So you think you’re a journalist?

Bushfire Bill’s last piece A Triumphant Return or the Last Hurrah? and the many comments it attracted, exposed many instances of second-rate journalism, leading me, and visitors, to ask “What has become of journalism in this country?”  This piece attempts to tease out how such journalism has become so harmful an influence in our society.

But let’s begin by acknowledging that there are many fine writers who grace the profession of journalism, who write well-researched, informative and factually accurate pieces, who express balanced opinions based on those facts, and who distinguish clearly between fact and opinion.  They are what we expect journalists to be.  They are not the problem – it is that they are diluted by so many who are careless with the facts and at times downright dishonest, slipshod in drawing conclusions from them, arrogant in making far-reaching predictions from their sometimes limited knowledge and experience, and subject to personal or institutional bias that seriously distorts their writing.  It is to those that we should address the question:  “So you think you’re a journalist?”

Ask a hundred people what a journalist does and most will say that they write articles in newspapers; some might say they write opinion pieces and editorials.  Some might include those who prepare and deliver radio and TV news and current affairs, and a few might add in those who write in the online media, even perhaps blog editors.  I refer to all of these.  If you ask members of the public what they expect of journalists, what would they say?  The cynical among them might say – not much.

‘Journalist’ comes from ‘journal’ which in turn is derived from the Latin diurnalis, from diurnis ‘daily’.  The implication is that daily events are at the core of most journalism.  But journalists also collect and disseminate information about people, trends, and issues.

Where has journalism gone wrong?  In this piece let’s stick to political journalism.

Just look at the articles that have appeared about the insulation issue.  Again and again writers have simply not got their facts right.  Bushfire Bill has exposed many of these inaccuracies in the last piece on The Political Sword: A Triumphant Return or the Last Hurrah?  If you haven’t read his critiques, scroll down to February 23, 9.46 am and 2.35 pm, and February 24, 12.32 am.

Getting the facts right seems to be fundamental to proper reporting, but as BB points out, too often when the facts don’t fit their preconceived notions, some journalists simply distort them or just make them up.

Next, while interpreting the meaning and import of the facts is a legitimate function of journalists, they ought to distinguish clearly between fact and opinion, which so often they don’t.  Don’t they realize that the interposition of qualifying words, which on the face of them seem not to be ‘opinion’, are indeed opinion.  I refer to words used in the media to describe, for example, the Government’s Home Insulation Program: failed, flawed, botched, debacle, scandal, disaster, fiasco, catastrophe, crisis, tragedy, calamity, farce, fraudulent, mishandled, scrapped.  Peter Garrett is described as embattled, beleaguered, finished.  As soon as journalists use these words to describe the program or its authors, and are not simply quoting others, they are inserting their own value judgement.  And by using this technique the fact that it is their opinion is concealed.   It is part of what BB describes as ‘bootstrapping’, where an assertion, true or otherwise, is made which becomes a self-perpetuating ‘truth’ as each iteration of it reinforces the previous one, somewhat like negative feedback in audio systems that eventually reaches screaming pitch.  The more iterations the more valid the comments seem to be.  BB gives several examples in his comments on February 20 at 1.12 am and February 23 at 9.46 am.   This phenomenon is seen over and again both in the printed piece and in the spoken commentary.  What right do journalists have to insert their views in this way?  What entitles them to influence public opinion, when all they are offering is their own opinion, and without revealing it is their own opinion?  Who do they think they are?  It would be different if they prefaced their condemnatory remarks with: “in my opinion”, because then it would be clear that it was only their opinion.  But instead, by subtly inserting these pejorative words they surreptitiously insinuate that this is a widely held and spreading opinion among not just the pundits but the population at large.  It is as pernicious a technique as that used by authoritarian regimes.  If they don’t realize that, they should get another job where they would do less damage.

As BB asserts, too many journalists seem to start with a preconceived agenda and write in a way that converts their beliefs into a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Enough of the background, let’s look at some actual examples.  As it would take several pieces to dissect and expose the many instances of faulty political journalism, I’ll confine myself to just a few.  Dennis Shanahan has been the subject of several critiques on The Political Sword.  Newspoll through Shanas’ Magic Looking GlassMore of Shanas’ Magic Looking Glass? and earlier Dennis Shanahan is at it againand BB has appraised him in recent posts.  No more needs to be said.  The pity is that Dennis is Chief Political Editor of our premier national newspaper The Australian.  We’re entitled to have better balanced, less biased critique from such a senior and experienced journalist.  Even worse, he seems to be part of what appears to be a sustained anti-Rudd campaign by The Australian and indeed News Limited papers in which several of his colleagues are involved.

I could waste valuable space by critiquing Piers Akerman, Andrew Bolt and Glenn Milne, but I won’t.  You will have made up your minds about the standard of their journalism long ago.

Occasionally a writer goes so far over the top that one is left wondering if the article is some sort of sick joke.  Such a piece was written by Paul Sheehan in the SMH on February 22: How Rudd the dud dropped Australia in the alphabet soup .  I suppose it was meant to be a smart-aleck appraisal of the Rudd era written for those who loathe him, but it destroyed its credibility by listing only what Sheehan sees as the Government’s failings, with not one mention of a single achievement.  Under ‘G’, not surprisingly all he lists is ‘Grocery Watch’; no mention of the ‘Global Financial Crisis’ from which the Rudd Government shielded the country.  But what do you think he had under ‘D’?  You’ve guessed it, ‘Debt and deficit’.  Does Sheehan believe that thinking people will swallow such grotesquely biased writing?  The rusted-on supporters will cheer, but who else will?  This is puerile writing that does not deserve a place in a reputable newspaper.  If you’ve got the stomach, read it and judge for yourself.

What about ‘Our ABC’?  Reasonable people might expect more from this supposedly neutral and balanced source.  Insiders last Sunday was an improvement on previous editions which had showed signs of becoming tabloid.  At least it was prepared to discuss the view that The Australian was showing persistent bias.  David Marr brought this out and even Fran Kelly agreed, although she previously has insisted that Kevin Rudd should not openly complain about this and instead should just sit there and take his medicine’.  With her years of experience in the field, Fran seems to be assuming the mantle of political guru.  While giving the Government credit for its management of the GFC, she nonetheless confidently asserted that the Rudd Government was ‘in a hole’, ‘in trouble’, and might be ‘a oncer’.  Does she expect viewers to respect her opinion, expressed with such assurance, without qualification?  As expected, Piers Akerman did nothing but heap scorn on the Government’s head, which evoked gentle ridicule from David Marr.  Why they still use Akerman on Insiders is a mystery.  His responses are consistently biased and predictable.  What can he possibly contribute to the balance of the programme?

