The antediluvian media

I’ve been wondering what chronic disability it is that has been afflicting so much of the media, wondering why its political commentary is so predictable yet so often lacking in depth, so devoid of clarifying insights.   Where have the competent columnists gone?  We know there is a handful, and we know who they are.  We are even more aware of the rabble rousers: the Akermans, the Bolts, the Milnes, and those who, while being capable of writing decent articles such as the Shanahans, so often abandon journalistic standards to write disgracefully partisan pieces with one aim – to demean and pull down Kevin Rudd and his Government, to make it a ‘oncer’.

A plausible diagnosis of this affliction is journalistic sclerosis, a chronic and incurable condition, the result of advancing age and an unwillingness or incapacity to undergo renewal and adapt to the realities of contemporary communication and the trends of latter day politics.  This condition is aggravated by an infective process, the organism responsible being Coalitiococcus which leads to partisanitis, a chronic condition subject to acute exacerbations.  There is no cure once the condition is established.  Even when it appears to be quiescent, it can flare up with the slightest aggravation into a fulminating illness that only time can resolve.  Immunization against the offending organism might reduce the prevalence of partisanitis, but the sclerosis appears to be irreversible.

How has this condition taken hold?  Since most of the mature journalists are now middle aged, their background is from another era.  The Internet has come upon them, Facebook and Twitter have arrived, the Fifth Estate has proliferated and is challenging their previously exclusive right to report political events, offer opinions, pontificate, and sit in judgement on politicians, their actions and the political process.  Their authority and their right to do all this has not been challenged until fairly recently, but the blogosphere has arisen to contest that right, and they don’t like it.

Reflect on the era in which they grew up professionally.  While some like Paul Kelly, Michelle Grattan, Laurie Oakes, Malcolm Farr and Paul Bongiorno would remember well the days of Hawke and Keating, even Whitlam and as far back as Menzies, many contemporary journalists would be more familiar with the Howard era that stretched for so many years.  They would be used to his style of governing and the way he used the media.  But it seems as if they have failed to progress as fast as John Howard did.  He made talk back radio an art form, appeared regularly on TV, and paid careful attention to the media cycle. 

Kevin Rudd has followed this trend and extended it.  Although it might be expected that the media would welcome Rudd’s attention to the media cycle, instead he is incessantly criticized for being ‘obsessed with the media cycle’.  Can you understand this?  Why would they be so upset?  Is it because Rudd’s media focus causes them to get off their butts to cope with it?  Is it because they believe they should control the media cycle, not Rudd?  They seem to suggest that policy formulation and attention to the media cycle are incompatible.  They are not.  Rudd believes that if he is to communicate effectively with the electorate he needs to be out there every day with a photo opportunity, a grab for the evening TV news, a message that his Government is active, doing things.  Why is he pilloried for this?  Are the journalists upset that Rudd is calling the shots, not them; is it that they feel he is using them and the media for his political advantage?  Well that’s exactly what he’s doing; they had better get used to it.  And when he uses Twitter and Facebook and his website to promulgate his messages to different audiences, they pour scorn on these mechanisms.  Why?  Is it because they bypass their conduits to the people?  Is it because they believe they are the media and how dare Rudd circumvent them?  Is it because Rudd reportedly treats many of them with utter disdain?  It’s said that journalists dislike Rudd but like Abbott, a good bloke that they find easy to relate to.  Maybe this results in payback because Rudd declines to be obsequious, and so they strike at him with the power of their pens.

There is a preoccupation in the media with what it regards as the ‘cynical use of the media’ for political purposes by politicians, especially Rudd and Government ministers.  They regularly look for some sinister reason for an announcement.  Is it to distract from the Government’s problems?  Is it to steal a march on his opponents?  Is it to get ahead of some unpleasant news?  Is it a way of making the pace?  Yes, it is all those things, and the media doesn’t like it.  They like to be in control; who does Rudd think he is?

So they counter this upstart through two approaches:

First, they demean the man as often as possible with as many of his supposed ‘misdemeanours’ as can be mustered, and repeat them endlessly with the hope they will be burned, mantra-like, into the psyche of the voters.  You know them well – the bad-tempered Rudd, the rude Rudd, the slave-driver Rudd, the control-freak Rudd, the fight-with-friends Rudd, the unpopular Rudd, the use-religion-for-political-purposes Rudd, the Jekyll and Hyde Rudd, the policy-on-the-run Rudd, the all-spin-no-substance Rudd, the all-promise-no-delivery Rudd, the petulant Rudd, the bullying-the-premiers Rudd, the fake pseudo-ocker Rudd, the he-uses-funny-talk Rudd, the fair-shake-of-the-sauce-bottle Rudd, the sham hollow Rudd.  Even the nerdish Rudd, the hardworking Rudd, the policy wonk Rudd, the reviewing Rudd, far from attracting a modicum of admiration, are all held up for scorn.  Examples are catalogued – Scores, Burke, RAAF hostie, hairdryer story, overworked staff that never see their kids, excessive staff turnover, bullying colleagues stories, murmurings about a successor and talk about Julia Gillard as the next PM.  These bits of boilerplate are trotted out monotonously to make the case that Rudd is no good, no good at all, and very temporary.

Second, they paint everything he does as cynically opportunistic.  They foster a high level of suspicion.  Why did he announce that today?  What was he trying to hide or obscure?  What’s the reason for this or that action?  Whatever it is, it must be sinister, devious, insincere, because you know that’s the way Rudd is.  They castigate him when he seems to them to discard what they consider to be lofty principle in favour of pragmatic solutions, although his predecessor did this repeatedly without the disapproval they reserve for Rudd.  They set up straw men of high principle to which they pay allegiance so they can lament Rudd’s lack of adherence to them.  They fume with righteous indignation, insist that he must use up his ‘political capital’ to stand by the principle, yet by their very words furtively hope that he will use all of it up and stand exposed as a target for their venom and for untimely defeat. 

The media, by and large, is mad with Rudd, and they intend to punish him.  So they have embarked on the most intense and unremitting attack on almost everything he does.  Even the announcement of an increase in the tobacco levy and the changes to cigarette packaging are greeted, not with praise for an important health initiative, but with suspicion regarding the timing of the announcement, with cynicism about his intent.  They do not accept that the move is to improve health, reduce deaths, lower health costs and fund prevention – no, it’s to fill a budget void brought about by the ‘bribes’ he offered the premiers to get his health reform deal accepted.  His motivations are always suspect, never pure.

The uncomfortable fact for them is that Rudd keeps them guessing.  He runs his own agenda.  He refuses to comply with what the media thinks a PM should be, should think, and should say.  Why can’t he be predictable like Howard was?  Why can’t he be the sort of politician they want him to be?  Why can’t he go along with their expectations?  Why does he despise some media outlets and refuse to use them?  They rail against what they see as the arrogance of the man in not complying with what they have come to expect as their right.

Instead of trying to placate them, to go along with their self-centred demand for recognition, their self-seeking insistence on compliance with their requirements, he thumbs his nose at many of them and goes his own sweet way.  They long for the good-old-days, oblivious of the reality that they are long gone and will not return.  They have lost control of the media flow.  There are too many others involved, too many other modes of communication, too many listening to others outside the MSM.  Their power and influence is fading and they hate it.  The Fifth Estate calls them to account, and they resent it.  After all they have always called the shots; they have been the king-makers and the king-dethroners.  How dare the people ignore them, how dare they no longer buy their papers as before, how dare they ignore their privileged position?

Their journalistic sclerosis, complicated by recurrent bouts of Coalitiococcal partisanitis, has rendered many MSM journalists redundant and ineffective, ignored by more and more of the people.  Have they ever asked why it is that despite their malignant attacks on Rudd over many, many months, he still comes out smelling like roses in most opinion polls?  Have they queried why their perpetual condemnation, their endless venomous stories, their unwillingness to give more than perfunctory credit when it’s due, is having so little effect on Rudd’s ratings?  While they are down somewhat from their stratospheric highs, for all the vitriol poured on him, Rudd should now be well into in negative territory if the people were taking notice.  Do journalists ask themselves why that is not so?

