Spartacus fiddles while policy roams...



The arena is strewn with dead bodies. Howard, Costello, Downer, Vaile, Nelson, Turnbull, Joyce, Minchin, Brough are names that come to mind. Hockey, knocked over by his own weight in a friendly rugby match only groggily recovered from the impact. Their clarion caller, Glenn Milne has been sacked from his tabloid gig. All despatched since the election of the Rudd government. Their party a laughing stock, their brand a joke, their ranks diminishing, the Coalition is falling apart from the inside. So many have gone to Coalition Valhalla thinking they could hate Kevin Rudd to political death, and all have failed. You'd think they'd give up, or at least change tack, wouldn't you?

I had a theory before the last election that Howard had run out of time to develop new policies that would make him re-electable, so he went negative. I'm getting the same idea about the present Coalition. Both versions of the Coalition have wasted too much time asserting their right to rule, rather than establishing their fitness for doing so. All the ‘-gates’, the scandals, the cheap shots, forged documents and so on have led them basically nowhere. They are still wandering in the wilderness, searching for a messiah.

And now ‘Spartacus’ Abbott (as Arthur Sinodinos styles him in From Spartacus to PM in waiting) tries to wow us with the irrelevant by riding his bicycle around wearing a jock strap and Lycra.

The dividend of all this? About three percentage points in the polls, back to a mere disastrous electoral position instead of Armageddon. They still can't put up a decent opponent to the nerdy Rudd (the weakling with the glass jaw, remember him?) so they have to invent one, complete with his own wrongheaded legend.

Policies? There hasn't been enough time for any of those. They've been too busy slagging muck at the hated Rudd. In your most generous contemplation does anyone reading this have much of a clue about the Coalition policy on anything in particular? Abbott was against new taxes for, oh, about a fortnight, and then for them. He was against PPL and then in favour of it. He was for Climate Change action, before he opposed it, then for it again, so that now we don't really know the nature of what he described to Kerry O'Brien as his "considered opinion" on the subject. Work Choices was dead. Now it's alive again. Two weeks ago he felt "threatened" by gays, now some of his best friends are, and he loves them all. His views on gays have "mellowed" over time, in this case a whole fortnight. As to Health we have "local hospital boards" and that's about it. Is there anything that Abbott currently claims to believe in upon which he hasn't once held the opposite opinion, even quite recently?

So much of the Coalition's precious time has been wasted trying to trap Rudd Labor via cheap scandals and circus tricks. But the party's hours, weeks and months are not the only ones that have been frittered away going for the quick kill.

The public has lost a lot of time on Abbott too. He has been in our faces, begging to be noticed. He pleads for a debate on Health, taunts the PM with imputations of policy cowardice and then wastes more of everyone's time by arriving without any policy of his own to discuss. How insulting to those who attended or tuned in. Journalists, politicians, viewers: all were left with little in their memories but his braying, theatrical laugh and a seemingly permanent scowl of anger, more reminiscent of the schoolyard or a campus politics club than the first national debate on an important subject.

I wonder how long Abbott thinks he can get away with this serial, wilful contempt for his audience, his job and his party. Is Abbott a politician with pretensions to the highest office in the land or some kind of gay-icon gladiator in pink Lycra, sporting a man rug, wearing budgie smugglers? How long do we have to put up with these childish demonstrations? You can’t run Australia from Manly Surf Club or off the handlebars of a racing bike.

Much spin has been spun about Abbott’s drubbing at the Debate.  The hard-working opinionistas are trying to find a way of writing up all this madness so that it makes sense.

“The Worm was nobbled.”
“Rudd was cheesy and focus-group driven.”
“That nasty Mr. Rudd picked on Abbott just because he didn’t bring a policy to a policy debate. Apart from that, Tony did pretty well.”

These base apologetics won’t last long, perhaps another week or two, before some serious questions will – must – at last be asked of the Opposition Leader. What was macho and appealing to some at first is fast becoming comical. The voters are realizing that, whatever he's smuggling inside his Speedos, it isn't anything resembling a policy.

Used as a substitute for hard work and policy development, hatred of Rudd has delivered us, the voters, nothing. We don't have a clue - six months out from an election, no less - what the Liberal and National Coalition actually stands for on any subject. Does anyone in the real world believe they're not going to indulge themselves in yet another brain explosion sometime soon, ‘changing their minds’ yet again?

In their heart of hearts, to the Coalition hard men, Tony Abbott must be a terrible disappointment. Buoyed up by the slanted ravings of Murdoch journalists and a lazy, shallow commentariat with their fake scandals and twitter-brained analysis, he, and they, have apparently come to believe their own publicity. One wonders whether there are any sober thinkers remaining to the left of the Speaker. Perhaps Nick Minchin's announced exit from politics is a pointer to the current Coalition wisdom concerning Tony Abbott.

As he switches from audience to audience he flips his pronouncements from ‘yea’ to ‘nay’ on any number of subjects. The Orwellian attempts by the media to rationalize Abbott’s myriad positions on just about everything, to explain them away as actually being consistent, are stymied by the fact that the only thing consistent about Tony Abbott is his inconsistency. The solution is to tell a Big Lie, and then repeat it endlessly: Tony Abbott is a conviction politician.

I know many Labor supporters will say that Abbott is fine standing just where he is, for Labor's sake, and to a certain extent I share that view. On the other hand we pay these people out of our taxes. We deserve something a little more adult than their leader's current circus act.

To compensate for the opportunities lost, between now and the Spring (the most likely season for an election, just a few months away) it’ll need to be politics 24/7. I’m not too sure the public will appreciate the Coalition’s desperation and the coming ad infinitum onslaught of ‘taking the fight up to the government’, ‘Rudd and Abbott go head-to-head’, ‘as the political battlelines are drawn’ headlines and stories. I’m not convinced that Insulation and the much-appreciated Schools Stimulus have a lot of shelf-life left as winners for them, either. Just ask the Worm.