Our ABC now has an online news service that on the face of it seems to be deriving much of its material from the MSM.  It seems just as prone to journalistic distortion as the rest of the media.  Here’s just one example:  Coroner probes Yothu Yindi death after Rudd visit by Phoebe Stewart on 22 February insinuates that there was more than a temporal connection between the death in mid 2008 of a 26-year-old man who played the didgeridoo in the band Yothu Yindi, and a visit by Kevin Rudd.  The article states: “The ABC understands the man died not long after he had taken part in a dancing ceremony for Mr Rudd during a visit to the community for a cabinet meeting.”  What is that supposed to mean?  What is the implication?  Why was it written this way?  This is such poor journalism that it ought not to endorsed by Our ABC.  I wonder whether my protesting email will evoke a response. 

Enough examples – one could go on and on.  The essence of this article is that much of the media in this country has become disappointingly poor and seems to be getting worse – so bad that commentators like Bushfire Bill believe that the MSM is steadily losing its impact, losing its credibility, losing its audience, and is now having its last hurrah.  It is no longer the maker and breaker of politicians and political parties, and resents its lost prowess.  Media proprietors too are becoming concerned about their loss of influence.

So as consumers of what the media offers, the challenge we’re entitled to address to substandard political writers is indeed “So you think you’re a journalist?”

What do you think?


A Triumphant Return or the Last Hurrah?



On Friday, Tony Abbott, whom I have already spotted as a serial confessor of sins, made another confession. It was startling in its frankness. To quote the ABC online story:

 “Mr Abbott ... told the Examiner he disliked the ‘Captain Catholic tag’ that had been ascribed to him.  

‘The only one of the Ten Commandments that I am confident that I have not broken is the one about killing, and that's because I haven't had the opportunity yet,’ he said.” 

He lacks only the ‘opportunity’ to kill a fellow human being?  Otherwise that would be on his list of sins?  Can Abbott be serious thinking that this utterance won’t be taken and pulverized by a hostile media?

Unfortunately, the answer seems to be, ‘Yes’.

Go back a few months to Kevin Rudd’s ‘Fair shake of the sauce bottle’ episode. AA wrote a good piece on it: The sauce bottle saga with lots of links.  Journalists went on about The Sauce Bottle Saga for a month or so. George Megalogenis, in an article entitled This bloke act is doing our head in was terribly upset: 

“PM, mate, you made your name in two sets of lounge rooms: the everyday and the elite.  You looked like a cheery quiz show contestant on Seven’s Sunrise and a brainiac on the ABC’s Lateline. Between those two men is the real Kevin. 

Sometime soon you will have to find that person, or risk becoming the punchline to a national joke.  You know, the one about the nerd who pretended he was a bloke.”

So, for uttering a fairly commonplace saying, the Australian College of Political Opinionistas went to town on Kevin Rudd, hammer and tongs.  The clincher in all this was that most of the coverage was derisory, or outright derogatory.

By contrast almost every word of Tony Abbott’s recent pithyisms and off-the-cuff verbal spoutings are accepted as showing that he is ‘the real deal’, someone who ‘tells it like it is’, speaking in plain terms that Everyman can understand.

Abbott, playing up to this depiction of him, has been getting bolder of late.  He has accused the government of bribing free-to-air TV stations (only to refuse to elaborate the next day).   He gave the women of Australia fatherly advice on maintaining their virginity, but was not quizzed at all on his own forays into the virginity (and unmarried pregnancy) business when he was a university student.  He has accused Peter Garrett of ‘industrial manslaughter’ (a crime which Abbott believes should never have made it into law on moral and economic grounds).   And now, as if his accusations against Peter Garrett were a dress rehearsal for The Big One, in his zeal to confess his sins Abbott’s brought out the 5th Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not murder’. His stated attitude towards this prohibition is, ‘There but for the opportunity go I.’

I accept that Abbott was probably a little pumped up by the excitement of the campaign trail.  The compulsive confessor of sins waxed broadly on sex, on penance, and on the Ten Commandments during the same interview.  He quoted his Jesuit mentor, one Father Costello, as telling him that Lent didn’t have to be all gloom and doom. It was ‘much better to do something positive in Lent than to give something up.’  All good stuff.  I suppose then the mood took him over, leading him to go the whole hog and make his homicide statement.

I believe it’s fairly certain that if Kevin Rudd had said he’d broken all the Commandments, except the one against killing a fellow human being (and that only for lack of opportunity) it would signal the end of his political career, and rapidly.  He would be vilified for either the bare words themselves, or for being flippant about murder. We would be told that such statements were un-Prime Ministerial, that they showed ‘a lack of judgement going to character’, that he was feeling the strain, that he was overworking himself.  Victims of crime would be produced, tearfully denouncing the Prime Minister for saying what he said.  Correlations between his words and our policies regarding Afghanistan and the Bali-9 would be exposed.  Sniggering jokes would be made about the four deaths under the insulation stimulus plan. We would be reminded in detail of Rudd’s allegedly foul temper. He would be depicted as unstable, a bomb ready to go off.  Dennis Shanahan’s tut-tutting from his Sydney office would be heard in Melbourne.  If Rudd could be condemned by Dennis for not playing Abbott’s traffic accident near miss correctly, then what would he do with a Rudd statement on not having the opportunity yet to kill people?  By contrast, we would be reminded that Tony Abbott was the Genuine Article, waiting in the wings for his chance.  There might even be a call or two for an early election.

In fact, if Rudd had said any one of a dozen things that have come out of Abbott’s mouth in the past few weeks, he would have been roasted alive by the media. Abbott can’t claim (like Milne does) that he ‘doesn’t want to be the Prime Minister’ in this case, as an excuse, because that’s exactly his goal.  So why are Abbott’s casual pronouncements reported almost universally positively, or at worst neutrally, and Rudd’s reported almost universally negatively?  Do the media think they are so strong and in control of the national agenda that they can spin any utterance any way they like, according to their political agenda?

The history of the past three years in Australian political life has revolved around the public studiously ignoring the most vehement anti-Rudd messages produced by the media. You will all know the long list of ‘Get Rudd’ schemes – the supposed ‘myth’ of his hard-done childhood, Scores-gate, Ute-gate, Long Tan-gate, The Weeping Flight Attendant, the hypocrisy of his wealth, Fair Shake Of The Sauce Bottle-gate, the Stimulus ‘Debacle’, and many, many more. Yet Rudd and Labor have soared in the polls. The last poll Labor lost was in August 2006. Before that it was June 2006. There never has been a run of polling popularity like it, and all of this in defiance of the media’s best attempts to turn public opinion around.

But just recently we have seen a slight trending down in Labor’s figures and those of the Prime Minister. There has been a slight trending up of the Coalition’s figures and an approval rate for their latest leader that is at last not in the teens. A whole legend is being spun around these paltry, few statistics. Rudd has lost the plot. His government is on the way out, a oncer.