The simple answer is that all except the rusted-on voters have stopped listening, have stopped believing what groupthink-afflicted journalists are feeding them day after day.  The Rudd they see and know from TV clips on news and current affairs programmes, talkback radio and personal contact during community visits does not correspond with the Rudd the media paints.  And they prefer to believe what they see and hear.

This piece offers the view that much of the MSM is antediluvian – a pitiable state of being sadly out of touch with contemporary political reality, alas unrecognized by so many of the journalists who inhabit that space.  Recovery is unlikely.

What do you think?


Which Tony has the twin?

Or, 'Change You Can't Believe In'.

G'day.  This is the first in an occasional series of commentary pieces that I will be submitting in the run-up to our federal election. Merely one other perspective, but one which I hope you will find interesting and informative and good for discussion.

So, as first cab off the rank I thought I'd take the UK Conservative Party in National Election mode for a drive and see how its policies compare with those we are likely to see from the Coalition in the run-up to our federal election, as they attempt to engage in message management and providing the electorate with certain expectations of the direction they would take in government.

I will attempt to divine the common threads that make up the cloth that the world-wide conservative movement's clothes are cut from, as I do believe they have a concerted and co-ordinated campaign to each move in the same direction. Not that I am saying that there is anything wrong with that, as I am sure that there is a similar attempt being made by all the social democrats in parliaments around the world to coordinate their policy objectives and actions. All I am seeking to do here is make observations about the consanguineous actions of the conservative political forces.

First, let's start with the heading of the UK Conservative Election Manifesto:

'Invitation to Join the Government'.

Fine. I can see how this tantalising offer would make the thought bubbles pop up above the heads of all the legends in their own lunchtimes out in the electorate who are constantly invigorated by the thought that they could do it better than the government, no matter what the area of policy. In much the same way as the Liberal Party here likes to appeal to the 'Aspirational' in all of us. This is a superficially but powerfully appealing idea. You know, you too are good enough to rule the UK/Australia with us, and we'll let you (or we'll let you believe we are letting you join in running the country with us, but, really, you won't be – we, and our mates out there in your community will).

I class Tony Abbott's policy of Local Hospital Boards, run by doctors, nurses and 'worthy' members of the local community in this group, as I am sure that in practice you would find that the Board members would be sourced from those members of the community with sympathies to Coalition policy. That is, the sentiment sounds fine as a generality, but in specific practice I think you would find that it would result in the entrenchment of atomised units sympathetic to Conservative/Liberal ideals and remote from centralised coordinated control, able to virtually go their own way as far as the day-to-day running of these systems is concerned. I've cause to reflect also upon the Conservative diaspora's predilection for allowing 'Faith-Based Initiatives' to be involved closely in running services.

I admit, it's the above-mentioned sort of sentiment that appeals to the vanity of 'individuals', which, when used properly, motivates all of us to achieve and aim as high as possible in our lives, but, directed inappropriately, can lead to bullying and authoritarian behaviour, as some of us believe we know what is best for the rest of us. Thus we may well see those sorts of people manoeuvring into the positions in the community that are created by these policies. Considering the primacy of the individual in conservative philosophy the genesis of such policies is obvious. As it says in the Outline of Principles of The International Democratic Union, the umbrella body of all the centre right political parties in the world, (whose Chairman of the Board just happens to be one, John Winston Howard), they are: 'dedicated to a society of individuals working together in partnership for the common good.'  Also, don't forget that corporations are also considered 'individuals', especially in the context of conservative policy, most obviously in America, where they enjoy some extraordinary rights.

Thus I imagine that the 'individual', 'individual choice', and 'empowerment of individuals' will be mantras that will issue forth from the lips of Coalition MPs in our own election campaign as well.  

Also, when you read the following core principle of the IDU:   '...that political democracy and private property are inseparable components of individual liberty and that the socially-oriented market economy provides the best means of creating the wealth and material prosperity to meet the legitimate aspirations of individuals (my emphasis), and of tackling social evils such as  unemployment and inflation', you can see where Tony Abbott was coming from last week when he attacked the 'social evil of unemployment' by advocating the market-based solution of transporting the 'dole-bludging' ne'er-do-wells to the mines of WA. As the IDU is supportive of 'believing that this is the most effective and beneficial way of providing (for) individual initiative and enterprise, responsible economic development, (and) employment opportunities', what else would he think was the solution for 'the social evil of unemployment'?

Thus, when we look at the attitudes of the Conservatives in the UK with respect to devolving control of Schools, the Police Force, and the Health system to local individuals, communities or boards – hey, why have a government at all?...except for Defence and National Security policy-making and a National Spy/Federal Police force to monitor the citizenry.  Why not just let all the fine, upstanding 'individuals' in our communities run everything instead?  Surely they'd do a better job than 'big, bad, bureaucratized, centralised government' (except in the above-mentioned instances)?

You can be sure when you hear lines like that you are hearing conservative parties the world over singing from the same song sheet. A song sheet provided by the IDU, who believe in 'A society of individuals working together for the common good'.

Now, what you have to ask yourself is, 'How valid a concept in practice can that be?'  I think it would lead, if allowed to go to its ultimate conclusion, to a laissez faire-like, barely-controlled, semi-anarchic chaos, similar to that which we have just experienced as a prelude to the Global Financial Crisis/Chaos.

I'd really like to hear your opinions about this, and especially from those conservative-leaning commentators here, as to how they think that social atomisation policies CAN work for the Common Weal? That is, other than by mouthing motherhood statements back to me like, 'Individual success is good for the Nation'. Obviously. However, what I'm more interested in teasing out is the reason why you think that atomising society like the Conservative parties of the world want to do is a superior ethos to having a paternalistic-style government which runs and decides policy in all the areas of our lives that are important to us, for the good of us all.

It seems to me that the IDU way lacks that essential ingredient of 'empathy' that Jeremy Rifkin was referring to this week – as in striving for individual supremacy does not enable us to develop much in the way of empathy for 'the other'. Isn't that what should be the basis for our successful interactions, and the jumping-off point for successful governments in the 21st century?

Somehow, I can only see such devolutionary policies as the Conservatives in the UK are advocating leading to a 'Survival of the Fittest' society, where the biggest boats, metaphorically-speaking, take up most of the space at the marina, as opposed to the social democratic principle, which seeks to see all boats rise equally, and no boat to get too big. In order to achieve this, the guiding hand of government needs to be in the picture.

What do you think?

The Liberals' universal solution to everything: Just say 'No'

Once again the Liberals have shown themselves to be the party of ‘No’. Premier Colin Barnett of Western Australia has taken his bat and ball and gone home from the Health negotiations.

Whenever the Liberals' vote is needed in the national interest they withhold it. Wherever co-operation is required, they are absent. They attend negotiations, but not in good faith, even when big concessions are offered. When they don’t get all they want they either spit the dummy and go home, or, as with the ETS, reneg. They are like barrackers in the cheap seats, big grins on their faces, always with something smart-arsed to say, or with contempt in their hearts, but nothing constructive to add to the debate. No policies, no framework, no ideas, no contributions… the word that best describes their attitude towards governance of the country is ‘No’.

The SMH headline from Tuesday afternoon says it all:

Deal with Labor leaders

I think the voters will be gradually coming to that conclusion, too.

90% of the country (as represented by five Labor premiers and two Labor Chief Ministers) has gone with the deal...not the original deal, but a genuinely negotiated one, with extra incentives put onto the table in answer to expressed objections. Negotiations have proceeded in good faith. There have been hurdles in the way, seemingly insurmountable arguments and objections, but somehow in the backrooms of Canberra and the state capitals, a deal was hammered out.

Except in Western Australia... and wherever it is Tony Abbott is currently riding his bicycle or surfing a breaker.

