hu affair have focussed on the media handling of the Stern Hu affair.  Concluding comments in those pieces pointed to ‘...all the hype, conjecture, misinformation, and ill-considered opinion that have defaced the media coverage of this case in Australia’ , and how ‘...all the admonitions of the commentariat, all the dire predictions, all the acerbic and in some instances poisonous comments, have so far been shown to be superficial, pretentious, provocative, singularly unhelpful, and in many instances plain wrong.’

The burden of those pieces was to highlight the incompetence of much of the journalism, and the arrogant way that some in the media, especially several journalists working for The Australian, portrayed that event and offered gratuitous advice to the politicians handling it. More...

Let’s leave it to Kevin

What a week of predictions, ponderous opinions, shrill warnings and learned views we have had from Australia’s media about the Stern Hu affair.  Let’s chronicle them, and in the interest of reasonable brevity, let’s confine ourselves mainly to what has appeared in The Australian, which has taken up this issue with great gusto.

Readers have been bombarded with a variety of descriptions, predictions and opinions about the Hu affair and the reactions of the Government to it.  The following is a selection of media statements in no particular order, and with no attempt to connect them logically.  Scan them quickly to get a feel for the views columnists have been expressing all week. More...

Media flounders over the Hu affair

Those who seek to understand the intricacies of the Hu affair and its implications for this nation could be excused for being cynical and disappointed at the media’s efforts to inform us.  It has floundered around with little purpose, insight or even native intelligence.  Its craving to create arresting stories has overridden the need to get the facts right, and has blinded it to the hazard of conjecture and the danger of expressing opinions without supporting evidence.  It is only now that some hard data has emerged that enlightens this convoluted case. More...

Turnbull in a China shop

We’re halfway through the Rudd Government’s first term, but if rumour becomes reality the next election may be just nine months away, in March 2010.  Then electors will have to decide whether to give Kevin Rudd, his ministers and his parliamentary team another term or, assuming no major changes in the Coalition, to elect a Malcolm Turnbull led ministry and government.  On what basis will electors choose?

The achievements, or otherwise, of the Government will weigh heavily on voters’ minds, as will the promise of the Coalition to do better.  The leaders, as is always the case, will profoundly influence people’s thinking, and this time it will be Rudd versus Turnbull.  The Political Sword has carried assessments of both, as is testified by at least 15 pieces detailed on Sword Watch this year. More...

Media wars – where does the blogger fit?

There has been much angst exhibited in recent weeks by newspaper executives, editors and journalists about the future of newspapers and the evolution of online news content and opinion.  In his speech to the National Press Club The Future of Journalism on July 1, John Hartigan, CEO of News Limited, catalogued some spectacular newspaper failures:  “Within a year, some people are predicting that Los Angeles, Boston, Detroit, San Francisco or even Miami will become the first major US city without a daily newspaper.  The LA Times, Chicago’s Tribune and both dailies in Philadelphia are bankrupt.  The New York Times is close to bankruptcy. Losses in the first quarter were more than 70 million dollars. The Washington Post lost 54 million.  The Boston Globe almost went under last month....The number of journalists on American newspapers is now at the lowest level in 25 years. Back then, American newspaper sales peaked at 63 million copies a day.  Sales are now at 34 million. Readership has also almost halved over the same period.  US newspapers are failing to adapt to the digital age. More...

The PM to the media – I have a message for you

Three weeks ago you, the media, took a satirical swipe at me on The Political Sword in The media to the PM – we have a problem.  Let me now return the compliment.

You began: “Prime Minister.  Listen carefully.  The media is powerful, very powerful.  Our journalists write newspaper columns that lots of people read; they create news bulletins and current affairs programmes that many people hear and see; they conduct talkback to which countless people listen.  We have enormous influence.  We can make and break governments and bring down prime ministers.  You should not get us offside.  We call the shots, not you.  You’re beginning to make us annoyed.  Watch it, we can get you, and probably will.”

Everyone knows about media power and influence, but you ought not to believe it is absolute.  You ought not to believe it is beyond challenge.  You should not think politicians are too timid to confront the media with its shortcomings for fear of retribution. More...