Abbott has produced only bullet points and thought bubbles, un-costed wish lists masquerading as ‘policies’. His Finance spokesperson, Barnaby Joyce has arguably been damaging to both the Coalition cause and to the nation’s fiscal reputation. He persists in plugging the line that we cannot repay our debts, yet he is given the merest slap on the wrists by an adoring media (they tell us he needs a little more discipline only). Joe Hockey waxes and wanes between ‘The Rudd Recession’ and ‘The Recession We Never Had’. Greg Hunt excruciatingly tries to sell a dog of a Climate policy that we know he doesn’t believe in. Julie Bishop is the Invisible Woman, rousing from her Shadow Foreign Affairs torpor only to try to scuttle relations between Australia and China.

The media seem to believe that, at last, this is a triumphant return to the status quo, where they tell us what to think and how to vote. The tactic of wall-to-wall Abbott and 24/7 Good News about the Coalition has finally paid a dividend. They’re going in harder and harder, even resorting to boot-strapper interviews with each other!  Rudd is depicted as embattled, tense, making mistakes. These all go to his fitness to be Prime Minister. His ministers are shown up as either bumbling machine men, troglodytes, or trophy ministers, unsuited – any of them, without exception – to their high offices.

An alternative theory - mine - is that the public have built up an immunity to the media's increasingly bizarre attempts to justify both their own antics and those of conservative politicians; that this is the media’s (and particularly the Murdoch media’s) Last Hurrah - and that the media know it. It may well be that what we are seeing now in the polls is just a blip, a minor victory in a backwoods battlefield, bought at high cost both to the media's credibility and to the nation’s political sanity.

In a political world where the seriousness of Climate Change can be passed off as ‘just politics’, where cheap stunts involving pink tou-tous, acres of lycra, hairy ‘man rug’ chests, ‘thinking woman’s crumpet’ statements, and undersized budgie smugglers are depicted as serious indications of the ‘genuineness’ of the Coalition’s senior personnel and their message, where opportunistic TV coverage of a near-fatal traffic incident is presented as ‘proof’ the Prime Minister is disconnected from the people, and where the media are indulging in a witch hunt for yet more youthful corpses to prove that the most successful GFC response in the world was actually an abysmal failure, they have squeezed out just a couple of in-house polling percentage points from a distracted public.

An outdated media losing its grip has been an ugly thing to watch.  If this is truly a battle for influence, a final battle for the ascendency of the Old Media over the minds of what it sees as its bovine readers and viewers, then expect no prisoners to be taken.  Things will only get worse. More and more stunts will be played out. We will be gravely informed of the ‘political symbolism’ of Abbott shenanigans and of the ‘ineptness’ of the Prime Minister and his government. My feeling is that it can’t go on too long, because even now some of the edges are starting to come off the edifice as our media’s Fonzi Fonzarellis prepare to jump the shark

We’ve had allegations of ‘industrial manslaughter’, the Shadow Treasurer in a ballet dress, the Shadow Finance Minister talking down our nation’s ability to pay its sovereign debts, near-miss traffic incidents blown up to national significance, Coalition moles in the Public Service giving false evidence (which was then further faked by the Daily Telegraph), the rantings of Ackerman and Bolt on Insiders, a sexually disgraced Shock Jock brought back onto the air to lecture Rudd on morals, and a seemingly endless series of derogatory analytical articles on the Prime Minister’s every uttered syllable. And now we have the Ten Commandments brought into play (but don’t call Tony ‘Captain Catholic’). 

The circus has truly come to town. But, what do you think... is it really a Triumphant Return, or just The Last Hurrah?


More of Shanas’ Magic Looking Glass?

If you thought Dennis Shanahan was squeezing the last drop of good news for the Coalition out of this week’s Newspoll, as suggested in the last piece on TPS Newspoll through Shahas' Magic Looking Glass, take a look at his analysis of the Important Issues survey (pdf) that accompanied that Newspoll.  You’ll find it in his two pieces in Wednesday’s Australian: Protest poll flags rush to Coalition and Coalition making inroads in all areas.

His theme is announced in his headlines and the opening paragraphs:  “The Rudd government just lost its comfort zone, its ability to argue that everything will be fine because of its success in avoiding recession and that its lower polling is just Tony Abbott's media honeymoon. Voters have declared they prefer the Coalition, once again, as economic managers and have rushed towards the Coalition on climate change, water conservation and the environment.” and “The Coalition has recaptured popular leadership on the economy from the Rudd government, which seems to have lost political gains made on economic management during the global financial crisis as the fear of recession in Australia passes and unemployment peaks.” 

Having set the scene with words like “Voters ...have rushed towards the Coalition” and “The Coalition has recaptured popular leadership on the economy...” he proceeds to amplify his claims.  Referring to the Important Issues as seen by voters, he says: “The economy has also dropped dramatically as the top priority in an election year, being overtaken by health and education as the Coalition makes inroads into Labor's leads on all key issues, including climate change, the environment and water management.”

So let’s look at the figures. 

In the first table, the Important Issues, the economy has dropped from first to third and is now rated 74 on the importance scale, down from 83 a year ago, but about the same as two years ago.  Should this come as a surprise – a ‘dramatic drop’ as Dennis would have it?  A year ago the country was in the midst of the GFC from which it is now emerging.  The variation in the level of importance portrayed in the survey is exactly what one would expect.  I suppose Dennis was trying to make the point that any advantage the Government thought it might have had in managing the GFC successfully is being eroded because of its fall in importance in the electorate.

In the table on who is best on economic management, 40% of those polled said Labor and 45% the Coalition.  Dennis describes Labor’s rating as steady but in fact it has gone up one point from 39%, and the Coalition’s rating has gone from 40% to 45% during the last year.  We know we should not get too excited about small movements in ratings, but Dennis is happy to attribute significance to them when it suits his argument.  But look at the five ratings for the Coalition after the October 2007 rating (the first listed): 53, 44, 44, 43, 40, 45, and for Labor 29, 37, 34, 39, 39, 40.  After the 2007 rating there’s not much movement there for either party; the Coalition has recovered 5% from a year ago, but is close to its rating for the two years before that.  Does this set of figures warrant the comment: “...the public has started to move away from Labor on economic management”?

Let’s take a quick look at the other figures, that range over the period October 2007 to February 2010: On health & Medicare, education, the economy, water planning, welfare and social issues, national security, the environment, climate change and industrial relations, the Coalition's ratings were 32, 32, 45, 31, 27, 43, 27, 30, 33 and Labor 47, 40, 36, 51, 37, 34, 35, 49.  You may find it easier to look at the tablesLabor is ahead on all except the economy and national security.

On handling climate change (over the period July 2008 to February 2010) the Coalition rated 18, 22, 19 and 30, and Labor 45, 37, 38 and 35.  Labor is ahead but not as much as in previous years because the Coalition's rating has gone up by 11% in the last year.  No doubt the Coalition will take heart from this and see it as endorsement of its Direct Action plan, at least in part.