First we had Abbott's no-policy negativism at the Press Club debate. Abbott was so weak on that occasion he was mauled by a worm. Then Colin Barnett left the country when Health negotiations reached fever pitch in recent weeks. That was his way of saying, 'Eff you all' to the rest of Australia. Recovering from his drubbing at the debate, Tony Abbott went riding his bike as a diversion. Peter Dutton, the Shadow Health spokesman, has been off the air, too worried about cherry-picking safe seats, for months. These losers are supposed to be mature politicians, but their strategy revolves around just saying ‘No’. Why? Because they can.

This negativism abounds in other areas too, especially in Parliamentary proceedings: pointless 'Points Of Order', useless, doomed divisions, filibusters, welching on deals... and then they have the hide to taunt the government for not being able to get its reforms through, as if the Liberals had nothing to do with blocking them!

To asylum seekers they just say, ‘No’. They don't say what they would do. They only ever tell us what they won't do, like the demented nihilists they are.

Egged on by their media cheer squad (thankfully diminishing in size, if not in volume as yet) they have convinced themselves that, if they make things hard enough for Rudd, government will just fall back into their laps. It is so much easier to block and defeat almost every initiative the government tries to get up and running than to contribute constructively and positively. It is also completely, utterly, bone lazy.

Clinging to the last vestiges of anachronistic parliamentary powers left to them after their decimation at the last election, cheered on by a corrupt media run by a wizened, bitter old man in New York, they and their shills stick to the belief that a miracle is about to happen, anytime soon. They mindlessly obstruct everything in order to make government in Australia almost impossible, waiting for the day when the scales will be lifted from what they assume is an adoring public's eyes to make way for their triumphant return, meanwhile conserving as much energy as possible by eschewing policy development, and lately even rational thought.

I am not so sure that the rest of the Australian public, after seeing a universal Health deal put in jeopardy by a Liberal government representing just 10% of the voters, will acclaim Barnett's, Abbott's and Murdoch's unrelenting negativism for too much longer. Over 65% of the Australian public wants health reform. Even in Western Australia the figure is above 50%. We came so close only to see the Liberals' favourite word trump what could have been a truly historic, unanimous, agreement. That word is ‘No’.  It is the shortest, but most appropriate epitaph I can think of for a once great party that had reduced itself to daydreaming about the glory days and putting its periodic electoral fortunes ahead of the country's best interests.

Only they know what's best for Australia. Only they can save us from dreaded change. Only they can be trusted to keep the country on the rails until the hated Rudd is swept away to electoral oblivion later on in the year. In the meantime they just say ‘No’.


Is the ABC’s ‘Insiders’ balanced?

The only tenable answer is ‘sometimes’.  This Sunday’s Insiders was balanced, many other editions, not.  I expect most political tragics take a look at this programme on ABC TV each week.  In recent times there have been complaints on this blog site and elsewhere about the lack of balance in the comments of the panel.  Some lament that the programme has become so tabloid that they no longer bother viewing it.  This short piece canvasses the issue of balance and seeks feedback from visitors.

By balance, let’s agree that in a political context it means giving all sides of a debate and all parties to the debate comparable opportunities to express a view so that the viewing audience has before it sufficient information and opinion for it to reach a considered judgement, a conclusion.

The approach to ‘balance’ by news and current affairs programs seems to take several forms that differ not so much by degree, as they do by underlying philosophy.

Some outlets seem to believe that you achieve balance by having roughly equal representation of conflicting views.  To give an example, if the debate is about climate change, they believe in the quantitative approach - that having equal numbers of climate change believers and deniers or sceptics, and giving then equal time, will result in balance.  But if there is no qualitative assessment of the credentials of the opponents, or the scientific plausibility of their arguments, balance will likely not be achieved.  If soundly advanced scientific facts and arguments are pitted against questionable facts and faulty reasoning, there will be no balance if both are given equal credence; in science some opinions are simply not worth as much as others.  Yet we have seen them given equal weight time and again.  This is especially dangerous when the audience does not have the scientific background to differentiate between fact and falsehood.

In the context of Insiders having panellists with diametrically opposed views does not produce balance.  To begin with there is no Labor-leaning, anti-Coalition journalist that could match the Coalition-leaning anti-Government bearing of, for example, Piers Akerman, Andrew Bolt and Glenn Milne.  Even David Marr, who might be seen as pro-Labor, cannot and never does match the ferocity of Akerman’s and Bolt’s anti-Labor attacks.  Marr can be as critical of the Government as of the Coalition.  I have heard Akerman only once agree with Kevin Rudd, and that was when he condemned Bill Henson’s photos of adolescent girls.  Otherwise, according to Akerman everything Rudd has done is bad or incompetent, going right back to the 20 year old Heiner affair in Queensland that he is still trying to pin on Rudd.   Bolt is able occasionally to utter words that are not anti-Rudd, but that is uncommon.  Milne is more subtle, but he takes frequent sneering sideswipes at Rudd and his Government.  There is no way that these partisan advocates can be balanced by anyone on the opposite side – they don’t exist among the journalists on the Insiders’ panel.  Even if they could be found, what sort of debate would result?  Would viewers want from both sides the ranting that appears day after day in Akerman’s and Bolt’s columns replicated during their appearances on Insiders?  The simple fact is that whoever else appears with them, when Ackerman and Co are on the Insiders panel, balance is not possible.

I have several times emailed the benign host of Insiders, Barrie Cassidy, about the inclusion of these three, but the response is always that their presence is to achieve balance.   It seems not to be apparent to Cassidy that their very presence precludes balance.

Balance may be possible when the panel comprises journalists from the various sides of the political spectrum but only if they are capable of acknowledging the validity of positions on the several sides to the debate.  Gerard Henderson is an example of a conservative columnist who can take a positive view of non-conservative positions, and offer balanced views on a variety of topics.  So panellists from one side of the political spectrum can be balanced although selecting such people runs the risk of imbalance.

The best balance seems to result from selecting panellists who have no obvious political leanings and can make comments that are for or against the Government, and for or against the Coalition or the Greens or the Independents, with equal facility and feeling.

We came close to balance in early March when Chris Uhlmann was the moderator and the panel comprised Laura Tingle, Brain Toohey and Phillip Coorey.  While Brian Toohey seems often to be anti-Government in his views, he can and does offer pro-Government opinions. The other two seemed to be neutral. We saw balance at its best last Sunday when Misha Schubert, Phillip Coorey and Lenore Taylor were panellists.  They all seemed to be neutral in their views and balanced in their comments.  It was a delight to watch this episode of Insiders.  Whether or not one agreed with the views expressed, it was gratifying to observe a balanced debate.

In my view, if Insiders wishes to retain its viewing audience and enhance its credibility as a current affairs programme that give viewers a balanced appraisal of the political landscape, party policies, projects and programmes, political manoeuvres, politicians and their actions, the views of the people, opinion polling, and possible election outcomes, it is essential that the moderator select panellists who are capable of giving a balanced opinion, preferably those with no apparent political leaning, and rigorously exclude those incapable of taking a balanced view, particularly if they are overflowing with venom towards one party.

What do you think?

Memo to News Limited journalists

It was a comment on The Poll Bludger by Bushfire Bill that prompted me to write this satirical piece, a mock memo from the proprietors of News Limited to their political columnists.

Revered colleagues
As you are well aware, newspapers are losing circulation and advertising revenue.  Our content, so hard-won, is being stolen by Internet aggregators and purloined by blog-sites, who because they do no investigative journalism, feed off your efforts, with no thought of paying for what they take.  This has to stop.  As you know we are taking steps to correct this commercial theft.

But until that has been achieved, management has been forced to make some hard cost-saving decisions.

It has divided its political journalists into two categories: on the one hand the flag-bearers of News Limited, such as doyens like Paul Kelly and columnists like George Megalogenis, Mike Steketee and Greg Sheridan who write well-researched and soundly argued articles that appeal to thoughtful people who appreciate the balance they bring to political discourse; and on the other, ‘the rest’, who write indifferent pieces, occasionally factual and well-reasoned, but usually light on facts and reason, heavy on personal opinion, and often laced with rancour and scuttlebutt.