Will the Coalition ever learn?

The Coalition is close to a black hole, and if it doesn’t change course, it will be sucked in.  If it had any doubt about whether its behaviour and that of its leader were being observed by the voters, that should now be dispelled after this week’s polling.  That such a rapid reaction to the last two weeks was so dramatically reflected in the poll results should convince Coalition members that the people are watching and drawing conclusions.  The fall in Malcolm Turnbull’s net satisfaction rating of 40 percentage points in one month is the greatest in the 20 year history of Newspoll.

This piece examines the appropriateness of the Coalition’s attitudes, strategy and tactics since the election.

First its attitudes 

Repeatedly, Coalition members talk as if they did not deserve to lose government, because as Tony Abbott put it so plaintively, ‘we were such a good government’.  They felt it was unfair as times were so prosperous; everyone was well-off and should have been grateful to the Coalition for this state of affairs.  They accept that John Howard should have been replaced long before the 2007 election, but scarcely ever publically flagellate themselves for their sheer gutlessness in not doing so.  They consider the election loss was bad luck, and an underserved rebuff from an ungrateful nation.

When will they learn the real reasons for their defeat?  When will they accept them and remedy the mistakes they made?

Then there is that upstart Kevin Rudd.  They seem never to have carefully examined why Rudd is so appealing to the public.  Tony Abbott’s analysis is that he is a fraud, that most of what he says and does is a front for who he really is.  This week Abbott categorized him as a scheming, Machiavellian, ruthless gutter politician.  Previously he classed him as a fake Christian, a dubious Bonheoffer admirer, an ersatz economic conservative, a master of spin, and a nasty, bullying type under his ever-so-nice exterior.  He has been saying for over two years that the electorate is sleepwalking and that when it awakes it will see Rudd in all his ugliness.  Sadly for Abbott the people seem to be asleep to his declarations.

Until the Coalition analyses and accepts Rudd’s strengths and how he generates consistent public support month after month, it is they who will continue to sleepwalk in a dream-world of unreality.  Tony Abbott and other Coalition members who push the ‘Rudd is a fraud’ line need to give it a break.  If he is a fraud, the public will know soon enough.  Only rusted-on Coalition supporters enjoy this sort of talk; the rest of the people aren’t listening.

Then there is the ‘born to rule’ attitude many Coalition members seem still to harbour.  The corollary is ‘Labor is not fit to govern’.  The Coalition considers itself as the natural party to govern – well educated, well heeled, and well connected.  In contrast they see Labor as having its roots among the working class, the unions, not the governing elite.  That most Labor parliamentarians are now as well educated as Coalition members has not filtered through – stereotypes die hard.  The old slogans ‘Labor can’t handle money’; ‘Labor always runs up debt’; ‘the Coalition is the better manager of the economy’ are still trotted out.  But if the polls are any indication, the public no longer believes the Coalition is the only party that can manage the economy.

So this talk falls on deaf ears, and should be abandoned.

The burden of anger

Because of these attitudes and persistence of the ‘we were robbed’ attitude, Coalition members continue to exhibit anger about their situation.  This is particularly seen at Question Time in the House, when heated reactions and aggressive gestures are exhibited for all to see.  Malcolm Turnbull’s sneering accusations, Joe Hockey’s livid, loud-mouthed interjections, Julie Bishop’s irate demeanour and her now-famous cat-claw gesture, and Christopher Pyne’s aggressive points of order are seen every sitting day, and although few watch QT live, short grabs are on public view on TV news bulletins.  Voters dislike such behaviour, on either side, but because it is the Coalition that is in Opposition, it is they who exhibit it most. Anger is counterproductive, and is marked down by the public.

The Coalition would appeal to the people more if became less angry, less aggressive, less confronting.  Sweet reason would gain it more.


The overriding strategy of the Coalition seems to be to condemn virtually everything the Government says and does.  In a contribution to Liberals and Power: The Road Ahead, edited by Peter van Onselen, Tony Abbott says: "At one level, the Opposition's most urgent job, between now and the next election, is to publicise the government's mistakes.  Randolph Churchill once declared that oppositions should oppose everything, propose nothing and turf the government out. He was right in this fundamental respect: the opposition's job is to get elected. Intelligent oppositions have no unnecessary enemies. They make the government rather than themselves the issue by ensuring that everyone harmed by government decisions well and truly knows about it." 