Do take a look at the individual tables for health & Medicare, education, the economy, water planning, welfare and social issues, national security, the environment, climate change and industrial relations that extend over six surveys from October 2007 to February 2010.  What is striking is how consistent the ratings have been over the years.  There certainly have been small changes in the areas of water planning and the environment in the Coalition’s favour and in management of the economy.  Labor is ahead of the Coalition on every aspect except the economy and national security, areas in which the Coalition has always rated well with the electorate.  Dennis concedes this near the end of one of his pieces when he says: “Voters still rated the Labor Party as better able than the Coalition to handle all the electoral issues except the economy and national security -- traditionally Coalition political strengths.”  Anyone reading his article to the end might have been surprised after reading the negative headings and comment that preceded that concession, and mystified by his conclusion: “This is a protest poll.”

Of course what Dennis is asserting is that there is movement away from Labor to the Coalition on so many parameters that this represents a significant turning way from Labor.  It is true that the Coalition has made gains; as Dennis puts it “On every main electoral issue, including health and education, support for the Coalition rose and Labor's fell or remained static to put the Coalition in its best position since the 2007 election”   He asserts that it is this movement that accounts for the changes in voter preference rather than the advent of Tony Abbott.  The question is how significant the movements are given the MOE of plus or minus 3% for this survey of 1151 people.  Dennis attributes major significance to them.

For those of you inclined to a deep statistical analysis of this data set, do take a look at Possum’s thorough piece on Crikey, The pitfalls of Better Party To Manage.  His piece seeks to interpret the movements in the figures.  Towards the end he says: "Perhaps long term relative changes in which party is best perceived to manage a given issue, perhaps we can identify if issues cease to become a strong issue for a party over a long period of time. Any sharp jump in value for a given issue that is above and beyond that achieved by other issues in that poll is also something that would be meaningful and worth taking a second look at.  But for ordinary poll to poll movement, we can’t actually pull much pointy end value out at all because large parts of the variation are simply a function of generic approval of the party leaders."

So where does the truth lie?  Is Dennis’ narrative a true reflection of the figures?  Do his words match the figures?  While it cannot be said that Dennis’ statements are inaccurate, do they paint the same picture as do the figures?  Is this another example of how the mindset of the author, one that seems to be searching for positives for the Coalition and negatives for the Government, has over-ridden the objectivity that poll analysis requires, and has lead him once more to extravagant language?  Is this more of Dennis seeing poll results through his Magic Looking Glass?

You be the judge.  What do you think?

Newspoll through Shanas’ Magic Looking Glass

There we were last night, political tragics scouring our computer screens looking for signs of what the latest Newspoll might show.  Two weeks ago Newspoll showed a significant closing of the gap between Labor and the Coalition to a TPP of 52/48.  The same result occurred last October, but because two weeks later it was back to usual levels, it was labelled an outlier.  The question was whether the recent 52/48 was an outlier or pointing to a trend.

It has now become a habit of The Australian to herald the outcome of its Newspoll the night before.  Two weeks ago there was an announcement on its website well in advance of the publication of a brief account of the result, which was adverse to Labor.  Since some queried whether an advance announcement was a bad sign for Labor, the tragics looked last night for this portent.  They were astonished to see on the Pollytics website ‘Newspoll at 9 pm’, and wondered what that unprecedented timing meant – was it a sign of disaster for Labor?  It turned out to be a hoax, was quickly revealed to be so, and the tragics turned to The Oz website looking for the signs, pressing F5 regularly.  But since there was no advance announcement of the time that Newspoll would be out, they reasoned that maybe it was not too bad for Labor. 

Eventually, somewhere around 10.15 pm, the Dennis Shanahan summary appeared with the striking headline: Rudd hits a new low: Newspoll.  In five paragraphs he pointed out that “Kevin Rudd's personal voter appeal was at its lowest since he became Labor leader more than three years ago”, that Labor's primary vote had “...dropped below 40 per cent for the first time since 2006”, “...its lowest since Kim Beazley was opposition leader”, that “...the Coalition has managed to hold its primary vote at 40 per cent for a month for the first time since the 2007 election loss”, and that support for Labor's emissions trading scheme had ‘slumped’: “In September last year, support for the CPRS was at 67 per cent but last weekend dropped to 57 per cent and those against the CPRS rose from 22 per cent to 34 per cent.”  All these statements were factually accurate.  He ended with a flourish: “While satisfaction with the Prime Minister is at a new low for him as leader, voter satisfaction with Tony Abbott's Liberal leadership has reached a new high.”

Pretty grim stuff for Labor and exhilarating for the Coalition!  But the numerical data were scant.  No TPP figures, no indication of how much Rudd’s ‘personal voter appeal’ had fallen, no figures about Tony Abbott’s ‘voter appeal’, no PPM figures; in fact the only figures were those quoted above.  This left us tantalized about how bad the situation might be for Labor, and how good for the Coalition.

Then along came Lateline where Leigh Sales announced that Newspoll was ‘good news for the Government’.  After reading Dennis’ piece, surely she must have made a mistake, inadvertently substituting ‘Government’ for ‘Coalition’.  But no, after a tedious half-hour wait for the segment, she told us that the Government had gone up one percentage point, and the Coalition one point down to give a TPP of 53/47, reversing the recent downward trend.  Given the MOE, no one with statistical nous is going to give too much credence to this small change, but since the media is not constrained in this way, giving as it does undeserving emphasis to such small movements, why was it that Dennis chose not to mention the TPP, the one aspect favourable to Labor?

Moreover, while Dennis’ assertions about Rudd’s ‘voter appeal’ are correct as far as they go, why did he chose to omit the actual figures that put the changes in perspective.  Rudd’s satisfaction rating is 50%, the same as two weeks ago, and his dissatisfaction rating is up 2% to 40%.  Compared with last November Rudd has certainly dropped from a net satisfaction rating of 22% to 10%, but satisfaction still sits at 50%, the sort of approval John Howard enjoyed through much of his incumbency.  In the PPM stakes Rudd has dropped 3% to 55% since the last Newspoll, while Abbott has gone up 1% to 27%, just half of Rudd’s rating.

In the morning’s paper Dennis fleshes out the figures in his piece: Newspoll: Rudd hits now low The tables accompany the piece.

On the subject of climate change Newspoll shows 73% believe it is occurring – only 22% don’t, compared with 84%/12% in July 2008; 94% believe it is caused by human activity, down from 96% in July 2008; 57% are in favour of the CPRS and 34% against, compared with 67%/22% in September 2009 and 72%/21% in October 2008.  While there has been a significant fall in support for action and specifically the CPRS, support remains quite high. Dennis assesses the situation thus: “But the Newspoll survey has shown opposition is growing to the ETS, although Australians overwhelmingly want action on climate change.”

Dennis paints a more sinister scenario for Labor in his supplementary piece The trends begin to run against Labor in today’s Australian. 