Management has decided to retain the flag-bearers in full employment, but reduce ‘the rest’ to half time as a cost-saving measure.  Conscious of the consequences for ‘the rest’ of this move, and not wanting to leave them in the lurch, experts in journalism and commercial spin have been engaged to advise on how to write their pieces in half the usual time, thereby enabling them to maintain their usual output, but freeing up time for them to find alternative half-time employment.  Thus the same number of column inches will be maintained at half the cost.

The spinmeisters have devised a natty seven point routine that we’re sure will appeal to all of you who fall into the category of ‘the rest’.  Here it is:

First, select your political orientation
Most News Limited journalists have a penchant for taking a political position.  Recently it has been anti-Rudd, anti-Government, and pro-Coalition most of the time. 

Newspapers sell better if conflict is highlighted and political biases are exhibited by their journalists; people love anything that makes them indignant.  Leave the balanced pieces to ‘the flag-bearers’.

Second, select your target
Stick to the big fish; people don’t know or care about the little ones. Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan and of course Peter Garratt are always good targets for your bile, while Tony Abbott, Barnaby Joyce and Joe Hockey are great targets for ribald humour, provided you throw in a few compliments.

Third, select your subject
This is easy. There are so many that make for good copy: the insulation scheme, the boat people, the health and hospitals reform debate, primary care, mental health, aged care, dental care, COAG, Federal State relations, the BER, the schools stimulus program, the ETS, climate change – the greatest moral challenge of our time, the MySchool website, national literacy and numeracy tests, league tables, the Australian Education Union, the Henry Tax Review, the May Budget, debt and deficit, housing affordability, public housing, homelessness, the Murray-Darling problem, the water plan, the private health insurance rebate, IR, PPL, the population debate, oil spills on the reef from vagrant coal carriers, the election, the double dissolution; and in slack time you can always resurrect the old chestnuts: Rudd’s overseas travel, his staff turnover, his ‘rudeness’ to staff, and his archived misdemeanours: Scores, the Burke affair, the hostie affair and so on.  You ought never to be short of a vehicle for attack.

Fourth, background your subject
This too is easy.  As you’re aware, more than half your material comes from press releases, so you have a ready source of quotes.  News items from radio or TV are another easy source.  You can supplement this with rumours, scuttlebutt and other nebulous material derived from your colleagues in the same building or the National Press Club, your drinking mates at the pub, from whispers in parliamentary corridors from pollies and staffers, leaks, and of course the oft-quoted anonymous ‘informed sources’, ‘usually reliable sources’, or just plain old ‘sources’.  Bootstrap as much as is necessary to make your story plausible.  And should some decent material ever come to hand, by all means use it, but realize it is not essential. 

Fifth, select pejorative words or phrases, or laudatory ones if you occasionally feel inclined, to embellish you piece
There is now a comprehensive collection of pejorative words or phrases:
Flawed, bungled, botched, failed, dumped, failure, fiasco, debacle, disaster, catastrophe, incompetent, fatal, electrocuted youths, electrified ceilings, ceiling fires, rip-offs, billion-dollar rip-offs, rorts, shonky tradesmen, flaws, waste and mismanagement, charade, ‘illegals’, queue jumpers, cashed-up refugees, out-of-control boat arrivals, running scared, panic, panic reaction, poll driven, populist, opportunistic, pre-election fix, political fix, policy on the run, unsustainable, admission of failure, forced to admit, gone on the defensive, under fire, debt and deficit, all spin no substance, all talk no action, all promise no delivery, rude, slave-driver and Jekyll and Hyde.

The laudatory list is smaller:
Courage, conviction politician, straight forward politician, consultative, collegial, you know his position, you know where you stand with him, greatest ‘retail politician’, the nation’s best communicator with the people, what you see is what you get; most of which are applied to Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce.

Sixth, write your piece
Here’s where you connect your target, the subject and the background quotes, and lace your politically-oriented opinion with as many pejorative words or phrases you can fit into the word limit.  Avoid holding back – the more the merrier.  The idea is to imprint these ideas into your readers’ minds, so they can repeat them without thinking, like a mantra.  

Don’t make your article too long – leave that to the flag-bearers.  The audience that wants to devour your writing won’t be bothered to read too many words – all they need is a dash of intrigue, a dose of conflict, an aliquot of condemnation or occasionally praise, and above all else reinforcement of their strongly held beliefs and their entrenched biases and prejudices, sufficient for them to support you strongly if you’re running a blog.

Use quotes to enclose bits you’ve taken from press releases or news items if you’ve got an ‘author’ you can reveal, and subtly insert your personal opinion in between, using as many pejorative words or phrases you can so it reads as if you are quoting someone else.  Don’t spare your target.

Remember the article doesn’t need to be factual, or factually correct, or accurate, or even true, so long as it’s a stirring, superficially plausible story that demeans Rudd, his ministers or his Government, or boosts or praises Abbott and his frontbench.

Be wary about writing about the GFC and unemployment; they are good-news stories for the Government.

Seventh, create a juicy headline
This is essential.  It doesn’t have to be related to the substance of your piece, so long as it attracts attention and draws in the audience you seek.


There you have it – the seven point routine to easy, rapid writing.  Can you do it?

If you wonder if you can follow this routine, take a look at what Dennis Shanahan did on 10 April in The Australian in Fix an admission of failure on asylum, and what Steve Lewis (of Grech fake email fame) writing with Alison Rehn, did today in Kevin Rudd likens year as a political staffer to a dog year as he remains unapologetic about working people hard in the Herald Sun.

You see, it’s easy.  So go to it.

Management hopes you’ll be able to find some productive paid half-time work to do in your spare time.


Resolving the boat people dilemma – did pragmatism trump principle?

The decision of the Rudd Government to suspend temporarily the processing of applications for refugee status of Afghans and Sri Lankans has had a mixed reception.  Some applaud it as a sensible measure to enable better identification of those entitled to be categorized as refugees, especially in recognition of the changing conditions in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.  Some see it as a cynical, opportunistic pre-election move to placate the substantial proportion of the electorate that is opposed to the arrival of refugees by small boats.  Some have described it as a ‘cowardly’ move.  Others insist that it ‘proves’ that it has been ‘pull factors’ all along that have been responsible for the increased arrivals, not the ‘push factors’ that the Government insists are the most significant ones.  Others label it as evidence of the ‘failure’ of the existing Government policy on refugees, of its border protection capability, and of its guarantee that arrivals would be processed promptly.

As contributors to The Political Sword have demonstrated, some voters, even Labor supporters, are disappointed, angry and feeling let down by a Government that they believed was more principled, more humane in its attitude to asylum seekers than the previous one.  Some have expressed the view that a principled response to this distressed group of people is more important than any political consideration.  Some have seen the Rudd Government’s actions as simply reflecting a preoccupation with power over humanitarian considerations.  Others, not able to bring themselves to vote Liberal in protest, are so disgusted they are considering voting for the Greens instead of Labor at the election.

From a distance different observers see the Government’s options in simple terms.  Why can’t they accept all refugees coming our way; after all we have plenty of room?  Others though ask why the Government can’t turn these boats away, or return these ‘queue jumpers’ to their own countries?  Or why can’t the Government make the prospect of arriving unannounced so unattractive, so destined for punishment, as the previous Government did, that no one will come?  Never mind the inhumanity – just keep them out.  The conflict inherent between these positions is patent.  How should it be resolved?

This piece attempts to tease out the complexities facing any party in power that encounters this dilemma.

First, we need to accept that most politicians become so to make a difference by implementing policies which they believe will improve our nation. Cynics may disagree, but why else would they accept such modest pay to do what is a demanding, time-consuming job, to be subject to abuse and ridicule from journalists, commentators, cartoonists and the people, to be almost at the bottom of the totem pole of public regard, down among journalists and car salesmen?  Why else? 