Political posturing is important to the political class and the amateur tragics, but not really to the general public. Sure, the public takes an interest, but faced with the misadventures of Lara Bingle, plus mortgage stress they may be feeling, their work and family life, it seems to me the voters will become heartily sick of anyone who is in their faces all day, every day, yelling slogans and spouting ridiculous talking points. In NSW, over the next 12 months we also have the promise of state politics competing with federal for the voters' attention.

There is too much that needs proper attention from the Coalition and too little time and space to attend to it all. This is exactly the fix Howard found himself in, except Howard at least had control of the timing of the election, and could delay it well into injury time. Abbott does not have this advantage over Rudd. The Coalition have frittered away almost any possibility of coming good before the Spring, through sheer self-indulgence.

Remember Rudd and Gillard in 2007? Conferences, meetings with stakeholders, policy committees, white papers, and documents as thick as telephone books were the hallmarks of their policy development. What has the present Opposition done to match it? Spartacus in Lycra, childish taunts, insults and bad language, negativism at every turn... while the Prime Minister waves cheerily and gets on with the job of governing.

Sinodinos waxes on about a romanticised Spartacus:

”If Spartacus is to come down from the hills and rule Rome, he must convince the punters that he is the prime minister in waiting.”

... but Sinodinos is wrong.

This is a misreading of the historical figure of Spartacus. The Spartacus episode was not a revolution. It was a jail-break. The slaves didn't want to come down from the hills to rule Rome. They wanted to escape it altogether. The slave army wandered Italy for years looking for a way out, fighting battles only when cornered.

Sure, a few hotheads, full of false hope, thought they could take on Rome itself, but look what happened to them! Spartacus and his followers claimed minor military victories on their way around Italy, but ultimately were beaten, crucified and mostly forgotten. Spartacus was doomed to be a footnote to Roman history until Kirk Douglas came along and gave him the Hollywood treatment, using a blacklisted screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, to write the story up into an epic of political struggle that was more about the nineteen-fifties and sixties than ancient Rome. It is the Hollywood version that Sinodonis is referring to, not reality.

While Abbott wanders the continent, scoring the odd cheap victory, Rudd Labor only gets stronger. Rudd has suffered defeats in a couple of skirmishes with Abbott, true, but now seems to have the measure of the man and his party. As even Sinodinos admits, “Kevin Rudd has his mojo back.” And Rudd actually goes to work. That's always a plus.

The Coalition's subsistence on anger has left them without a policy basis from which to fight and win an election. Their laziness has sprung from their belief they are born to rule. Policies? Who needs 'em when you've got ‘angry’ and ‘entitled’? Their urgers and promoters think they can bootstrap an alternative universe based on gutter journalism, misunderstood legends and supposed Liberal ‘values’. Faced with multiple rebuttals of this idea, and the political cadavers to prove it, they go in harder, only now dressed in Lycra. However, even in the movie Spartacus ended up defeated and dead, his enterprise crushed. With precious few months left until the election, and no time remaining to do what needs to be done, the Coalition may well be joining the defeated slaves, politically crucified along the Appian Way. While their policies wander in the wilderness, the Coalition has not earned a better fate.

What do you think?

Why do journalists ask silly questions?

At the National Press Club in Canberra on 22 March, ten journalists were given the privilege of addressing questions to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition on the subject of their debate, health and hospitals reform, a debate that was critiqued in the previous piece: Comprehending the Great Big New Health Debate.  

Amongst many striking aspects of that debate was the calibre of the questions asked by the ten journalists.  Presumably they were the cream of the media outlets that nominated them.  In a sense they represented the rest of us, those of us who would have valued the privilege of asking questions, but couldn’t.

How well did they ask questions on our behalf?  In my view, not all that well.  Which begs the question – is that the best there is?

This piece critically analyses the questions they asked, queries what some of them were hoping to achieve, and asks why most of the questions were unnecessarily verbose and at times scarcely intelligible.  In some instances a more succinct alternative is offered.

First I acknowledge the source of the questions – a piece by Grog on Grog’s Gamut of 23 March The Health Debate – Kevin grins, Tony grits, Journalists talk.  You will find it a reliable and very readable account of the health debate.

Referring to the questions asked, Grog observes: “...any journalist who complains about Rudd going on and on, should look at how long most of these questions are...”

Let’s take the questions seriatim.  They have been placed in italics.  Suggestions for alternative wording are in bold italics.  Because the questions are replicated verbatim, this piece is quite long.

Paul Bongiorno - Network 10
Prime Minister – why 60-40, why not 100%, aren’t you at least going to have a 40% blame game?

That is a sound question, laudably brief, but hardly incisive.

To Tony Abbot – I judge from your remarks today that you’re not happy with the 60-40, does that mean you want 100%, is that what you will hold out to the Australian people? And you’re critical of bureaucracy, who will run the hospital boards, who will appoint them? Will it be a new layer of bureaucrats, or will you trust the states this time as you didn’t when health minister and you felt they needed to hand over everything to the Federal Government?

Another reasonable question, but so tortuous.  Why not say: To Tony Abbot – I judge from your remarks today that you’re not happy with the 60-40; does that mean you want 100% Federal funding?  And as you’re critical of bureaucracy, what bureaucracy will be needed to run the hospital boards in your plan?

Like so many of his colleagues, Paul asks a multi-choice question, in this case about the bureaucracy: Who will run hospital boards?  Who will appoint them?  Will it be a new layer of bureaucrats? Will you trust the states this time as you didn’t when health minister...?

Why do journalists do this?  I suppose it’s to pack a number of questions into one, but it serves only to confuse the audience and lose their attention, and allows the politician to answer whatever part of the question that is easiest to address.

Did we get an answer to his multiple questions?  No.

Sandra O'Malley - AAP
“To both leaders – we’ve heard the horror stories of how the aging population will overwhelm the budget in the coming decades; at the same time many of us drink too much, smoke too much, don’t exercise enough, adding to the burden of chronic disease; at what point do Australians need to become more realistic about what they can expect governments to provide in terms of health care, and why shouldn’t there be a sensible debate about health care rationing as part of public health care policy into the future?”