So what do we make of Dennis’ appraisal, so gloomy for Labor?  Why did Leigh Sales say the poll was ‘good news for the Government’ and introduce that segment with “The Government appears to have halted the Tony Abbott-led resurgence for the Opposition, according to the Newspoll to be published in tomorrow's Australian newspaper. The Rudd Government has improved its position by one point on a two-party-preferred basis to be now standing at 53 points, up from 52 a fortnight ago, while the Opposition has slipped a point to 47.”?  I notice though that the transcript header today is “Coalition's poll resurgence continues”, which seems to be at variance with her words.  Why did the ABC use that heading?

We all have our biases, which influence the way we interpret events.  We even interpret the hardest of hard data differently.  But our interpretation does reveal those biases.  So we can speculate about Dennis’ biases from what he writes.  Why did he omit information from last night’s summary that might have given a more balanced perspective, for example the TPP?  It would have taken only a few extra words.  Readers might be excused for deducing that he wanted to paint as poor a picture for Labor and as optimistic an image for the Coalition as was possible from the Newspoll results.

Is it an example of Dennis looking at the Newspoll results through his own Magic Looking Glass that enables him to see almost every piece of information as a plus for the Coalition and a minus for Labor; that enables Newspoll results to mean whatever he wants them to mean?  Lewis Carroll would have been proud of him.

What do you think?

A sparrow farts in Queensland...

There has been a lot of pussy-footing around the deaths of four workers involved in the Insulation part of the stimulus package. Three have tragically died as a result of electrical shocks and one from heat stroke. Whether they were working for licensed or otherwise reputable home insulation firm or were employed by 'shonks' (fly-by-night carpetbagger operators in for a quick killing) is unknown and, apparently, immaterial. Peter Garrett is guilty of something - Tony Abbott today said the specific crime is 'industrial manslaughter' - and must resign. Or so the media meme goes. Apparently Garrett is 'fighting for his political life', despite contraindications of this from his boss, Kevin Rudd, because the political journalists say he is. And when the opinionistas go to the trouble to say Garrett is potentially fatally wounded, then that in itself is proof of the severity of his wounds. These people do not exaggerate lightly.

Elsewhere in Queensland, a sparrow farted in the morning. This caused a dog to bark, which in turn caused a cat to run up a tree. A small branch of the tree came off and caused a boy on his bike to swerve. The boy was run over by a car driven by a woman who worked for an insulation company. For this too, Peter Garrett is guilty and should resign.  Ridiculous? Yes, about as ridiculous as Abbott’s gross assertion that Garrett would have been guilty of 'industrial manslaughter' in NSW, if the incident had occurred in that state and if he had been a company director employing the deceased installers (false in both cases, by the way).

Tony Abbott, in his new-found career as Judge, Jury and Executioner in the Industrial Court (who knew?) has spoken. We have no body of relevant evidence, nor even an outline of the broad circumstances of the fatal incidents, but take 'Straight Talkin’ Tony’s word for it: Garrett is guilty. In Parliament today Tony shrilled, 'Mr. Speaker, this is about death.'

Tony should know. When he was Industrial Relations Minister, in 2002, Abbott had this to say about proposed 'industrial manslaughter' laws in Victoria and Queensland. In an address to the Queensland Industrial Relations Society, titled In Praise Of Bosses (and the jobs they bring), he said this:

"There are three essential problems with industrial manslaughter legislation as proposed: first, it treats workers like children by failing to recognise that workplace safety is a shared responsibility between employers and employees; second, it shifts the workplace safety emphasis from prevention to punishment; and third, it introduces a new type of vicarious liability into the criminal law...

"The 'industrial manslaughter' mindset casts the employer as habitual villain. As a society, we need to demonstrate our abhorrence of slip-shod safety procedures and industrial short-cuts but we should also beware of the tendency to be wise after the event and seek scapegoats rather than solutions. One workplace commentator likens industrial manslaughter to convicting passengers of culpable driving. It’s not inconceivable, say employer groups, if a drunken fork-lift driver seriously injured fellow employees, that the boss could be guilty of a criminal offence while the company could not sack the worker at fault.”   Link

We can see why Tony singled out NSW (and not Queensland) for the scene of Garrett’s alleged crime. When he was Minister, as we can see from the above link, Tony specifically told those in Queensland responsible for Industrial Relations in that state that he thought an industrial manslaughter law was a non-starter.

Elsewhere, in September 2003, Abbott opined: "Legislation as draconian as industrial manslaughter legislation is much more likely to produce an epidemic of buck passing."   Link

.... except where there’s a chance to pass the buck onto Peter Garrett, and then our 'Straight Talkin’ Messiah is all ears. Being 'wise after the event' is suddenly all the rage again.

Perhaps Tony has seen the light? Perhaps he is now as accepting of the reality of industrial manslaughter as a workplace crime as he was of the 'political reality' of ETS legislation?  In the Straight Talker’s case, you never know.

It seems Abbott’s attitude to treating workers 'like children', the shift of workplace safety from 'prevention to punishment' and the onerous burden of a new vicarious liability upon bosses (who bring us all those jobs) has changed. His newfound admiration for strict industrial laws couldn’t be hypocrisy, because, with Tony Abbott, you always know where he stands. He is merely a conviction politician who seems to have changed his convictions, or as Tony would put it 'his considered opinion' is different today to what it was then.

Could I interpose the word 'crap' at this point?

The only problem with Tony’s analysis is that Peter Garrett was neither the employer nor the regulator in any of these cases, but why let that get in the way of a good headline? Presumably, in some future Straight Talkin’ World of Tony Abbott as PM (hold on to your stomachs) any federal government minister will be liable to be charged with a felony crime, involving imprisonment of up to 25 years, if a worker in any government-funded scheme, no matter how far divorced from the minister’s actual control, dies in the course of their employment.

No doubt, intrepid journalists will do the same small amount of Googling that I did prior to writing this article in researching their own grave pieces (10 minutes' worth), and they will resolve the apparent hypocrisy of the Straight Talker’s position for We Of The Mob. Those off-the-cuff comments of Tony Abbott's will be exposed for the self-serving hypocrisy they are. Perhaps our opinion leaders should start out by delving into the history of Health in recent years, especially when Tony Abbott was Minister, to see whether anyone died as a result of the pullback of funds that occurred under his watch. Or maybe there might be some Iraqi citizen, missing loved ones killed by Australian bullets in a vain pursuit of 'Weapons of Mass Destruction' who have a beef with the government of which Abbott was a senior member. SIEV-X anyone?

Tony, when even a mere sparrow farts in Queensland, you never can tell how long and how far the smell will waft and linger on.

How can the Government sell its CPRS?

It was never going to be easy to sell the Government’s CPRS.  It is a complex plan to cope with a very complex problem – anthropogenic global warming.  But as recent events have muddied the debate about carbon mitigation, the Government’s task is now even more difficult.  So far it has not done a great job in selling its CPRS, perhaps distracted by its attempts to get the legislation through the Senate that would have succeeded but for Tony Abbott’s toppling of Malcolm Turnbull, and the Copenhagen saga.  Ironically, in a speech in parliament yesterday it was Malcolm Turnbull who described lucidly what the CPRS was designed to do, more so than Government speakers. 