It follows that if improving our nation is their principal motivation, having the power to do so is a prerequisite.  The pursuit of power should be seen in that light, not as it is so often seen as simply satisfying an inherent hunger for power for its own sake.  Exercising power is what politicians do, if they can.  Those who can’t become frustrated, suffer from ‘relevance deprivation’, and become angry and argumentative.  We see this every day among Coalition members in the House of Representatives.  In contrast, Coalition members in the Senate do exercise power every day, because they can.  They obstruct, oppose and defeat Government legislation.  Whether we like it or not, whether the party not in power complains bitterly about the abuse of power and their lack of it, power is essential for stable and productive government.

In exercising power, governments, and oppositions where they have it, attempt to impose their will, which in turn ought to reflect the will of the people who elected them.  While sometimes the actions of those in power may not reflect public opinion, generally political parties go to the people with a set of policies, which they believe they have a mandate to implement if the people elect them to office.  Moreover, if circumstances change and public opinion changes (as evidenced by polling and focus groups), those in power feel entitled to change their policies and modify their actions so as to reflect these changing attitudes among the people.

Returning to the asylum seeker issue, the only party that can effect change is the party in power, currently the Rudd Government.  Its efforts can be blocked by the Opposition in the Senate, as we have often seen, but only the party in power can effect real change.  So no one ought to be surprised if the party in power changes its policies or procedures if there is evidence that the existing ones do not meet with public approval.  Of course parties can attempt to persuade the people to their view if they feel the people have got it wrong, but if that is not successful they have just two options – press on regardless with unpopular policies and take the electoral consequences, or change them to reflect public opinion.  This was what the Rudd Government faced over the asylum seeker issue. 

In such situations it is never clear what is absolutely ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’.  Public opinion is influenced by many forces, and in the end it is the perceptions that people have, more than absolute truth, that governs their attitudes and behaviour.

For a decade we have witnessed in this country the growth of fear about, and antagonism towards refugees arriving in small boats on our north-west shores, notwithstanding the fact that most refugees arrive by air or commercial vessel.  Somehow boat people are anathema to a large proportion of the Australian people.  This became obvious when Pauline Hanson and One Nation were influential, and when John Howard, seeing the electoral advantages of attracting the Hansonites, followed suit.  We have seen a decade of dog-whistling, demonization of boat people with pejorative slogans, and tough immigration policies designed to frighten away these ‘undesirables’ coming uninvited to our shores. Over time, this has become embedded in the psyche of countless Australians.  Some would say they have been brainwashed into a distrust and fear of such arrivals.  So we ought not to be surprised that the reaction of much of the community and the media to boat arrivals has been adverse, and that the Government has been castigated for allowing such arrivals to escalate.

Kevin Rudd and his Government were faced with two realities.  First, a surge of boat arrivals was foreshadowed, with the vast majority of these on board initially from two countries, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, where it has been reported that the conditions that have resulted in people fleeing those countries have ameliorated to such an extent that the legitimacy of claiming refugee status has become questionable.  It is now believed many may no longer be genuine refugees, but rather ‘economic’ refugees.

Second, Rudd was faced with public opinion polling that showed that two thirds favoured returning boat people to their own countries, with the same proportion feeling the Government was 'too soft' on asylum seekers, and more believing that the Coalition could be trusted to handle asylum seekers better than Labor (34%/23%): Essential Research Report April 9, as reported by Possum on Crikey Pollytics Morgan Polls – Migration and Partisan Stereotypes. 

So what should Kevin Rudd have done?

One option would have been to fly in the face of public opinion, to insist that the existing approach was appropriate, that all who arrived by boats, no matter how many, be accepted, treated humanely, processed as rapidly as possible, and if Christmas Island became overcrowded, taken to the mainland for processing.  This would have maintained the principled approach initiated on his election and would have satisfied those who supported such an approach. Rudd would know though that this would invite even more savage attacks from the Coalition and much of the media, louder dog-whistling, more fear mongering, and likely increasing anger and apprehension in the electorate to the extent that many could change their vote from Labor to another party, so much so that the Government could be defeated at the coming election.  He would have seen coming another election campaign like the 2001 one: ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’, one so powerfully persuasive for John Howard, and likely to be just as persuasive for the Coalition, already echoing this slogan to an electorate conditioned to that view over the decade of the Howard Government.  He would know that if such a campaign was as successful as it was in 2001 his government could lose power, power to do anything about boat people, or for that matter power to do anything about any other policy initiative.

Alternatively, he could take the view that UNHCR appraisals are correct in that conditions are now not as adverse in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, and therefore there may be fewer legitimately fleeing danger and persecution, fewer genuine refugees among those reaching our shores in small boats.  He could take the view that reports of a surge of boats soon to head for Australia are correct.  Further he could take the view that as he was elected to serve the voters and since they now are expressing concern at the number of boat people arriving to the extent they now see the Coalition as better able to handle these arrivals, that he ought to adapt his position to more closely reflect the feelings of the electorate by suspending processing until UNHCR had determined the situation in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan more accurately.  He would know that such an action would in time be likely to slow the arrival of boats as the guarantee of entry into Australia became more problematic, the ‘product’ offered by people smugglers less attractive, and the cost and risks involved less acceptable.  He would know that such an action would likely find favour with the electorate and likely blunt Coalition and media attacks on his border protection policy.  He would know that such an action would give substance to his claim of being ‘tough’ on people smugglers, tough on border protection.  He would know that if that were so, the danger of defection of Labor voters to another party would be reduced, and the possibility of electoral defeat over this issue lessened.

So he chose the second option. 

There might have been other options; if there were, what might they have been?

Some see Rudd’s resolution of the boat people dilemma as a triumph for pragmatism and applaud it; others see it as unprincipled and cynical.

What do you think? 

Given the circumstances, what would you have done if you were PM?


‘Those people’

Most nations have some shame in their history, Australia no less.  The treatment of our indigenous people and the abuse of ‘orphans’ brought to Australia after the Second World War were shameful, and have only recently evoked an official national apology from our Prime Minister.  Will the way ‘boat people’ have been demonized evoke a similar apology?  That will occur only if and when that part of our history is seen as shameful.

Why is it that asylum seekers arriving by boat off our north-west coast have been cast in such a black light?  Why do those seeking refuge in Australia by air or commercial vessel not attract the same condemnation?  The thesis of this piece is that the dislike of refugees arriving by leaky boats is the direct outcome of dog-whistling to a nation that harbours racist elements ready to react to the whistle they, and often they alone, hear so loudly.  It concludes with a plea for some statesmanship to counter this.

Racism seems to be an embedded characteristic in the human race, one that has been obvious for eons.  Is it part of the evolutionary process of survival of the fittest?  Is it based on the view that one’s clan, one’s tribe, is the best, the safest, the most secure, and that others are not just less worthy but to be feared lest they take what belongs to one’s own?  Whatever it is, it seems possible, with good leadership, to keep it quiescent, under control.  Conversely, with careless leadership or with deliberated intent, it is easy to inflame it, to allow it to get out of control.  In this country overt racism from our leaders is seldom seen; instead dog-whistling is allowed to do its subtle and damaging work.

In Australia racist attitudes go back a long way.  During the gold rush days the flood of Chinese as diggers or cooks evoked racial feelings.  Europeans arriving post World War II from Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia in turn were berated as ‘wogs’, a term not heard much now.  More recently arrivals from Vietnam were subject to racial taunts, and migrants from China, Africa and particularly India have been the focus of racial comment in very recent times.  The White Australia policy, which cast such a shadow over our nation, was eventually repealed when the Fraser Government let more than 100,000 Indochinese refugees to immigrate at a quick pace.  Notwithstanding the efforts of government, there remained though a residue of opponents to other than British immigration that fomented antagonism towards wave after new wave of migrants.  The problem is not peculiar to this country.  Britain has had damaging racial conflict with the migration of many coloured people there, and so have several European countries.