That’s over eighty words.  She could have used just thirty words: With the aging population and the steadily increasing burden of chronic and lifestyle disease, should we be considering rationing health care rather than trying to meet people’s unrealistic expectations? 

But surely she didn’t expect a politician to endorse the concept of rationing, which makes it a silly question, a wasted question.  Why did she ask it?

Sue Dunlevy -The Daily Telegraph
“There’s a gaping cavity in this nation’s health care and I want to extract an answer from each of you on the problem. Over 1 in 4 Australians has untreated tooth decay – half a million are waiting for up to 10 years to get dental treatment, and we’re getting Thai Buddhist dentists coming out to Central Australia to do charity work because there are not enough services in this country.

“Kevin Rudd: your Health and Hospital Reform Policy on page 83 says we should have a nationally funded dental health plan paid for by a 0.54% increase in the Medicare levy – will you deliver it?

“Tony Abbott: you say in your book, Battlelines on page 104 Medicare should fund dental care for every Australian – will you deliver it?

That’s 126 words.  Questions about dental care are appropriate, but instead of the long-winded preamble, in which she tries to strike a clever note, why not simply ask: This question is to you both – please tell us your plans for dental care for which there is a pressing need?   And asking 'will you deliver it?' is hardly likely to elicit a negative response.

Lyndal Curtis - ABC Radio
“You both come into this debate with experience in health, as a bureaucrat and as a health minister, yet neither of you has brought your whole policy here.  We’re only months away from an election, and neither of you have the full answers to questions, like how are you going to deliver more hospital beds, what are you doing on aged care, and what you’re doing on mental health, isn’t this just a chance for you to score political points from each other, and isn’t that just what voters are heartily sick of?”

This was a typically acerbic Lyndal question and another multi-choice one – hospital beds, aged care, mental health.  She knows full well that neither intended to bring the full health policy to the debate – Rudd intends to present it in stages, possibly on the grounds that to reveal the lot at once would cause confusion in journalists’ minds, and have them accuse him once more of complexity and overkill.  Abbott never intended to reveal his, and it appears to be fragmentary anyway.  So why did Lyndal waste the question?

She could have asked: When will we see the full health policy from each side? Or How long will the electorate have to wait for the full policy from you both?  Or as Grog suggested: What are you going to do about aged care or mental health?

Mark Riley – Network Seven
“Prime Minister, of the $42b stimulus package about $16b was spent very visibly on improving schools, school halls, and sometimes duplicate school halls and libraries, I wonder if you can explain why none of that money was spent on another sector – the health sector, the hospital sector is crying out for capital investment – we visited dozens of schools [he meant hospitals] with you in recent months and it’s obvious that there’s a real need there for capital investment; why have there not been more operating theatres, more cancer centres built with that stimulus money that would have flowed through the economy just as well?

“And Mr Abbott if you take government before the money is spent would you redirect some of the stimulus spending, the infrastructure spending towards capital investment in hospitals, and if so how much?”

That’s over 130 words.  What a hotchpotch, and how inept.  If Mark doesn’t know by now that capital investment in such items as hospital theatres and cancer centres take lots of planning time, far more than was available to address the urgent problem of an economy heading towards recession, he should get another job.  And of course he had to give an unnecessary backhander over the BER just to be smart.

Why didn’t he say to Rudd: Why didn’t you spend some of the stimulus money on hospital theatres and cancer centres?  It would have been no sillier than the one he asked, would have taken much less time, and would have evoked the very response he got from Rudd which demonstrated how silly his question was.

Laura Tingle – Australian Financial Review
You’ve both talked about cutting bureaucracy as part of this whole exercise, but I’d like to know where between the 150 odd local hospital networks in the Labor’s case, or the 750 odd local hospital boards in your [Abbott] case who would actually run things? Who are those bodies going to answer to, are they all going to ring Jane Halten [the Secretary of the Dept of Health and Aging] in the Department of Health? Do you presume that when you get rid of area health services in New South Wales there will be nothing between them and head office in New South Wales? How is it actually going to work so that all the money you both say the Commonwealth doesn’t get enough say in, actually is accountable to the Commonwealth and Commonwealth taxpayers?”

Laura is a top journalist and her question was one that needs answering, but did it need over 130 words arranged confusingly into multiple questions?   Why not say: Since you both wish to reduce bureaucracy, how will you do this Mr Rudd with your regional networks, and Mr Abbott with your local hospital boards?  She could not expect anything other than general comments, which begs the question, was her question worth asking in the form in which she presented it?

Matthew Franklin – The Australian
Hi gentlemen, to Prime Minister I’d like to follow up on Mark Riley’s question. I understand why you spent the stimulus money, but when you sat down and worked it out, why did you decide that we need to put a building in every school rather than addressing what you here today say is a major problem and that is deficiencies in the health system; was it because you got more political bang for your buck by putting a school hall in every school, rather than a smaller number of hospital wards?”

I suppose Matthew thought he was being clever in asking this long winded question, but I wonder did he realize that an estimated 900,000 viewers were watching him being a smart aleck?  The question portrayed his bias, which has been on display in his articles in The Australian where the theme of ‘waste and mismanagement’ in the BER have been pursued with a fervour that has come to be the hallmark of News Limited papers.  The question was treated with the disdain it deserved.  It was a silly question, a wasted question.

“And Mr Abbott you have proposed to do something very un-Liberal – increase a tax to provide what some people say is an excessively generous paid parental leave scheme (but you wouldn’t say that would you – I think he just did... some people would) but I would just like to know, if health is so important have you considered… and why don’t you lift taxes so that you can find the money to make the sort of improvements that I think we all can agree are needed in the hospital system?”

What a contorted question, what gibberish, what grotesque English from a senior journalist from our national newspaper? 