CPRS and ETS will be used interchangeably in this piece.

Here are some of the issues complicating the debate:

Climate change sceptics/deniers have grown in numbers and loquacity.  Whereas previously they could argue that climate has been changing for centuries and what’s happening now is just part of a natural cycle and has nothing to do with carbon dioxide or human activity, now they can reinforce their position by reference to instances of mistakes in the report of the UN International Panel on Climate Change, the ultimate and until recently unchallengeable authority on the science of climate change.  Instances of sloppy, even deceptive science, and incorrect predictions based on poor documentation in the fringe literature or by inexperienced scientists, have also been cited.  This has been grist to the mill for those who seek to tear down the validity and reliability of climate science and those who work in it.  Well-funded globe-trotting climate change denialists are in full flight and attracting enthusiastic audiences to their heavily promoted performances.

Most members of the public have little interest in the scientific foundation of climate change and scant time to sort it out for themselves.  So if they have an inclination to scepticism, these occurrences quickly confirm their suspicions that global warming is a hoax.  This is despite the mountain of peer-reviewed scientific evidence in reputable journals that go to make up the first part of the IPCC report which provides such convincing evidence of AGW.  It is in the second and third parts of the report that attempt to predict the consequences of global warming that some errors have been found, just a few despite the strident publicity that the sceptical press has given them.

The Opposition has several sceptics among its numbers who have seized on these errors to confirm their views: Nick Minchin, Wilson Tuckey, Cory Bernardi, Dennis Jensen, Andrew Robb, and of course Tony Abbott himself, who seems to waver between ‘absolute crap’ denial and reluctant acceptance of the need to take out some insurance against the possibility global warming might be happening. 

Although among the general public there are an increasing number of sceptics, the proportion who want something done about climate change is a still a solid majority, and while support for an ETS has declined significantly, in this week’s Nielsen poll 56% still favoured an ETS while 29% opposed. 

The other factor muddying the waters is the Coalition’s abandonment of bipartisanship and the introduction of a new policy that promises to solve the global warming problem with a ‘Direct Action Plan’ that on the face of it seems to cause little pain, is not ‘a great big new tax on everything’, is purported to be less costly than the Government’s CPRS, and uses ‘natural’ methods such as tree planting, sequestration of carbon in soil and algal synthesis, all laudable.  It all sounds too good to be true, and it is according to analysts and yesterday none other than Malcolm Turnbull.  But that will not stop many voters from giving it a tick. 

When presented with a choice between the Coalition plan and the Government’s ETS, 45% of those polled by Nielsen preferred the Coalition plan and 39% the ETS.  Yet when asked to choose between the Government’s and the Coalition’s approaches to climate change, the results were the other way around: 43 per cent chose the Government’s approach and 30 per cent the Coalition’s. Pollster John Stirton thought ‘the apparent contradiction probably reflected voters' low level of understanding of the schemes’.  In Pollytics, Possum has done a more complex analysis of the answers to the Nielsen questions that will be of interest to those interested in the detail.

The selling of the CPRS therefore has to take into account not only the complexity of climate change, the scepticism surrounding AGW, the complexity of the proposed ETS and the way it will affect people, but it also has to counter the simplicity of the Coalition plan which has popular appeal to those who don’t wish to delve into the details and who don’t want to pay out of their own pockets to achieve success.  Few will question the effectiveness and the real cost of the Coalition plan because it is via taxes - just so long as it’s easy to understand and seemingly painless.

So what are the messages the Government needs to promulgate?

First, it needs to convince the sceptical that global warming is real and that if left unchecked will irreversibly change the planet and all life upon it.  The hard-core deniers are probably beyond persuasion.

Next, the Government needs to convince the people that the situation is urgent.  What looks to be a long way off is so easy to ignore.  So the Government needs to show that significant changes are already occurring all around the world, and how acting now will not only begin the process of reversal and avert calamity, but will cost less in the long run.

Then it needs to convince the public that humans are such a significant cause of global warming that it is their activities that must be curtailed to begin to reverse the adverse trends.

Next it must convince everyone that acting independently of the rest of the world is the way to go, that it will minimize costs and will give our industry a head start in creating renewable energy and the technology that reduces emissions, such as CO2 sequestration.  There is a strong and persuasive argument that Australia should not go first and jeopardize its economy.  Countering this will take a lot of effort.  But suggesting the rest of the world are laggards and will eventually have to catch up, might appeal.  Unfortunately the Government has used the ‘we’ll do no more, no less’ mantra so often that acting ahead of the rest of the world is now more difficult to sell.

Then the very basic messages about what the ETS is designed to do can be promulgated, namely limit carbon emissions, heavily penalize those who pollute so that they seek to pollute less, and compensate households for any increase in living costs that arise.

Finally, the Government needs to contrast its ETS with the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan and convince the people that the Coalition’s scheme is short-term, unlikely to achieve any mitigation of carbon emissions, is costly, and that it is the taxpayers who will pay the polluters to reduce their pollutions.

When one looks at the strength of the arguments that the Government could mount, it seems like a lay-down-misère, but it isn’t – it is probably the most difficult task for the Government in 2010.

Simplicity is essential in transmitting messages.  So let’s try to draft some understandable but brief promotional lines.  Please try your hand too.

On the reality of AGW

Global warming threatens our future

It is happening now

Human activity is causing it

We must act now before it’s too late

Acting now will reduce the cost

Acting now will boost our economy and create jobs

Acting now will give Australia a head start

The rest of the world will have to catch up

On the basic CPRS messages

The Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme:

Sets a limit on carbon pollution for the nation

Penalizes polluters, who pay heavily for polluting

Will reduce pollution

Will compensate households for any increased costs

Does not use taxpayer’s money

If the Government believes it needs to counter the Opposition plan:

The Opposition's Direct Action Plan:

Will allow polluters to go on polluting

Does not set a limit on pollution

Will not reduce pollution overall

Will use your taxes to pay polluters to pollute less

Will be very costly to the budget

Will not compensate you for increased household costs

All of these messages could be embellished by images that reinforce the message, and voice-over that adds impact if they are used in TV ads.

There’s a start anyway.  I realize some of you will likely disagree with some of the premises that underpin these lists and no doubt will express your disagreement; you may want to change some of wording.  But I hope you will try to improve the messages or add some if I’ve missed any out. 

For what it’s worth, the final list could be sent to the Government as the view of bloggers on TPS.

Let’s have your suggestions.


Tony – this is as good as it gets

While someone as fit as you would usually have a slow heart rate, I expect your heart quickened when you read this week’s Newspoll, showing as it did a narrowing of Labor’s two party preferred lead since you took over, down to 52/48, but perhaps it skipped a beat when you saw that Kevin Rudd’s lead as preferred prime minister stubbornly remained at 32 percentage points. 