If it is our natural tendency to be antagonistic to immigrants, how should our leaders handle this to achieve a harmonious society? 

This piece maintains that strong, courageous, visionary leadership can create harmony among people of all races.  The reverse is true.  Leaders can quickly excite racial passion with the subtle techniques they have mastered in recent years.  And when one leader does that, it takes great courage for others to stand up against the racial feelings so evoked.

It was not all that long ago that Pauline Hansen began her campaign against both old and new arrivals.  John Howard saw how much angst could be stirred up with racial talk.  He saw the million or so voters who went along with Hanson, particularly in Queensland where her One Nation party won a swag of seats in the state parliament, as easy pickings for himself if only he played his cards correctly.  Although she had been ejected from the Liberal Party because of outlandish remarks, he refrained from condemning her racist remarks, particularly about boat people.  Was this because he shared her views, or simply because not contradicting them would leave the impression that he did, and thereby attract her voters to him?  A million votes is a lot – Howard was never going to sneeze at them.

So in the 2001 election Howard used his oft-quoted phrase “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” and thereby secured in that instant the votes of a large number of Hansonites.

Then the boats came in increasing number.  Having uttered his threat to boat people, Howard believed he had to be seen by the public as the strong man who would stop the flood of boats.  So we saw the Tampa affair, the excision from Australia of Christmas Island and other islands, the Pacific Solution, mandatory detention in remote camps complete with razor wire, and temporary protection visas.  The flow slowed and Howard and his Chief Boat People Basher Philip Ruddock were lauded to the extent that Ruddock received a standing ovation at a Liberal Party Convention.  He and Howard were heroes to their party faithful, and seemingly also to many in the electorate.  ‘Border protection’ as it was tagged, became a catch-phrase for toughness in keeping out ‘the invasion of boat people that so threatened our shores and our way of life’.  Isn’t that laughable?  Yet it was so potent politically.

The Pacific Solution successfully reduced the amount of asylum seekers arriving in the Australian waters by boat. Arrivals dropped from a total of 5516 people in 2001 to only 1 arrival in all of 2002 after implementation of the policy. The low level of boat arrivals continued all the way through the Pacific Solution period. Since the abolition of the policy there has been an increase in boatpeople arrivals with over 2700 boatpeople arriving in 2009, and the hundredth boat since the election has just arrived.

Recourse to hard data about immigration to this country over the last several decades seems to have had little influence on the emotion evoked by the boat people debate.  Although only 22,000 people have arrived in the past 35 years, amounting to just 0.1% of Australia's population, the emotion generated by these arrivals has been intense.  Only 4500 have attempted to seek asylum via small boats in Australia since the Rudd Government was elected in 2007.  But people seem to be not so concerned about the actual number, but about the manner of their arrival, unannounced and certainly not from an orderly queue. 

Now if there was a queue, anywhere, and if those patiently waiting their turn for admission to this country were being turned away, held back because a boat person had jumped the queue, there might be a cogent reason for resentment by those so frustrated, even by some in the electorate.  But there is no queue, none at all.  If anyone believes there is one, please tell us all where it is.  On Lateline last night Scott Morrison had an anecdote about three refugee journalists supposedly kept out because Australia’s quota was ‘full’ due to the arrival of boat people.  That’s three; how many others are there?  Nobody will be precise; vague innuendo will do.  But, as Grog points out in his fine piece on Grog's Gamut: Big Australia, small minds, “...the term ‘queue jumper’ is now so deeply entrenched in our nation’s vernacular that some Australian politicians use it interchangeably with the term asylum seeker’.”

So we are not up against a logistic problem of accommodating the small number of boat arrivals; we are up against stark prejudice and hard attitudes entrenched by politician after politician telling us that ‘these people’, these ‘illegals’, these ‘queue jumpers’ are unworthy of a place in our fair country and should be dissuaded from coming unheralded in boats by whatever punishment or threat can be conjured up.  The Howard Government was successful in developing these punishments, these threats, with its Pacific Solution and its TPVs. Yet despite the anguish these punishments created, despite the efforts to intimidate boat arrivals, most of those who did arrive were considered legitimate refugees and admitted.  TPVs are widely acknowledged as being ineffective in stemming the flow of boats, but very effective in causing great anguish to those granted them because of the uncertainty about permanent residence they created.

The MSM has made a meal of boat people.  It would take too much space to document all the adverse publicity it has promulgated.  One example will suffice.  The March 30 print edition of the Melbourne Herald Sun carried a front page headline Boat Bill Fury by Ben Packham and Steve Lewis (of Grech fake email fame) with a subhead: This is the hundredth boat to arrive since Kevin Rudd became PM – costing you $80,000 per refugee.  I won’t torment you with the rest of the piece, but you can guess it was all negative.  If you want to read the online version it is here.

It is refreshing that recently there have been some articles that take a very different view of boat people: Peter van Onselen’s article in the April 3-4 Weekend Australian: Who’s afraid of 4500 boatpeople?, Susie O’Brein’s A boatload of rubbish in the Herald Sun on April 6, Mirko Bagaric's article in today's SMH: Migration can end worldwide poverty and the editorial in today’s SMH: Red herrings and island fever.  (Scroll down the page to see this, the second editorial).  If only our politicians could be as upfront as this!

Do you have the impression that despite the continuous inflammatory headlines in print and the electronic media, the people may be getting tired of all the simulated drama?  It’s only an impression, but there seems to be less attention given on radio and TV news items to the details of boat arrivals, as if they are ‘old hat’.

It is not the purpose of this piece to document all the facts and figures related to this matter that show how spurious is the demonization of the tiny number of boat people actually arriving, or to catalogue all the articles that are now in print on this and the subject of population to which it has been so inappropriately linked, as if stopping the arrival of boat people dead in their tracks would make a significant dent on immigration numbers.  Read what Possum has said in his Pollytics piece: Net Arrivals - Cheap Populism and Export Destruction and what Crikey said yesterday morning about the linking of population growth and boat people by the MSM in The population debate goes boom. 

No, the purpose of this piece is to urge our politicians to stand up as statesmen and take a humanitarian stance on the boat people issue, to tell the electorate that we ought to welcome these unfortunate people fleeing from persecution and danger, and not demonize them as ‘those people’, people who are ‘invading’ our shores, ‘queue jumping’ and depriving those in the imaginary queue their rightful place.  There are adequate checks to keep out those with a bad record and return home those who are not genuine refugees. 

The trouble is that the dog-whistling which the Opposition has used for a decade has persuaded such a large portion of the electorate that boat people are ‘illegal’ and therefore evil arrivals, that taking a contrary view takes great political courage.  Kevin Rudd seemed to lack this when he condemned people smugglers as the ‘vilest form of human life’ and took a tough-guy stance, when he could have extended the more humanitarian welcoming approach he took in getting rid of the Pacific Solution and TPVs.  By taking a more enlightened approach he could have exposed the inhumanity of the Opposition’s hard-nosed approach. 

Possum's analysis on Crikey of this week’s Essential Research Report: Essential Report – House Prices Edition however will give Rudd little encouragement, revealing as it does that 65% of those polled believe the Government is ‘too soft’ on asylum seekers .   

So will Rudd, will any member of the Government, have the courage to call the Opposition’s dog whistling for what it is, to counter the overt wedge the Opposition is trying to insert between the electorate and the Government?

Will he become the statesman we look for, and hope for in a leader?  If he did so, he might be surprised how much support the electorate would give him.

What do you think?


Who on earth is advising the Coalition on media strategy?

We all know Tony Abbott is ‘authentic’, which presumably means that what he says is what he really thinks.  We know with Barnaby Joyce, the great ‘retail politician’, that what comes out of his mouth is unadulterated Barnaby.  What rational media advisor would have created that talk?  But who determines what others in the Coalition say?  Is it the Coalition’s media advisors?  Whoever it is, how good is their advice?