Grog assessed Matthew’s questions thus: “...this question to Rudd was perhaps the worst of the day, and displayed even less economics acumen than did Riley’s. His question to Abbott was a better effort, but really did he seriously think Abbott was going to say he would increase taxes to pay for hospitals?

I won’t attempt to rephrase this silly question; it never should have been asked.

Michelle Grattan - The Age
“Mr Rudd, can I to take you to Private Health Insurance.  Apart from the means test on the rebate which you haven’t been able to get through the Senate, can you guarantee that if you’re elected for another term there will be no more changes to the Private Health Insurance rebate arrangement?”

Michelle should know by now that asking politicians to ‘guarantee’ anything is unlikely to evoke a positive response.  So why does she waste a precious question doing so?

“And to Mr Abbott, you’ve talked repeatedly about the problem of divided responsibility – you’ve said in Battlelines that any hospital reform program is beyond the states, we know that you have advocated a Federal takeover of policy and funding when you were in government and health minister, why can’t you just say now “I believe in the Commonwealth being the sole or dominant funder and having made policy responsibility, I will work out an alternative plan to the Government’s one, but taking that as the central principle?”

Another pointless question and long winded at that.  Abbott had already said he would reveal his health policy ‘well before the election’.  So why ask for it now – clearly he either didn’t have one or he was not going to tell us what it was.

It is surprising that someone as experienced as Michelle wasted both her questions.

Jayne Azzopardi Nine Network
“Look I want to talk about what I think most voters think about when it comes to hospital reform, and that’s bed numbers. Now Prime Minister you’ve mentioned funding from the past but you still say we need more beds, yet your plan doesn’t actually specify any extra beds, how can voters take you seriously this close to an election when you’ve called this debate and you haven’t covered that issue?”

Was there any need for the impertinent “Look I want to talk about” and “ can voters take you seriously...”.  Who does she think she is?  Is this the best Channel Nine can muster?  Had she forgotten that increases in bed numbers are already being funded?  Did she seriously think the reform plan would not address bed shortages?  Did she not read that greater emphasis on primary care was designed to treat more people outside of hospital, thereby reducing the number of hospital beds needed?  Why do journalists come to such debates so ill-informed, so ill-equipped to ask sensible questions?

“And Tony Abbott you talk about consideration of 3,500 new hospital beds; is that an iron clad promise or could the number reduce if you can’t find the money?”

Here we go again – asking for ‘an iron-clad promise’.  Abbott might hint that is his intention, but an iron-clad promise, no – he would not be that stupid.

Both questions were silly – a precious opportunity wasted.

Karen Middleton – SBS
“I have the same question for both leaders. The Prime Minister mentioned earlier that the patient should be the centre of this. One of the common complaints we hear from people using the health system now is that even if you have private health insurance you’re still out of pocket when you go to the doctor or you receive hospital treatment. We’ve heard a lot about funding and the structure of the system, but I’d like to ask, what are you polices going to do to reduce the out of pocket costs of people actually using the system – the patients?”

Out-of-pocket expenses are an issue, but why ask about them in the middle of a debate about a multi-facetted hospitals and health reform, as if she expected some announcement here and now to reduce them?  Co-payments are here to stay and with health funding likely to fall further and further behind that needed as the population ages, they are more likely to increase than decrease.   The reason the health debate is on now is that the cost of health care will be unsustainable via state budgets by 2050.   

So this is another wasted long winded question that could have been restricted to just her last sentence, if it was worth asking at all.

Andrew Probyn - West Australian
My question is directed at the Prime Minister primarily, but I know you’ll want a say, and it’s about activity based funding of hospitals, which is (for normal people) a fancy way of saying you pay for services that the hospitals provide. Victorians have been doing this for 17 years and they decided that the so-called case-mix doesn’t work for rural hospitals; in fact they dumped it, instead they give block grants. Now why do you think Prime Minister that a Federal activity based funding model would work when the Victorian Health Minister says it won’t no matter what weightings you give it?”

That was the last question and the most pertinent of all.  It did evoke a response from Rudd that he would consider block funding rural hospitals for which case-mix might prove unsuitable.  That has been described by the media variously as a ‘concession’, a ‘back flip’, a ‘change of policy’, or ‘policy on the run’.  It’s none of these.  Go back to the earliest statements on funding mechanisms and you will find that Kevin Rudd and Nicola Roxon both indicated that if case-mix funding proved unsuitable for rural hospitals, other funding mechanisms would be considered, and that no rural hospital would close because of unsuitable funding arrangements.  Some journalists have short memories or don’t listen attentively.

In summary, the calibre of the questions asked was poor.  Several were irrelevant or too vague, most were too wordy, some were convoluted, a few were impertinent, and all except a handful really challenged Rudd or Abbott or tripped them up.  Around a half were plain silly.  Opportunities to ask questions on such important occasions are few; what a pity so many were wasted by the journalists and the public they represented let down.  Being a journalist is a serious pursuit, not a game.  The privilege of asking important people questions on our behalf should be taken seriously.

Journalists seem not to understand even the fundamentals of questioning.  In medicine, where sound questioning is at the heart of decision making, it has long been known that the style of question governs the likely response.  Direct questions are likely to evoke a direct answer: “Are you intending to increase funding for mental health?”  Closed questions require a specific response: “Is your plan to double dental health funding?”  Leading questions demand a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer:  “Are you going to resign?”  Open questions do not presume a defined response.: “Tell us about your plans to improve primary health care?”  Each has its place, and should be used adroitly to elicit the type of response required.  It’s not that difficult, but seems to be beyond even some of our most experienced journalists. 

There seems to be a strong element of one-upmanship among journalists when asking questions, a touch of smart aleck behaviour, a trace of arrogance and impertinence, a degree of prolixity that sometimes surpasses that of the respondent, a level of gobbledegook that exceeds what they endlessly criticise the PM for speaking, a paucity of background information on the subject, a limited memory even for recent events, and a restricted capacity to ask relevant questions in a clear and succinct manner.

Which leads to the depressing question – is this the best there is?