The Coalition seems to be following Abbott’s admonition, but has spectacularly ignored the need to avoid unnecessary enemies, and the advice of Niccolò Machiavelli in his book on political strategy, The Prince, where he says: “A prince should command respect through his conduct, because a prince that is highly respected by his people is unlikely to face internal struggles."  The Coalition is not commanding respect; it is losing it.

People tire of the constant negativity that pours from the Opposition.  Turnbull has been given the mantle of Mr No.  This obstructive behaviour holds up legislation and wastes parliament’s time.  This is impacting voters who want their elected politicians to get on with improving the lot of ordinary people, not getting in the way of every Government move to do so.

Coalition members seem unable to grasp that the public would prefer them to come up with positive suggestions about how to improve legislation, to move sensible amendments, and engage in collaborative discussion, instead of blocking almost everything.  The public cannot believe that virtually everything the Government does is wrong.

A second and related strategy, one personally advocated by Turnbull, is to attack incessantly.  He does it with venom, venom which had been starkly caught on camera and displayed in the media for all to see.  It is a style he has often used in the past, and it has usually worked for him.  He seems not to have realized that there is a limit to the value of attack in politics where he is on public display.  People don’t like the attack-dog strategy and mark it down.  We saw during the last few weeks relentless attacks over the OzCar affair.   Dozens of questions were directed to pursuing this, and no matter what answers were given, the questions kept coming.  It was tiresome for anyone watching and a monumental waste if time.  Yet in Turnbull’s ‘keep on punching’ style the questions continued unremittingly.  There were no questions on the economy, climate change, health, industrial elations, or any of the other important matters facing our nation,  just a focus on one issue, OzCar.  People noticed this.  Essential Research polling this week show that two-thirds of those polled believe Turnbull is ‘out of touch with ordinary people’ and less than half those polled feels he ‘understands the problems facing Australia’.  Around a half think he is ‘narrow minded’ and ‘too inflexible’.   Why do they think this way – his behaviour is the answer.

In pursuing this attack strategy, Turnbull has ignored Machiavelli’s advice to command respect and make no unnecessary enemies; the polls show how much respect he and his party have lost, and how many enemies he has made.


Turning to tactics, Malcolm Turnbull has decided to use personal attack as his main tactical weapon.  Instead of focussing on legislative matters, he has concluded that to destroy confidence in the Government, discrediting the individual is quicker than attacking policy.  This started with the persistent attack on Joel Fitzgibbon until his resignation.  Then Turnbull decided that he’d go for the big prize, the Prime Minister and the Treasurer.  On the basis of what has now been shown to be a fake email, he levelled corruption allegations at them both, called them liars, and insisted on their resignation.  In this particular instance, this tactic of personal attack backfired spectacularly and left Turnbull battered publically by the Government, the media, the polls and the cartoonists, and privately by his colleagues.

Unless he and his party realize that this sort of personal attack is not approved by the people, they will continue down this destructive path to their political detriment.  When will they learn?

To conclude, this piece argues that the Coalition has been too slow to accept and recognize why it lost government, unwilling to learn why Kevin Rudd is popular, too focussed on painting him a fraud, and too convinced that it is the only party suited to govern.  It needs to dissipate the anger that permeates its ranks and shows in unseemly aggressive behaviour.

The Coalition needs to take a positive approach, discard negativity and make a contribution to the governance of this nation through constructive discourse.  It needs to command respect and make friends, not enemies in the electorate.

Finally it needs to abandon its relentless strategy of attack and the pernicious tactic of personal attack.  In particular it would be wise to cease attacks over the OzCar affair, but if past form is any guide it will find this impossible.

Unless it makes these changes, it will find itself unable to make any significant contribution to improving the lot of ordinary Australians, and will continue to flounder in the polls.  The choice is for Coalition members to make.  The question is will they ever learn, indeed are they capable of learning and changing, or will hide-bound attitudes and approaches propel them inexorably towards a political black hole?