The Opposition’s media approach is overwhelmingly negative.  It carps incessantly about the incompetence of Kevin Rudd and his Government.  It paints them as having no capacity to do anything useful at all, and insists that what they have done was not just useless, ill-conceived, badly implemented and incompetently administered, but harmful to the economy, the people and the nation.  The only credit the Opposition gives it is for racking up massive debt and deficit.  Everything else is an unmitigated disaster, a debacle, a bungle, a mess, a catastrophe.  Everything is negative.

It’s hard to envisage how experienced career politicians could be so totally hopeless and ineffectual.  What is more to the point, the general public simply don’t buy the story.

The media has accentuated the negativity.  News Limited outlets, particularly The Australian have gone out of their way to highlight what they see as the deficiencies of the Rudd Government.  Adverse headlines scream out stridently every day about another Government ‘debacle’.

Reflect on the unrelenting campaign The Oz has run about the BER, highlighting every complaint, every problem this 24,000 project stimulus measure has encountered.  That many complaints have been established to be unfounded does not put the brakes on its campaign or bring forth an apology; that genuine problems have been shown to already be under investigation by the monitoring authority established at the outset brings forth no concession.  Its unremitting antagonism continues to this day.

Think about the media coverage of the insulation saga.  As a flagrant example of disingenuous reporting, there has been no equal.  For every article pointing out that there were proportionally more ceiling fires before the insulation program began than after, there have been scores that vehemently condemn every aspect of the program.  Bootstrapping has been rife.  When Rudd relieved Greg Combet of some of his other duties to concentrate on fixing the insulation problems, instead of applauding this, Dennis Shanahan launched an indignant attack on Rudd for having the temerity to announce this ‘reshuffle’ on the eve of Easter: “The Rudd Government has stooped to new lows in media management in its efforts to shield the demoted Peter Garrett and keep the bungled $2.45 billion roofing insulation scheme out of the public eye.”  This man’s anti-Rudd rancour seems to know no bounds – he’s still after Garrett’s scalp.

What about boat arrivals.  Practically every journalist has sought to paint a negative picture about the arrival of ‘those people’.  Peter van Onselen’s article this weekend was a welcome exception.  The hundredth boat arrival was highlighted in several papers to ridicule the Government’s border protection policy.  It can do nothing right, nothing at all.

The Murray Darling water plan has been the subject of criticism at every step.  Everything Penny Wong does is wrong.  The now-quiescent CPRS has similarly been attacked and the fact that the Coalition blocked at every step Rudd’s efforts to establish it has not stopped its condemnation of the lack of progress, or stilled the castigation of Rudd for daring to say global warming is the ‘greatest moral challenge of our time’ when he has made so little progress in mitigating it.  The fact that progress towards mitigation has been obstructed does not lessen its moral imperative.

Even the Government’s shielding of the nation from the worst effects of the GFC gets no credit from the Coalition and grudging acknowledgement from the media, with some still whingeing about the stimulus, the debts incurred, the deficits to come and the interest rate rises.  Even this great accomplishment is not worthy of a decent tick.

The long awaited and electorally popular health reforms have had a lukewarm reception from the media; every problem, every disagreement, ever contrary view, every state premier playing hard ball has been highlighted.

And with the appointment this weekend of Tony Burke as Population Minister the Opposition has resurrected the pre-election accusation of ‘me too-ism’ – because it says it thought of the idea first!  Steel yourself for more of this schoolyard banter.

We know Tony Abbott has nothing but negativity to offer, but neither does Joe Hockey, or Barnaby Joyce, or Peter Dutton, or Greg Hunt, or Christopher Pyne, or Julie Bishop when she comes out of hibernation to actually say something.  The list goes on.  They seem to be programmed like automatons to utter words like debacle, disaster, catastrophe, bungled, flawed, incompetent, waste and mismanagement, rort, debt and deficit, all spin no substance, all talk no action, all promise no delivery.  Every sentence about the Government has to be littered with those expressions.  Someone seems to have told them – here are the words you must work into every comment you make about Rudd, his ministers, his Government, any initiative they announce, any program they begin, every statement they make.  You must never give them credit for anything.  And that is exactly what every shadow minister follows; it is only the odd backbencher that occasionally let’s slip something positive.  They are like robots uttering political profanities and monotonously chanting – eliminate, destroy, eliminate, destroy.

Yet the ratings of Rudd and the Government by several pollsters including the much-touted Newspoll, continue to be election winning even during the recent decline in popularity.  Possum’s Pollytrend is pointing up again for Labor.  How is this so?  How can those polled be so out of touch with the political ‘reality’ the Coalition and the media portray that they still give Rudd high ratings and his Government so solid a lead?  How can they be so stupid, so blind to ‘the total incompetence of the Rudd Government’, ‘the worst government this country has ever had’?

Could it be that the electorate is tiring of negativity?  Could it be that it has turned off such talk and has stopped listening, that negativity itself has become a negative for the Coalition?

Now every PR professional will tell us that negative political campaigns do work.  Campaign organizers insist they do; those on The Gruen Transfer on ABC TV assert that is so, and the effects of the anti-WorkChoices campaign during the last election seem to bear testimony to that assertion.  Given that some negative campaigns do work, are there some that don’t, and if so how can one pick them?

The Great Health Debate is a case in point.  Now we all know that the worm is not a precise instrument, but unless it gives results that are the reverse of the truth, unless it gives such unreliable results that it is worthless, its gyrations might tell us something useful about voter reaction, about voter preferences.  It behaves like a large focus group in which political parties place such great store.

Possum Comitatus has done us a great service by analysing Roy Morgan’s version of the worm, PolliGraph, which is powered by the Morgan Reactor technology.  Possum has done so in two pieces on Pollytics: PolliGraph Debate Drilldowns. Part 1 – The Overview and PolliGraph Debate Drilldowns. Part 2 – Tony Abbott.  They are essential reading for worm enthusiasts.

First, Possum acknowledges: “As a direct result of the very short period of time that was available to organise an audience panel to participate in the PolliGraph, the partisan balance of the audience had a slight tilt towards Labor, giving the responses we witnessed on Channel Seven during the debate a small but significant lean towards the ALP.”  Note that unlike Channel Nine’s panel of undecided voters, Channel Seven’s comprised a cross section of voters.

Possum’s first piece gives an overview where one of the most significant statements was: “Those over 50’s were actually a lot more volatile than one might expect when it came to their approval of Abbott. Not only were they volatile, but throughout the debate they were the cohort that reacted most negatively to Tony’s jokes.”

It was in his second piece though that the most interesting trends emerged about negativity.   Regarding Abbott’s supposed problem with women voters, Possum says: “Not only did male voters as a single cohort have lower generic approval levels of Abbott at the health debate compared to females, but both Liberal and Labor voting males had lower approval levels of Abbott’s performance than their respective partisan female peers.”  Later he says: “Not only were males generally less impressed with Abbott’s performance than females, but when it came to the magnitudes of their negative responses – when Abbott said something that caused a negative audience reaction – males really cranked that dial harder than their female counterparts.”  And later “Yet, not only were male audience members a problem for Tony Abbott. The cohort that was most likely to respond negatively to Abbott’s answers was the 30-49 year age group, particularly 30-49 year Liberal voters and particularly whenever the Opposition leader canned the insulation program or the school stimulus package.” and “The mention of pink batts and school halls was pretty toxic for males and Liberal voting 30-49 year olds. Another example of this line being dangerous for Abbott came in his closing statement. This time it was Liberal voting 30-49 year olds and Liberal voting males..."

There’s much more to read on Possum’s website, but these excerpts point to the distaste voters have for negativity, particularly males and the older age groups.

So does negative politics work?  We know that the negative anti-WorkChoices campaign was effective – polls and focus groups demonstrated that, and to the extent that election outcomes can ever be attributed to single factors, many agree that it was factor in 2007.  Why was this so?  Was it that the campaign was in the context of an election, that specific advertisements were employed, or that the Howard Government was already on the nose? 