Comprehending the Great Big New Health Debate

The tone was set at the beginning when a smiling Kevin Rudd shook hands with a scowling Tony Abbott.  I saw three different photos of the handshake; all were the same.  Did anyone see a smiling Abbott?  Was this another Latham moment?  Abbott seemed to be spoiling for a fight, a bare-knuckle no-holds-barred street scrap.  That’s the style of the pugilistic politician.   He knows no other.  Yet he didn’t get what he wanted today.

Like PK in the Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One, Rudd skipped around Abbott, boxing positively, adroitly avoiding Abbott’s wild negative swings, riding his angry and at times vicious punches, and landing a few stinging blows himself.

As we seem to be a society obsessed with winning and losing, who won?  That depends on your criteria.

As a well argued debate such as might be witnessed in a debating society, it was not a classic.  There was little cut and thrust over significant points, except perhaps the Government’s accusation that ‘the Coalition ripped $1billion out of the health care system’.  More of that later.

As a debate where new aspects of policy were exposed, it was largely ineffectual; little new emerged.  It was never likely that would be so as that was not the purpose of the debate.

It is more appropriate to rate it as a political debate; it was always intended to be just that.  That is what was set up in parliament last week.   Rudd and Labor wanted to portray Abbott’s and the Coalition’s flimsy health policy and to expose Abbott’s negativity and the Coalition’s obstruction. 

In my opinion Rudd won the political debate by a country mile.  Others will disagree; I would like to see their rationale.  Rudd came across as a man with a policy, and was agreeable, smiling, positive, well informed, and willing to be collaborative.  Abbott came across as having a poorly developed policy, offering only a promise of one before the election, and was angry, aggressive, sullen, at times surly, and overwhelmingly carping and negative.  Those in studio audiences using the worm rejected Abbott’s approach and applauded Rudd’s.  The worm can and probably will be ignored as a gimmick by those who reject its findings or its implications, but to do so would be foolish.

What did you think?  No doubt there will be many expert opinions advanced by the commentariat, influenced by what they hoped would happen. 

Paul Kelly gave a balanced commentary on a video on The Australian website. He said Rudd had the best of the debate and Labour would be pleased, but threw Abbott a crumb for making the point that Rudd’s policy was ‘not a transforming policy’, and giving him the excuse that it was hard debating when he didn’t have a health policy.  Poor Tony!

Peter Hartcher wrote a telling paragraph in the SMH in Worm tales: Negativity works against Abbott: “Each leader played to type. Kevin Rudd played the positive leader with a plan. Tony Abbott played the negative opponent with a gripe.”  He added: “But so long as Rudd radiated leadership and positivity, so long as he kept working the vein of public worry over hospitals, he was on winning positive proposal of his own, his negativity invited a matching negativity from the voting public.”   He concluded – I don’t understand why: But while the debate worked better for the Prime Minister than for the Opposition Leader, that doesn't mean Rudd has won the argument.”  Really!

In the SMH, Mark Davis in Leaders go hard on an issue that really counts wrote “In their five-minute prepared openings, both men chose the most obvious gambits from the political playbooks.  As the incumbent and still relatively fresh-faced Prime Minister only two years in office, Rudd went for the big picture and the vision thing.  But he also cleverly personalized the complex issue of hospital reform for voters, retailing stories about his own childhood and linking these tales to concerns today's parents have for the health of their children. As the Opposition Leader installed by his Liberal colleagues to sharpen differences with the government, Abbott played the negative card as hard and as often as he could. He attacked the Prime Minister's trustworthiness, accused him of telling lies, and branded him too incompetent to fix something as complex as the hospital system.”

The ABC’s online network editor Gillian Bradford in The worm declares victory for Rudd said: “Mr Rudd held tight to his successful formula focusing on ‘country hospitals’, ‘rich or poor’, ‘mums and dad’ and even ‘join with us in the positive’.  The worm loved it. Several times it went off the scale for Mr Rudd. Not once did it reach such heights for Mr Abbott.  Some Labor insiders thought Mr Rudd was ‘crazy brave’ to take on this debate.  But the worm has spoken, the gamble paid off.”

On The Drum Barrie Cassidy said in Positivity the best policy as Rudd tweets ahead: “Kevin Rudd looked like a prime minister and Tony Abbott behaved like an opposition leader. Unusually for Rudd, he didn't waste a word. Even though the topic can be complex, not once did he leave his audience behind. He stayed positive throughout and eschewed the temptation to ‘stay on message’ by simply mouthing annoying clichés, the stock in trade of federal ministers these days.  You don't need a worm on the screen to tell you that negativity doesn't work in debates; but when you see it as we did today, it brings it home with a thud.  Abbott couldn't take a trick. In order to take some of the wind out of the Government's plan - and that's all it is - he had to attack Rudd's record and point to the limitations of the proposal.  But without one of his own to promote, it came across as a whingeing, carping exercise. And not a very pleasant one at that. If only he could have seen the worm, then the alarm bells would have gone off.”

On The Drum Unleashed Tim Dunlop in Substance trumps speedos said: “Today's debate between Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott on the subject of health care reform was an unequivocal disaster for Tony Abbott. To the extent that we haven't any feedback on how the public responded to the two leaders, we have to rely on the ‘worms’ provided by Channels Seven and Nine and, despite some degree of difference between the two stations, the overall results were unambiguous: Kevin Rudd won hands down.  This is somewhat surprising in that we have been treated to a veritable avalanche of opinion from various sectors of the media since Mr Abbott took over from Malcolm Turnbull (remember him?) that the voters were sick to death of the ‘nerdy’ Kevin Rudd and were warming to the ‘authenticity’ of Mr Abbott.  These have been the key elements of a media narrative that argues that people somehow were growing to hate the bookish, long-winded and wonkish Kevin Rudd and were embracing the allegedly more appealing, down-to-earth and macho Tony Abbott.”