The fact that the Morgan face-to-face poll published last week carried the heading ALP strengthens lead after Summer holidays and showed a TPP of 58.5/41.5%, an improvement for Labor, and Essential Research Report the day before Newspoll showed a 56/44 TPP, the same as the two previous weeks, seemed not to dampen enthusiasm for this Newspoll result.  Newspoll seems to be the ‘preferred poll’ of the pundits, particularly at The Australian, which understands it so well ‘because it owns it’.  The fact that in early November there was another Newspoll 52/48 that bounced to 56/44 two weeks later and was therefore considered ‘an outlier’, has not deterred supportive journos from making a mountain out of the latest poll, not contemplating for a moment that this poll too might be an outlier.  You probably saw its preliminary findings the night before.  Have you noticed that if The Oz has results favourable to the Coalition coming up, there’s plenty of advance notice on its website – otherwise we have to wait patiently. 

You may have derived some cheer from today’s Morgan face-to-face taken over the last two weekends of January that shows Labour down and the Coalition up, back to where they were at the year’s beginning, but your excitement may have been tempered somewhat by a TPP of 56.5/43.5, around Possum Pollytics all pollster trend for the last couple of years, quite different from Newspoll’s 52/48.

So enjoy – this is likely as good as it gets.

If the Newspoll was a true reflection of what the public thinks of your ascent to leadership we need to ask how this is so. 

Over Christmas you had plenty of free air; Kevin and Julia and most ministers were having ‘a well-earned break’, something for which we should be grateful with a frantic year ahead. You even got a spread in Australian Women’s Weekly that ‘humanized’ you as a family man ready to give advice on moral as well as social and political issues.  Perhaps it was this uncontested exposure that seemingly enhanced your connection to the people.  Perhaps it was your policy pronouncements that attracted attention.  There weren’t all that many and they were mainly contrary, but maybe they helped.  Your promise to solve the problem of global warming, or should it be ‘alleged warming’, with a tax-free easy-to-understand scheme in which everyone is a winner, so attractive to those who wish climate change would go away, might have been a factor.  Or maybe it was just the force of your personality.  A recent Finnish study has shown that whether the elector liked or disliked a politician was more influential in deciding how to vote than was their policies.  Democracy is a wonderful beast.  Why bother with well thought-through policy if personality is the magic tool?

So the end-of-year break was a welcome opportunity for you to get started, free of a contest.  Now that the political year has begun, welcome to the real world of politics as leader, something no doubt you’ve already discovered is quite different from being a shadow minister or even a minister.

Some journalists regard you as a fight-hardened and very smart political operative, not to be underestimated.  They say that would be a big mistake.  They portray you as someone who will ‘take the fight up to the Government’, a portrayal which your pugilistic nature would endorse.

As we look for evidence of this smartness we wonder why you appointed Barnaby Joyce as Shadow Finance Minister.  You regard him as Australia’s best ‘retail politician’, whatever that means.  If you mean he has a smart turn of phrase, you’re probably right, but his preoccupation with clever one-liners is detracting from his real job, in which his accountancy skills are a poor substitute for an understanding of national finances.  Barrie Cassidy pointed out that he is behaving like a court jester.  Yet he is in politics, not vaudeville.  His performance at the Press Club this week was not a great start, and his foot-in-mouth media appearances have engendered confusion instead of confidence.  Was it smart to put him up against one of the Government’s best performers, Lindsay Tanner, who already is running rings around him?  Maybe he’ll improve; maybe he’ll learn his job; but he may turn out to be an albatross around your neck.  Already you have had to hose down comments from him that the Coalition may cut public service jobs and the foreign aid program to fund its carbon mitigation scheme.

Was it smart to bring back on the front bench old-timers from the Howard era?  That suggests a return to that era, so convincingly rejected by the people a couple of years ago.

After rejecting the Government’s CPRS after initially advocating that the Coalition pass it, you promised all the details of a plan of your own that would not be ‘a great big new tax’, but would solve the climate change problem with almost no pain to anyone.  Was that smart?  This week you delivered, but details were missing.  You promised all would be revealed, but when your announcement was made, funding arrangements were missing, details which you now say will be revealed ‘well before the election’.  By now your plan has been dissected and found wanting by Government, which insists it will increase not decrease emissions, will cost more, will provide no compensation for families, and does not reveal funding sources.  Columnists are saying likewise.  Was it smart to promise a detailed carbon mitigation plan when only a few weeks over the end-of-year break were available to do what Ross Garnaut and the Government took over two years to accomplish?  Have you discovered what you accuse the Government of so often, that talk is easy, but action takes time and effort?  Have you noticed that the mantra ‘great big new tax’ which you believed was such a PR winner is being countered by the Government’s description of your plan – ‘a climate con-job’?  I wonder which one will stick harder?

Perhaps though you felt you were smart enough to front up with a partly developed policy without costings and lacking any information about where the bucket of money to encourage polluters to pollute less would come from.  Did you expect the public to accept your thesis that the greed and the social conscience of the polluters would bring them into line and persuade them to pollute less?  Perhaps you felt ‘business as usual’ for the polluters would appeal to them, but did you believe the public would swallow it?

Perhaps you felt you were smart enough to convince the people, struggling with the complexities of the Government’s CPRS, to warmly embrace a simple plan, especially if it caused almost no pain, no matter if it was ineffective.  Did you believe the people would pick simplicity over efficacy?  Comments by some journalists on air suggest that might be so.  But that belies the inherent commonsense of the Australian public – they know a con when they see one.  Lenore Taylor nails it in The Oz when she says in Initiative is about votes, not carbon: “This is a climate change plan to get Tony Abbott through to the next election, not a serious plan to refit the Australian economy so that it emits less carbon.” 

Perhaps you hoped for some supportive comments from the media.  You were not disappointed.  Predictably, The Australian obliged with banner headlines Abbott’s cut-through climate plan.  In contemporary politics, ‘cutting through’ seems to be the most salient operative endeavour.  I suppose that means being understood by the people.  The author of the article, Matthew Franklin, went on to support you with “...most business groups have backed the plan, agreeing with the Opposition Leader’s assertion that it is ‘cheaper, simpler, and more cost effective’ than Labor’s proposed carbon emissions trading scheme.”  You know you can always rely on The Oz.  Of course, as Franklin knows and acknowledges in another article, most business groups have not backed the plan; even some of those that have expressed interest, such as the National Farmers Federation and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, want more details before committing themselves, as does the Business Council of Australia.  He should be more careful and consistent with his assertions.

Looking back to last year, for better or worse, you jumped into the ring, a place you’ve always coveted, or more correctly you were pushed into the ring by your seconds (good old Nick and Eric), and having recovered from the surprise of being chosen as the contestant to take on the champ, you’ve been throwing punches wildly, just like you always have.  You may feel you’re ahead on points so far, but time will tell how many rounds you survive.  When you have to move beyond domestic boxing to international bouts you may find that tricky, especially after Barnaby’s comments about cutting foreign aid.  How do you propose to convince the public you can handle international bouts and perform competently on the world stage?