Why then does negative politics seem not to be working for the Coalition now?  Will it work better during the election campaign, will targeted political ads highlighting the same things work better than the diffuse negativity we hear every day, will negativity work as well against a first term popular government elected by the people only a couple of years ago?  We may be able to answer those questions with more assurance later this year.

The thesis proposed here is that at present the negativity that pervades almost every utterance of Coalition politicians and almost every section of the MSM is a turn-off for all except the most rusted-on Coalition supporters, and a cause of intense anger among Labor supporters.  And the swinging voters and even some Coalition voters, males and the older, seem to be not listening much anymore, and when they do they are angered and react negatively.

So why do Coalition members continue the negativity day after day, doorstop after doorstop, interview after interview?  Is this a spontaneous uncoordinated outpouring of aggression and resentment at its election loss, or is it an organized coordinated campaign orchestrated by the Coalition’s media strategists?  If that is so, contemporary evidence suggests they are on the wrong track and that the longer the negativity continues the more the Coalition’s fortunes will slide.  They seem to be flying in the face of the emerging signals about the negative effects of negativity. 

Maybe they are following the strategy now being used by the Republican Party in the US which has set about destroying Barack Obama’s presidency, no matter what damage that does to the economy, the health care system and the nation as a whole.  Aided and abetted by the new movement, The Tea Party, and the Murdoch media, they seem to be prepared to do anything that it takes to make Obama a one-term president.  Sound familiar?  In this country we don’t have a Tea Party, but we have the MSM, much of which seems set on the same path.

So we need to ask why the Coalition, lemming like, continues to rush headlong over the cliff of negativity to the seething cauldron of public disapproval below.  Who on earth is advising them to do this?

As the old adage goes, ‘If what you’re doing doesn’t work, try something else.’  But the Coalition and its media strategists don’t seem to have ‘something else’. 

It looks as if the Coalition desperately needs new media advisers.

What do you think?


What do you want from The Political Sword?

With a quasi-election campaign already underway, and an increasing number of issues upon which to comment, the Easter break seems a good time for The Political Sword to review its modus operandi, and provide a chance for visitors to express their views about how TPS should proceed.

Please let us have your opinion.  TPS is for you.

The Political Sword is a privately-owned political blog site that focuses almost exclusively on federal politics.  It carries no advertising and is not-for-profit.  At present there are just two who post original contributions, Bushfire Bill and me, Ad astra.  We prepare material in our spare time and therefore have a limited capacity to feed the site.

Although TPS started in September 2008, my first posts were in June of that year on Possum Box, a subset of Possum’s Pollytics before he joined Crikey.  Counting these, to date TPS has had over 180 posts which can be reviewed in Sword Watch, the link being in the right panel under ‘site pages’.

Most of the posts are substantial pieces of 1500 to 3000 words.  These take considerable research and writing time.  It is unlikely that Bushfire Bill and I could write more than three items per week between us; two is reasonably comfortable, three is a stretch.  We have different styles and write on different topics, which provide variety for visitors.  Bushfire Bill is a graphics wizard; his pieces are adorned with splendid colour representations of his theme.

Traffic through the site has grown steadily and this year has more than doubled.  Visitors view about two pages per visit.  Some of the posts have been mentioned on Crikey; when such a link occurs, the traffic soars.  The number of comments has increased from a handful last year to over a hundred for most pieces now.

With the increased traffic, a number of new visitors have become regulars, and many make thoughtful and detailed comments regularly, to which other visitors respond.  The site is now more in the nature of an online forum where visitors liberally exchange views with each other.  In contrast to other political blog sites where most comments are brief, many comments on TPS are lengthy and richly add value to the original post; these informative and enlightening contributions match the originality and insight of the original post.  Some who comment treat us to delightful satire.

For the most part, the theme of each post is maintained through the thread, whereas on some blogs several threads run simultaneously and often confusingly on the one piece.  Our preference is to maintain consistency of comment throughout an individual thread, rather than jump from theme to theme, although that need not be a rigid rule.

The site has attracted high quality contributors who have maintained the decorum we have established.  Abusive comment is rare, and is deleted when it occurs.  Courtesy to each other, and to those we critique, is a hallmark of the site, although that does not prevent strong views being expressed.  Evidence-based comment, with references or links, is our preference.  The mindless rants that afflict many commercial media blog sites have not been a significant problem here.  Sometimes visitors have deposited a heap of criticisms of one party or another that clearly have come from a collection of boilerplate they have on their computers.  This is discouraged.  We’ve seen it all before ad nauseam.  No one objects to criticism, but it should at least be based on verifiable evidence; unsupported assertions impress only those who might agree with them.

Recently another valuable feature has been added – lyn1, a regular, has undertaken the demanding task of scanning the online media and political blog sites to dredge up the material most relevant to the topic and to contemporary political discourse.  This saves the rest of us from having to seek out this valuable and interesting material ourselves.  The links are posted among the comments under the heading ‘TODAY’S LINKS’ alongside a yellow tweedy-bird Gravitar.

A feature of TPS that can be easily missed is on the side panel under ‘site pages’.  The links there are to Blog Watch which lists a large number of blog sites of interest to the political tragic, updated daily; to the websites of the major political parties where their press releases are to be found; and to Sword Watch where there are links to all the pieces that have been posted on TPS.

Above all, TPS has set out to build camaraderie among visitors.  Each new commenter is welcomed.  His/her contributions are valued. 

Because this site uses an off-the-shelf blog engine, BlogEngine.NET, we have not been able to find a way of avoiding the mindless spam that seems to infect the site, sometimes in epidemic proportions.  So a task each morning is to delete the spam that has arrived overnight.  Your understanding and tolerance is appreciated; the spam is deleted as soon as we see it, but some slips through when we sleep and when we’re away from our computers (we still have family obligations).  As spam seems to arrive, like babies, more at night than during the day, I am considering closing comments last thing at night and re-opening them in the morning.

It has been suggested that in the lead up to the election TPS might provide ‘an open thread’ to allow continuous comment.  We are unsure how this might best be done, but one way would be to present shorter pieces more regularly and to have several threads running simultaneously.  Some sites operate this way and seem to fill a need that some bloggers have to comment on a variety of topics.  Alternatively a long piece could be interspersed between shorter ones to provide variety.  You may have ideas about other ways we can make the site more attractive and potent.

Apart from any pleasure derived by the original contributors in writing pieces, apart from the pleasure visitors might derive by reading them and responding, the aim of TPS is to make political statements that resonate with visitors and have some influence, even though not nearly as profound as that of the MSM, on visitors and on the professional political commentariat who enjoy such a privileged position, having access as they do to many thousands of readers, viewers and listeners.  We suspect some of these professionals visit blog sites, including TPS, and if one can judge from the brickbats hurled at bloggers by some of them, our criticisms do have an impact.  Sometimes they seem to evoke anger; at other times a change of behaviour. 

The Fifth Estate is having an increasing influence here and overseas on public discourse and opinion.  We can be a modest force in holding to account those who have the privilege to work in the media by insisting that they base their reporting on verifiable facts accurately and completely recorded; that when they express an opinion they do so openly so we know that is what it is; and that they present a balanced and unbiased appraisal of the issue they are addressing.

We can identify groupthink when it occurs and call it for what it is.  We can continue to expose and condemn the pernicious habit of bootstrapping that creates a perverted version of the truth with which the media too often sets out to brainwash its consumers.  This is a serious issue; we need to counter it at every turn. 

We do have an influence; our efforts are not self-indulgent as some would have it, they can and do make a difference.

So in summary, please let us have your preferences for TPS – do you prefer the longer pieces posted about twice a week as is the current pattern, or in the lead up to the election would you like to see shorter pieces posted more frequently, or perhaps a mixture of the two?  Are there any other features you would like added?  Your comments on the usefulness of features such as Today’s Links from lyn1, Blog Watch and Sword Watch would be welcome.

So it’s now over to you.  Please comment on how you would like TPS to operate in the lead up to the election and we’ll try to meet your wishes and your needs.