In The Australian Joe Kelly wrote in a piece PM will change health funding policy to save regional hospitals: “Kevin Rudd will consider changes to his public hospital takeover plan over fears of cost rises and closures of regional hospitals. The Prime Minister conceded that the Victorian model of charging for services had not worked for country hospitals and pledged to change his system if the same problems emerged.”  Rudd did say that, but he and Nicola Roxon have been saying this for a fortnight, emphasizing funding will be adjusted to ensure that  no small hospital will close.  Other reporters have commented similarly – where have they been?  Joe Kelly didn’t offer a ‘winner’.

Hugh Riminton of Ten News gave the points clearly to Rudd.  Mark Riley of Channel Seven gave it to Rudd and Gary Morgan on that channel said Rudd was a clear winner.  Channel Nine’s Laurie Oakes believes that the contest was closer than the worm suggested, but gave no reason for his view.  He conceded that Rudd probably won, but that Tony did pretty well.  Channel One’s Chris Uhlmann, who compèred the debate, gave an even handed appraisal, but favoured Rudd’s performance.

On this blog site we have been critical of the partisan backing given to the Opposition by some of the journalists at The Australian.  Bushfire Bill’s last post Why is Kevin Rudd so unpopular – Polls, popularity and the Icarus Syndrome spells this out.  Maybe the efforts of The Oz backfired today. 

Today’s editorial in that paper We need answers, not accusations on health, begins by trying to debunk the accusation that the Coalition ‘ripped 1$ billion out of the health care system’ during the time Abbott was health minister, an accusation he vehemently denies.  The editorial begins: “The big fat lie being peddled by the Rudd Government – that Tony Abbott ripped $1billion out of the public hospital system – falls on three counts.  First, the Opposition Leader can scarcely be accused of gouging the states when he was not even health minister at the time the funding was done”.  Can you believe an editor could write that?  What the Government is saying is that it was while he was health minister he ripped out the funds, not before that.  The fact is that a 6.3% annual increase in health funding to the states was promised in 2003 but only a 5.3% increase was delivered during Abbott’s time, which amounts to $1billion less than promised.  Call it what you will – the Coaltion short-changed the states; the Government calls that ‘gouging’.  Today for the first time, during the debate, Abbott conceded that there was a reduction.

The Australian then said “Second, the so-called cut was a relatively small reduction in previously projected increase in funds to the states.”  A relatively small reduction?   $1 billion dollars – really?

Finally the editorial says: “And third, the $1billion-plus reduction over five years from July 2003 was designed to partly offset John Howard’s subsidies to private health funds, and thus to private hospitals.”  So that’s the justification – why not wait to see if the subsidies actually achieved that outcome?

It concludes: “The Rudd Government is desperate to attack the Coalition’s credentials on health and hospital spending, but it will have to do better than this.”  No it won’t.  This will do and today it did.  Abbott may not thank The Oz for urging his denial on to the point where it is clearly ridiculous.

Then today we find that in creating its spurious graph of expenditure, the Coalition had included monies contributed by the Rudd Government.  Having exposed this, the graph was withdrawn from the Coalition website and was not used in today’s debate.  In any case, the graph Coalition members were waving around is grossly truncated, a dirty statistical trick used by those who wish to make results look much better than they are.  With much of the columns missing it deceives the viewer into thinking the bits at the top mean more than they do.

So The Oz, in urging their man on, did him a disservice; it should take note.

No doubt there will be other learned critiques in tomorrow’s press; I wonder what Shanas will say?

So how do we appraise today’s debate?

Many of you have already expressed your views on the previous piece; here is a chance to do so here.

It seems that Kevin Rudd is fully back to his 2007 form.   While he exhibits that, and Tony Abbott relies on negativity, carping criticism and unconvincing alternative policy, he will flounder around, flailing his arms wildly, landing few blows, and exhausting himself while Rudd waits patiently to land the killer blow.

Federal politics changed ominously for the Coalition today.

What do you think?

Why is Kevin Rudd so unpopular? Polls, popularity and the Icarus Syndrome



Regulars here will know that my last piece was entitled Is Rudd tying the bootstrappers’ bootlaces for them?  I argued that Rudd’s mea culpa had been an unnecessary concession to a media bootstrap campaign, unwisely and retrospectively bestowing validity upon it. Rudd, in my opinion, had stuck his chin out, virtually saying to his enemies, “Come on! Hit me!”

The media dutifully expressed wonder at the mea culpa. We had words like ‘extraordinary’ applied to it by some scribes. A few of the more egregious weasels opined that Rudd’s government wasn’t that bad, they’d done some good things etc. so why apologize? Dark hints that Rudd possessed a guilty conscience were trotted out, or suggestions that he had over-reacted. They all served to shore up the insinuation that the weakling Prime Minister had lost the plot and was therefore unfit to occupy the office, either through his misdeeds or by caving in too quickly to attacks on his character (attacks made by the same scribes that called Rudd’s reaction to them ‘extraordinary’, it should be noted).

Just today (Friday) Dennis Shanahan, in an article titled Spooked government gets down and dirty told us:

”... Rudd, unlike Howard or Beazley, has never been observed under pressure. Now he is under pressure for the first time and many Labor MPs, backbenchers and front benchers, are less than impressed with what they see.”

“Never been observed under pressure”? Is Dennis forgetting the GFC, or the pressure of the forged Utegate email? Well, no matter, let’s leave those to one side for the moment.

According to Shanahan, not only is Rudd spooked, but so is the whole Labor party. And all because Rudd is personally ‘under pressure’... pressure from Shanahan and his pals at News Limited, as well as other sources joining in the feeding frenzy. How convenient.

So, seriously, why is Kevin Rudd so unpopular?

Let's go through some of the latest reasons...

You could say some projects have been stuffed-up, others delayed. That would be one reason. The public might be getting antsy at the lack of performance.

The Coalition and The Australian (aided by the likes of the has-been Michelle Grattan, Fran Kelly and the thankfully now-departed Glenn Milne) are certainly doing their best to drum up an avalanche of scandal from a snowball’s worth of mishaps in both the Insulation and Schools projects.