The life of a leader is not easy – ask Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull.  You and your Coalition colleagues seem to feel though that so far the bout is going well, that Newspoll and the bevy of sycophantic journalists are right.  But if the first few days of real bare-knuckle politics are a guide, critics might conclude that unless you can lift your performance substantially, unless you can, Johnny Howard style, pull a few live rabbits out of the hat, you should enjoy this week’s Newspoll - you will likely find that right now is as good as it gets.

What do you think?

So You Think You Can Dance?

Watching the 10 Network’s So You Think You Can Dance on Sunday night reminded me of the political season about to begin this week.

The ikonic show, about undiscovered wannabees who, enraptured by high hopes of stardom and fame, enter a multi-stage dance competition – with us as intimate voyeurs of their every move - tells us a lot about human hope.

There was the plain, frumpy girl who believes Jesus is with her at every step. The lithe, enchanting young aboriginal man whose mum’s indifference to his dancing caused tears all around. The thirty-something hoofer who has been around the traps and is destined to stay trapped. The conga line of untrained hip-hop shakers and rollers with their limited talent no match for their unlimited energy. The semi-professionals, expecting to make it easily into the finals. The Hard Judge, the Mother Judge, the Cooly Professional Choreographer Judge. Hopes and expectations dashed. Dreams come true. Life in the raw, or as raw as a heavily edited commercial television show can present it: the Life Struggle, through the medium of movement, youth and expensive SMS voting fees.

On the political side of this metaphor we have seen the surprise elevation of Tony Abbott, a wildcard candidate, to the leadership of the Liberals, by one vote. The Glamour Boy, Malcolm Turnbull, has been voted off the show. The once fresh-faced newbie, Rudd, is now regarded as the stodgy old incumbent, araldited into the same seat as Howard, never seen in budgie smugglers, rarely out of a suit. His routine, especially in the Climate area, trashed with the disappointment of post-Copenhagen days, could do with some sprucing up as the bare-chested, lean-and-hungry challenger takes the fight to him. Abbott is flanked by the glamourous Ice Maiden, Julie Bishop, and the once-jovial but now permanently grumpy Joe Hockey who mocks every move Kevin Rudd, his former TV friend, makes.

The Liberals and Nationals, thrown out of a previous series in the grand final, decimated by the shock desertion or expulsion of senior members – Costello, Downer, Vaile, Howard, Nelson, Brough – have reinvented themselves as the underdogs, running a low budget campaign to steal the public’s hearts with honesty and true grit. Kevin, on the other hand, jets about the world like a Little King (how dare he use the Prime Ministerial plane for overseas jaunts?). He rarely utters an un-convoluted word according to his critics, who are many and mostly angry. The implication is that he is a phoney, couldn’t lie straight in bed. But you have to admit, the man has talent when it comes to winning the People’s Choice Award.

Abbott is a flawed character. He preaches against extra-marital sex, yet he fathered a child, then deserted both the baby and the mother, only to find that the baby never existed. Whether this is worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy or a comedy I cannot decide. He is a religious zealot who has a habit of sinning and then, in good Catholic tradition, confessing publicly. He is the whiskey priest, flunked out of the seminary for the green fields of Oxford and politics. By contrast, Rudd’s one known foray into the underworld, the Scores Incident, was so surprising to the voters that it saw his ratings shoot up, presumably in delight at the possibility of a glimmer of raunchiness in his character.

The common thread between each side of politics is that they both think they can dance.

Tony told us the other day that government is easy. You just make a promise and stick to it. You take a line and then abide by your decision. It’s a dangerous tack to sail for Tony, who has never been known to stick to any policy in his political life or, more to the point, has rarely been seen saying the same thing to any more than one group of listeners at a time. His waverings on Climate Change have wandered from True Believer, to pragmatic acceptance, to 'It’s crap', to his current position: although he doesn’t believe action on climate is necessary, he proposes to fix our environment by spending no money, using volunteers and 'incentives'. I can see the Hard Men of the coal industry dutifully falling into line on that one.

Kevin, despite the misery of Copenhagen, in the face of continuing revelations of flawed climate science (even if only here and there), is sticking to his guns. There are too many eggs in the basket of ETS to abandon it now. If he did so it would likely signal the beginning of the end of his government. Tony has given the public an out, an excuse to reject action on Climate Change. Sure it’s an impossible dream, but this is Reality TV, not reality. Kevin’s performance on Climate, supposedly his strong suit, has been technically difficult and reasonably well-executed, but is starting to be seen as too clever, lacking panache.

Never mind his brilliant performance in the GFC round, where he danced rings around several challengers in a largely impromptu performance that saw Australia come out on top of the world. Never mind the lowest interest rates in decades, the best prospects for infrastructure, comparatively modest unemployment, an about to re-boom economy, Kevin’s government is still seen as the least preferred Economic Managers compared to the Coalition. It makes you wonder what else “Good Economic Management” is about if it is not about these things. According to Essential Research the voters believe the parties who would have had them out of work, their schools without infrastructure spending, their industries fending for themselves and who told us first there was a Rudd Recession and then there wasn’t... are the savants of economics. Go figure! I guess it’s all about presentation on the night.

Which brings us to the media, stacking the studio benches with loud adoring fans, spruiking a miracle Coalition resurgence in a loud attempt to try to cover up for policy holes and inconsistencies you could drive a debt truck through. To get around Tony Abbott’s predilection for inventing policies on the run, for making it up as he goes along, they have invented the myth of the “Conviction Politician”. Tony Abbott is man who believes in what he says, at the time he says it, no matter how many times he contradicts himself. This isn’t political cynicism on Tony’s part. It’s a genius for improvisation. The conservative Papist, whose sins (long forgiven by a supportive press) prove merely the morbidity of the flesh, is up against a government that is given only grudging praise for its great successes so far, and whose Prime Minister is mocked and condemned for the slightest falter, be it fairly shaking a sauce bottle (instead of sucking it), or swearing at a poor young flight attendant. Rudd’s government is supposed to have defeated the GFC and kept all its promises, while all we have from Tony Abbott is promises to produce glittering prosperity from the Magic Pudding of 'budget savings'. Never mind that 'budget savings' means a sharp curtailment of social welfare, infrastructure and spending on other government priorities, the Conviction Politician will see us through... somehow. We can worry about that later.

So, as we exit the preliminaries and get to the series proper, junkies on both sides will eagerly await the Reality TV show called Question Time. They will hang off every word and nuance, forgiving on the one hand, condemning on the other. The wannabee from two seasons ago has become the solid favourite. The reactionary Catholic man we thought we all knew as an opportunistic hypocrite, preaching what he never practised, has been reinvented as the plain-speaking saviour of the nation. On the sidelines it will be a fascinating exercise in whether the media, deprived of the river of gold of government advertising (a promise kept, but rarely referred to), still have the clout they believe they should have.

They all think they can dance, but can the fat lady sing?