To read the front pages of the Murdoch and Fairfax rags you’d be forgiven wondering why responsible parents weren’t keeping their moppets at home due to all the over-priced, under-engineered BER libraries and covered study areas that were about to come crashing down around their little pink ears. If these constructions had been insulated, then no doubt this would only double the potential woes of our nation’s little folk.

Thankfully Julia Gillard has been around to absolutely skewer the Coalition’s attack upon her beloved BER scheme. In an outrageously funny QT yesterday (Thursday, the final parliamentary sitting day), she batted away each and every question on fraud and customer complaints with ease, and in excruciating detail, making fools of her inquisitors at the same time. As far as Insulgate is concerned, Greg Combet has taken the project under his wing and is proceeding efficiently towards rectification of any real problems (we’ll have to leave the unreal problems to the eager media to continue on with).

Of course the elephant in the room is the Rudd government’s response to the GFC, which has left Australia the envy of the world, as far as economic performance is concerned. Chalk up another ‘good’ performance there, and of course remember the WorkChoices repeal, a main plank of the 2007 election campaign, and another major promise kept.

Despite some things going awry (as they do in a trillion dollar economy), and the roadblock to progress that was the GFC for about 12 months, it looks like we can cross ‘Performance’ – real performance – mostly off the Christmas list of the causes of Rudd’s huge unpopularity. Sure there have been mistakes, but when viewed objectively they don’t add up to the ‘debacles’ they’re being called for.

As to his personality, you could say that Rudd is too prolix; that he spews out words like confetti, many of them signifying nothing. People have trouble understanding him. He is a classic nerd, and probably a smartarse as well, hiding behind words... unlike his counterpart, Tony Abbott who punches aggressively above his weight in a David and Goliath pugilistic contest: the Straight Talker wears boxing gloves.

I guess there is some truth to some of this criticism. Rudd does come across as wordy. There is a lot of the bureaucrat in him, the kind of person who thinks life is full of ‘stakeholders’ and ‘critical paths’, ‘performance milestones’, ‘best of breed’ options, and that a good plan isn’t worth anything unless it has ‘mission critical benchmarks’, ‘incentivized deliverables’ and most important of all: ‘programmatic specificity’.

But consider that, for the nearly 36 months before, Rudd had been the most consistently popular Prime Minister in Australian political history. He was prolix then. He used big words then. He mixed up his metaphors and switched styles to suit the occasion then. His character flaw (if indeed it was a character flaw) didn’t seem to affect his popularity one little bit. It seems unlikely that the public could turn so viciously against him in such a short space of time as three months. So his unpopularity can’t be all down to his personality. Some, maybe, but not all.

Julia Gillard
Speaking of the ravishing redhead, the latest story has her poised to flick her little finger, whereby the Hard Men of the Labor Right will put on their suit coats and march off to Rudd’s office. Rudd will be heaved out the window into the courtyard below and Julia will move into the PM’s suite over the weekend. It’s a pity that Julia Gillard is of the Left side of the party, otherwise this concoction might have some ephemeral credibility.

But for the moment let’s rule out the Gillard Factor from our calculations, especially as it involves an unconvincing surge of gushing approval from the likes of Alan Jones and the rest of the right wing hate squad just waiting to tear her apart if it ever happened (as they tore Rudd apart, or tried and failed to, in 2006-2007 after he replaced Beazley). No, the Gillard Factor is just too silly to seriously consider as a reason for Rudd’s unpopularity.

Tony Abbott
Tony Abbott is put to us by the media as a force of nature. He is permanently angry, pugnacious, simmering, lean-and-hungry-looking. Abbott is portrayed as a shock to the system, an Exocet missle that will come crashing through the thin skinned government battleship to wipe it out in a catastrophic one-off hit. All the government’s fancy ways and high-falutin’ airs will be obliterated with just a single direct hit from the Abbott aerial torpedo, coming from out of nowhere to wipe the "shit-eating grins" off Labor faces..

Once again, there is a certain amount of truth here. Abbott does have a superficial appeal to a certain edgy element that hates Labor and which, for two years, has been wandering in the wilderness, aimlessly following the previous two incumbent leaders, Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull as they walked around in circles, trying not to bump into John Howard.

An emaciated Liberal Party, running low on food, water and numbers, needs a truly biblical figure to show them the way back to the oasis of the government benches. Howard's gone to the cricket. He is out of "currency" big time. So bring on Howard's dark angel, Tony Abbott. Abbott seems to know where he is going. He certainly breathes enough fire and brimstone to be classified as ‘biblical’. So why not follow him? What other choice do the Coalition parties have? Jolly Joe Hockey? Julie Bishop? Peter Dutton? Chris Pyne? I don’t think so.

With his SES training, Abbott can supply the rallying point, rekindle the almost spent hopes of his party and at least do something that looks useful. He's been lost and found in the desert recently, so he's in training for the Big Walk Home. Following Abbott is better than standing still and perishing on the spot, or getting run down by a B-Double at a photo-op. Better to die trying than not to have tried at all. It’s about time the Coalition got themselves a leader with a little bit of get-up-and-go, and who cuts a dash in red Speedos and blue lycra for the ladies. Naturally, those Coalition voters who thought Rudd was a better Prime Minister than either Turnbull or Nelson, and who disapproved of those two duds, would defect back towards the general direction of home territory when someone half-decent turned up and made belligerent, honking noises. That should be enough to put Abbott at, say 30% in the PPM stakes, shouldn’t it?

But there is still a yawning chasm between observable flaws, foibles, character idiosyncracies, Julia's little finger, Tony Abbott’s provision of an emergency assembly point for the lost Coalition, and the meme of a failed Rudd Prime Ministership.

There must be more to Rudd’s extreme unpopularity than the above.

There is: the Bootstrapper.

The Media's Parallel Universe: The Icarus Syndrome
We turn again to the Shanahan article:

 ” Labor MPs fear they are about to witness the fulfilment of their own prophetic nightmare of the personal failure of Rudd much sooner than they expected. It's the internal version of the public's concerns about failing to meet high expectations. 

...Rudd has ... been a frontrunner and has no track record of being behind or fighting back since he entered parliament.

This vision of Rudd and the lack of evidence of an ability to recover from a rebuff is frightening Labor MPs.”

Once again Dennis has forgotten the GFC response and the comprehensive demolition of Malcolm Turnbull over Utegate.  If they were not fight backs, then I don’t know what was. Rudd's surge in the polls after seeing off Turnbull had to be seen to be believed.

Labor is on 52/48 2PP, and has been either there or 53/47 in Newspoll for two months. Essential Research has Labor at 56/44, Morgan at 55.5/44.5. Rudd’s Labor government leads the Coalition on just about every metric, according to Essential, and is seen as more connected, more trustworthy, looking after the interests of working families, has a good team of leaders, more moderate, understanding the problems facing Australia, keeping its promises, and as being professional in its approach, way out in front of the Coalition on all of these standards. 

Only on negative metrics does Laborfall behind Abbott’s band of wilderness wanderers: voters think the Coalition will promise to do anything to win votes, is out of touch with ordinary people, is extreme and divided.

On ‘too dominated by its leader’ the scores are within one per cent of each other.

Does this sound like a recipe for Kevin Rudd’s alleged ‘personal failure’ to you?

Shanahan has moved beyond Rudd’s ‘personal failure’ and has turned it into a Labor party full of Nervous Nellies, too used to being supreme in the polls to be of any use in a real fight, once the polls tank. Of course the polls haven’t tanked, but ‘tanking polls’ are an essential part of the story. So the bootstrappers simply readjust their interpretations.

A few Newspolls (as distinguished from other organizations’ polls) have shown Labor’s electoral lead to be steady-as-she-goes for the past two months. True, the Prime Minister, mainly in Newspoll, had seen his "Approve" metric fall below the conveniently defined “benchmark” of 50% (funny, it used to be PPM that was all-important). Newspoll's famous skew towards the Coalition comes in handy when a measure of approvel jumps a per cent or two below a newly discovered benchmark, while the other polls remain above it. Although he is still far, far ahead of Abbott on Preferred Prime Minister and his government is way ahead on most positive aspects of performance, including an election-winning lead in the crucial 2PP calculation. To counter the facts Shanahan has turned to Greek mythology to help promote another myth. He has invented, and he and his brother bootstrappers are promoting The Icarus Syndrome

Simply put, The Icarus Syndrome says:

“Rudd must fly higher than anyone else or he is a failure and his party will crumble before our eyes. But if he ascends too close to the sun he will crash and burn."

Once his waxed wings melt, Rudd will plummet to Earth and die a painful political death, taking his party with him. Amen. So says The Icarus Syndrome.

Absent an Icarus Syndrome – the artificial construction dreamt up by Rudd’s media critics to explain why such good polling results are really a disaster – Rudd’s and his government’s performance, at this stage of the electoral cycle, just looking at the figures and the history, are streets ahead of any other government or opposition from the last quarter of a century.

You can see the figures here   Redoubtable ‘Aristotle’, psephy blogger par excellence, provides side by side comparisons on political polling in third year of term of governments going back to the mid-1980s. His conclusion, devastatingly backed up by a comprehensive listing of polls since 1987, is as follows: 

” In 2010, compared to these previous elections, Tony Abbott's Coalition is in the poorest position of all previous oppositions, both on voting intentions and better prime minister ratings.”

Aristotle adds this caution:

”When we undertake analysis through the prism of the intellectual probabilities rather than the emotional possibilities, we often find that the conclusions may not be consistent with our pre-conceived notions or, indeed, the conventional wisdom.”

For ‘pre-conceived notions’ read ‘bootstrapped fairy stories’: memes put about by the media to make it look like there's a close contest out there. For Rudd’s government to defy the numerical wisdom of decades and fail in its first term, the Icarus Syndrome had to be invented. The Icarus Syndrome explains the credibility gap between wishful thinking (perhaps too whimsical-sounding a term for the improperly reported political polling that has been applied to the Rudd government) and... Hellooo! Anyone there?... reality.

While not all the Rudd government's promises have been kept, or kept as per the original schedule, and while Rudd the man has personality foibles and annoying traits, and while Julia is the next in line but is making no move to do anything about it, and while Tony Abbott is blustering around shouting challenges, thumping tables and throwing haymakers for the fans in the cheap seats, at the moment it appears to be inconceivable that having survived Utegate, Hostiegate, Insulgate, School Gate, the GFC, and all the other ‘scandals’ that have been trumped up against it, the Rudd government and its leader are headed anywhere but the Gold Medal ceremony at the next election.

So why is Kevin Rudd so unpopular?

The answer is... he isn’t... except if you subscribe to the bootstrapped fantasies of half-a-dozen senior journalists working out of a boiler room in Holt St, Surry Hills. Add in a few mates at the ABC and Fairfax, plus a couple of shock jocks on the Singleton network and you have the full rogue's gallery. Sprinkle a dash of Icarus Syndrome blarney and stir. These sociopaths in the media have one aim in mind: to nobble democracy in this country whatever the price in good governance and common sense. This is unsurprising, as neither of these has ever been of high priority to their boss (or for the ABC and Fairfax bootstrappers, possibly, even  hopefully their future boss), the wrinkled old man in New York with the dyed hair, a genuinely fake Australian, who pulls the strings down-under for his own devious purposes, but never for ours. 

 Postscript: if any readers think I'm being overly melodramatic or inventive with my "Icarus Syndrome" explanation, read this, from a Shanahan article, circa March 2008: Nelson's hopes lie in Icarus Rudd... and Abbott's hopes too, it seems. The Icarus Syndrome is a Shanahan invention, 100%, scribbled out on one of his little pieces of paper, ready to be dusted off and used against Rudd for some time now.